Why You Should Always Watch Your Valuables On Planes

Filed Under: Advice, Travel

Whether justified or not, I think most of us assume that our carry-on luggage is safe when we place it in the overhead bin. In theory it’s a reasonable enough assumption, and really the only convenient conclusion you can come to. If you can’t trust that someone else won’t steal what’s in your carry-on luggage, does that mean you just shouldn’t sleep when you’re flying, so that you can constantly watch your bags?

Well, the Bangkok Post has the story of a guy who stole cash from a fellow passenger on a recent Emirates flight from Dubai to Bangkok:

According to Emirates employees, Sunan Witham, a Thai passenger, told a flight attendant her 110,000 Swedish krona in cash — worth about 470,000 baht — went missing from her bag placed in an overhead compartment. She suspected Sheng Wan of stealing her cash as she spotted him opening the compartment before the money vanished, Pol Maj Gen Surachet explained.

The crew conducting a search found all of Ms Sunan’s 220 banknotes hidden under Mr Sheng’s seat and reported the incident to tourist police at the Bangkok airport.

So the guy got caught, but the icing on the cake is that the guy then tried to bribe the Thai police to get out of the punishment for being caught:

Pol Maj Gen Surachet said the Chinese national tried to offer 50,000 baht as a bribe to the officers arresting him in exchange for his immediate release. Instead of facing only a theft charge, police slapped him with an extra charge of bribery.


In all honesty, this is an extremely common occurrence. I have some friends who work for Gulf carriers who said this is especially common on routes to/from China. Apparently groups of passengers will book a trip exclusively to try and steal from other peoples’ luggage. One friend explained that to narrow down the suspects they’ll sometimes look at who just had a quick turnaround in the Middle East, because often they’re booking trips to the Middle East and back because the only purpose of the trip is onboard theft. I guess you could say they’re luggage runners rather than mileage runners.

The issue is that there’s no way to really prevent this:

  • Theft is generally more common in economy than business class, since there are curtains between cabins, and since it would be much more obvious if someone were rummaging through luggage in a premium cabin
  • I’d avoid traveling with large sums of cash; always visit an ATM when you arrive at your destination, rather than carrying a bunch of cash
  • I always try to store my bag in an overhead in front of me and within my sight, rather than behind me; I also don’t wear eyeshades, partly because I think it makes it even easier to be stolen from
  • I try to keep my absolute most valuable items (passport, wallet, etc.) at my seat at all times, rather than in the overhead bin


Are you ever concerned about theft of your carry-on luggage when flying? Do you take any measures to prevent it?

(Tip of the hat to LoyaltyLobby)

  1. He tried to bribe with only 10% of the money he tried to steal? Not the brightest fellow either.

  2. I also lock my suitcase with a good lock and often travel with a hard suitcase as my carry-on making it more difficult to steal from obviously not fool proof but it will make you less targeted since its more difficult.
    If you sit further away from economy that makes it even more difficult for someone to wander their way to your seat even better on the upper deck of a 747 which on any decent airline is not possible for an econonmy flyer to make their way into.
    I often travel buissness.

  3. I agree with Keitherson, he isn’t in trouble for bribing the Thai police, they are as crooked as they come, he’s in trouble for insulting them with such a low offer.

  4. I’d comment with my strategy for keeping my valuables safe, but then you’d know the secret! It’s working at the 100% secure level so far.

  5. So traveling with close to €12K in cash?

    A quick Google show that the max amount you can take in or out from Sweden to a non-EU country without declaring it is €10K, this sounds a bit fishy.

    Somehow I don’t think our Chinese friend was the only one up to no good on this flight, can you say a money mule was stolen from?

  6. I had my (own) headphones stolen off the top of my head as I slept on a BA flight (LHR to JFK). I had unplugged them but kept them on to kill background noise. I still find it hard to believe.

  7. It always bugs me in Bus or First when they dont have a good storage spot for your wallet, phone, etc. I dont want to keep them on me for 10 hours, but also dont want to put them in a mesh compartment on the side of my seat for everyone to see when i fall asleep. Some seats have great storage that is more interior facing and only accessible from the seat, but others are just horrible. Thats when everything goes in my shoe then…

  8. I ALWAYS wear a money belt under my clothes. In it is my passport, credit cards, and money. I am surprised this isn’t common among all frequent flyers.

  9. Not worried at all. On hundreds of flights I have left iDevices in the seat pocket or even on the seat itself when using the lav – no problems whatsoever.

    The fact that this kind of thing happens every now and then does not make it an ‘extremely common occurrence’ imho. Definitely not common enough to prevent you from wearing a sleeping mask in order to get some shut-eye.

  10. That’s roughly US$13,000! Normally the max to bring is 10k without the need to declare it to customs. I agree that there’s something else shady going on.
    Anyway, whenever I go to cash-based countries (i.e. South America or Africa) I always bring at least $1000 cash on me but that cash stays on me (one of those secret pouches). Call me paranoid but my cash, boarding pass, and passport always stays somewhere on me during a flight in case of emergency, etc.
    I’ve never flown to/from middle east to China but that’s good to know. I’m guessing the cost of those flights must be cheap enough to prevent any losses.
    I agree with your advice but I need those eyeshades/eyemasks on any longhaul flight in economy class. Normally the backlight of the IFE in front of me or my neighbor’s IFE backlight prevents me from getting a deep sleep if I don’t wear eyeshades.

  11. “I guess you could say they’re luggage runners rather than mileage runners.” Great line!

  12. I like how you say you don’t wear eyeshades, yet you routinely sleep for 6-8 hours on a plane. Do you really think you will wake up if someone opens an overhead bin while you are sleeping? I think not. Anyway, this is not common enough to worry about. Don’t travel with large amounts of cash if you can avoid it.

  13. I usually carry a backpack and it is always locked. Yes, they can still break it but they will probably look for easier targets.

  14. Ugh, yep – I had my passport and wallet stolen from my bag when I was 19. Since then I’ve kept mine on my body at all times, even when I’m traveling in international First. It might not be that common but man you wanna talk about ruining 3 days of your life…

  15. “to narrow down the suspects they’ll sometimes look at who just had a quick turnaround in the Middle East, ”

    Suspect #1: Ben. 🙂

  16. @Anthony, good one! lol 😉
    @Lucky, I haven’t flown EK or QR economy in ages but those IFE screens in your photos look really large for economy. I’m actually quite impressed.

  17. It’s a good article. However I do not necessarily agree with the statement “l have some friends who work for Gulf carriers who said this is especially common on routes to/from China.” It’s simply not true based on the fact that each and every Chinese passenger needs to go through the visa process for almost every country they visit to prove their good standing socially and financially before a visa is issued for travelling. I’m not saying this would not make the Chinese a thief, but just adding more difficulties compare to those visa free travellers. Surely, this guy is an extremely bad example, but considering the majority of Chinese travellers are genuine travellers and big foreign spenders. With the amount of cash in their pocket when travelling I heard more robberies are targeting rich Chinese tourists in western countries(Paris, Rome, etc just to name a few) other than Chinese thieves. Anyway, it is a good article to teach people how to prevent thieves when flying in general.

  18. @Roy
    As a Hong Konger myself, I have to agree this is very common with routes particularly from China. These thiefs are regularly reported by Chinese media and media from Hong Kong. Alot of wealthy Chinese tourists carry mainly cash with them so it’s a no brainier why there are so many Chinese thiefs. Also it’s not that hard nowadays to get a visa for Chinese nationals as the Financial requirement is not that hard to meet.
    Ps. These gangs have even started to book seats in business class on many interasia flights!

  19. How cheap are these flights to make it viable for thieves to book a ticket with the sole intention of stealing? If I look at my carry-on, it will have a laptop, tablet, camera, headphones. Retail price about $3k, but used resale probably less than $1k in value. Seems like a terrible Return on Investment to be booking $500 tickets in the hope someone is carrying $10k.

    This has to be the exception rather than the rule. There are so many easier scams for people to run without having to pay for an air ticket.

  20. I think that this is where being female really comes in handy. I always travel with a purse in addition to my carry-on and all my valuables are stored there. During the flight I just put it under the seat in front of me and rest my feet on it. An alternative is to have a smaller bag with your stuff in it and to stick it behind your back. It’s a lot harder to stay from me that way unless you really want to out the effort in.

  21. A similar robbery attempt happened to me aboard no less than Qatar First Class once.
    I took all my money out of my pockets and placed them inside the amenity kit bag, then i put the amenity kit inside my hand luggage. However, once inside the luggage, I discretely took the money out of the amenity kit, and put it inside a secret compartment at the bottom of the luggage, just leaving the amenity kit in there somewhere. Someone must have seen me doing that and actually stole my amenity kit from inside my luggage while I was asleep.
    Luckily the money wasn’t in it anymore, but the flight attendant actually got really concerned about the fact that nobody could find my amenity kit anywhere, and in first class those are really controlled, so there was very little doubt that something serious had happened there. They notified the captain and apologized to me, giving me a new kit, but decided not to do anything about it since no money actually went missing. I bet the thief must have been really nervous watching everything unroll and hoping that nobody gets searched for an extra kit.

  22. My Asian clients tell me that a common problem is checked bags getting stolen in Asian airports, either at baggage claim or before.

    I travel alone and sleep on TATL flights so I’m super careful. I don’t carry cash in transit and my passport and a backup credit card are under my clothing. I worry about my laptop and/or phone disappearing, even in premium cabins, so I put them in my backpack when I get up to use the lavatory. And my backpack is not in an overhead bin. My carryon bag is locked.

  23. I had $600 USD stolen from my carry-on bag on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Calgary. I had my bag stored in the overhead bin directly above my seat. Since that incident, I always keep my wallet, passport, and tickets in small bag with me at my seat.

  24. The balance I always oscillate between is the risk of having something stolen from my backpack vs me stupidly losing it on the flight. While I’m not a particularly clumsy or forgetful person day to day, put me on a 15 hour journey across multiple sleep cycles, a few glasses of wine, and a lot of idle mindedness, and I’m a lot more prone to forget little things.

    So while I agree 100% don’t carry more cash than you need (and try to keep it close), I hesitate to keep my passport in my pocket/on my body. I do tend to keep it and my wallet in a smaller bag at my feet, which is generally encompassed by me even when sleeping. My roller has nothing but clothes, on the average trip.

  25. I’m like @Sandeep – I would be worried about losing something valuable on the plane because I took it out of my carryon. Typically, I carry my valuables in a purse at my feet, but don’t think to take it with me to the bathroom when I need to use it. I think in the future, I will take the pouch I bought for my son – he wears it around his neck – it can be tucked inside clothing if necessary.

  26. As mentioned this has become a common occurrence in EK flights out of to HKG/BKK. I think it’s high time Emirates has some Police officers on board these flights to deal with such situations.

    At least their presence would prevent a person from attempting a theft. Also these Police officers should be instructed to not sleep on the flights and be vigilant.

  27. I fly constantly with the ME3 between the far east and europe and it is VERY common!!! especially out of HKG.

  28. Please. I have even had someone steal my newspaper from my domestic first class seat on Delta when I went to the restroom.

  29. Not surprised at all. I live in HKG and there are regular stories of chinese thieves doing this.
    And as for visas, a lot of countries are relaxing restrictions on Chinese nationals in a bid to benefit from their big spending. Unfortunately good manners isn’t an entry requirement.

  30. Not sure I agree that taking 12K to 13K in cash on a flight is unusual or suspicious. But a pre-paid debit card is just as anonymous as cash and safer

  31. Unfortunately this is not just isolated to planes. Trains in Europe as also rife with bands of thieves working the carriages.
    When I was in Europe I had one of the metal wire sheets I wrapped around my luggage. It’s a bit painful, but painful enough that a thief will move on to the next bag (and you can also lock your bag to a pole at the same time).

  32. Time to confess : I put passport , phone , cash in one of those dreadful , awful , disgusting , practical , very useful Fanny packs . There , I’ve admitted it . Maybe it’s related to being left handed , you know- gauche , sinister .
    I make sure to close the zipper and move the pack to the side away from the aisle . I don’t put anything in the overhead and my carry on is a small duffle to set by my feet . I probably don’t look very rich either .

  33. right on DALO – these are super practical! I still wear mine and get picked on by the “fashion police” for it. I’m old enough to remember when it was cool for a guy to wear one. Even had a fancy designer-type leather one at one time (it wore out). Let’s make these popular again!

  34. how pompous of one to say that this would be more likely to happen in coach than first or business, lucky/ben you are so pompous and naive.-spelling, you are a snob.

  35. Such a shame that the thief wasn’t caught and charged in a Middle Eastern jurisdiction. The penalty might have involved having his hands deservedly chopped off, if not his neck.

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