I recently came in contact with a US Federal Agent who works for the Department of Homeland Security. Based on his experience, I would have to say he is more like a James Bond on steroids. Previous to his job as an under cover US Federal Agent, he spent time as a soldier in the United States Special Operations Forces completing under cover missions in Afghanistan. He is well versed in self defense tactics including hand-to-hand combat and knife fighting, and currently travels around the world weekly doing, well, he just couldn't say.
So, when I asked him if he could provide information on travel safety from the perspective of a federal agent, he obliged on the condition he remain anonymous. Written below are what he deems essential practices everyone should be doing when they travel, part of which starts before you even leave the house.
-Christopher Avallon, Founder & CEO
The threat to the traveling public has greatly increased since the attacks of 9/11. It is more important than ever to have security precautions be a part of your travel plans. I have been traveling around the world in this new terror environment as both a Soldier and an Agent for the Department of Homeland Security. I would like to share some precautions that I take and that I think travelers might find helpful.
Security for a trip starts before you leave the door. When conducting domestic travel, you should always do a Google search of current events about the destination you are traveling to. This past week marks the one-year anniversary of Ferguson. It would not be a good idea to land in St. Louis for a business trip, only to find the city under a State of Emergency. For international travel more than a Google search is required. You should also look at the Department of State website http://www.state.gov. On the site you will find travel advisories and immunization recommendations. Another reference that is very helpful, if you are traveling outside of Europe is the CIA World Fact Book https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/. This reference will provide you with basic infrastructure, political, and economic information. These sites will not only help you to identify any security threats, they will also provide you with information that will help you navigate around your destination that can not be found in travel guides. One last thing you should check is whether or not your cell phone will work where you are traveling. If you are traveling to Europe having a working cell phone is not a necessity from a security standpoint, but traveling anywhere else around the world your cell phone can be a lifeline.
After your research is complete your next security consideration should be the airport. During my years in Federal Law Enforcement I have spent a lot of time in airports. Most domestic and international airports have top-notch security. But the greatest assets these places have are the traveling public. If you see something that looks out of the ordinary say something to an airport employee. Your most dangerous time at the airport is when you are checking in and leaving the airport. The reason is that the arrival and departure gates have the most exposure to a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosives. These areas of most airports also have tremendous amounts of glass. It is my advice to travel through them as quickly as possible. When exiting the airport only use taxis or buses from the designated taxi and bus stands. If you get in a taxi that is not at a stand you put yourself in great danger. These are the drivers that will take advantage of travelers and in the best-case scenario you might be brought to the wrong place, in the worst-case scenario you could find yourself robbed or abducted.
Part of your research should also cover the hotel you are staying at. Check reviews to see if anyone left any comments related to safety or room security. When checking in never take a ground floor. These are the easiest rooms to break into. It is best to try and get a room between the second and fourth floor. That way if there is a fire you will have an easy escape. After checking into your room always ensure that all the locks work and you close the peep whole or put something over it. I travel with a door jam http://www.amazon.com/Wedge--Ultimate-Door-Stop-Green/dp/B00070FXDC/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1439525189&sr=8-8&keywords=door+jam that I stick under the door to pin it shut. When traveling to Asia I will also reposition furniture in front of the door while sleeping. Over the past few years, Asian countries have seen an increase in attacks on tourists. Any hardening you do of your room makes you a harder target. Most hotel rooms have a safe and I recommend using them, but keep in mind that hotel staff have access to your safe at all times. If you are carrying something sensitive in nature, you will want to keep it on you. I would not recommend leaving passports and credit cards in hotel safes unless you are staying at a very reputable hotel that is part of a major chain.
When leaving a hotel you should never walk out of the door looking at your phone, especially if it is an iPhone. If you leave a hotel or a restaurant looking down at a screen you will miss the criminal who is looking at you. This action shows the sign of an easy mark. You don’t know where you are going and you are not paying attention to your surroundings. Apple products have become very popular in the US and around the world. Keep in mind while you are traveling, that when you pull an Apple product out bad people are watching you. Your screen will distract you and carrying an Apple product makes you a target. Also when I am on international travel I do not walk around with a wallet. I keep credit cards, cash, and my passport in my front pockets or a back pocket if it has a button or zipper. This gives a thief less to take and makes it more of a challenge. The other precaution you need to take when traveling is staying away from large groups of people or demonstrations. People have a natural tendency to want to walk towards large groups to see what is going on. It only takes a second for a gathering to turn into a riot and you could be caught in the middle of it. If you see a large gathering move in the opposite direction.
If you are a frequent traveler there are two last things I would like you to consider.They are self-defense and first aid training. Everyone who travels at some point should take some basic self-defense classes and have a plan of what they would do if someone tried to rob or assault them. It is to late to think about these things when a knife is being pointed at you or you find someone in your hotel room. You should also know some basic first aid. I am not talking about CPR; you should know how to stop bleeding. Everywhere I go I carry a tourniquet http://www.amazon.com/Military-Issue-Combat-Application-Tourniquet/dp/B003EGD8YC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1439526077&sr=8-1&keywords=tourniquet. These devices save lives. Our world has changed; not only while traveling, but going to the movies or church you could find yourself the victim of a gunshot or bomb blast. Having a tourniquet and knowing how to use it will save your life.
While most people will never have any security issues while traveling it is a good idea to plan for one. I hope you find information I provided helpful. Following the suggestions I have provided will increase your chances of having a safe and enjoyable trip.
-Anonymous US Federal Agent
Three points to be aware of at your hotel - and how to stop the scam cold.
Many travelers view their hotel rooms as their safe place while visiting a new city. In their hotel room, they are invulnerable to the hustle and bustle, and are allowed to rest and relax after a day of adventuring. But even the most savvy of world travelers are unaware of the risks of sophisticated scams that start right inside your hotel room.
Even when we think we're the safest, danger always lurks around the corner. And because travelers are often looked at as an easy target, scam artists are always looking for the easy way to part a traveler from their money. Here are three hotel scams that you need to be prepared for as you travel.
Hotel Scam No. 1: Fake Hotel Food Delivery
It's not uncommon to find a number of menus in your hotel room for local dining options. And how many times have you come to your room to find a menu slid underneath the door? While the menu looks real, it may be a restaurant that doesn't exist at all.
Here's how the scam works: the scam artist creates and prints a menu that looks realistic. Once created, the menus are slid underneath the doors of hotel rooms, inviting guests of the hotel to order in at the end of the day. What guests don't know is that the restaurant doesn't exist. When a guest places the order, they will be asked to pay for their order by credit card. The food never comes, and the scam artists get away with the guest's credit card information.
Before you decide to order in, make sure that your restaurant actually exists. A simple internet search of restaurants in the area of your hotel will give you plenty of dining options. And if you have any doubt, ask the front desk if there are any restaurants that deliver to the hotel - they should be happy to provide you the menus from several local restaurants.
Hotel Scam No. 2: Fake Front Desk Charges
Many high quality hotels are trained to make a phone call to your room 15 minutes after your check-in, just to make sure that your room is perfect. But have you ever gotten a call from the front desk with another issue?
Although it's becoming less common, the front desk call scam can still be a problem - especially in developing parts in the world. It starts when you get a call to your room phone from someone claiming to be at your hotel's front desk. Often times, they will claim that the hold on your card was declined, and they need to re-verify your credit card number. As a convenience, they are more than happy to take your credit card information over the phone, so that you can go back to your vacation in progress.
A real member of your hotel's staff should never ask for credit card information over the phone. Should you get a phone call about a credit card problem, never give the calling party any information. Instead, always offer to come down to the front desk to sort it out. If the caller insists that it must be taken care of immediately, then simply hang up, and either call or walk down to the hotel front desk.
Hotel Scam No. 3: "Free" WiFi Connections
Nobody enjoys paying for wifi internet access at their hotels, which makes the "Free WiFi" hotspot popup even more tempting.
A growing problem, wifi "skimming" is a new scam that targets you through the promise of free internet access. Common at hotels and other public places, like coffee shops and bus stations, the scam works by setting up a "free" wifi hotspot - usually aptly named to get your attention. Though the internet connection will be free to access, your data can route through several points, including a scam artist's computer. Because they are hosting the connection, they can see all data you transmit through their wifi signal - including websites, usernames, and passwords used during your session.
Before you connect to a network, make sure that it is a legitimate network. Many networks will be secure, and require you to have a password to access. Other secure networks will usually have the name of the property or hotel chain in the network ID, and will advertise their wifi network on printed materials. Be sure to ask which is the preferred network at your hotel, and how you can access it once you're there.
Keeping yourself safe from common hotel scams simply takes a little know-how of what to be aware of. By knowing the scammer's tricks, you can worry less about losing your data, and focus on having a great trip.
- Your passport
This one is obvious. You’ll need your passport to go anywhere out of the country. But once you’ve reached your destination, no need to bring it with you everywhere you go while backpacking or sightseeing. United States licenses serve as acceptable proof of age. Keep your passport locked up in the hotel or hostel. Make sure you keep a copy of it in your luggage too, in case you do need to bring it out and it gets lost or stolen somehow.
What to bring to keep it safe: Avallone Antique Handmade Leather Passport Holder
- A decent bag
This depends on what the purpose of your trip is. If you’re backpacking, you’ll want a big enough bag to hold all of your items while still feeling comfortable on your back. If you’re just sightseeing as a tourist, any luggage will do. A bag on wheels (and the wheels that roll in all ways, meaning you can also roll it at your side, not just behind you) might be the easiest option, but it depends on your preference. You shouldn’t need much when you’re out on the town – probably just a wallet, a map, and maybe your phone. You’ll leave most of your things where you’re staying. And if you’re traveling for business, you’ll probably be bringing your briefcase.
What to bring (if you’re traveling on business): Avallone Executive Handmade Leather Briefcase
- Your wallet
A slim wallet tends to be the best choice for travel. You’ll want to keep your money in a front pocket instead of the back – you’ll be walking through busy areas that will be full of tourists, and therefore likely pickpockets. If traveling through a few different countries on your trip, you might want to simply keep your debit card in your slim wallet and take out cash when you arrive to each destination. I’ve done this before and found it to be the best method – it’s a bit easier than exchanging a big wad of foreign currency with your bank before leaving the U.S. Check out fees before you leave. Your bank might charge a fee when you make a withdrawal from a foreign ATM, but certain ATMs don’t charge fees at all, and to be most economical, you might think about estimating how much you’ll spend in each country. Then take the money out just at one time when you arrive – and maybe take out the largest amount that the ATM will allow. You shouldn’t have to go back to the ATM until you get to the next country. (I’ve found that it feels safer to do this rather than using a debit or credit card for actual purchases.) And make sure you notify your bank that you’ll be traveling!
What to bring to guard your cash: Avallone Slim Credit Card Leather Wallet
- Mobile phone
You already bring your phone everywhere, so this one is obvious too. Look into international data plans if you need to stay in touch. Keep in mind that most places have Wi-Fi (hotels, hostels, coffee shops, restaurants), and you can probably find enough places with Internet to stay connected throughout your trip without spending any money. Some phone plans will also allow you to pay a flat fee for a limited amount of data to use when you aren’t in a WiFi area – for example, if you need to contact someone when you get there, and you’re not sure if you’ll have WiFi access, you can pay something around $20 to $30 that will allow you to use the Internet anytime, anywhere. The fee might be worth the security of knowing you’ll have the Internet if you need it in a pinch.
- Comfortable shoes
The right shoes are essential for traveling. You don’t realize the amount of walking that you’ll do until you get there. You’ll want to see everything and will likely walk more than a few miles a day. Go for comfort over style, or better, find a shoe that will allow you to combine the two.
Styles to check out: Desert Boot by Clarks, ‘LunarGrand’ Wingtip by Cole Haan, or Seawalker Oxford by Ecco
Written by Alyssa Avallon
Not sure when to use a travel agent?
Some of you might think that with the Internet, travel agents are past their expiration date. Not even close.
What a lot of the better travel agents are doing now is specializing.
If you’re headed to an unfamiliar place, someone with expertise in the area can help you connect the dots: flights, car rentals, hotels—and you can still skip the tour group.
If you’ve got a complicated itinerary, do you really want to book that online? No, you don’t. You want to talk to somebody about it—you want to have a conversation.
Someone who specializes in cruise travel can actually help you figure out the best line for you—and the best itinerary—whether you’re traveling with your entire family or you prefer a smaller ship for just you and your significant other.
If you’re planning an upscale trip, look at the Virtuoso network. It can often get you access to a lot of perks you may not know about otherwise.
Here’s the rub. The websites like Orbitz and Expedia? They’re actually known as Online Travel Agents, or OTAs. So even if you think you’re doing it on your own, there’s still probably someone else on the other end pulling together the deals for you.
It’s still okay to research your travel online. But more often than not, seek out a travel agent who specializes—and have that conversation.
Keep reading for more travel tips.