After a couple of years social distancing, I’m ready to see the world again. How do savvy CIA officers travel safely?
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That’s a great question! As you can imagine, CIA officers travel to some of the most dynamic and dangerous places on earth—from global capitals to remote outposts to active conflict zones. After all, CIA’s informal motto is, “We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go.” To do so safely, our officers follow many safe travel best practices that anyone can use. I asked my colleagues to share what their best tips were; here’s what they told me. We’ll just call it “travel tradecraft.”
OBJECTIVE ONE: GETTING THERE
- TIP: Make a copy of your passport. While traveling abroad, your passport might be your ticket home during a bad situation. If the front desk of your hotel asks to hold on to your passport, see if they’ll accept that copy. While you’re at it, write down some important phone numbers—emergency contacts, your country’s local embassy, etc.—just in case.
- TIP: Register with your embassy. Think of it as establishing communications with your home base. Registering with your country’s embassy ahead of your foreign travel enables embassy staff to contact you in the event of an emergency or unfolding crisis. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can sign up with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
- TIP: Learn some local lingo. You don’t need to go full incognito, but if you have time, try to pick up key words and phrases in the language of your destination. We think that “hello,” “goodbye,” “yes/no,” “help,” and “police” are just a few of the essentials. These phrases might come in handy if you find yourself in a tight spot. And feel free to use the CIA World Factbook to do some all-around research on your international destination—it’s publicly available and a great resource. Our World Factbook team even created special travel briefings for several countries, which you can find here: World Factbook Travel Facts.
- TIP: Scout out local transportation. Upon arrival, ask an airport official or travelers’ aide how much it should cost to catch a public shuttle or taxi to your hotel. If you choose a taxi, be sure to negotiate the price before loading your baggage and getting inside. Only use taxis from the official queue that are clearly marked and have a functioning meter and the driver’s ID displayed inside.
OBJECTIVE TWO: SETTLING IN
- TIP: Know your escape route. That cliché about knowing the fastest way out of a room? We might have invented it. When you get to your hotel, take a moment to familiarize yourself with emergency evacuation plans. How many doors are between yours and the nearest stairwell? Could you find it in the dark? In a smoky haze?
- TIP: Use the elevator (unless it’s an emergency). Using the stairs is great for exercise, but crimes frequently occur in isolated stairwells. If you can, try to stick to the elevator.
- TIP: Look for a middle floor. Being on the ground floor can leave you more vulnerable to break-ins, but many countries’ emergency response personnel aren’t equipped to reach higher than a few floors off the ground. Consider requesting a room somewhere in between.
- TIP: Lock it up. The automatic locks on hotel room doors can often be forced open, and the chains can often be cut. Use the deadbolt. Do you know what else can help keep a door closed? A door stop. Consider investing in a traveler’s portable door lock or alarm to help further secure your hotel room. Yes, it’s our job to be paranoid, and we’re professionals at it.
- TIP: Beware of unsolicited knocks. A knock at your hotel door? Don’t open it unless you know or can verify who’s on the other side. Special delivery, turndown service, or room service that you didn’t request? Call the front desk to confirm. The same goes for unexpected maintenance or housekeeping.
OBJECTIVE: STEPPING OUT AND ABOUT
- TIP: Taking a car? Lock the doors. Whether you’re renting your own wheels or taking a taxi, lock the doors as soon as you get in. Best practice is to keep the windows rolled up, as well. Carjackers often prey on simple mistakes like an open door—don’t let them.
- TIP: Stay alert. Our officers are trained to be highly attuned to their surroundings, constantly maintaining situational awareness. It’s a habit that’ll pay you dividends, too. If you use all five senses to pay attention to what’s happening around you, you’ll not only spot telltale signs if something is amiss, you’ll also soak up your destination’s unique atmosphere.
- TIP: Be mindful when drinking adult beverages. Spies might swill martinis in the movies, but alcohol impairs alertness and judgement. Similar to the tip above, you’ll want to be alert and maintain situational awareness, especially in an unfamiliar country. Some countries also have local customs and restrictions on alcohol consumption, so be sure you know what those are and follow them closely before you decide to imbibe.
- TIP: Walk the walk. Your demeanor on the street can sometimes be the best deterrent to criminals. Don’t look like an easy target. Take it from us, you don’t want to attract attention by looking meek, lost, or distracted. For example, don’t stand on a busy street corner poring over a map or your smart phone. Instead, channel quiet confidence. At the same time, you don’t want to be too flashy, showing off extravagant items or wealth. Leave at home the fancy jewelry, watches, electronics, and other items that might make you an especially appealing target to thieves.
- TIP: Plan your route and reroute as necessary. Whether you’re traveling by car, public transit, or foot, prepare in advance. Do your day’s activities take you through a dangerous part of town? Take a different route. Adjust your plans and routes as necessary to avoid walking alone at night and stick to well-lit areas that aren’t too isolated, if possible.
- TIP: Trust your instincts. We know from experience that when something doesn’t feel right, it often isn’t. Someone standing too close to you, following you across multiple locations, loitering outside your room—if a situation raises your suspicions, remove yourself from it or seek help.
- TIP: Commotion? Don’t check it out. The fastest way to get out of a crisis is to avoid trouble in the first place. If you hear a disturbance unfolding when you’re out and about, steer clear and leave the intelligence gathering to us. The commotion could be an escalating danger or a distraction designed to help someone pickpocket you. Your mission is to get home safe. Don’t take unnecessary risks.
Whether you’re off to a bustling city or a secluded getaway this summer, we hope these CIA “travel tips” help you journey with more confidence and safety.