Traveling for work can be sometimes a welcome alternative to sitting in an office day in, day out. But anyone who travels frequently will tell you that it has also it’s downsides. For one, it can be very tiring to constantly travel, after all you are not a tourist, you have work to do as anyone in an office has too, but you also have planes to catch, you do calls and online meetings in taxis between hotels and airports. You often respond to emails late in the evening in the hotel, in other words, days can be very long. If you are away a lot, you also miss out on social interaction with family, friends or colleagues, so it can be hard at times, even depressing. But traveling for work also comes with an increased risk for your personal safety, regardless where you travel to. Now let me ask you, have you ever really given it some deeper thought about your personal safety when traveling? I ask this, because I believe that most people actually don’t! I will therefore cover here first some very basic travel routines to what we would consider “safe” destinations. I will also address in more detail the issue of “high risk” traveling in a separate post.
So, even if your travel destinations don’t fall into the “high risk” category, there are still potential threats and dangers everyone should be aware of. It is not my intention to make traveling look like an mission impossible, I simply want to raise your awareness to some of the situations that have frequently happened to other travelers before and therefore a certain likelihood of repetition exists. Let’s start with the essential then, shall we? Before your travel check the current situation in the country, are there any severe weather conditions, health concerns and diseases or political situations that might lead to conflicts, civil unrest or protests. Familiarize yourself with the local customs, religion, worth of the local currency and learn at least a few basic words in the local language such as “hello” and “thank you”. Avoid speaking about political or religious subjects, that way you prevent getting in trouble by saying something wrong or provoking, that locals might find offensive.
The most valuable items you carry with you on a trip are usually your passport, credit cards, your laptop and your mobile phone. Without your passport you are stranded and probably won’t be able to leave the country, loosing your credit card might put you in the unpleasant situation that you can’t pay your hotel and other bills, the laptop usually contains sensitive company data and the mobile phone has become in the smart phone age the most vital personal item, as almost anything runs on an mobile app nowadays. Most people probably don’t even know their own phone number out of the head anymore, not to mention anyone else’s contact details. Now imagine yourself in the situation that you are somewhere in a foreign country and some of this essential items get lost or stolen. Do you realize in what kind of trouble you would be in? Therefore make copies of your travel documents and itineraries, keep them separate in different bags, ideally also leave copies back at home so someone can access them for you if needed. Taking a picture of your luggage before check-in, makes things a lot easier if your bags get lost.
Safeguarding your essential belongings
You probably think now that all is common knowledge, you don’t need a security expert to tell you that. True, I totally agree, my intention was simply to raise your awareness and give you some simple advice on how to avoid that such things happen to you. Personally, I like to travel light with only one bag I can always take with me on the plane. If I have to travel with more bags, all the important items are with me on the plane, that eliminates the risk of losing important items should my luggage get lost at the airport. I use a travel backpack which is very handy and it has so many nice pockets, but make sure you don’t put anything important in the little handy pockets on the outside of the bag. They are very tempting as they are so easy accessible, but unfortunately they are also for anyone else and you wouldn’t even feel if someone would open it standing behind you. Trust me, pickpockets are very proficient in what hey do and for those who think where they would possibly meet such a daring thief, well try to think like one for a moment. If you live in a country that is economically weak but is visited by a lot of foreign tourists and travelers, you would probably also come to the conclusion that they are perfect victims, because they all come loaded with money, credit cards, passports, smart phones and other valuables with them. Now can you think of a location where many of them hang around and are easy to identify? Ideally a very crowded place so it’s easy for you to blend in, somewhere where anyone has access to without any questions asked and with many exits making it easy for you to flee the scene safely. Do you know such a place? An airport, bingo!
So, for obvious reasons, except my laptop, I keep passport, wallet and phones always on me. I have a system in which pocket I put what, preferably inside jacket pockets that can be closed with a zipper, so nothing can fall out accidentally while getting out of the seats or reaching for bags. It is also very simple to check if everything is still there, as I know exactly where everything is supposed to be. Some people prefer to have a small travel bag they keep on them, that has become a “thing” nowadays for men lately, so if you find that handy, go for it. But, and here it comes of course, the special expert advice, if you keep all your credit cards in a wallet, loosing it would mean loosing it all. I like to take one out and put it in another place, maybe hide it inside your backpack, I also always have some emergency money there, some 30-50 EUR cash to be able to get to the hotel or somewhere in case I loose my wallet. If you have some old credit cards keep them in your wallet along with some small amount of cash which you can hand over in the event of you being mugged, keep your main (company) credit card separately in a different place.
I hope I don’t need to say that a travelers bag, including your backpack should have a label with your name and contact details on it. I wouldn’t necessarily put my address on there, I don’t think anyone “normal” would send my belongings to my home address. Also write your name and contact details on a note and leave it in your suitcase on top of your clothes, should the name tag on the luggage get lost or ripped off. If you lose your luggage, or let’s say someone steals it, takes out whatever valuable he finds inside it and then throws it away or leaves it, if you have your name, phone number and an email address on it, that should be enough to get in touch with you. If you work for a well know company, don’t use your business email address, because that might bring the thief to ideas digging deeper what valuable data might be on the laptop, etc. As for the phone, many people carry actually two phones with them, a private and a company phone. Due to company restrictions on the use of apps etc. a dual SIM phone is no solution for many of us, so you might have two, I do so too. Despite the hassle of carrying two phones, that is actually a good thing from a security perspective, that is of course if you don’t keep them together in the same travel bag. Make sure you copy the most important phone numbers on both phones, and also write all important contact numbers down somewhere, should your phone get stolen or lost, you need to be able to contact at least your superior, family members or colleagues, the corporate security line or dedicated SOS number, and eventually local authorities.
Hotel safety during your trip
When you are at the hotel, there is usually some CCTV installed and good hotels are well managed and really gives you that feeling of comfort and security, however, you should never rely on that! A big hotel might have hundreds of employees and they are usually not very well paid, especially when you travel to countries where the life standard is lower. If someone among the staff is dishonest, it is easy enough for them to figure out where potentially interesting customers are accommodated, how to avoid being caught on camera and even when you are outside the room. When people mention the term “organized crime” most people think of big and brutal criminal organizations. During my career I had the opportunity to discover several structured and very well organized little groups of employees, that had set up a very lucrative side business for themselves inside their companies, without anyone knowing for years! It is therefore important never to leave your valuables unattended in the hotel room, not even when you just go for breakfast or for a short drink at the hotel bar. Most decent hotels have a safe in the room and they are free to use, so use them! They are big enough to fit a few laptops, a camera or things like passports and wallets if you don’t need them and will successfully protect your belongings from thieves that just randomly try their luck. Should they manage to force open the safe, and they are not of the highest quality or are sometimes just attached to some furniture, you can at least say that you locked it all away. Should your belongings disappear from the hotel room and your manager asks you why you haven’t used the hotel’s safe, you won’t be able to explain that reasonable. By the way, that also applies to the wife and she has probably no technical knowledge what so ever. Should there be no safe in your room or it is not big enough for your laptop to fit, usually hotels have also a bigger safe somewhere beside the lobby and even if not, they have security on site and are certainly willing to look after your laptop, bag or whatever you might have with you that might be of some importance or value to you. The same rules also apply for leaving your bag in someones someones office, or maybe car, that one is really easy, DON’T! EVER!
Avoiding and getting out of trouble
When you travel alone, you miss the social contact and interaction with others, therefore any friendly contact with other travelers, hotel guest or locals might be a welcome distraction. However you should also always think about your personal safety, as you are a stranger and you don’t know who you might be dealing with and what their real intentions might be. Especially in some countries with lower standard, travelers from western countries are popular targets for all kind of local criminals who have perfected their methods to trick and exploit people like us. Therefore don’t tell strangers who you really are, no specifics about what you do for work and even who you work for, as this might attract people who see an opportunity in that. Also avoid bringing any labeled company clothing with you or having dozens of company stickers all over your laptop, a very popular thing within the IT sector. Ideally have some kind of cover story for traveling, so when socializing you have something to talk about without exposing details about the nature of your work. Keep it simple and believable, pick something you are very familiar with, either from prior work experience or a hobby, so your cover story can uphold to deeper conversation over a few drinks, or eventually even questioning under pressure. I do the same, my hobby is my cover story, I don’t even have to make anything up at all. I can talk for hours passionately about that, I even do have business cards and social media accounts that match all that too.
What to do if trouble finds you after all?
Potential troubles might be getting involved in some dispute with some locals either due to some misunderstanding, often related to alcohol and drug consumption or the presence of women, or you might being set up deliberately. In most cases they are just after some financial gain, if you give them something they might be satisfied and move on. Should a fight break out, protect yourself and try to escape, be aware that criminals are easy on using weapons like knifes, therefore any physical conflict can escalate fast and become life threatening. Should you for example get confronted with an armed robbery, don’t resist, give them what they are asking for. If you have separated your credit cards and some cash, you have only lost a bit of money. In case you get injured or also in case of serious illness you should seek medical assistance! Also have an emergency plan worked out, should something happen, know who you have to notify first, what your priorities are, where do you go? If your company provides a certain emergency procedure, make sure you know what you are supposed to do. One of the worst case scenarios certainly is getting kidnapped! This is a very traumatic experience as it might include physical and psychological abuse. I will cover this and high risk travel in general in a separate post, so follow my blog for more security advice. I hope you liked it, if so, please leave a like and if you think it’s worth sharing, please feel free and do so, I appreciate that a lot.