15 Travel Tips From Former Undercover CIA Officers

Travel season is getting underway and I have seen a plethora of traveling posts about traveling with kids that concentrate on trip logistics (e.g. proper planning) or general tips (e.g. packing snacks for the kids), but few that go into detail on actual security practices that will protect your children and family. Traveling, both abroad and domestically, can be culturally enriching, relaxing, exhilarating…and potentially dangerous.

So, I called up my CIA brother-in-arms, Mark Laine at Center Line Systems (go check out his American made gear!), whom I served with in North Africa during the infamous Arab Spring, to collaborate with the Reno Dads on some great ideas that can improve the security awareness and practices of parents everywhere that don’t compromise the enjoyment of the vacation.

Now, the objective of this article isn’t to explore all of the security risks and counter measures, but to enlighten the reader as to some basic, easily accomplished, common sense steps that can help ensure a pleasurable holiday, while enhancing the safety of you and your family. Below are 15 tips from Mark Laine at Center Line Systems and David Bradfield with Reno Dads on ensuring you have the best shot at having an incredible  – and safe – vacation.

We wish you the best on your vacation, wherever it may be. We want your experience to be wonderful and we want you and your family to get home as safe as possible. And please let us know where your journeys take you by following and tagging @RenoDads on Instagram and @RenoDadsBlog on Facebook!


Part I: Pre-trip Security Practices

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1. Threat Assessment

First, just take a moment to consider, “what are the most likely/realistic threats?” For example, if hiking in bear country, well, perhaps a whistle, bear repellent and/or 10mm handgun would be considered prudent “extras” to take along (if you actually train with and know how to use these items).

Oh, you don’t want to take your vacation in one of America’s great National Parks? Ok, let’s examine some other “dangers” you may encounter in the Urban Wilderness overseas: terrorism, hostage for ransom, and the most common threat, traditional criminal activity – robberies, muggings, pick pockets, crazy taxi drivers, extortion level museum prices…

2. Area familiarization

Visit the US State Department website for current country travel advisories, conditions, restrictions, and background information. The sites will also contain typical threats and tactics used by the local criminal population. It is very useful to know the tactics of common thieves, which vary by country, to protect against.

3. Communicate and Document Your Plans

Make sure someone back home has your exact itinerary and the ability to contact you wherever you go, even if it is just a hotel number. Buy a thumb drive which is able to be password encrypted and store copies of your passport, driver’s license, airline tickets, itinerary, and contact information for your hotels, Embassy, etc. As security is best when redundant systems are in place, email copies to yourself and provide them to your trusted contact back home. Overkill? Perhaps, but security redundancy typically is for a good reason and getting home to America is a nice way to end a trip.

4. Leave Your Jewelry At Home

If you would be heartbroken if your great grandmother’s family heirlooms were stolen, don’t take them. If it makes you look like a target (wealthy Westerner tourist), don’t take it. Your wedding ring is just a symbol, your marriage should last the week without your ring. So can your ego. This goes for nice watches too, gents.

5. Don’t Announce to the World Your Plans

Yes, your life is fabulous and you are going to [insert fancy location here], I get it. As much as your friends are interested in your trip, I am willing to bet they are more interested in your safety. “Friends of friends” is a standard Facebook security setting, which basically means your posts are virtually public.

6. Technology!

The cell phone is, in my opinion, the number one most important object you should have while traveling with your family. My absolute, number one priority while preparing for a trip is the ability to communicate wherever I vacation and having at my fingertips all the information needed for a safe, non-stressful trip. This is easily done in the States. But abroad? Much more challenging without proper planning. With modern smart phones you can piggyback on foreign cellular networks IF you have enabled this feature with your phone service. I always ensure my wife and I both have this capability and that we test our phones the second we get anywhere new.

Ensuring you have a data plan also allows you to send texts, emails, check Google/Apple Maps, and access contact information for every possible situation. And it spares you from paying for the ridiculously priced GPS at the rental car shop. Before you leave, store all contact information into your phone – hotel and rental car phone numbers, safe taxi phone numbers, Embassy phone number, etc.

Part II: Before You Leave The Hotel

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7. Basic Hotel Safety 101

Utilize your Do Not Disturb sign, make sure everyone in your party knows the evacuation routes of the hotel, avoid the first floor, avoid the top floor, don’t act like an arrogant jerk. The last is perhaps the most important tip when it comes to avoiding becoming a target, in general.

8. Situational Awareness Conversations

Before each venture out of the hotel, have a very basic “what do we do if we become (insert words like “stuck in our hotel during a fire; lost or separated; robbed; too drunk to find our way back to the hotel, etc.) and take a couple of minutes over your breakfast consisting of food no one back home would ever call “breakfast.” The more complicated the plan, the more you will mess it up, so K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid).

9. Get in the Proper Security Mindset

Prepare yourself for a culture and customs you are unfamiliar with and manage your expectations accordingly. Example – don’t just assume you can trust the locals or the police or housekeeping. Tourists are equal opportunity targets for everyone, even in first world countries.

10. Protect Your Money and Documents

Safeguard this stuff!

a) Keep a “throw away” wallet with a few bucks in your back pocket, but your real wallet/ID in your front. And don’t keep everything in just one pocket/location. Roll up some bills and stuff them in a sock for example. Check out Mark’s storage device for some added protection of your mission critical documents.

b) Also, make paper copies of your passport for use with the snotty hotel/cafe/travel dude who demands that your surrender your American passport.  Yes, the paper copy works just fine for their needs.

c) Take only what you really need. There is zero reason to bring your purse/wallet with 10 credit cards and all your other membership cards on vacation. Lighten your load, don’t risk losing everything, don’t risk compromising your security because you couldn’t leave your gym membership card at home.

11. Don’t Look Like A Tourist, Don’t Act Like A Jerk

If there is one trick that increases your odds not to be a target of a crime, this is it and it is also the most violated security practice. Anything that makes you stand out as a tourist makes you a target for petty crime (and even terrorism). The fanny pack? No. Not to mention horribly tacky. Being a loud and obnoxious American? I might rob you myself if I see you.

Also, dress appropriate to the environment you will be vacationing in. It may cost a little more, but go out and buy some local clothes (likely that just means jeans and a t-shirt or polo shirt) when you arrive if you need to blend in a little more. Dressing like a local means you don’t stand out as much (well, not until you start talking and taking pictures of everything you see with your super zoom camera lens) and stand a better chance of avoiding being made out as the easy “tourist” to fleece, rob, kidnap, murder, etc.

12. Technology, Again!

Use technology to your advantage. Set your phones so you can “ping” each others locations; mark the location of your hotel; take a picture of your kid before you leave the hotel so you have an exact photographic description of what he/she was wearing when you went out (could even take a picture of the bottom of their shoes if you want to get serious about it…).

Part III: Out and About

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13. Crowd Control

Crowds can be a funny thing, so just keep your guard up. If you are out visiting some ancient and amazing set of ruins or just some rusted metal tower, there are likely to be crowds. Large groups of people can work to your advantage or against you.  Terrorists like large crowds because they make targets. Pick pocket style thieves like large crowds as there are a lot of bustling, bumping and they can easily disappear. However, it’s a pretty safe bet that you are not going to physically abducted or robbed at gun point in a crowded, popular tourist site. That said, the entrance fees some tourist attractions charge sure feels like you are being robbed, so take that as you will!

14. Plan Your Route In Advance

Plan your route in advance. Have a basic sense of your itinerary and the day ahead. When you need to pull out a map, don’t do so in the middle of a busy area. You’ll invite good Samaritans to, uh, “help” you find your way. Get your bearings during a lunch break or duck into a convenience store. I understand many people just want to get out and get lost exploring, but there is no reason to not have a sense of your upcoming surroundings as a security practice.

15. Listen to Your “Spidey Senses”

Listen to your “Spidey Senses.” If that “authentic ancient artifact” a street merchant is heartbroken to let you have for “only” $300 seems to good to be true, well… This applies to so many other situations you will encounter while traveling. Sadly, you aren’t in America anymore and many other cultures have absolutely no problems stealing your money; driving you all around town and then demanding a million dollars in cab fees; asking you to come out drinking with them all night, then you wake up naked and penniless in some alley…

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