Grab your notebook and prepare to copy. The first edition of this series, “The CIA operative’s guide to safe travel,” received an overwhelming response and was featured in Entrepreneur, Travel and Leisure, and Business Insider to name a few publications. Welcome to part two of the series. I hope you enjoy it and learn something that will keep you safe from harm’s way. Enjoy, and remain vigilant!
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 different labels like these online.
3. Always use your first name
If you are traveling undercover, maintain your real first name. It’s actually harder for CIA operatives to maintain their cover domestically versus overseas. On the slim chance I bump into someone in Florence who, upon seeing me, yells, “Drew!” the source I’m trying to recruit won’t wonder why he’s been calling me Simon the whole time.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Drive (or ride) warily
Only use taxis provided by your hotel. I can’t stress this enough. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Hide your keys in plain sight
This is a simple trick I’ve been using for some time now. All you need is a prescription bottle and epoxy or cyanoacrylate glue to attach a rock onto the bottle cap. Bury it in the grass. It works if you forget or lose your keys, or when someone has to access your house while you’re on vacation.
10. 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.
11. Bring along 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 Geko GPS, made by Garmin, isn’t sexy, but it is a lifesaver and all you really need.
12. Watch for tails on the elevator
Try to take the stairs; it’s great exercise! If you enter an elevator and someone slips on 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 remain unpredictable, right?
13. 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, North Carolina, 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.
In part three of this series, I’ll show you how to break into a hotel room in under one second, how to spot and shake surveillance, how to open a locked hotel safe, and other measure to keep you safe while traveling. I enjoy the feedback and recommendations you all have provided. Keep up the good work, and be safe, warriors!