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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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 released 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.
▶ 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.