10 Vital Travel Safety Tips from a Former CIA Officer

Image by Vs Heidelberg Photos via Flickr

If you haven't noticed, travel safety advice comes from everywhere. Everyone's armed with a trick or two up his or her sleeve, or maybe even a personal tale of caution. The thing is, like with most horrible things we don't like to think about, we tend to assume the incidents that make up these tales can't happen to us. But they can, and they do. 

So for piece of mind, we went straight to the CIA, well, former CIA, for some sound, spy-worthy safety protocol to have ready for our next adventure. And while we were worried, at first, that these measures seemed like they could be evoking fear and paranoia, or at the least, distracting from the vacation experience, former CIA officer Jason Hanson was quick to retort by saying, "when I do this stuff, it gives me peace of mind and I don't worry about anything. I do it as second nature." 

Sure, not all of us have undergone espionage training (or anything close to it), but it's kind of comforting to know that these are all precautions that Hanson himself puts into play when he hits the road. Most of these tips are for travel abroad -- even in Westernized areas (Did you know that Barcelona has one of the highest pickpocketing rates in the world?) -- and some are just all-around, wherever-you-go tips. 

Have any of your own spy-worthy tips to share? Share away in the comments!

1. Do Your Research Before You Go

Photo by Kevin Doncaster via Flickr

Unlike travel times of past, we are lucky enough to live in a world with the world wide web. So much information about our destinations can be found at the tap of our fingertips, so Hanson recommends taking advantage of this massive resource and doing some homework before you decide on a destination or leave on a trip. However, not all sites are equal (or even reliable), so he recommends a visit to the U.S. State Department website when checking on the safety status of a destination. This site alerts you (by country) to any security threats and provides phone numbers of the U.S. embassies and consulates -- which are always good to have on hand, trust us.  

2. Digitize Important Documents and Carry Them On A Secure Flash Drive

Photo by Custom USB via Flickr

Another plus to living in the technology age is being able to carry around tons of information in a small space. While he still recommends making copies, Hanson also urges his clients to load up a secure flash drive (he uses the Iron Key Flash Drive which self-destructs after 10 incorrect password attempts) to hold digital copies of all your important documents. What should you put on this Mission Impossible-style flash drive? Place copies of your driver's license, passport's picture page, travel insurance information, hotel reservations and other travel confirmations, flight details, your ICE contact numbers, those nifty US embassy and consulate numbers and addresses, and anything you think you might need in a jam. Carry this flash drive with you at all times. 

3. Skip the Hanging "Hidden" Wallet

Photo via www.shacke.com

We've all seen those tourists with not-so-hidden wallets strapped around their necks. In fact, we tend to see people wearing these on the outside of their shirts, completely missing the point of having a hidden wallet in the first place. Either way you wear it, Hanson says to skip it. These hanging neck wallets are so recognizable these days that, like purse straps, robbers can pick them out of a crowd, and with a swift snip -- wamp! -- your secure neck wallet slips. Instead, Hanson suggests a hidden wallet that can attach to your belt and tuck into the inside of your pant leg; he also recommends finding a wallet that has RFID protection that prevents your credit cards' information from being stolen magnetically (yeah, that's a thing). While we aren't sure how comfortable (or sweaty) having your passport, money, and credit cards dangling inside your pants can be -- or if this is even possible for those of us who like to rock skinny jeans -- if you're a cargo kind of person, we say go for it.

4. Keep Your Lips Sealed When It Comes to Travel Plans

Photo by jburke601 via Flickr

Hanson says that whenever he travels, he treats his travel plans like Top Secret information, only divulging where he's been when he's back from a trip. Why? Because you never know who is listening -- or reading. He warns, "Criminals troll social media sites like Facebook. Most crimes are people you know, either directly or friends of friends. If you post that you are going to Disneyland, then the whole world knows your house is going to be empty." We know it's hard not to ask the social media universe for travel recommendations or to stop posting your amazing vacation pics to Instagram, so if you are terrible at keeping a secret, we suggest at least adjusting your privacy settings for a little quality control. 

5. Grab a Higher Floor and an Extra Key at Your Hotel

Photo by Jonathan Haeber via Flickr

Traveling solo? No you're not -- at least that's what you want anyone else to think. An easy way to trick unsavory characters into thinking you aren't an easy, solo target is to request an extra key at the front desk. Also, since most crimes happen on the lower floors, Hanson suggests snagging a room on the third floor or higher. 

6. Skip the Hotel Safe

Photo by luftholen via Flickr

While we are talking about hotel safety, it's good to mention that Hanson also tipped us off to the flimsiness of the hotel safe. When asked if he ever uses them, he quickly replied with a hard, "No." He followed up by saying, "I never leave my passport, or my wife's passport, or anything of value in the hotel room. Hotel safes are not of good quality and almost anyone working in the hotel could have the bypass code to unlock the room safe." It's good to note that he also believes it's important to always carry your passport on you because "you never know how governments will react," so being able to prove your nationality and travel is important. 

7. Snag a Doorstopper Alarm

Photo via White Eastern's YouTube account

Another cool safety tool that Hanson recommends, for both domestic and international travel, is a handy-dandy doorstopper alarm. You simply wedge it in your hotel room door when you go to sleep, and if anyone tries to break into the room, it sounds an alarm -- usually a deterrent to any criminals. 

8. Act As Much Like a Local As You Can

Photo by zoetnet via Flickr

We asked Hanson what places the biggest target on your back while traveling and he said sticking out like a sore thumb. Basically, we've all heard about the stereotype that Americans have as travelers: loud, obnoxious, sometimes inconsiderate, etc. Hanson believes it is important to try and look and act like as much of a local as possible. What does this mean? Respect the customs and culture wherever you are; don't expect people to speak English, don't become rowdy, dress appropriately (Hanson also recommends to ditch any "American-ifying" duds like baseball hats), be polite, and walk with confidence. He also suggests studying your routes and transportation options before you leave the hotel; but if you do need to peep the map, no worries. Just try and find a spot where you can do it inconspicuously. 

9. Be One Step Ahead of Scammers

Photo by japanexperterna.se via Flickr

Man, travel scams are the worst. Sometimes it's a fine line between being polite versus protective and being open for new experiences versus following the trodden path. Look, most places you go, the majority of people are good folks, but every now and then you get a few bad eggs in the bunch, the foulest being travel scammers. What can you do? Be prepared. Know the typical travel scams played in the area and avoid any situations where you could be played like a fool. Sometimes the consequence can be more severe than just getting your wallet stolen. 

10. Grab Taxis from Reputable Sources

Photo by NH53 via Flickr

With the rise of peer-to-peer services like AirBnb, Uber, and Lyft sweeping through the travel landscape, the once easily recognizable lines of safety have become a bit blurred. Case-in-point, both Uber and Lyft have had their own share of safety alerts over the last year. So, use your judgement and if you want to be extra sure, Hanson recommends only using taxis and car services provided by the hotels. 

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