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CIA Officer’s Tips for Avoiding Death, Prison, and Hospital While You Travel

Here are a few tips from my time as a CIA officer that will help you avoid dangerous situations during your travels.

There is something very appealing about packing a bag and hopping on the first flight out of town—maybe because we never quite grow out of our childhood desire to run away. However, taking the time to do some research and plan a little before you go will help make even the most experienced traveler safer. Here are a few tips from my time as a CIA officer that will help you avoid death, prison, and hospital on your travels.

1. Leave copies of your travel information with someone you trust. Print out a copy of your passport and forward your flight itinerary and hotel information to them. Having someone who can verify your identity and travel plans will give police a place to start if something happens to you. Also, scammers targeting your family will sometimes claim that they have taken you hostage and demand a ransom. Knowing where you are staying and when you are traveling will help your friends and family avoid these scams.

Take the time to memorize your own travel information, too, because you cannot always count on a working or fully charged phone, or reliable internet.  

2. Don’t rule out the possibility of a medical emergency. We never anticipate having a health crisis while we are traveling, but it happens. Do your research on the quality of medical care in the country you are visiting, but also have a backup plan in case of sickness or an accident, such as Medjet, a medical transport and travel safety membership program. Most companies will only take you to the nearest adequate medical center, but for a reasonable annual fee starting at $99 for short-term coverage and $270 for year-round, Medjet will transport you to your hospital of choice if you wind up needing continuing medical care. It does not discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.

3. Research potential threats. As you prepare for your trip, knowing about potential threats or frequent crimes in the country you are visiting will help you remain alert while you are there. The Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security publishes important information on every country in the world, such as crime and safety reports and security warnings, and updates them regularly. The reports may be a little overwhelming to read because they include all potential risks, but they are accurate and will give you a good sense of what you should prepare for.

4. Get cash out to exchange once you arrive at your destination. You may find when you arrive that the airport ATMs are not working or they do not accept debit cards from your country of origin. Perhaps their taxis do not take credit cards. Suddenly, you have no way to pay to get out of the airport. Having even a little cash on you will give you enough time to figure out your next steps. 

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5. Take emergency phone numbers with you. Make sure you know the local equivalent of 9-1-1 in case of emergency. Look up your in-country embassy’s phone number and address before you leave and call them if you lose your passport while traveling or if you are the victim of a crime. If there is a natural disaster or a terrorist attack during your trip and you cannot get a hold of your family or friends, you can check in with the embassy.

6. Don’t bring anything you can’t stand to lose. It is easy to lose things when you are traveling, either because you misplace them or because they get stolen while you are on the move. Traveling is not the time to bring priceless heirlooms or anything that is one of a kind.

7. Learn phrases in the host language. Being able to communicate in the language of the country you are visiting will help you better navigate your surroundings if you find yourself in trouble, especially phrases like “Where is the nearest hospital?” or “I need help.” On the flip side, obstinately demanding that everyone speak in English will make you stand out to those looking to target tourists for crimes or other nefarious purposes.

There are many good language apps for your phone that will help you translate foreign languages on the spot, but Google Translate and iTranslate are particularly good, though you’ll have to pay more if you want to use iTranslate offline. Each can translate more than 100 different languages and both are free. When in doubt, appreciation is a universal language, so knowing at least how to say “please” and “thank you” in the host language will get you far.

8. Prevent potential health risks. Traveling is a great way to find every kind of germ and sickness imaginable. You may encounter diseases, like malaria, that are not common in your country. Find out what vaccinations or medicine you need before you go through the Center for Disease Control website. Build in extra time to visit your doctor because they may not have the right vaccine on hand. Gastrointestinal illnesses are common when traveling, because of new foods and poor water quality, so research what you should avoid.

While you’re there…

1. Minimize your profile, so you are not a target. Criminals often target tourists for things like petty theft or worse, and many travelers make it easy by doing things that make them stand out. Things like looking lost, holding a paper map on a sidewalk, wearing a camera over your neck, or speaking loudly in a language not native to where you are visiting may make you a target. Clothing can also draw attention to you—for example, American men wearing baseball hats in countries where that is unusual, or wearing obviously expensive items, like noticeable jewelry.

2. Don’t take unofficial forms of transportation. As soon as you exit the airport, watch out for people who approach you with what sounds like a great transportation deal. It might be a private tour at half the cost or a cheaper taxi rate to your hotel, but often it is a scam, a kidnapping attempt, or something else that could put you in danger. Make sure your taxi has a meter and that the driver turns it on when you start your journey.

In some places, you must even negotiate a fare upfront if you do not want to be ripped off when they drop you at your destination. Inability or failure to pay, even if it is a scam, could get you in trouble with the local police. Sticking with legitimate transportation companies in the country you’re visiting isn’t a fool-proof solution, but it is a good first step.

3. Practice good hotel security. Hotel rooms are often the site of emergencies, such as robberies. Keep your blinds drawn so that intruders cannot scout out your room or belongings. Ground-floor rooms are more easily accessible to would-be intruders, but staying on the top floor may make it more difficult for rescue workers to reach you in the event of a fire. Lock the deadbolt at all times when you are in your room.

4. Watch out for electronic attacks. Hackers often skim insecure public wi-fi hotspots for targets. While free internet on the go might be tempting, it is a good way to get hacked, and can put all of your personal information at risk. You should also make sure you keep your electronic devices with you because they can easily be hacked or bugged. Even hotel safes can be cracked by people who know how, so do not assume your electronics or other belongings are safe there.

5. Follow local laws and customs. This is not only a sign of respect for the area you are visiting, it is also a critical way to stay out of trouble. To find out about the laws and customs of the area you are visiting, Google is your friend. But U.S. government types often refer to Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway, an encyclopedia-like reference book covering customs in every country. Breaking local rules, or even the law, to snap that perfect Instagram shot is not worth the trouble it could cause.

6. Keep your belongings in safe places. Many small crimes like pickpocketing happen in crowded places, like train stations. Keep your personal items safe by making them difficult to get to. That means, not putting your wallet in your back pocket, carrying shoulder bags that can be easily snatched, or stowing things in outside backpack pockets. Do not flash cash or anything else that could suggest to would-be thieves that you have a lot of money.

7. Don’t panic. Real life is not quite like James Bond movies, but local security services in some countries like to keep tabs on foreigners. If you notice you’re being followed, keep calm, but stay in public places and well-lit areas. If you think security services are watching, confronting them could do more harm than good. Report any suspicious behavior to the embassy.

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