Marine veteran and former CIA operative Drew Dwyer knows a thing or two about traveling in good and bad parts of the world. Mostly bad. In an ongoing travel safety series he’s writing for SOFREP (Special Operations Forces Report), he shares some of the Central Intelligence Agency’s tricks to avoid problems when business takes you to very problematic hot spots.
1. Be proactive, not reactive.
Make copies of your passport, medical card, credit cards and travel itinerary. Give a copy to a friend back home and keep a copy with you. Email any pertinent information to yourself through a web-based email account so you can get it from any hotel or Internet café if needed. Check in with the U.S. embassy when you arrive.
2. Use a “fragile” tag.
Bags marked with this sticker are generally put on top of the pile, and end up being among the first to hit the baggage claim conveyor belt. That means you can get out of that human Bingo game and to the taxi line a whole lot quicker. You can buy a variety of fragile labels online.
3. Hide your money.
No one wants your dirty Chapstick, even if it’s a great way to keep your lips moisturized. That makes it the perfect spot to stash emergency cash. Use large denominations to get the most bang for your buck! The benefit of this is eliminated if thieves nab your entire bag, or if your thief has extremely dry lips. But it still gives you an extra barrier of protection that need only be applied once.
4. Keep your keys handy.
Make sure you have your keys out as you approach your door (hotel or car). Not only will this facilitate quickly moving in and out of a space or escaping, you can also use keys as an effective weapon by holding them between your fingers.
5. Drive (or ride) warily.
Only use taxis provided by your hotel. I can’t stress this enough. The worst-case scenario is that you will be kidnapped for ransom. Best case, they won’t honor local codes that dictate fare rates and will take you on a marathon route to your intended destination.
If you are renting a vehicle, ensure that it’s rented from a reputable business. The airport or your hotel can provide legitimate companies. Like your personal vehicle at home, keep it either dirty or extremely clean on the outside. This way, you can spot fingerprints or any attempted breaches of the car. Do a quick sweep of the vehicle’s exterior to check for anything out of place.
6. Prepare your phone.
Data plans can be expensive if traveling overseas. Before you leave, download and save a map of where you’re traveling. Flip your phone to airplane mode and use the map to navigate without racking up overages. If your phone’s SIM card is accessible, buy a native SIM card for a reasonable price to gain access to that ever-so-needed WiFi.
If you’re worried about a foreign intelligence agency tracking you and listening to your conversations, remove the battery from your phone. Even if your phone is powered off with the battery still attached, you can still be recorded. Trust me on this one.
7. Dress like a local.
Minimize attention by taking style notes from locals and blending into your surroundings. If you’re traveling to the Middle East, the U.S. State Department recommends that single women wear a fake wedding ring. Spend a few minutes researching what the atmosphere is like where you’re traveling.
8. Track your luggage.
Never lose your luggage again. Before traveling, go to an electronics store and buy an RF transmitter, then place it inside your luggage. You can track the location and movement of your luggage from your smartphone. Some RF transmitters are even equipped with listening capabilities.
9. Bring a navigation aid.
Wherever I travel, I carry this GPS. It’s small, compact, and simplistic. Power it up and it leaves breadcrumbs along your route. You can backtrack if you lose your way. I also mark police stations, hospitals and the embassy. It’s all done by depressing one button. This Garmin Geko GPS isn’t sexy, but it is a lifesaver and all you really need.
10. Watch for tails on the elevator.
Try to take the stairs — it’s great exercise! If you enter an elevator and someone slips in just before the doors close, they might be tailing you. Let them select a floor first, if possible. If not, select a different floor than the one you’re actually staying on and then hoof it via stairs to your room. This might seem extreme, but better safe than sorry. Plus, bonus cardio!
11. Conceal your itinerary.
This little trick sounds super mysterious, but it can save you hundreds on airfare. Here’s a hypothetical situation to show how it works: Instead of buying a direct flight from New York City to D.C., you buy one to Raleigh, N.C., with a layover in D.C., and just get off there. Yes, you’ll have to fly one-way, and you won’t be able to check any luggage, either, but you’ll end up saving a ton of money.