As if taking to the sky wasn’t already nerve-wracking enough, there’s another thing to potentially worry about onboard your next flight. In-flight theft is a reality. While not so widespread to cause panic, it can happen, and if it does a whole trip can be ruined before the wheels touch down on the tarmac.

Safeguard Your Valuables from Potential Onboard Thieves with these Tips

While in-flight robbery is relatively rare, it does happen and largely goes unreported to the airlines, who actively avoid this type of negative publicity. That’s why currently there’s no database to run the statistics and see how often it actually occurs. But by all accounts, it is a known issue, yet it gets about the same treatment as customer complaints like delays and broken inflight entertainment.

Most travelers are unaware of the crime until they reach home or the hotel and notice something amiss. Others might not realize until they get a ping from their credit card issuer. Many just assume they lost the item along the way before suspecting theft or even where to properly report theft – the airline, police, travel insurance, credit card company, or all of the above. Not the ideal way to return from vacation. Even worse if you are starting one off.

To avoid finding yourself in that situation, it’s important to know some of the tactics in-flight fleecers use and ways you can prevent your valuables from getting taken on your next trip above the clouds.

Types of In-Flight Theft

By tete_escape /

There are two main types of inflight theft; one a more brazen attempt while the other is an opportunistic approach.

Organized Theft

Much like pickpockets on the streets, small rings of thieves have taken to the skies. While not as prominent in North America and Europe, flights connecting through other regions of the world like the Middle East, Asia, and Africa have seen increasing action by bold groups of pilferers. Often purchasing cheap tickets on high capacity long-haul flights, a couple of hopeful robbers will vet out potential targets in the boarding area. Noticing which bag compartment or pocket a traveler might store his or her phone, tablet, or wallet.

Onboard, the team will keep a close eye on where the victims stow their belongings and may often place one of their bags next to it or nearby to limit suspicion. When the interior lights are dimmed, and vision is low, thieves will wait out to see if the mark falls asleep, leaves the seat for an extended period of time, or is distracted, and will then pounce at the opportunity to rifle through target’s luggage looking for valuables. Once an item is snatched, it’s often handed off to the other accomplice discreetly in case another passenger or crew notices the thief.

Surprisingly, another method of organized theft is done by rogue airline crew themselves. Former flight attendants have admitted to and have been caught stealing from passengers, this form is exceedingly rare, but occasionally these things happen by the people you’d expect the least. Don't allow a crewmember to take your credit card away from you for an extended period while purchasing inflight items and keep an eye out for any behavior that seems out of the ordinary. The flight crew has access to parts of the plane where passengers are not allowed, giving them a safe area for searching. Again, this is a minuscule fraction of the workforce, and often crewmembers that turn to theft are caught by colleagues and fired, but they do exist.

Opportunistic Theft

Unfortunately the world has its fair share of people who take advantage of others’ mistakes and naivety. This group of crooks might not have a deliberate desire to pinch items from other travelers, but when presented with the opportunity they'll seize the moment. These thefts can similarly follow the game plan as organized rings in that they'll notice something of value and wait it out for the best opportunity to strike and reach inside your luggage to nab whatever caught their initial attention. Another tactic is that the would-be crook will notice general aloofness or wantonness with valuable items by a passenger and lifts them from a seatback pocket or open purse that’s in their reach while the victim is distracted.

Opportunistic thieves will also observe if you leave your purse or bag under your seat to visit the galley or toilet and see it as a go-signal to rifle through your wallet and take a credit card or some cash then return it as if nothing has happened. Generally, these methods take place while the cabin lights are low, but there’s no telling how brazen a thief can be if they think they can get away with it.

Simple Steps to Prevent Yourself from Theft


  • Limit the valuables and high-priced items you travel with, including jewelry, watches, and cash. No one needs to be dripping in diamonds like Elizabeth Taylor while sitting poolside in Cabo. Leave your blingy items in a safe place at home.


  • If you choose to bring along costly items, pack them deep into your luggage or inside harder to reach pockets, making them more difficult to access.


  • Place your bag facedown or with the pockets, compartments, and zippers toward the overhead bin back wall. This will curtail easy access to your items and make it harder for thieves to open and unzip your luggage without drawing suspicion. Oscourt makes a great anti-theft backpack that also has a USB charging port to limit you having to open your bag for others to see what's inside.


  • Invest in a set of luggage locks. This set of cable locks by Forge is TSA approved, made of durable yet sturdy steel, and simple to reset on the go. The added step of locking things up isn't ideal, but you'll feel a lot more confident knowing your belongings are protected afterward.


  • Choose an overhead locker in front of you where you have a clear line of sight. Having your luggage close-by or in view is one of the easiest steps to ensure you can keep an eye on your belongings. By doing so, you’ll be able to witness if someone dodgy keeps visiting the bin containing your contents. Fighting for overhead locker space can get vicious on some flights but try your best to avoid storing your stuff behind you where you’ll need to keep your head on a swivel. Here's a list of some of the best carry-on sized bags with safety features to bring on board.


  • If purchasing duty-free goods that are not in a sealed bag, try to store them inside your luggage if you have free space. We’ve all heard the announcement that items might have shifted in the overhead lockers during the flight, meaning that new pair of Ray-Bans or bottle of Chanel perfume might've slipped out of the flimsy plastic bag into the overhead bin where somebody could easily nab.


  • Never put your wallet or items containing credit cards and money inside the seatback pocket. Not only do you run the risk of forgetting it there, but your cards and cash are also easily accessible if you get up to visit the bathroom or take a walk around the airplane to stretch your legs.


  • Keep your necessary items on you at all times. Those include: ID/Passport, a wallet containing credit cards/cash, phone or mobile device, and essential prescription medicine if required.

Have you been a victim of in-flight theft? We’re you aware that happens regularly? Leave any comments or stories below. 

Related Article: 7 Smart Places to Stash Valuables When Traveling

Feature image by Nicoleta Ionescu /
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