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).
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.
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 into the car at the beginning of your trip.
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.
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 on a regular basis. 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:
A) In airport lots, I recommend parking in view of the exit toll booths or parking office if possible, or just as well within view of a shuttle pickup location or kiosk. The increased foot traffic and eyeball count will discourage potential thieves. Well-lit areas are next best; most airport lots have surveillance cameras in place, so making it easier for an attendant to see your car on a grainy camera will help.
B) Park "trunk out." If you are storing items in your trunk, you will want to point the trunk out into the lot aisle, where more people can see anyone trying to break in. Don't give thieves the opportunity to use your car as cover while ripping you off.
C) When parking on the street, try to park within sight of a busy store or hotel entrance, under a street lamp, near a busy corner or out in the open away from things that might provide shelter to a thief (like thick or low-hanging trees). The busier the street, the better.
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.
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 wage.
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.
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.
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.
When renting a car, keep the following tips in mind:
A) Rent models that are not easily exposed or broken into, and that have a trunk big enough to store anything you need secured. A hip and tiny convertible sounds like a great idea, but it could not be harder to hide stuff, and easier to break into.
B) The more modest and nondescript the rental model, the less likely to attract attention it is.
C) Don't leave your rental contract in the car, as this document has just about all the information you will need if the car is stolen -- and also all the information a thief will need to evade detection if he or she is stopped for any reason before you report the vehicle as stolen.
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 repealed a few years ago 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.