Whether you’ve got eight hours or a couple of days, and whether you see them as a perk or a pestilence, layovers are a fact of life for commercial and corporate aircrews. In this article, Mac Segal draws on decades of experience in facilitating secure travel for CEOs and high net worth individuals to move the usual focus on places to see and eat to personal security. While no advice completely eliminates risk, these easy-to-follow tips are proven ways to mitigate risk as you explore a new city.
Before you fly, a little preparation goes a long way. Flight crews, who are no strangers to pre-flight checklists, should add another little routine before a layover: spending a few minutes on enhancing their personal safety. Here are a few points you will want to start checking off – if you don’t already do so.
Determining travel risk is a pretty subjective affair. Individuals, organisations, and even countries all evaluate the relative safety of destinations in different ways. Still, if you’re going to a new country or city – or even to one that you have been to before (familiarity can bring with it a sense of security that is not always well-founded), we think it’s a really good idea to do at least some simple pre-trip research online.
For good introductory English-language government resources, check out the US Department of State’s travel advisories, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advisories, or Australia’s Smart Traveler advisories. Most countries offer something similar.
The U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) travel warnings are even better researched and more detailed. While not exactly ‘breaking news’, OSAC briefs are fairly up-to-date and always useful. Check out their ‘Crime and Safety Reports’ and ‘Analyses’ in particular.
And before you leave, remember to give someone back home all your itinerary information as well as contact information for hotels and transportation providers.
Make sure your cellphone works at your destination
…and that using it won’t break the bank
If you don’t have a compatible phone or a plan that offers calls, texts, and data at reasonable prices at your destination, either change your phone plan or purchase a local SIM card and a cheap phone as soon as you arrive. Especially in high-risk areas, reliable communications are paramount to your safety. Additionally, no matter where you go, some smart googling can reduce risk in addition to saving you time and money.
Plan local ground transportation ahead of time
…and be sure to use it thoughtfully once you get there
Safe ground transportation is often the weakest link in terms of travel safety. Although being mugged is a possibility anywhere – albeit more likely in some places than others – traffic accidents are the single biggest risk facing most travellers.
While airport-city-airport transportation is almost always prearranged for commercial flight crews, that’s not necessarily the case for private air crews. In any case, if you do need transportation from the airport to the city, do your research and choose a specialist company that will provide you with the (vetted, properly insured) vehicle and driver details (telephone number, picture, name) in advance. Don’t let the driver stand in the airport waiting for you with a sign broadcasting your name or your company’s logo. Instead, make something up: Bob, ABC Imports, whatever. You don’t want to draw attention to the fact that you work for ‘ACME TECH’ as that may make you a target.
Ground transportation during downtime is a whole different story. In some countries, public transportation, ride-hailing apps, and taxis are all fine. In others, you’ll want to set up a vehicle and a driver before you depart. Before you leave, make an informed decision about how you will get around town and to any other nearby sites on your bucket list during your layover. If you need to do this while on the road, or to book local ground tours, be sure to do this through your hotel or some other reputable company. While you do want to save your hard-earned money, you don’t want to risk your safety by finding the absolute cheapest way to get to your sightseeing destination.
“…flight crews, who are no strangers to pre-flight checklists, should add another little routine before a layover…”
Here are a few more tips on safety and ground transportation:
- In higher risk locations, before announcing yourself to the driver it is prudent to call them and watch the person with the sign so you can confirm that the person standing with the sign is the one who answers.
- When you approach the driver, ask them where they are taking you. If they have been sent to pick you up, they should know. If they don’t know, ask what company they are from or who sent them, once more to verify they are the right person.
- If the driver was ordered for you, then under no circumstances should you agree to share the vehicle with others you do not know. Even if the driver says he ‘just needs to drop his friend at the airport exit’, tell them you do not agree.
- Ensure that you have your destination address with you in the car and turn on a navigation app on your phone (remember what we said about cellphones and data?). If the driver isn’t going in the right direction, ask why.
- Do not share information with any driver about who you work for, whether you are traveling alone, what your plans are, etc. Be polite, ask questions about the city, but keep your business to yourself.
- Tell the driver what you think if your gut tells you the driver isn’t driving as safely as he or she should be. If the driver is going too fast, talking on a cellphone, or doing anything else you don’t find safe, go ahead and point it out. Your gut is usually right. And the customer always has the right to express a polite opinion on how a paid service is being delivered.
- In certain countries, if the unthinkable happens (and yes, it happens), and the driver gets into an accident, leave the scene and get to a police station ASAP. I know this goes against everything you’ve learned before, but do it. In some places, accidents draw a crowd that quickly turn into an angry mob – with you sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of it. It’s better to sort things out in the relative safety of a local police station.
“…don’t let the driver stand in the airport waiting for you with a sign broadcasting your name or your company’s logo…”
Choose the right hotel
The single most important thing you can do to ensure your all-round safety at a hotel is to choose the right hotel. Of course, airlines make this decision on behalf of their aircrews, and we can only assume that crew safety ranks somewhere near the top of selection criteria along with convenience and cost.
But if you are on your own for whatever reason, you will basically never have the information necessary to determine a hotel’s overall security level by checking its website. You won’t know how they set up a security perimeter and maintain its integrity; you’ll have no idea how they vet or train staff; you’re probably not even interested in learning about all the food-borne pathogens that they keep out of your breakfast.
The one thing you can do is to choose a hotel that’s part of a large, successful international chain, just as major airlines usually do. Sorry to all of those charming bed and breakfasts and wonderful boutique hotels; many of you do a great job at all kinds of things, but as security consultants, we like the standardisation and follow-up that the big chains bring to the task. The majors apply the same standards regardless of whether the hotel is in East Africa or on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Everything else being equal, these places are going to be a safer bet when you’re off the beaten track. This is especially important if you are in an unfamiliar city where security is a concern.
…then be a smart guest
Hotels are interesting places full of contrasts and security pitfalls. On the one hand, they are oases for foreign travellers; on the other hand, they are relatively open local landmarks where foreigners and locals greet, meet, and eat together.
“…never leave your drink out of sight in a hotel bar – drink spiking happens to women and men every day…”
Even the best hotels have to maintain a fine balance between a laissez-faire attitude toward guest freedom and watertight security. After all, while you obviously want to stay safe, you don’t want to have a business associate or friend strip-searched to join you for a breakfast meeting, and whom you let into your room has to be up to you. At the same time, hustlers and hucksters of all stripes, especially in countries where income differences are extreme, can and do exploit hotels’ open-door policies to find easy markets. This includes blackmail scams by escort services.
Good hotels have their own discreet ways of identifying and dealing with unscrupulous folks on the make and will always try to ensure that guests aren’t taken advantage of. But even in good hotels, bad things happen to good people – and a few simple precautions are in order:
- Always leave the do-not-disturb sign on the door when you are in your room.
- Keep your hotel door locked and chained/bolted, and never open it to a stranger. If there’s a knock, ask who’s there and what they want; call the front desk if you’re in doubt. If you didn’t order room service, there’s no good reason for it to show up at your door.
- Keep your room neat and tidy – and your uniform out of harm’s way. That way it will be easier to notice if someone has moved or looked through your things.
- Don’t broadcast your name or your room number and try not to mention them together to anyone. In a hotel, knowing a guest’s name and room number opens up all kinds of potential security breaches; minimise the chance of these by sharing your name and room number quietly and sparingly.
- In addition to protecting your company uniform, keep a special eye on your crew ID. Under no circumstances should you leave crew ID in hotel rooms unattended.
- Your hotel safe isn’t safe. Best advice: don’t bring anything on a trip that you really can’t afford to lose. Next best advice: keep your passport, crew ID, and other key documents/valuables with you at all times if possible; hide them in a non-obvious, seldom-cleaned place in your room if you must; or leave them at the front desk and the hotel’s safe – in exchange for a signed receipt – if you really have to. Lock your laptop to some furniture if you are leaving it in your room.
- Don’t stand in front of your hotel with all of your bags. This announces your plans to leave the safe confines of the hotel and allows criminals who rob travellers for a living to make plans of their own. Leave your bags inside the hotel if you need to check outside if your car has arrived. Better yet, stay in the lobby and have someone from the hotel do the checking.
- Don’t make yourself vulnerable to strangers. Notice we didn’t go all the way and say, “Don’t talk to strangers.” But since hotels are inherently open places, do be aware that not everyone you meet there will have your best intentions in mind. Never leave your drink out of sight in a hotel bar – drink spiking happens to women and men every day. Don’t share your name and room number. Keep your itinerary and plans to yourself unless you are really sure of whom you are talking with.
- Be careful about exchanging organizational gossip, security protocols, or other in-company issues in hotel bars and restaurants where crew are known to gather. You never know who might be listening in.
Know what to do in case of fire
The most likely emergency you’ll run into at a hotel is a fire. Rather than worry about it, be prepared. We assume you’re already staying in the kind of hotel that has smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system.
We can’t cover all the aspects of hotel security in one short article, but these are some great starting points:
- Pack a small flashlight/torch or headlamp. This can come in handy in all kinds of situations, so keep it handy.
- Book the right room. Sad but true, in many developing countries, fire departments have neither ladders that will reach the upper floors nor helicopters to airlift you off the roof. So, maybe that room with a great view on the 18th floor isn’t the best choice. The ground and first floor are more accessible to thieves. Hence the third floor is good; 2-4 are OK; anything above that might be problematical in a pinch. Rooms near fire exit stairwells are the best.
- Know your escape route. Go ahead, take a few seconds to study that sign on the room door that you never look at; count the number of doors between you and the nearest stairwell. It’ll keep your mind sharp and just might come in handy.
- If you are stuck in smoke, stay low – really low. Keep your mouth and nose as close to the floor as possible when in a smoke-filled room. We mean within two inches of the floor, not just ‘sort of low’. It can save your life.
- Know how the fire alarm sounds. Ask at the front desk. If you do hear it and you’re in your room, leave immediately, bringing your room key and the flashlight/torch that you left next to your bed, and make for the nearest stairs.
- If you can’t escape, do what you can to survive. Turn off air conditioners and fans. Wet some towels and stuff them into the cracks around the door. Call the front desk, the fire department, and a local business contact to let them know that you are stuck in your room. What the heck, call your corporate security department while you’re at it: you want someone to know exactly what room you are in. Then go to the window with a flashlight or a light-coloured material and wave.
After the trip, share your lessons learned
You may have been the first person from your organisation to have a layover in this location, but you probably won’t be the last.
Share any useful safety and security information with your company travel department, fellow travellers, and co-workers. Maybe you found an excellent hotel or transport provider or discovered that what was booked for you was just the opposite. Perhaps you discovered that a certain neighbourhood is unsafe. Sharing this information will help your company improve its travel risk mitigation and help keep everybody safe, happy and productive.
Mac Segal is the Vice President of Business Development & Consulting, EMEA at AS Solution. Mac’s career in the security industry spans over 25 years of international operations, consulting and training for corporate clients, UHNW individuals, flight crews and the hospitality industry.