By AP Business Writer
updated 7/14/2006 2:01:54 PM ET 2006-07-14T18:01:54

Nothing can spoil a vacation quicker than losing your money or credit cards - or falling victim to a thief. A few simple steps before you head out the door can help protect your cash, cards and personal information while you're traveling.

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Paul Stephens, a policy analyst with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, notes that people spend a lot of time planning their trips, from buying guidebooks to finding just the right beach outfits. But "their eyes glaze over" when the subject of keeping money safe comes up, he said.

"Why not take a few minutes to do something that could potentially save your vacation?" Stephens asked. In most cases, the precautions are so simple that "they can go on your to-do list with 'buy suntan lotion' and everything else," he added.

The top recommendation from Stephens is to clean out your wallet.

"Remove unnecessary credit cards, your Social Security card and any other unneeded documents that could compromise your identity if lost or stolen while you're on vacation," he said.

Then make a photocopy of the cards you've decided to take along and keep it in a secure location with you (not in your wallet) or leave it with a trusted relative or friend back home, Stephens said.

"Now you know who you need to contact and how to reach them if your wallet is missing," he said.

Travelers should never leave their wallets or any identifying documents in their hotel rooms when they're not there, he added.

"Use a hotel safe, when available," Stephens said. "Or keep your wallet and documents with you at all times."

Stephens also recommends people leave their debit cards at home when they hit the road, either in the United States or abroad.

"Say you're carrying a debit card and it falls out of your pocket at the beach, or you leave it in a store after making a purchase," he said. "If it falls into the wrong hands, they can wipe out your bank account in a matter of hours."

It can take several weeks to sort out debit card problems with financial institutions, potentially ruining a vacation in the interim, he said.

"You're much better off with a credit card," he added. "You're not out the money ... while you're getting it sorted out."

Nancy Dunnan, a consumer finance expert who is editor of the TravelSmart newsletter, urges travelers to adopt what she calls a "divide and conquer" strategy.

"Your natural reflex is to put everything in one place, but it's better to have your main credit card in one place and your backup card in another," she said. "That way, if a thief gets one _ or you lose something - you have an alternative."

The same applies to cash, Dunnan said.

"Every time you pay for something, a pickpocket sees where your cash is held," she noted. So she recommends travelers stash their cash in different pockets, in different parts of their purse, in their socks, in a tote, in the hotel safe.

She also favors unusual containers for money and IDs. How about a small zipper cosmetic case for your passport or photocopies of important documents? Or a small cardboard jacket, like those hotels hand out with their plastic room keys, for credit and bank cards?

Dunnan is a fan of traveler's checks or prepaid traveler's check cards for backup cash. Some financial institutions offer them free or at reduced fees to their regular customers, she said.

But Dunnan urges caution in cashing them: "The best place is at one of the issuer's offices. Avoid cashing them at hotels, shops or restaurants - fees and the exchange rate are both likely to be atrocious."

Or go to bigger rather than smaller financial institutions, she said. That's because larger institutions generally offer a better exchange rate and lower fees because they handle larger volumes of transactions.

One place not to leave extra cash or backup phone numbers is inside checked baggage "where dishonest security personnel or baggage handlers can find it," she said.

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