TEL AVIV, Israel – Before I hit the bike path for a long sightseeing excursion in this international hotspot, dressing down in muted colors, a nondescript baseball cap and a relatively cheap watch and shoes was as second nature to me as applying sunscreen.
As a longtime national security journalist who has traveled to some of the world’s grittiest corners, I learned long ago to make sure I’m that person who doesn’t stick out in a crowd and become a target for thieves, terrorists, or kidnappers – whether I’m on an assignment or a family vacation.
Central Intelligence Agency operatives on assignment overseas call it “being the gray man” who blends in and doesn’t alert the world to their American citizenship and all of the assumed wealth and baggage that can bring. I learned about this valuable safety tip during many “Hostile Environment Training” courses I’ve taken over the decades, including some I helped design for young journalists flying off to destinations overseas.
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Now that peak summer travel is here, I was already thinking of brushing up on my travel safety tips when preparing to come to Tel Aviv when I happened upon a new CIA web posting with advice from its officers on how to travel safely and with confidence.
The CIA is releasing these tips – or travel tradecraft, in spy parlance – as part of its ongoing effort to demystify its work in assisting the American public, according to agency spokesperson Walter Trosin.
I found the CIA's best practices, culled from the experience of its officers in the field, are exceptionally helpful, easy to adopt and especially relevant to Americans in these fraught times.
Here’s how to think like a spy on the ground overseas, with some annotation based on my travels as anything but an American James Bond:
Objective one: Getting there
► CIA tip: Make a paper and digital copy of your passport. While traveling abroad, it might literally be your ticket home if problems arise. If a hotel desk clerk asks to hold on to your passport, see if they’ll accept the paper copy. While you’re at it, write down some important phone numbers on the hard copy, including emergency contacts and the local U.S. embassy just in case.
Josh's tip: Email yourself the digital copy in case your phone goes missing along with your passport.
► CIA tip: Register with your embassy. Think of it as establishing communications with your home base. This enables embassy staff to contact you if there’s an emergency or unfolding crisis. U.S. citizens can also sign up with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
► CIA tip: Learn some local lingo. Bring a pocket guidebook or phone app so you can pick up key words and phrases.
Josh's tip: My go-to essentials include “thank you,” “please,” “hello,” “goodbye,” “yes/no,” “help,” “bathroom” and “police.” In worst-case scenarios, yelling out “no cash” helps if you believe you might be getting robbed, and “medic” and “hospital” if someone is hurt.
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► CIA tip: Know your destination. Bone up not just on travel books but also try to get a sense of the place and the geopolitical issues at play there. The CIA World Factbook is very helpful and publicly available for basic information. The CIA's World Factbook team also has created special travel briefings for many countries.
Josh's tip: Look up the State Department Travel Advisories for your destination, though they often tend to be overly scary and alarmist.
► CIA tip: Scout out local transportation. Upon arrival, ask an airport official or travelers’ aide how much it should cost to catch a public shuttle or taxi to your hotel. Check online sites too. Be sure to negotiate the taxi price before loading your baggage and getting inside. Only use cabs from the official queue – or ride-hailing services from official apps – that are clearly marked and have a functioning meter and the driver’s ID displayed inside.
Josh's tip: Ask ahead of time if they take credit cards or American currency. Even better, stock up on the local currency, preferably at an ATM where you can use a credit card that gets you a better rate than the money changers at the airport.
► Josh's tip: Keep all your luggage close. This is especially the case when getting to and from your hotel. Bags can disappear at the luggage carousel, the taxi stand, hotel lobby, or any number of other places.
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Objective two: Settling in
► CIA tip: Know your escape route from your hotel room too. Familiarize yourself with emergency evacuation plans. And do a run-through to determine how many doors there are between your room and the nearest stairwell. Could you find it in the dark? While holding your breath in a smoky haze?
► CIA tip: Use the elevator, unless it’s an emergency. Using the stairs may be great for exercise, but crimes frequently occur in isolated stairwells.
► CIA tip: Try to reserve a room on a middle floor. Being on the ground floor can leave you vulnerable to break-ins, but many countries’ emergency response personnel aren’t equipped to reach higher than a few floors off the ground.
Josh's tip: If you’re in a particularly strife-torn locale, consider a room in the back of the hotel if you’re worried about car bombs or terrorist attacks. And just know that in some hotspots, bad actors will target hotel restaurants and other places where tourists congregate.
► CIA tip: Lock it up. Automatic locks on hotel room doors can often be forced open, and the chains cut. Use the deadbolt if there is one. Better yet, invest in a cheap and easily portable rubber door stop; they work amazingly well.
► CIA tip: Beware of unsolicited knocks. Don’t open your hotel door unless you know or can verify who’s on the other side. Be especially wary of unrequested special delivery, maintenance calls, turndown service, or room service. Don’t be shy about calling the front desk to confirm.
Objective three: Going out and about
► CIA tip: Lock it down. Whether renting a car or taking a taxi, lock the doors and keep the windows rolled up if you sense any danger – or crowds. Carjackers and snatch-and-grab thieves often prey on simple mistakes like an open door or window.
► Josh's tip: When using Uber, Lyft and many other ride-hailing apps, make sure you are getting into the correct car. If something feels wrong, don’t get in.
► CIA tip: Stay alert. CIA officers (the real term for overseas spies, not agents) are trained to be highly attuned to their surroundings to constantly maintain situational awareness. Use all five senses to pay attention to what’s happening around you, and you’ll not only spot telltale signs if something is amiss but retain more of your destination’s unique atmosphere.
Josh's tip: You don’t always need to sit with your back to the wall like Jason Bourne but being able to see the entrances – and know the exits – is important if you need to get out quick.
► CIA tip: Be mindful when drinking adult beverages. Spies might swill martinis in the movies, but alcohol impairs alertness and judgment and could put you at risk, especially in an unfamiliar country. Learn the local customs and restrictions on alcohol consumption and follow them closely.
Josh's tip: Make sure you can see your drinks being poured and transported to you to make sure no one is adding any intoxicants. Avoid using or purchasing recreational drugs even if locals insist they’re safe and legal.
► CIA tip: Walk the walk. Your confident demeanor on the street is often the best deterrent against criminals. Be the gray man or woman and you won’t look like an easy target. Don’t attract attention by looking confused, lost, or distracted. Avoid poring over maps and phone apps in busy areas. And don’t be flashy. Flaunting extravagant watches and other personal items or cash will attract thieves and opportunists.
► CIA tip: Plan your route and reroute as necessary. Whether traveling by foot, car, or public or private transit, prepare in advance. Bone up on the potentially dangerous parts of town so you can avoid them. Don’t walk alone at night, stick to well-lit areas that aren’t too isolated if you can and know the number of the local authorities just in case. Avoid crowd commotion, as it could mean escalating danger or even a distraction designed to help someone target you.
Josh's tip: Carry an emergency whistle handy to scare off potential assailants.
With these tips, I spent the day biking throughout Tel Aviv and the nearby port of old Jaffa, home to a vibrant multiethnic community of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The city was on edge a bit due to a recent wave of terrorist attacks, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time chatting up the locals and sampling their food and drink knowing I was doing everything I could to stay safe.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is it safe to travel? How to think like a CIA spy while vacationing