5 Surprising Ways to Outsmart Burglars

By Danielle Contray
December 13, 2012
Ginasanders / Dreamstime.com
You know not to leave a key under the front mat, but do you know which appliance should be set to a timer while you're away (hint: it's not the lights)? Home security experts share the five best things you can do to protect your nest while you're away.

After a long weekend relaxing on a Caribbean beach or two weeks on that dream trip to Australia, you pull into the driveway and think, "Funny, I swore I closed that window." And that's when it hits you: You've been robbed. Most travelers worry about getting their wallets stolen or passports pinched while on the road. But you should also take steps to protect your home while you are away—especially since more than 2 million burglaries were reported in 2011 in the U.S., and that number goes up every year (almost 2 percent since 2002). And in 2011, victims lost $4.8 billion worth of property. Odds are you will come home to a house that is just as you left it, but these five tricks are so easy, it's not worth taking chances.

Burglarize yourself

No, you don't have to sneak up to your front door wearing a ski mask. Security expert Chris McGoey suggests taking a critical look at your home and finding any security lapses. He even organizes block parties where neighbors help neighbors make their homes impenetrable. Once you find your way inside, think like a burglar. Look for quick things to grab (like the iPad on the counter or the checkbook on the desk). And if you are leaving a car in the garage, don't hang the keys on the hook by the door. "They can just load up your own car and drive away," cautions McGoey. He also suggests rethinking your hiding places, like that jewelry or cash in your sock drawer. Everyone does it, and burglars know that. Wondering if you missed anything? Consult your teenagers. According to McGoey, "Chances are they've already ransacked your house."

Keep it clean

Every expert's top tip for keeping your house safe while you're away is to be neighborly. And that goes beyond waving across the driveway and buying Girl Scout cookies once a year. Keep a trusted neighbor in the loop about your vacation plans. While you are away, they can keep an eye out for flyers and papers accumulating on your front stoop that scream, "No one has been home for days." Other red flags for an empty house are a snow-covered driveway or a messy yard. Sweet-talk your neighbor into shoveling your driveway and front walk if there's a snowstorm while you are away, or trimming your grass if it starts to look unruly (but be prepared with a thank-you souvenir when you get back). Chances are they will go on vacation someday, and you can return the favor. Isn't that what neighbors are for?

Don't recycle

Putting out the recycling before you hit the road is just one more thing to check off the pre-vacation to-do list. Consider this, though: Those boxes from your new TV, computer, or tablet aren't trash as much as advertisements for the great new gadgets just inside your door, warns Kern Swoboda of the New York State Police. Whether you are traveling over the holidays or not, it's best to wait until you get home to put out the recycling. If you can't stand the thought of coming home to clutter, another option is to bring everything straight to a recycling center. Putting out the trash too early can also be a beacon for burglars, as are empty trash cans sitting on the curb. Yet another thing that friendly neighbor could help with (make that a really nice souvenir).

Make your house look inviting

The knee-jerk reaction when going away is to close up your house like a tomb. Of course you should lock all the doors and windows. It's the blinds and curtains you should leave open. It may seem like a good idea to keep anyone from seeing inside your house, but Swoboda actually recommends leaving the blinds open if you usually leave them open.  Burglars notice details like these.

Don't just put lights on timers

Everyone has seen the classic movie Home Alone, where the bungling burglars case the neighborhood and learn the residents' typical schedules. Yes, that was Hollywood, but according to Swoboda, this is a very common tactic. Burglars tend to case neighborhoods so they know exactly when to strike—and which house is likely to be empty. Swoboda's advice is to invest not just in light timers, but TV timers as well. (Intermatic makes timers that can handle large appliances.) You can set it for the times you typically watch TV (like if you never miss The Daily Show) as well as random times during the day to make the house look lived-in. 

Plan Your Next Getaway
Keep reading
Travel Tips

How to Choose the Perfect Suitcase

There are so many different types of suitcases on the market that the options can seem overwhelming. We put some of our favorite brands through their paces for strength, convenience, efficient packing, and water-resistance. What we found out is that, just as there is no one vacation destination that's right for everyone (don't get us started on the mountains versus the ocean), there is no one-size-fits-all piece of luggage either. In fact, selecting the perfect suitcase is more about understanding what you need from a suitcase than anything else. To help you narrow down this process, we've broken down our favorites into six distinct "personalities." Keep reading to find the one that's right for you. For the Neat Freak Keep shoes separate from clothes and dirty away from clean with the Samsonite EZ-Cart: A detachable shelf divides your roller bag into two stacked compartments. Attached bungee cords allow you to piggyback smaller bags on top, while the flexible four-wheel system makes pushing the bag in front of you as smooth as wheeling it behind. samsonite.com, $290. For the Dapper Dan With its safari-inspired aesthetic, the Travelpro National Geographic Kontiki 22" Rollaboard might look right at home alongside Katharine Hepburn's cargo on The African Queen. Just check out the antique map lining and brass hardware. Fortunately, it's updated in all the right ways, with padded laptop sleeves and a rugged, DuraGuard-coated nylon fabric instead of canvas. travelpro.com, $149. For the Multitasker The REI Stratocruiser pulls double duty as a carry-on and a backpack, thanks to stowable straps. It also features a clip-on daypack, so you can keep in-flight essentials close at hand while your bag's overhead. And unlike other packs, which often topple when upright, this one comes with a "kickstand." rei.com, $239. For the Adventurer Most bags can handle travel by air, rail, or road-but how about by sea? Not an issue for the fully submersible Hummingbird Carry-On Zip. With its durable vinyl exterior reinforced with scrim (a latticelike material used in sails), the bag is tough enough to keep valuables safe in a rain shower, in a rain forest, or on a reef. cascadedesigns.com, $150. For the Fashion Plate The Hideo Wakamatsu Jelly Bean carry-on comes in four colors as bright and cute as its namesake and includes stickers, ideal for customizing the dimpled exterior to avoid baggage claim mix-ups. But the bag's not just a looker. The outer shell—made of the same plastic used in motorcycle helmets—will have you wondering why it's not called the "Hard Candy" instead. hideowakamatsu.com, $169. For the Jetsetter At five pounds, nine ounces, the GoLite TraveLite Wheeled Carry-On might seem like, well, a lightweight. True, it weighs two pounds less than leading competitors, thanks to its sturdy recycled nylon. But just because it lacks heft doesn't mean it lacks structure: Two internal compartments and two deep external pockets provide plenty of well-organized packing space. golite.com, $99.

Travel Tips

8 Places Where You Shouldn't Travel Alone

The words "group travel" can conjure up visions of busloads of tourists roaring past sites, checking off a strict itinerary. But not all group tours are created equal. More importantly, there are some places where you'd be at a distinct disadvantage without a guide. Each of the destinations on our list comes with its own charm—and it's own set of challenges. In these places a guide can help with everything from navigating a complicated bureaucracy to sidestepping common scams to getting your point across in a foreign language. For each place we've identified here, we also recommend a tour, and most of them offer free time and some customization. Some of the tours save you money, others cost a little bit extra, but all of them include airport transfers, entrance fees, and a few meals—not to mention a hefty dose of protection against anxiety. Yes, it is possible to go all of these places on your own, but it's a lot smarter to go with a group. SEE WHY THESE PLACES ARE WORTH THE TRIP! Russia Back before the fall of the USSR, Americans traveling to Russia had to book through Intourist and stay at state-run hotels. Restrictions have become less and less limiting over the past two decades, but bureaucracy and red tape are still huge obstacles for a trip to Russia. You still need an "invitation" from a hotel or tour company to even apply for a visa, and it's not unheard of for travelers to be sent back home—or even stuck in Russia—because of "problems" with their paperwork. Corruption continues to be an issue, with guidebooks still warning travelers about being stopped to show "papers," a legitimate question that could be veiled as an intimidating request for a bribe. It is advised that all travelers have a local contact to navigate the confusion, and tour operators have trusted contacts with local knowledge. Sample tour: Travel to Russia isn't cheap—and neither are the tours. SmarTours 10-night Cruise of the Czars package includes airfare from New York, time in St. Petersburg and Moscow (including tours of the Hermitage and Red Square), and a cruise down the Volga River. smartours.com. From $2,799 per person until Dec.19, 2012 when the price rises to from $3,199. China This is a trip that you'll likely only do once in a lifetime—do you really want to spend your whole vacation worrying about how to get from point A to point B? The language barrier is large making everything from dining in restaurants to navigating the sites frustrating. Now add to that the fact that China's most appealing attractions, such as Xi'an and the famous terra cotta warriors, are spread out between the interior and the long east coast. Unfortunately, travelers also must contend with scams geared towards foreigners, including counterfeit currency being switched in by everyone from street vendors to cab drivers. Having a trusted local guide can help you avoid being taken advantage of—and keep you pointed in the right direction. Sample tour: ChinaSpree's 10-night Middle Kingdom tour starts in Beijing and ends in Shanghai, with stops in Xi'an, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, including air from San Francisco, all flights, and transfers within the country. chinaspree.com. From $2,799 per person. Galapagos This bucket-list destination is filled with some of nature's most inspiring creatures. Did you know, for example, that the islands are home to nearly 60 species of birds, half of which are native to the Galapagos? Or that it's home to around 20,000 giant tortoises, including subspecies that are critically extinct (sadly, the most famous tortoise, Lonesome George, died earlier this year)? It's facts like these that make the Galapagos so extraordinary and unless you're an expert yourself, the islands are best appreciated with naturalist guides who can identify the species and tell you the stories behind them. You'll want experienced guides to help you navigate the region too, which is comprised of 13 main islands, some with special habitats, reserves, and research centers. The best tours employ experts who will take you on hikes, boat rides, and even flights to see the region's signature creatures such as the blue-footed boobies. Sample tour: Spend time in Quito before flying to the main island of San Cristobal with Friendly Planet's Galapagos Islands Wildlife Discovery. Once you are in the Galapagos you will take guided walks with a naturalist guide, go on a snorkeling tour, and visit the home of the giant tortoises. friendlyplanet.com. From $3,299 per person including airfare between Miami and Quito. Egypt Political turmoil, riots, and the fall of the Mubarak regime forced many travelers to cancel or rethink travel to Egypt. And many people are still hesitant to book—good news for the adventurous few willing to go because it means there will be fewer crowds to contend with at popular attractions like the pyramids. But tensions can flame up again (as they did recently over political reform) and though the Department of State has no current travel warnings, it's still smart to travel with a group led by companies with local contacts who know exactly where to go and understand (and can anticipate) the local climate. An experienced operator can get you out quickly and can modify itineraries to avoid dangerous areas. Sample tour: Sunny Land Tours' Platinum Egypt tour includes airfare between New York and Cairo, a Nile cruise, tours at the pyramids in Giza, and a trip to the Abu Simbel temples built by Ramses II—an excursion that is typically a pricy add-on for Egypt tours. sunnylandtours.com. From $2,947 per person. India India is still a developing nation and sanitation and cleanliness are not always up to our standards. E. coli is an issue, especially since 600 million residents of India do not have access to regular bathroom facilities, and even in large cities the water supply can not keep up with demand. So it's no surprise that around 10 million travelers to India experience gastrointestinal distress every year. A good tour leader will know the cleanest restaurants and, if the need arises, be able direct you to the closest reputable pharmacy, where medication is labeled correctly and not out-of-date. Plus, India's traffic is notorious, and many travelers encounter unscrupulous cab drivers who take advantage of foreigners' confusion about street names and monument locations—a fact that will make that air-conditioned tour bus all the more pleasant. Sample tour: The nine-night Kaleidoscope of India through Gate 1 includes airfare between New York and New Delhi and also includes time in Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho, and Varanasi. gate1travel.com. From $2,899 per person. Kenya Kenya isn't a large country, especially compared with, say, China, but the major parks are in various corners, meaning multiple flights to schedule if you want to see the Big Five on the green hills of the Maasai Mara down in the southwest and the reticulated giraffes on the lava plains of the Samburu Game Reserve in the north near Ethiopia. Like the Galapagos, expert guides mean better access and chances for wildlife viewing—not to mention safety. Going out into a wilderness full of carnivorous animals is not the time to skimp on quality, whether it's tour guides with expert knowledge of navigating the habitats or a company with up-to-date equipment and well-serviced vehicles. Sample tour: Friendly Planet's nine-night Kenya Wildlife Safari starts in Nairobi and includes exploration in Samburu Game Reserve, OL Pejeta Conservancy, Lake Nakuru National Park, and Masai Mara National Reserve. friendlyplanet.com. From $3,299 per person including roundtrip airfare between New York and Nairobi. Machu Picchu These stunning Peruvian ruins are breathtaking, with the remains of the 15th-century civilization spread over the 80,000-acre preserve. You'll see remnants of temples and terraced hillsides—but you won't see any signs explaining what you are looking at. So you'll want a knowledgeable tour guide who can bring the ruins to life via tales of the settlement's mysteries (was it a resort for the wealthy king or maybe the last stop on a spiritual pilgrimage?) and who can explain why mortar wasn't used in most of the construction (the technique helps the buildings withstand earthquakes). Most package tours (including the one we highlight below) include a train ride to the ruins. If you are looking to take the two- or four-day trek up the Inca Trail, you must go with an organized group with a permit, which can be arranged through a licensed tour agency in Peru. SAS Travel does a four-day hike starting at $580 per person, including pickup in Cusco plus meals, snacks, and water along the trail. Machu Picchu is worth the trip, of course, but there is more to Peru. Book a tour that also includes time in Lima, Cusco, and maybe even some of the smaller villages where you can attend ceremonies and meet families in an interactive way that's not exploitive. Sample tour: The Peru Splendors tour with Globus includes time in Lima and Cusco plus two entrances to Machu Picchu (one guided visit plus time to see the ruins on your own). globusjourneys.com. From $2,129 per person not including international airfare. Jordan The volatile situation in the Middle East has not affected Jordan as much as Egypt. But even though the country hasn't seen the same extent of civil unrest, there have been (peaceful) protests here as recently as October 2012. The Department of State does not currently have travel warnings for Jordan, but does caution that that threat of terrorism is high. Does that mean you should avoid seeing the ruins of Petra and the Dead Sea? No, but it makes it even more imperative that you travel with a group led by someone who knows which areas to avoid and how to identify early warning signs of problems. Tour operators will also cancel trips in advance if there are official warnings for travelers and allow you to rebook a later tour or change plans altogether at no penalty. Sample tour: Gate 1's seven-night Classic Jordan trip covers Amman and Petra, plus a trip to the Dead Sea. gate1travel.com. From $2,109 per person including roundtrip airfare between New York and Amman.

Travel Tips

5 Ways to Save BIG on Holiday Travel

I have to admit holiday travel induces more flight-or-flight than warm-and-fuzzy for me. Hordes of harried travelers, oodles of moolah for plane tickets and hotels… it can be the most stressful time of the year. But some recent research from CheapAir, Kayak, and Budget Travel shed light on five surprising ways to find bargains—and maybe even a little elbow-room—on your holiday flights! Here's when you should buy your holiday plane tickets: For Thanksgiving, book flights about four weeks in advance to save as much as 30 percent, according to Kayak's study of booking trends. For Christmas, book a flight about three weeks in advance to save about 5 percent—but after that prices start to climb as much as 30 percent or more! Knowing the best days to fly can save you big, so... Fly on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, or New Year's Eve. You can save BIG if you're willing to be the last one to arrive at your family's holiday dinner. We recently polled Budget Travel's Facebook and Twitter followers and found that they were overwhelmingly in favor of flying ON a holiday to save a bundle. CheapAir.com's Holiday Flights Index that tells you what days are the best to fly for bargains: Thanksgiving week, you'll save by flying on Monday, Tuesday, Thanksgiving Day, or Friday—avoid Wednesday and Sunday! For Christmas, they suggest the 22 through 25 of December for bargains. (Kayak confirms that flying on or close to Christmas can save you 50 percent.) Prepare early for check-in. If you do have to fly on a super-busy day, take care of as many check-in tasks in advance as possible: Pay for checked bags, find off-airport parking options, and mail gifts to your destination well ahead of your flight date. Book an early, nonstop flight. Flying early in the day minimizes your chance of being delayed by holdups at other airports. Paying a little more for a nonstop flight eliminates the chance of fresh drama en route. Stay at a business hotel. All-suite hotels such as Homewood Suites and the Residence Inn depend largely on business travelers and are likely to offer lower rates during holiday vacation season.

Travel Tips

6 Best Travel Products for Pets

Bringing your pet along for the holidays or your next vacation? These six products will make your life easier. Habitrail's portable Ovo Home packs a food dish, water bottle, exercise wheel, and hideout inside a 10" x 22" x 11" space-age pod. Only the very top is vented, so you won't be vacuuming wood chips out of the floorboard. $40, petco.com. With the Yummybowl, you'll never spill cat chow in your weekend bag again. Stacked, it carries food and water in a tiered, airtight canteen; unpacked, it's a three-piece serving set. $30, sleepypod.com. It bounces! It wobbles! It floats! And if your pup gnaws at it long enough, Starmark's Pickle Pocket dog toy will cough up a treat. Great at rest stops to coax your pooch to burn off all that excess backseat energy. $20, triplecrowndogs.com. Better than a lost-dog poster, PetHub tags carry QR codes for your pet's name, address, and medical needs. If your pooch goes astray, it also sends you GPS data from the finder's phone. From $13, pethub.com. Kurgo's K9 Courier Bag is like an RV for pets. Strap it on a car's seat back for long drives, sling it over your shoulder for quick excursions, and unfold it at night for an on-the-go pet bed, complete with a fold-out pallet and a semi-enclosed nook. $70, kurgostore.com. It's awfully cute when your pet tries to bite a bug in midflight, but it's not very effective. InsectShield's new line of apparel repels mosquitos, ticks, chiggers, and flies, thanks to fibers infused with odorless permethrin, the same stuff in flea dips and lice shampoos. $10.50, doggles.com.