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updated 5/26/2010 10:07:41 AM ET 2010-05-26T14:07:41

Travelers put their cars to almost every use imaginable: as a place to eat meals, hide things, take shelter from the elements and even live (on a trip to Pamplona several years ago, the smallest guy in our traveling party slept in the trunk).

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Since your car can be almost your home away from home while traveling, you will want to take some precautions to protect it and the things inside it. Ideally, you wouldn't leave anything valuable at all in your car, but the reality of travel is that your car is going to serve as much like a safe deposit box or luggage storage closet as transportation — especially during the day when you're between hotels. Read on for nine tips to help you protect your car and everything in it while traveling.

1. Load and hide your stuff before you reach your destination
By the time you pull into a hotel lot, valet queue, parking garage or any parking spot, everything you plan to leave in the car should already be well stowed and hidden. To pull into your spot, and then take your most valuable items and pack them in the trunk, is to broadcast to anyone within view exactly where to focus their attentions if they want to rip you off. The best approach is to put your things in the trunk or other safe compartment before you even get in the car at the beginning of your trip.

2. Unload your stuff away from your parking spaces as well
Similarly, if you are planning to return to the same parking area, you will want to take your stuff out of the car away from the lot if possible. If you open the trunk and take out all the good stuff each time you return to your car, eventually someone will notice. Best case is to be able to pull over somewhere safe away from either your home base or destination, and get your stuff then.

3. Choose your parking space wisely
When I lived in Manhattan, I found that a shift of a few feet in where you left your car overnight could make the difference between your car being safe and your car being robbed. On one street in particular, there was a fire hydrant in the middle of the block, and all cars on one side of the No Parking Fire Zone were safe, and most cars on the other side were robbed, every night. It had everything to do with sightlines; the spots beyond the fire hydrant could not be seen by folks in the foyers or lobbies of any of the local buildings. Out of sight, out of safety.

Here are my recommendations for your best parking spots when traveling:

4. When in doubt, use a parking garage
Parking on the street is the most vulnerable place to be, so if you are uncomfortable with your street parking options, by all means use a parking garage instead. Although you are safer in a parking garage, that does not mean that you are invulnerable; certainly enough travelers get ripped off by garage personnel everywhere. Remove or lock up any really juicy items — GPS units, accessories for your cell phone or MP3 player, a loose E-ZPass apparatus — in order to remove temptation. All of the same precautions above apply; no matter where you park, make it as difficult and uninspiring to potential thieves as possible.

5. Self park when you can
Most attendant or valet parking garages are safe on the whole — but if you make it too easy, the temptation to steal can be too great for a person working at or near minimum wages.

6. Assume in most cases thieves want to steal your car outright
It turns out that most thieves will try to steal a car outright rather than break into a car; if there is anything valuable inside, they can take it and dump the vehicle, and certainly there is a market for hot cars as well. For this reason, parking your car in a well-lit place where there is likely to be some foot traffic is always a good idea. Similarly, visual cues that might deter a thief can be critical — even if they are just for show. Things like a steering wheel lock or a blinking alarm system light will inspire thieves to move on to the next vehicle, even if you don't have the alarm activated.

7. A neat car is less likely to get robbed
A car that is filled with jackets or beach towels that appear to be covering items of value, or that has wires sticking out here and there suggesting that electronic devices may also be stowed, are much more likely to attract interest. If a potential thief sees nothing but car upholstery, he or she is less likely to be curious about what might be hidden in the car.

8. Check for your valuables as soon as you return to your car
Notwithstanding our second rule above, if you have any suspicions, you will want to make sure nothing was stolen before you pull out. If your car does get ripped off, you want to figure it out at or near the location it was robbed, in case you have to file a complaint. When surveying your vehicle, keep in mind that thieves know what to take — often items you won't notice until you are long gone. For example, a common tactic is to take a camera out of a camera bag, but leave the bag behind; it looks like it was undisturbed so you won't figure it out for hours or days.

9. Rent wisely
When renting a car, keep the following tips in mind:

Remember that as a traveler or tourist, you are a mark. (For example, a Florida law requiring rental cars to display a special sticker was recently repealed after it became clear that criminals were targeting tourists in rental vehicles.) Making the time and effort to take a few precautions with your vehicular home away from home can help ensure that you and all your stuff return home intact.

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