My travel adventures as a solo backpacker ironically started after my suitcase was stolen off of a train in Italy during the second week of my very first 3-month solo trip around Europe.
My stolen suitcase fiasco was a combination of trusting the train conductors to keep my stuff safe and really, just being too trusting in general/not knowing better. However, as common as these stories are, it definitely doesn’t make them any less traumatic as they are happening.
For many people, one of the hardest things to do when something bad happens and you’re on your own is think clearly. This is especially true when it’s something you never thought would happen TO YOU. Isn’t it always this way?
With this post, my goal is not only to tell you about my experience, but also to clearly explain the steps that need to take place should this ever happen to you while traveling abroad and find yourself not being able to think clearly.
It’s also to shed light on mistakes I made which could have changed the entire outcome of this experience and can hopefully help prevent this from ever happening to you.
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HOW MY SUITCASE WAS STOLEN
It’s important to note here that as an amateur traveler on her first solo trip, I was really excited and obviously overpacked. So much so that I ended up buying a small carry-on prior to this train ride with the fear that my oversized suitcase would be subject to overweight fees on all the budget airlines I’d be taking.
The carry-on didn’t hold much, but funny enough, was the only thing leftover in the aftermath of this entire ordeal.
So there I was, heading to Venice from Milan on the Trenitalia fast train. If you have ever been on one of these trains, you know that the seats are often far from the ‘suitcase area’ located directly next to the door.
When I made my way in, there were at least 20 other bags in this area, which made me less hesitant to leave my stuff not that I had a choice – the conductor did not allow my
family of 4 sized large suitcase anywhere near the seating area.
Halfway between Milan and Venice, I needed something from my carry-on and got up to grab the small bag. At this point, my suitcase, along with all the others, was still very much there.
When they finally announced Venice would be our final stop, I got up early to retrieve my suitcase before the crowd. What can I say? NYC commuter habits die hard…
However, as soon as I got to the luggage area, I did a double take because where there had been tons of bags just 20 minutes ago, now was just one big open space. There was nothing there.
Not. One. Single. Suitcase.
Maybe someone had moved mine? In an effort to remain positive, I decided to check all of the other cars, just in case. But with each empty car I frantically checked, my heart beat faster and my face got hotter.
By the last car, I was seeing spots. This could not be happening to me.
A QUICK PLAN OF ATTACK
I decided that my next step would be to stand outside the train to see if I could spot my suitcase. It was bright turquoise and a hard shell – definitely easy to single out in a crowd, or so I thought.
Although it sounds crazy now to think I’d actually find someone exiting the train with my suitcase, at the time, I wanted to exhaust every single possibility – just in case. While many details of that day remain fuzzy even now, I clearly remember thinking that I had to try absolutely everything before giving up.
BEING A SOLO WOMAN TRAVELER IN A MACHO COUNTRY
You hear all these stories about certain countries being partial to men or simply treating women as though they are the lesser, more dramatic sex. I never quite believed all the stories I had heard about Italy, mainly because I had never experienced anything but kindness while visiting.
On this day, a day when I needed help, people to hear me, support – I received nothing but sarcasm and condescension from all the men I looked to for help. Some of it was geared at my American nationality, most of it was geared at the fact that I wasn’t a man.
The train conductor, annoyed at my request for assistance, asked me whether I had checked the entirety of the train, what? – all while rolling his eyes and never once looking at me. He sighed as he proceeded to escort me to the ‘police station’ within the train station.
I made my way into the station and was greeted by two men wearing police uniforms. As I began to explain everything, I was abruptly cut off. Officer 1 told me that they were not, in fact, officers, while Officer 2 nodded and laughed.
Officer 2 then explained (while still laughing) that I would need to take a waterbus to St. Mark’s Square, make a formal report with the actual police, then take another water bus back to the train station. Once this was complete, I’d have to take the report to the customer service agents in the office next door who could help me.
THAT DID IT.
I had remained as calm as I could given the situation I was in until this moment. Devastation was immediately transformed into rage as I began to yell.
To be honest, I think I blacked out at this point because while I remember yelling, some of the particulars are foggy. The only thing I remember with absolute clarity was giving them an example and saying if I was dressed like a clown and asked to juggle, what sense would it make if I responded by saying SORRY, I’M NOT A CLOWN!
….not my best moment, I’ll admit.
NO MATTER HOW HARD IT SEEMS, STAY CALM
Officer 2 didn’t like my analogy and simply walked away, muttering profanities I knew all too well. Officer 1 took pity of my hysteria, I think, and gave me step by step instructions on how to find the police station in St. Mark’s. He also gave me advice on how to file the claim with the train’s customer service.
To this day, I don’t remember taking the waterbus to St. Mark’s or how I ended up at the police station. I had a mission and it was tunnel vision all the way.
Unfortunately, the real police wasn’t any better. It was Sunday and there was a soccer game that demanded much more of their attention than an American tourist coming in devastated about stolen belongings (a usual occurrence in Venice apparently).
The officers knew zero English, leaving me to fend for myself with high school-level Italian and Google Translate. Needless to say, I spent a few hours at the station.
Unlike all the other men I had dealt with that day, these officers were friendly enough to offer me a cup of coffee while they cheered on their team. As they high-fived each other at a goal that was scored, I proceeded to sadly list every single thing that was gone forever in my suitcase.
TIPS FOR STOLEN SUITCASE PAPERWORK
1. EXAGGERATE THE WORTH OF THE CONTENTS THAT WERE STOLEN
While this may seem dishonest, it was the officer in the train station who made sure I understood this and repeated it to me several times. Apparently, in places where theft is prevalent within Italy, a report won’t be taken as seriously if it is a small claim. Absolutely terrible, I know.
His exact words to me: ‘Whatever amount your stolen stuff is worth, add a zero at the end of it. The higher the amount, the higher the chances your report will be noticed”.
2. ALWAYS HAVE A COPY OF YOUR PASSPORT PRINTED AND WITH YOU AT ALL TIMES
Note: this applies to all trips you take, not just in circumstances like these. It is a lengthy and expensive process to get a new passport while being out of your home country.
In this case, the police requested a copy of my passport for the report and said they couldn’t have filed one without it. I was lucky to have had all of my documents, money and credit cards in my purse rather than in my luggage.
DEALING WITH THE RUDEST CUSTOMER SERVICE AGENTS
Walking into the customer service office, I knew this part of the day would be the hardest. These were the people who dealt with these issues every single day and would most likely have even less patience or sympathy for my situation.
I WAS RIGHT.
As soon as I started to explain my situation, I was rudely interrupted with instructions on how to find the police station to fill out the appropriate forms and did I know what a waterbus was?
Massive eye roll.
I spent a total of 3 hours in this office speaking with various agents who all sarcastically told me their manager was out of town and not one of them had an email address I could report any of this to or follow up with.
At one point, they flipped the situation around and blamed me for it occurring! Giving the excuse that there are normally only two conductors on a train at any given time, they tried to make me feel like all of this was MY fault for relying on them to look after my things and why was I even bothering to fill out the paperwork?
It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, but I held my ground despite everything that was said by one condescending man after another.
TRENITALIA PAPERWORK TIPS
DON’T SIGN ANYTHING WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT IT SAYS
At first, I was handed paperwork to fill out that was entirely in Italian. When asked if there were forms in English I could have instead, they firmly said no.
I proceeded to take pictures of the forms to send to my aunt who speaks Italian fluently. At seeing this, the agents rushed over to me and ripped the papers out of my hands. How dare I take pictures of private forms? I explained what I was doing and magically out of thin air, English forms were produced.
In this situation, if you don’t know anyone who speaks the mother tongue of whatever country you’re in, Google Translate is your best friend. There is an option now that translates images, though I’ve never tried it myself.
Worst case? Find someone willing to translate for you. In this situation, I would not have trusted the agents to do the translating given how rude and condescending they had been to me the entire time.
ALWAYS ASK ABOUT NEXT STEPS
When I asked, the agents informed me that all my paperwork, including the police report, was being mailed to Rome. They provided an address, at my request, which they reluctantly agreed to let me photograph as is evident from the agent’s hands in the picture blocking out any information besides the address.
They then explained that IF the Rome office responded, I could expect to hear back somewhere between 4-6 weeks about a potential insurance reimbursement.
If. They. Responded.
Where the hell was I? It felt like the Twilight Zone.
So basically, for this trip, I had absolutely nothing. And since I never in a hundred years imagined this could happen to me, I didn’t have travel insurance.
You live and learn, guys. You live and learn.
Trenitalia sent paperwork to my address about 4 weeks after this entire ordeal. I was still traveling, but was able to have a family member fill out all the information they needed in order to proceed with the reimbursement.
Another 4 weeks later, I received an insurance reimbursement from Trenitalia in the amount of €600.
EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON...?
It took me a long time to finally decide to leave the station. It felt like the second I set foot out the door, it would be over. There would be zero hope left of ever finding my suitcase again. (That I had any left at this point is a testament to my insanely hopeful nature/stubbornness to accept the truth.)
By the time I reached my hostel and checked in, the sun was setting. I had arrived in Venice around 11am and it was now almost 9pm. My entire day had been wasted on one fight after another with rude, condescending men.
I was exhausted, defeated and sad.
When something bad happens, people always tell you everything happens for a reason. At the time, I just couldn’t find the ‘reason’ for this disappointing punch to the gut.
I made my way out to find something to eat since the last meal I had had was breakfast, when I was faced with the most spectacular sunset I had ever seen in my life.
Taking in all of the beauty around me brought me to the realization that there were only 2 choices I could possibly make at that moment. I could either go back home and let this experience defeat me OR I could stay for the remainder of my trip and make the most of it.
I was in Venice! I was traveling on my own! Someday this would all just be a story to tell!
I decided to focus on making this trip amazing despite its disastrous start. If I could make it through this horrific day, I could do anything.
This decision changed the course of my entire trip and really, of my life.
THE LESSONS WE LEARN WHEN WE TRAVEL ON OUR OWN
I embarked on this journey knowing where I wanted to go, but not realizing just how life-changing it would be. While most people would argue that getting everything stolen would ruin the course of any trip, I believe this allowed for a completely different journey to take place.
One that forced me to realize all material things are replaceable, one that allowed me to find comfort in the kindness of new friends, one that forced me to focus not on the physical or on the material, but on the essence of things – of every single person I met and place I visited.
And all along the way, one thing remained constant: the genuine kindness of every person I encountered made it possible for me to travel with next to nothing from place to place and feel like everything would be ok.
Strangers became friends. The things I lost turned out to be things I truly didn’t need. The material was gone but the void it left was filled by life-changing moments and new feelings of belonging. Thousands of miles from home, I didn’t feel alone anymore.
This is what traveling is to me.
It is where I lost myself, it is where I found the courage to let go of the self-doubt and go in search of my own truth showing me that there is nothing to be scared of in the unknown if you are willing to open your mind and your heart.
People always tell you to avoid the accidents, but they’ve got it wrong.
You should always be on the lookout for the accidents because sometimes, it’s these unpredictable and unforeseen moments that can bring you more happiness than you ever imagined, changing the person you are and the course of your life forever.
Since that awful day in Venice, I have seen over 100 cities on my own, met tons of people all over the world who I am lucky to call friends and am learning to be a little more fearless with each trip I take. These days, home is where my adventures lead me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Oh, and I travel with only a carry-on backpack to my name which I always lock up.
Have you ever lived through an experience that changed your life? What helped you get through it?
Tell me all about it in the comments below!