By this time of year, I just want to be somewhere warm. Airports here in Chicago and across the country are packed as snowstorms cause havoc with air routes – and with business travel schedules and overseas vacation plans. One of the areas I care very deeply about is international travel security, for our clients, of course, and for my family and friends as well.   Here are the top 12 strategies to keep in mind if you are planning to travel out of the country.

International Travel Security: Beyond Executive Protection, What Can We All Do? 

I spend a lot of time helping corporate security teams advance best practices in protecting their organization’s chairman, board members and Chief Executive Officer.  Last month, the client team I was supporting asked a great question – one that pushed the edges of our mandate to help protect this Fortune 100’s executive team but still represented a critical issue for the enterprise. “What about the executives or employees who do not rate executive protection resources but nevertheless travel the world on behalf of our organization?”

While we guided the client toward best practices in employee travel security – such as “duty of care” obligations, global threat monitoring and assessment, rapid location and communication with employees, and online travel intelligence – there are tips here that can benefit others.  Whether you travel and for whatever reason – personal, family or business – follow these precautions.  They cost little to nothing to employ, but could save your life.

·        Step #1 – Check out the U.S. Department of State’s website:  Before traveling, go to www.state.gov.  Look for specific travel warnings and advisories related to the region you plan on visiting.  A lot of great information can be gleaned from this website – everything from vaccinations to visa requirements, to generalized precautions specific to the destination.  Make sure you write down the address and phone numbers for the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate.  Know their physical locations.  In the event of a crisis, seek support from these places first. 

·      Step #2 – Become the newest member in the STEP program: While on the State Department’s website, enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  This program is a free service provided by the U.S. government to U.S. citizens traveling to, or living in, a foreign country.  STEP allows you to enter information about your trip abroad so that the Department of State can better assist you in an emergency. 

·      Step #3 – Consult the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) site: Now visit the U.S. Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council pages.  These are designed to help American businesses conducting work overseas with travel information to avoid disruptions by notifying travelers about changing risks around the world.  OSAC provides updated information addressing specific incidents of crime and unrest in areas that could have economic impact on American businesses and western travelers. 

·      Step #4 – Call your doctor and ask if specific vaccinations may be required: Depending on where you plan to go, you may need to acquire vaccinations before your departure.  The State Department’s website should offer insight on common illnesses and vaccinations.  Some U.S. hospitals have a department dedicated to travelers and can offer recommendations for hospitals in the region in case you fall ill.  The local U.S. Embassy can also offer these insights.  Nevertheless, make sure you see a physician and obtain the needed vaccinations with enough time to make them effective before you travel.  For example, the incubation period for the yellow fever vaccine is ten days, so don’t wait until the day before your trip to make the appointment.  The same goes for malaria!

·     Step #5 – Make sure your office or a family member has your travel itinerary: This should include the confirmation numbers and addresses where you will be staying.  It is also a good idea to leave a copy of your passport with your office or family and to have one stored in your room safe.  It will make it a lot easier for the State Department to replace a lost or stolen passport if you have a copy with you, or if one can be scanned or faxed to them.

·      Step #6 – Avoid driving yourself: Transportation can be challenging in many countries!  A holdover from the now historical British Empire required that many of its now Commonwealth partners continue to drive on the “wrong” side.  Trust me when I tell you that the novelty of driving on the wrong side wears off rather quickly.  It’s a cold rush of fear when muscle memory kicks in and you find yourself accidentally driving on the “right” side!  Additionally, a local driver will serve as a good tour guide and can get you to wherever you need to go quickly.  Precautions should still be taken, like finding an insured and licensed driver who operates a safe and clean vehicle.  The driver should be able to speak English and should be vetted by a trusted third-party authority or firm.  The local U.S. Embassy or Consulate should be able to offer recommendations.  If you must use a taxi, in most countries it is not advisable to hail a cab.  Instead have your hotel or restaurant call for one.

·      Step #7 – Ask for hotel room reservations between the third and fifth floors: Typically room burglaries occur below the third floor, and the fifth floor is about as high as the local fire department will be able to reach you with their trucks.  Avoid rooms directly across from the elevator or next to the fire escape.  These are the first to be targeted by thieves.

·     Step #8 – Get good at “blending in:” The most common travel precaution is to not stand out.  In my experience, even in countries that take a dim view of the United States government, common citizens will often not carry a grudge against Americans.  But, don’t push your luck!  Don’t dress in a way that suggests personal wealth or displays fashion or travel accessories that are well beyond the means of the population or that may offend local citizens.  What this means is it might be customary for women to wear a headscarf, or for men to wear long pants.  If this is the case, do so.  Don’t fight the societal norms and try to keep a low profile.

·      Step #9 – Keep your valuables close – and your information even closer: Maybe you are diligent in keeping your handbag in front of you.  But do you turn the clasp to the inside?  And if it is grabbed, do you know to let it go?  Watch for jostling in crowds, where pickpockets thrive.  Cover your fingers when using telephone cards or ATMs.  And restrict the sharing of your travel plans and timing to a need-to-know basis.

·      Step #10 –Safeguard your Passport and other key identification papers – You should have multiple copies that you keep in different locations: on your person, in your luggage, online and in the cloud, and with family and friends.  Take a picture of these documents and keep a copy in your phone. 

·      Step #11 – Never assume your licensed instructor is actually licensed: Ever check up on the validity of your primary physician’s med school diploma? Few do.  But don’t overlook this check-the-box exercise overseas – especially if you plan to entrust your safety, or that of your family, to them.  Think scuba diving, mountain climbing, and chartering private vessels.  Change how you think.  I’ve been responsible for protectees in some countries where police uniforms allow criminals to approach your party – and others where the real policing authorities drive run-down, smoke-spewing vehicles.

·     Step #12 – Identify in-country medical support and hospital locations – When you consult the OSAC and State Department websites, look up their recommendations for in-country medical providers and treatment centers.  Then, after you have arrived, and once you have determined where you are going to establish your temporary residence – such as your hotel or apartment – identify the quickest routes to the hospital.  

Travel Safely

Following these will go a long way toward keeping you secure during your travels.  If you have additional best practices in international travel security, please share these with me below. 

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