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Was I Right or Wrong to Recommend That You Leave Your Passport in the Hotel Safe While Traveling Abroad?


     No recent bit of travel advice has generated more controversy than my recent suggestion to leave your passport in the hotel safe when you leave to go sightseeing on a European trip.  Will you need that document in your daily round of touristic activities?  Only if you wish to change currency at a teller's window in a foreign bank, I responded to a reader's question.  Otherwise, don't run the risk of losing this important document to a pickpocket or other thief. 

     What a whirlwind of criticism was set off by that innocent recommendation!  Don't you realize that some foreign countries require that you show i.d., on demand, I was asked?  Foreign police, foreign restaurants scanning your credit cards, all sorts of officious personnel, will ask to see your passport, I was told.

     Strangely enough, I have never encountered such demands, I realized.  And I have made more than the usual number of foreign trips.  On occasion, I have carried a photostat copy of the main page of my passport.  But strangely enough, I have never--in all my travels--never been asked to show it. 

     Often, in the opening hours of a foreign trip, it would have been impossible to carry my passport with me, since the hotel clerks at numerous foreign hotels ask you to surrender your passport to them on checking in (after which you get it back several hours later).  So what do you do when you have temporarily surrendered your passport to the hotel for a few hours?  Do you stay in your room for several hours, and venture outside only when the passport is returned to you?

     Without solving that dilemma, many of my critics have nevertheless persisted, using Italy as the prime example of a country in which the tourist is--supposedly--constantly asked to show their passport by police (carabinieri), railway clerks, merchants, civil officials, waiters, and the like.  According to my correspondents, the law of Italy actually requires a tourist to carry an "i.d.".  But whether that i.d. must be a passport is unclear. 

     Although I feel that their fears are largely unwarranted, their views should be heard.  Here's an example of the criticism directed against my own reassurances: 

     "I agree with Arthur unless you don't look stereotypically American or very obviously of northern European descent.  You should also carry your passport if you are college-aged (or look very young), even if you are very affluent looking.  Italian authorities don't have a wit of problem with "profiling".  If you look like you might possibly be an illegal immigrant, they may demand to see your passport any place you go in Italy. 

     "I don't fall into any of the above categories, so I carry a copy of my important identification papers when I travel through Italy, and leave the real deal in the hotel safe, because I simply don't want the hassle of replacing it if I lose it (the more likely scenario than my being robbed of it).

     "However, while I agree with Arthur's advice not to carry around one's passport, Italian law is such that no end of people have the right to ask you to produce i.d.--police, carabinieri, train conductors, people who run internet cafes, some places where you might want to use a credit card.  I am required by law to carry around not only my passport, but my town i.d. and my official permission to stay.

     "But like I said, I don't.  I carry copy, and if I get fined, I will pay the fine". 

     So there you have it.  I will continue to leave my passport in the hotel safe.