Stay Safe While Travelling
Situational awareness (SA) is a conscious effort to remain vigilant of your surroundings, understand the norms for those surroundings and be alert to deviations from them. Travel brings unique challenges to practicing SA as you are frequently in unfamiliar areas, transition spaces, confined areas, or in locations with restricted entrances and exits. Since you are out of your norm (your comfort zone), it is more important than ever to be intentional with your SA.
A Typical Trip:
Before you go, you are excited. Tickets are booked. Bags packed. Dogs dropped off at the kennel. Facebook posts about impending trip made. And you head out the door.
What? You posted on your social media “So excited to spend a week in paradise with the love of my life!!!!” You might as well have posted: “I’m leaving my house empty for the next week.” I have seen posts where folks detailed where they are going, who they are going with, how long they will be gone, etc. I have also noted alerts about check-ins from the airport (I’ve seen seasoned intelligence professionals do this), passport information, actual tickets and frequent flyer information. Don’t do this. Tell your close friends personally that you are traveling; but wait until you are back before you tell the entire social media universe.
Things to DO and WHY:
BEFORE YOU LEAVE:
TO DO: Make sure you leave a copy of your itinerary and contact information with someone you trust. You actually do need someone to know where you are going and when you are going to be home. Also, register with the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) program.
WHY: It will allow the local Consulate or Embassy at your destination to keep you informed of any significant issues occurring there.
TO DO: I recommend traveling with a copy of your birth certificate, a 3x5 card with pertinent bio information (meds, allergies, insurance information, emergency contact information, etc.) as well as a copy of your passport and any pertinent visa pages. Keep these items separate from where you keep your passport.
WHY: In the event your passport gets lost, you will want these as your backups. Additionally, the bio information will help if you are incapacitated in an accident and unable to provide any personal information.
TO DO: Make sure you have a small, reliable flashlight in your carry-on (with spare batteries).
WHY: Most hotel hallways and stairwells are poorly lit, especially in an emergency. A flashlight may come in handy.
TO DO: If you are not certain that things you regularly carry with you are legal where you are going, then leave them at home.
WHY: You will be held accountable to the laws of your destination, whether you know or agree with them. Certain over-the-counter medicines in the U.S. are controlled substances elsewhere, likewise, a simple pocket knife common in the U.S. may be a felony level possession issue elsewhere (looking at you UK).
TO DO: And on the subject of what else to leave behind, I would urge you not to take your fanciest jewelry with you when traveling.
WHY: No point in making yourself a bigger target by flashing bling; you also increase the risk of just losing something important to you.
IN THE TERMINAL:
TO DO: Airport terminals (and likewise, bus stations, train stations, metros, etc.) are all known as transitional spaces. Lots of transient individuals passing through, often dressed or carrying items for the environment they are traveling to, not necessarily where they are. Therefore, assessing this environment for the norm can be very difficult.
WHY: Bad guys know this and take advantage of it (see the Ariana Grande Manchester bombing).
TO DO: Once you get to the terminal, there is little value in hanging around outside of security.
WHY: The threat environment is higher there as an overwhelming number of terror attacks have taken place on the outside of security. Virtually everything you need (food, drinks, bathrooms, souvenirs) can usually all be found on the other side of security.
TO DO: While checking in, make sure you keep physical contact with your luggage (i.e. between your legs) or have your travel partner watch your bag.
WHY: It’s too easy for a criminal to take your luggage while all your attention is focused on the clerk helping you check in.
TO DO: Look for unattended packages.
WHY: The Boston Marathon bombing and other attacks used this tactic. Report them to security if you see them. Honestly, don’t agree to carry a package through security or on board for someone you don’t know and trust.
If an event happens in a terminal, understand the difference between cover (hiding) and concealment (protection). Seek out columns and solid walls to shelter during an event. Tables, bars and gate desks only hide you. They don’t provide any protection.
ON THE PLANE:
TO DO: When it comes to airline crashes, the safest place on the plane is a middle seat in the back third of the aircraft.
WHY: Middle seats might not be the most comfortable, but they are the safest. More important though is paying attention to the safety briefing and knowing where the emergency exits are.
TO DO: Avoid window seats.
WHY: Your freedom of movement is most restricted, making access to exit rows problematic.
TO DO: Minimize your alcohol intake on the flight.
WHY: It slows reaction times, lowers inhibitions, and may put you to sleep. Alcohol will affect you more strongly in the air than it does on the ground.
TO DO: Keep track of your belongings on the plane. Try to place them in a bin near your seat; don’t just grab the first available space up front thinking it will be easier when you de-plane. Don’t just put your carry-ons in the overhead and forget about them.
WHY: Theft on airplanes does happen (other passengers, flight attendants, and criminal gangs have all been responsible).
TO DO: Place your bags at your legs under the seat in front of you.
WHY: Even though you want the leg room, placing your bag there will be more secure than in the overhead compartment.
TO DO: Be cautious about using the outer pockets of your bags for your valuables.
WHY: Those are the easiest places for a bad actor to access. Use locks on your carry on. I know it’s inconvenient, but it makes it harder for bad guys too. Remember, one tenet of security is making yourself less attractive as a target than others.
TO DO: Maintain good elicitation awareness while on your travels. Elicitation is a method of extracting personal or professional information from someone.
WHY: Your seat mates are probably just other vacationers or business travelers like you, but be cautious about how much information you provide. Long airline flights provide a sort of forced (but false) shared intimacy. Be wary of pseudo-bonding with fellow travelers and as a result provide them personal information that they really don’t need. I’ve been shocked at what folks are willing to share with me, a total stranger, when I’ve been traveling - information that absolutely could have been used criminally by the wrong person.
TAKE AWAY MESSAGES:
Remember, travel brings with it challenges to our situational awareness. Transitional spaces, unfamiliar areas, restrictions on self-defense items all conspire against us. Don’t advertise your itinerary or personal information, either on social media or to fellow travelers previously strangers to you. Pay attention to your surroundings in transitional spaces and get to the other side of security quickly. Think about potential improvised weapons. You are responsible for your own protection and your brain remains your best weapon. Prepare yourself, plan for emergencies, and observe the environment around you so you can act/react accordingly.