I’m still not sure where or how it happened that day in Florence.


Our passports were securely in my purse but that evening, the leather envelope I carried them in was gone.

Did I drop them at the Uffizi Gallery when we went through security? (The envelope wasn’t turned in or stuck in the X-ray machine, as I’d hoped.) Did I leave them at the jewelry store on the Ponte Vecchio when I used my passport to complete the form entitling me to a tax refund on the gifts I’d just bought? (They weren’t there either.)


Most likely, the envelope had been stolen in what many warn is prime pick-pocketing territory. Luckily, we didn’t lose any credit cards or cash — just the passports and some itinerary information I’d stashed with them.


“These pick pockets are very, very skilled,” a U.S. Consulate official tried to console me in Florence.  “They offer to hoist your bag on the train and then take off with the bag, just as the train is pulling out. They ask you to help with their baby and then, while you’re preoccupied with the child, quickly grab your bag (even snipping the shoulder strap with a scissor). They sidle up to you in a crowd and reach in to an open purse. They will even snatch your purse from your restaurant chair while you’re sitting there talking. “Even people who know better, are victims in Florence,” he said


And that included me.


NOTE TO PARENTS: Make sure your students traveling and studying abroad are extra careful and know to go to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate if they find themselves suddenly without a passport. The Website, www.travel.state.gov, provides links to consulates and embassies worldwide.


The U.S. State Department reports that hundreds of thousands of passports are lost or stolen every year.

At least some of these travelers were smart enough to have travel insurance which covers the costs of replacing your passport. (Check AIG Travel Guard www.travelguard.com  and sites like www.insuremytrip.com  that allow you to compare policies.)


The travel insurance executives add that coverage, which typically costs 6 percent to 7 percent of your trip, can help facilitate getting passports replaced — tell you how to get to the nearest consulate, or where to get new passport photos taken —that took us a while to figure out.


Still, nothing puts the breaks on an overseas vacation faster than losing your passport. Instead of leaving Rome with your cruise ship or catching your flight home from Barcelona, you’re on a train for three hours headed for the nearest U.S. Consulate.


At the consulate that day we met a Cleveland native who was mugged walking home from dinner in Florence, after he sent his dad ahead in a cab. He lost everything — passport, credit cards, cash and travelers checks. (NOTE TO TRAVELERS: Don’t walk alone at night in foreign cities or allow your teens to do so.)  Midwest grandparents I met believe someone on a crowded bus in Rome cut the passport pouch from right around the elderly woman’s neck!


People let down their guard on vacation at exactly the time they shouldn’t. That’s why you shouldn’t carry all of your cards and cash with you and be as vigilant as you would be in New York or any other big city. Don’t carry all of the passports together either.


TIP: Stash a few extra passport pictures for each member of the family in your luggage. We wasted an hour racing through the streets of Florence near the consulate looking for a place to get some taken. We’d e-mailed our passport numbers to ourselves, but didn’t need them.


It’s ironic, though, that getting temporary passports (good for a year) in a foreign country proved a lot easier than getting one at home. If you haven’t traveled out of the country for a while, get out that passport a few weeks ahead to make sure it isn’t close to expiring. (To download an application for a U.S. passport, visit www.travel.state.gov.)


Fortunately, we only had to wait a couple of hours. Fortunately, we were just staying about 20 minutes outside of Florence.  And if we hadn’t gotten to the consulate at lunchtime, we would have had the passports even quicker.


The rest of the trip, I kept my purse carefully zipped.


And guess what?  Almost a year later a package arrived in the mail from the consulate in Florence.  It contained the leather envelope and our old passports.  Apparently the thief, not finding any cash or credit cards, just tossed it away.