By Steve Lawson
I can say that in almost 30 years of travel, I have never had an issue, and I have travelled to a few places that could be described as less than desirable. I have lost one bag, when I was on my way to New York to handle Qantas’ on-ground response to September 11 and I did not have a ticket for one sector. I have had one bag broken and that was by New Zealand Customs, who decided they needed to get into my locked bag so they broke the locks and it was never the same. They kindly left a note for me but never paid to repair the lock, which was annoying.
However, there are some simple things to consider when it comes to travel security. What is the first thing you should do?
Do Some Research
I do not mean just looking at things to see and tourist attractions, but look at sites like Smartraveller (smartraveller.gov.au) and the UK equivalent (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice). It takes 10 minutes to check both and they provide good advice. On the Smartraveller site, you can register your trip so that the Government knows to contact you in the event of an emergency in that destination – for example, the recent New Zealand earthquake, or an attack such as September 11.
It does not matter if you are only travelling from Sydney to Melbourne for your holiday, get travel insurance! If you travel regularly, get an annual policy, but at least use the check box offering insurance when you buy a ticket.
- Buy a bag that is suitable for the travel you do.
- I buy good bags because I travel a lot and they last. I do not buy bags because they are status symbols. But if you do not intend travelling a lot, go to Big W, Kmart, Target or a discount luggage shop and get a bargain.
- Even if you travel a lot, do not buy expensive bags. If your bag stands out as being ‘expensive’ then thieves (who are not stupid) may target it.
- I do not lock my bag to stop thieves; the bag, not the contents, should be the most expensive thing you check in. The most basic rule of travel – do not put anything that you do not want to lose into checked baggage! There is a valid argument that locking bags prevents people putting narcotics or other prohibited items into your bag, but that is more than rare. If you use a zipped bag they can be opened and closed so that you would never know someone has been inside. If you do lock a zipped bag, you need to make sure the slider (pull tab) does not move. The locks on some modern bags fix them in place, but some soft-sided bags have multiple zips. You should fasten them to a fixed point (like a handle) on your bag. You do not need to use anything fancy or expensive – zip ties work, but I would make sure you can identify your zip tie by marking it with nail polish or something similar.
- Put a ribbon or coloured bag tag on your bag so that you can recognise it easily. It not only makes it quicker to get the bag off the arrivals carousel, but it means that you can see if someone tries to steal the bag off the carousel.
I do not do this but I should. Keep a checklist of your valuables, even if it is on your phone or tablet. When I checkout, I always do two walk arounds and look everywhere, including drawers that I did not use, to make sure I have not left anything. To be completely frank, I do not unpack my bag unless I am in a room for more than a week. A checklist is a good way to make sure that you have accounted for all your items before checking out.
General Security Advice
- Always be aware of your surroundings. It is not possible to teach situational awareness in this article, but a couple of pieces of advice:
- Look around – there is no hard and fast rule about who is acting suspiciously, but if someone keeps looking at you, and like me you are not the most attractive person in the area, avoid that person. He or she may only be trying to sell you something, but avoid him.
- Know where your exit points are and, where possible, make sure there is more than one.
- Areas to avoid:
- Stay away from the immediate environs of Western diplomatic missions, including embassies, high commissions, consulate generals and consulates, unless you have a reason to visit.
- Stay away from ‘seedy’ parts of town, such as red light districts.
- Do not go near political gatherings and demonstrations; they may appear benign, but they can turn violent quickly.
- Choose entertainment and shopping venues carefully – venues with a higher level of visible security are generally safer than venues with no, or obviously poor, security as criminals and terrorists are more likely to attack the ‘softer’ target.
- Things not to do:
- Photography of police and military infrastructure and personnel is not recommended. In many places, photography of public buildings, ports, airports or bridges is also not recommended.
- Do not look too wealthy – avoid conspicuous displays of wealth such as expensive clothing, flashy jewellery, electronics or displaying large amounts of cash (bearing in mind, what we may consider a small amount of money may be a considerable fortune to others). Only take with you items that you are prepared to lose.
- Watch out for strangers ‘offering help’ or ‘needing help’.
- Try not to travel on your own, it is best to be part of a group. That does not mean a tour group, but if you become friends with people during your travel, stay as a group. Look to join tours provided by your agent or the hotel. To be blunt, many are rip-offs because they take you to businesses associated with them where they get a cut, but they are usually safer than randomly wandering on your own. An alternative is to offer a cab driver a day rate – some of the best tours I have had were in cabs where I negotiated a day rate. That included a great tour of San Francisco, so try it in first world countries as well.
- Having said to use cabs, do not hail them in many third world or developing countries. It is best to use vehicles pre-booked by the hotel rather than hailing them in the street. This is important at the airport. Be aware that in many places the cab can be a shared ride and the drivers may stop to collect people until the cab is full.
- Make sure it is a cab – do not hop in unless you see a working meter, and check that door and window handles work before you close the doors.
- Local customs:
- When you research your trip, make sure you look at what is acceptable behaviour. That may include what is acceptable dress. I have been in a shopping centre with a police officer who reminded some Western girls that they should dress modestly. In many countries, men should not touch women or be alone with them and, in several places, homosexuality is illegal.
- Be careful what you say or write. In some countries, you can be prosecuted for insulting the country, its people – particularly its leaders – or its flag.
- Drinking and alcohol:
- Watch out for ‘tourist drugging’ and other drink spiking. If alcohol is consumed, the preferred alcohol is beer or wine from sealed bottles that are opened in your presence.
- Drinks (including water) should only be consumed from closed and sealed bottles, including in hotel bars. Opened bottles and glasses should not be left unattended at any time. If they are, discard the contents.
- Things to do:
- You must carry a form of ID with you always. I do not leave my passport in the hotel – I always carry it with me and keep it in my front pocket.
- Keep photocopies of your passport and drivers licence separately to where you keep those documents.
- If someone does brush against you and you think you have been pickpocketed, do not automatically check one pocket for your wallet. That just signals where you keep your valuables.
- Beware that in some places thieves may pose as police officers or private security guards. Always ask to see identification.
- If you go out, make sure someone knows where you are going and when you can be expected to return.
- Make sure that you have the phone numbers of the hotel and anyone in your group programmed in your phone.
- Ensure your mobile phone is always charged.
- Leave your valuables in your room safe or the hotel safety deposit box.
- Take care using ATMs or money exchanges. People may be observing and noting the amount of money you are carrying – go inside a bank or convert money at your hotel.
- You are responsible for the security of your baggage while checking in or out of a hotel –ensure that it is under constant supervision.
- If you are unfortunate enough to be the victim of crime, do not put up a fight. Do as the person says.
- Maintain a small ‘emergency kit’ to hand when staying in hotels in case there is a fire, earthquake or other emergency or where electricity supplies are unreliable. This should consist of at least a torch, a whistle, a bottle of water and some food.
It seems a long list of do nots, especially from someone who says he has had almost 30 years of travelling without an issue, but if you look at the article, almost all is common sense and, other than the checklist, things I mostly do. Have a great trip, wherever you go.
Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. He is a director of AvSec Consulting, which provides aviation consulting, along with tailored travel and security advice for individuals and organisations (www.idealintelligence.com). Steve can be contacted via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0404685103.