While Liam Neeson can take out roughly one bad guy per second in a foreign country, your situational awareness is more limited. To you, being prepared means having a Wet One handy or a bag of Goldfish crackers in your pocket. To Jason Hanson, a 6-year veteran of the CIA and author of Spy Secrets That Could Save Your Life, preparedness while traveling abroad means protecting your family. So when you head out on that European vacation (or an all expenses paid trip to Kabul), you may need to pull out a particular set of skills that has nothing to do with one-handed diaper changing.
Establish Some Baseline Knowledge
Let’s say you’re traveling to Egypt. Long before you ever set foot in the country, you’re going to need to do some research. It’s not Googling, “What’s the difference between camels and dromedaries,” it’s “What are local customs that I need to know so I don’t look like an ugly American?” Hanson says the more you know about what you’re doing, the less likely thieves and other bad dudes will identify you as an easy target.
“It all starts with pre-planning, because every country is different,” says Hanson. “You want to know what that country is like; what do people wear in that country? “It’s called a ‘baseline.’” Let that research influence your packing. “Make sure there’s no clothing that’s offensive and makes you stick out,” he says.“No identifying info on your clothes or even your kids’ clothes. You basically don’t want anything that suggests you’re an American citizen.” Pro tip: Leave that “Make America Great Again” hat in the carry-on.
Stash Your Info
While you want to know about a country, you don’t want them to know much about you. Hanson said intelligence officials in other countries, even America’s allies, are always interested in folks from the States. “In most countries, when an American checks out of their hotel, intelligence services will raid their room afterward. France is notorious for doing this; they think every American is a spy.”
One of the best ways to keep your information to yourself is to leave the electronics at home. Buy cheap international phones and SIM cards for the trip. If you have to bring a laptop, make sure it’s as clean as the day you bought it — that means no stored passwords, browsing history, saved credit cards, etc. As for access to details that you might need while in the country, like hotel information or the U.S. Embassy’s phone number, write it down in a notebook. That’s like an iPhone, but 100 times cheaper.
Lock The Doors
Think about the last time locked the doors when you got in a taxi. You can’t. Hanson says most carjackings happen because nobody hits the lock button, and it’s too easy just yank you out. So hit the lock button when you take a car anywhere. And if it’s your Uber driver trying to rip you off — 4 stars.
Keep Control In Crowds
Tourists go to museums or monuments, which means you’re going to be standing in some crowded places. When you find yourself among the masses, do your best to keep near the outside to avoid getting trapped. Keeping an eye on your kids goes without saying, but you’re also going to want to take a photos for more than just posterity.
“Take pictures of each of your kids before you go out, so if something does happen, you can say ‘here’s my son, here’s what he’s wearing today.’,” says Hanson. As for babies and toddlers, just keep them strapped in a stroller or to your body so there’s no chance to get away.
Don’t Be A Hero (Unless You Have To)
The odds are slim that you’ll be caught in a dangerous situation, but Hanson says that when the shit goes down, your first instinct is absolutely correct: run. “Of course it’s always case by case, but let’s say you’re in a large museum and you hear gunshots,” explained Hanson. “You have time to run with your family, and that’s exactly what you should do.”
If you think your second option is to curl into the fetal position, snap out of it. Fighting back is the the next move — Neeson style. “Where people make mistakes is when the shooter enters a small space, and people freeze. The shooter gets the chance to talk; ask people about their religion, things like that. They should never have time to do that. If you’re in a confined space with nowhere to go, you have to charge them and take them down in whatever way possible. You could throw a chair. You could throw your wallet to distract him,” says Hanson, who also says to take off your socks. Seriously.
“Take a sock and fill it with pennies, or drop a full can of soda into a sock.” It might look stupid, but Hanson says it’s your fastest, most effective improvised weapon. Leave fashioning a crossbow out of a paperclip and some shoelaces to MacGyver.