Commuting to Unknown Cities

Commuting to cities can be challenging and sometimes there might be some real safety concerns. This becomes more so when commuting to a new city, or while traveling overseas for work. Short and long term commuting to new locations can be made easier and safer if you can take some simple steps to know your environments, understand local customs (when relevant), and be aware of what to do in cases of emergency.

This post shouldn’t provide anything new to anyone, but sometimes a little refresher is good. All these things are common sense.

Before You Go

Before you go understand the place you are going to travel to. There are many things you can do to get information on many levels. You can search online for information, and you can check websites like the State Department Country Information.

The more you read and familiarize yourself with this new urban environment, the better you will be prepared to deal with the commute.

Research should include, among other things, how to get to the hotel, or place you are staying, to and from the airport, the best routes to and from the office or work location, alternate ways to travel, whether public transportation is safe or not, whether you can rely on local law enforcement or not, the location of your embassy, or at least its phone number, and areas of potential danger (crime, etc) that you would need to avoid while in this new city.

I know it sounds paranoid, but think ahead how you’d react to a crisis, or an emergency while in this new location. What would you do? Who would you call? Things always happen when you least expect it, and based on my experience, counting on your employer or local law enforcement to get the help you need doesn’t always work well.

One thing I would suggest is that you enroll your trip in the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), if you are in the US.

And finally, prepare your stuff:

  • Share important documents, login information, and points of contact with family or friends so that they help getting new documents, money or credit cards to you if you need them, and can manage your affairs if you are unable to return as planned.

  • Establish your own personal security plan in coordination with your employer or host organization, or consider consulting with a professional security organization. This is very true while commuting to high risk countries. Set a communication window where you need to report, and if you fail to do this a number of times, they could engage the local representatives.

  • Following up on the previous point, develop a communication plan with family and/or your employer or host organization so that they can monitor your safety and location as you travel through high risk areas. This plan should specify who you would contact first, and how they should share the information. Be sure to appoint one family member to serve as the point of contact with hostage-takers.

  • It’s best practice while commuting to a new and unknown place to erase any sensitive photos, comments, or other materials from your social media pages, cameras, laptops, phones, and other electronic devices that could be considered controversial or provocative by local groups. This is more so while traveling to places that are considered high risk. I would also suggest you bring a “burner” device instead of your personal one while travelling to a new place.

  • Leave your expensive/sentimental belongings behind, and try to bring clothing that doesn’t scream “I’m rich, come rob me!”.

During the Visit

  • Understand that you have no expectation of privacy in Internet cafes, hotels, offices, or public places. Hotel business centers and phone networks are regularly monitored in many countries. In some countries, hotel rooms are often searched. If you are aware of that, then you’ll be ok.

  • Hotel rooms’ safes are not that safe. Do not leave anything you don’t want searched.

  • All information you send electronically can, and in some countries will, be intercepted. Devices with that use a cellular network or wireless internet are especially vulnerable.

  • Security services and criminals can track your movements using your mobile phone and can turn on the microphone in your device even when you think it’s off. Be aware.

  • Security services and criminals can also insert malicious software into your device through any connection they control. They can also do it wirelessly if your device is enabled for wireless. When you connect to your home server, the “malware” can migrate to your business, agency, or home system, can inventory your system, and can send information back to the security service or potential malicious actor. Bring a burner device to countries or cities that are high risk. DO NOT connect those devices when you return, have their contents wiped clean.

  • Malware can also be transferred to your device through thumb drives (USB sticks), and other things you connect to your device. Do not connect anything unknown, including cables on public charging stations.

  • Corporate and government officials are most at risk, but don’t assume you’re too insignificant to be targeted.

  • Foreign security services and criminals are adept at “phishing” – that is, pretending to be someone you trust in order to obtain personal or sensitive information. They can also target you to get to someone else. When in doubt, ask the hotel or your host to take you to the embassy, or the airport.

  • If a customs official demands to examine your device, or if your hotel room is searched while the device is in the room and you’re not, you should assume the device’s information has been copied.

Again, all this might sound a bit paranoid, but based on experience, things happen, even on 1st world countries and cities.

Commuting

Ideally, you are staying in a hotel close to your office or customer, allowing you to walk there. In this case, before you arrive, understand how to go from the hotel to the office, and back. Have a few routes ready. Use Google Maps or something similar to not only map these routes and know the streets, but also use the “street view” mode to familiarize yourself with the area.

If you need to take public transportation, like buses, trains, subways, trams, or taxis, research which of those are the best option, both in time and safety. You have to know when it’s best to commute, avoiding rush hour, and big crowds. If you will be stopping in a cafe or any other place, factor how to go to and from that place, and the delays this stop will bring. Plan ahead!

While commuting, try to not bring a big backpack or anything that that signals that you are carrying anything expensive. Also, try to learn (research) how the locals look. If you are in a business area it’s ok to look like a business person, but if you are in an area where everyone is wearing jeans and tshirts, you will stand out.

Always keep your wallet slim. Only bring the things you need, and leave everything else at home. Keep the wallet and phone in your front pockets, and always remove your backpack (if you carry one) while on public transportation. Place the backpack with the front facing you, in front of you legs or crotch. This will help protect your stuff and you.

Final Thoughts

I’ve talked about general safety tips while commuting and traveling before, and I wanted to add that post something a little more focused. It all comes down to common sense and knowing before you go. If you spend a little time researching where you are going, and what to expect, you have a better chance to have a pleasant commute. Always research, and remember the Urban Commuter Philosophy:

To have a better, easier, and safer commute you have to be light, blend in with your environment, be comfortable, and remain aware.