After 33 years of working for the CIA, living in 8 foreign countries and traveling all over the world, I’ve picked up a few important lessons along the way. Take a look at my tips for keeping yourself safe when you’re traveling for business. All of my wisdom is geared to reducing your stress level and making your meetings more successful.
Preparing for your Trip
Do your research in advance. Learn about the country you will be visiting: entry requirements, passport validity, and whether or not you need a visa. A travel agent will know which countries require a visa and can help facilitate obtaining one. It will help if you register your trip with the consulate or embassy through the U.S. State Department’s website. In financial matters, it can be helpful to alert your credit card company so you’re not tripped up by fraud alerts. And, make sure that your credit card has a non-800 phone number that you can call for assistance. You will probably need to add an international package to your cell phone plan so that you’re not hit with a huge bill. Don’t forget to give your family a copy of your complete itinerary. When considering a hotel, check out Maiden-Voyage.com for female-friendly hotels and other travel tips.
When it comes to your health, some advance planning is necessary. Schedule your immunizations well in advance, especially if you need to have a series completed 4 to 6 weeks before you depart. Some immunizations require 2 or more doses. Once you have had your injections, get a copy of your immunization record to bring on your trip, especially if you are on a multi-country itinerary. For example, if you arrive in Ecuador from Brazil, customs officers may not let you in if you can’t prove you’re immunized against yellow fever.
Before you leave, take steps to safeguard your phone and laptop. Computers and cell phones are the #1 items stolen from travelers. Consider what information you are putting at risk by taking your phone and laptop overseas. Meet with your IT department to find ways to keep it secure. Laptops are vulnerable to malware and cyber threats, and you’ll need to ensure connectivity at your destination. Update security installations, firewall and anti-virus software and record the make and serial number of your laptop. Buy the appropriate power outlet converter and consider a solar charger as a back-up. Pack this in your purse, not your luggage. Having a charged cell phone is critical in terms of your safety. Input all of your local contacts and a local emergency number into your phone’s contacts list and turn off geolocation services on your phone’s camera. And don’t disclose travel plans on Facebook, LinkedIn or other social media.
Pack light - you should be able to carry your luggage yourself. Remove the non-essentials from your wallet and leave the grocery discount/library/club membership cards at home. The key is to lighten and organize your load starting with the basics. Bring essential forms of identification, credit cards, an active ATM card, and health insurance card, if applicable. Make copies of each item in your slimmed-down wallet to place in your luggage. Consider a radio-frequency ID (RFID) blocking wallet to prevent your credit cards from being compromised. Your credit cards emit signals and someone call steal your identity without your even knowing it. Keep a small amount of cash in a side pocket and consider it ‘muggers’ money’.
Put your most essential items in a ‘bug out bag’. This means a copy of your passport (your original document will be locked in the hotel safe) your wallet, and your cell phone that’s been programmed with a local emergency number. This bag gets worn across your body and under your coat. Take it with you everywhere and put it by your bed at night. If the fire alarm goes off at 4am, you grab it and go!
Leave the Prada at home. Your purse should be practical with a heavy canvas strap that goes across your body and zips closed. Ideally, this bag should be large enough for laptop, an empty water bottle, and your medications in their original bottles. You might also consider a RFID blocking passport cover to protect your identity as well as conceal the fact that you are from the U.S.
Your carry-on luggage should be a non-descript color with a covered name tag. Pack an extra set of clothes and your business attire in case your checked bag is lost. Bring some reading materials and headphones to shut out chatty seatmates. And put your plug adapter in the carry-on too!
When it comes to clothing, you want to err on the side of conservative and culturally sensitive. Don’t pack anything too bright, overly labeled or skirts above the knee. You want to blend in with locals and the goal is to be invisible. Slip-on, low-heeled shoes are the best choice for going through airport security. In many foreign airports, there is no place to sit down to remove or replace your shoes and you don’t want to have to sit on floor. Bring a pashmina for chilly airplane cabins that can double as a head cover.
If you’re traveling to the Middle East, consider what you have in your possession that might be considered offensive. I once had a Vogue magazine taken from me because it had a photo of a woman in a bikini on the cover.
During the Trip
As you're checking in at the airport, verify the destination on checked bag labels. Put your 3-1 baggie with liquids in an outside pocket of your carry-on so you’re not rummaging through your suitcase at the security checkpoint. Items that may set off an alarm in the x-ray machine include: underwire bras, inhalers, and aluminum foil wrappers. Keep your prescriptions in their original bottles. Many airports are checking prescription bottles very carefully, and it may be illegal to carry medications outside of the original containers. And, don’t keep loose pills in your pockets.
On the plane, place your carry-on in an overhead bin near you in order to keep a watchful eye on it. Take what you need for the flight from your carry-on and then stow it zipper side down so no one goes rummaging through it on a long flight. Drink 8 oz. of water every hour to stay hydrated. Take your bug out bag with you if you get up to use the restroom.
Once you’ve arrived, get to the luggage carousel quickly and keep your documents readily available for customs. A good rule of thumb is to never pay anyone to do anything for you. Carry your own bags. Take a small amount of cash from the airport ATM, as they are usually safe. Let someone at home or the office know that you’ve arrived and at head to hotel.
If you’ve pre-booked transportation, they should have advised you where to meet the driver and their name. Ask ‘what is your name?’ instead of saying ‘are you Gustavo?’ Don’t go with a driver holding a sign that’s easily duplicated. Your real driver may be waiting in arrivals and another guy wrote up a new sign. Airport taxis are generally safe, but ask the cost before you get in. Put your luggage into the car with you instead of the trunk. Know the route to your hotel and have the hotel’s address written down in the local language.
If you need to rent a car, use an authorized corporate provider. Do you need an international license or will your current license suffice? If you can’t drive a car with a manual transmission, make sure you have reserved an automatic. Ask about the location of gas stations – some are underground and hard to find. Understand your insurance coverages and what happens if there’s an accident.
In the Hotel
At the hotel reception desk, ask for a room between the 2nd and 7th floors. The first floor is too easy to access, and most fire-fighting equipment doesn’t reach above the 7th floor. If the hotel clerk says your room number out loud, get a new room.
When arriving at night, ask for an escort to take you to your room and turn on the lights for you. Count the number of doors to the exits. The #1 problem you might face in a hotel is fire - know the exits.
During your stay, keep the Do Not Disturb sign on your door. Minimize your public discussions and don’t discuss your plans with the staff. If you have a rental car, have a hotel employee walk you to the garage or parking lot. If you order food from an outside restaurant, have it delivered to the lobby and not your room. When you’re not using your laptop for work, keep it in the hotel safe and when you’re working use VPN to access your corporate systems.
If you sign a receipt in the bar or restaurant and it requires your room number, guard it until the waiter removes it. Other guests may take a peek and call your room asking for you by name.
When venturing out, plan your route in advance and avoid set patterns. Change up your routine and always carry your phone. Let someone know your plans and estimated time of arrival. In restaurants, never hang your purse on the back of chair. It always goes on your lap or between your legs. Ask a restaurant or hotel to call a taxi for you instead of hailing one on the street.
Make yourself a hard target: walk with confidence, dress to blend in, don’t argue with locals, and look like you know where you’re going. Don’t display cash or wealthy accessories. But if you are confronted, give them what they want quickly and then run.
Pro tip: buy a reusable sack from a local grocery store and put your purse in that. You'll instantly look like a local.
In many countries, sexual harassment is prevalent. In some Latin countries, it’s simply what men do. Stay silent and deflect strongly. Trust your instincts – you’re usually right. If you think something bad is about to happen, it probably will. Remove yourself from the situation asap. Always use a public place for a meeting instead of a private meeting room.
In the very unlikely event of a terrorist or a shots fired situation, shelter in place. Unless you have a clear escape route, get under a desk or other large piece of furniture. If you’re on the street during an attack, seek out a bank, hotel or restaurant – any place with a large amount of people. If you experience a major problem, call your embassy or consulate and ask for help. Have fun, but be safe!
For more information on keeping your employees safe when traveling for work, read this article.