So, you’ve finally landed that infosec job of your dreams! The clouds have parted and angels have descended from the sky singing Aphex Twin.
Congratulations, I believed in you all along.
One small problem: they say you’re going to have to travel. Maybe to a customer site. Maybe to training. It doesn’t matter. You’re an introvert and haven’t traveled much, and you’re starting to panic.
Don’t worry – I’m here for you, friend! Let’s go over some basic travel tips for introverted infosec people.
Learn How and What to Pack
There are hundreds of great blogs on packing for travel you can seek out, so I’ll keep these tips fairly brief:
- A decent suitcase is a really important investment. Cheap suitcases without proper roller wheels are frustrating to lug across airports and will break at incredibly inopportune times. I recommend that every traveler have one decent quality carry-on suitcase and one decent quality backpack or shoulder bag with a laptop pouch, at a minimum. The last thing you need is a strap, zipper, or wheel snapping in the middle of the airport. I see no particular advantage to either soft-side or hard-side bags – the most important things to me in a carry-on are a lightweight, sturdy bag that will fit in regional jet overhead bins even when full. (My personal recommendation is eBags, but there are many great options.)
- I’m one of the lightest packers on my team and I rarely check a bag. I flew to India with only a backpack and security looked at me suspiciously. There are lots of tricks to this. First of all, learn to neatly and tightly fold or roll your clothes. Clean ones, and dirty ones upon your return. Packing cubes are a huge help by this. I personally like these ones. Some people prefer vacuum compression bags, but I’ve found them a lot more frustrating to use on the return trip, and they are not as durable.
- Choose clothes that don’t easily wrinkle, and stick to a common color scheme. The more pieces of clothing you can mix, match, reuse for a couple days, and layer or un-layer, the easier your life will be on your trip. You don’t need as much clothing as you think. Staple pieces like jackets or pants designed for travel are great. It will take a few trips, but you’ll work out a system.
- Shoes and boots are some of the bulkiest and heaviest things you can pack, so choose a versatile pair of dress shoes and bring as few pairs of shoes as possible.
- Always bring a towel. No, really. It’s a shoe shining, makeup removing, emergency pillow cover.
- When flying, always pack essential travel-size toiletries and one change of clothes (underwear and socks at a minimum) in your carry-on bag. Luggage does get lost, and flights get delayed (sometimes overnight).
- On the same note, always have medication, contact lenses, underwear, and socks for one more day than you plan to travel. I like to use a pharmacy that is national at least, just in case.
- Always carry a travel-size OTC pain relief, antihistamine, and antacid. Those are a few small things you do not want to have to take a walk for in a strange city when you really need them.
- Consider your personal daily usage of toiletry items. A million bloggers will tell you a million different things about how much soap to pack. For the most part, travel-size items will last you 3-4 days. For longer trips, you’ll probably need more. However, if you have long hair like I do, you might need more than a 3oz / 100ml bottle of conditioner for even a three day trip. This is something you’ll learn with practice.
- If you run out of your travel-size toiletry items, buying toiletries at your destination is usually by far the most economical option, particularly when flying. There are convenience stories or pharmacies almost anywhere. However, expensive cosmetics or skincare products are definitely an exception and may motivate you to pay $25 each way to check a suitcase. Your call.
- One final note about toiletries and flying – learn what the TSA and similar international agencies consider a “liquid” and a “gel”. There are lots of alternative toiletries like face wipes and solid deodorants that are not controlled by liquid restrictions that can give you a bit more wiggle room.
- Have two phone chargers – one in your suitcase or car, and one in your carry-on or laptop bag.
- If traveling to a different country, ensure you have the correct power adapters or plugs for your electronics. Bring a whole power converter if necessary, but they’re bulky and becoming irrelevant. Most laptops and phones made in the last 10 years can handle either 110v or 220v AC, so all you’ll need to replace is the plug or cord, not the power brick. Check yours and make sure of what you actually need.
TIP: MacBook wall plugs side off the power brick and are trivial to swap at will!
- Plan for a catastrophic laptop crash, with either a USB drive or a recovery partition.
Have a Passport
They last a decade and aren’t super-expensive, but they take quite a while to arrive unless you pay for them to be expedited. Every infosec person should have one for last minute work or conference travel. Pat notes that it’s a great idea to pay for a passport card as well, as secondary emergency ID, RealID, and for the smaller form factor.
Learn How To Fly
It’s okay if you’ve never flown on a plane before. Lots of great infosec people hadn’t before they got their first job.
Read up a bit on air travel regulations before getting on your first flight. Prepare to go through airport security. For instance, read up on local liquid and gel restrictions, and keep such a bag easily retrievable in your carry on. Be prepared to take your laptop out quickly in the security line. In most places, security also requires removing belts, jewelry, wallets, and shoes, then placing them in a bin. If you may pass through a magnetometer, keep in mind that clothing or shoes with excessive metal bits attached will cause a problem.
US Residents: ensure your State ID or Driver’s License is still adequate to use at the airport per RealID guidelines. Some states’ will not be as of October 2020, and you may need to purchase an enhanced ID from your state or Global Entry, or use a federal ID card such as a passport or military ID card to fly anywhere. TIP: Most RealID licenses (with a few exceptions) have a big star in the upper corner.
US Residents: @YouAre138 notes that the TSA PreCheck and Global Entry programs are a huge benefit for frequent air travelers, especially travelers in a professional group. Full disclosure: those programs, as well as CLEAR, come with significant government background checks and biometric data collection, and while I personally find them time-saving, you will need to make your own privacy decision. (A brief run down: PreCheck decreases your security screening requirements and wait time at domestic airports. CLEAR is a commercial service which replaces your ID with biometrics at some domestic airports and decreases wait time even further [it also works if your ID is lost or stolen]. Global Entry decreases your screening requirements and wait time upon returning from abroad.) All that said, if you’re traveling as part of a consulting group and you’re the one person without say, PreCheck, you’ll be the person who holds your entire group up for potentially a substantial amount of time.
Domestically, check into your flight at least an hour prior to boarding time (not departure time) – longer if you intend to check a bag. (TIP: If you’re running late, checking in on your phone can sometimes get you on the plane after check-in closes at the airport.) International travel has a significantly longer lead time – check the airport’s website for details.
Check the gate on your boarding pass and find and verify it has not changed before going off for a washroom break or a coffee. Airports all over the world are full of signs and maps to help you. Make sure you’re back at the gate before boarding time. (Once again, this is not the same as departure time.)
Most economy-class domestic flights in the US no longer serve any meal, and some may not even serve drinks. Others offer packaged food at a pretty exorbitant cost. I recommend you grab a sandwich and a drink in the airport after you find your gate. In my experience, most other countries’ carriers still serve a light snack – your ticket will usually indicate this. International flights will usually serve at least one meal, but you might not get any choice of what it is (allergen free, vegetarian, etc).
A bit about boarding groups – you and I will probably never be in the oft fabled Boarding Group 1. That tends to be pay-to-play, or extremely frequent travelers, or business class. If you’re in a higher boarding group (3-5 on most airlines), the overhead bins may fill up, and you’ll be required to check your carry-on bag for free at the gate. Ensure your important documents, electronics, and medications are transferred to your person if this is required.
On the plane, follow all posted safety instructions and stay seated with your seatbelt fastened unless you go to the lavatory. Be polite to the crew and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
What I normally have on my person or under the seat (not in the overhead bin) on your average flight:
- Phone, in airplane mode
- Headphones (most commercial aircraft now support standard ones)
- Earplugs (or noise-cancelling headphones)
- Water bottle
- Travel neck pillow
- Pen (especially if I have to fill out international customs forms)
- Melatonin – (please note different sleep aids are OTC-authorized in different countries; plan accordingly).
- Vicks Vapor Inhaler or equivalent (not the medicated one – it helps with the dry air.)
- Phone charger / battery
Congratulations, you’re now an airport pro.
Safety and Security
A few small fundamentals:
- Be aware of the threats you will face as an individual and as an information security employee of your company in the place you’re going, before you arrive.
- Consider bringing loaner / disposable electronic devices. At the very least, update and encrypt your devices. (They should be already, but this becomes absolutely critical during travel.)
- Do not carry large sums of cash on your person, and don’t carry all your money in one place. Consider a discreet money belt or anti-theft bag.
- Ensure the locks, peephole, phone, and safe in your hotel room work properly and ask to change rooms immediately if they do not.
- Never let a stranger (including people who claim they are hotel staff) into your hotel room.
- Pay attention to your surroundings. It’s very easy in a strange city to get distracted by the sights or your map. Tourist areas all over the world often have pickpocket / scam activity and crazy traffic.
- Consider sightseeing with a buddy, but don’t let eating or sightseeing alone stop you from getting out. (Just make sure somebody knows where you are, and you are aware of your surroundings.)
- Don’t make yourself a target! Don’t wear clothing that identifies your point of origin or that you are a tourist (language, flags, distinct regional clothing styles, etc). Dress like a local whenever possible. Keep the camera in the bag until you’re ready to use it.
- Addendum, AMERICANS: Yes, us! We stand out. We tend to be significantly louder and less professionally dressed than locals, especially in Europe. I have seen it. Please, just don’t.
- If you’re leaving your country, understand what access foreign internet service providers and customs agents may have to your personal and work devices. Discuss this with your employer or security manager if needed.
- Evaluate your personal threat model and make an informed risk decision about what devices and data to bring with you, and how you plan to connect to the internet and authenticate to your accounts while traveling (private VPN? Yubikey?)
- @SecurityCatnip notes that when progressing through security, Immigration, or Customs, it’s never particularly wise to introduce yourself as as a “computer hacker”. “IT consultant” or “computer security” is quite sufficient unless pressed for specifics. “Hacking” carries various legal and social connotations around the world.
We as Information Security professionals tend to be highly and often reasonably paranoid about our personal security, so I will simply leave you with a reminder that everyone is in fact not out to get you, and while you should always make sensible and informed risk decisions about your security, you should also not let them entirely prevent you from exploring a new place.
Before You Leave Your Country
Specific to US Residents:
- Check the State Department Website for travel safety information on the country you will be visiting: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country.html
- Check the CDC website for information on vaccinations you require prior to travel: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list/.
TIP: Doctor on Demand can provide you a cheap and easy vaccine referral via your phone or tablet when walk in clinic nurse practitioners cannot.
- Consider enrolling in the US State Department STEP program.
- Make absolutely certain that you have the correct visa and/or supporting documentation to enter your destination country. Immigration in many countries will make your life very unhappy or even send you back home if you haven’t crossed every “t”. Your employer should help you with this; it will typically not be like visiting the country as a tourist, even if you’ve done that 100 times.
- You will rarely be checked for recommended or required vaccinations, but they are always a sound idea.
- Contact your personal and/or work mobile phone provider for information on international voice and data plans for the duration of your travel. If you do not purchase international data service, disable cellular data for the duration of the trip or you may unwittingly face extremely steep fees. In the US, T-Mobile One is a top pick for frequent international travelers, as it provides free 2G data service in dozens of countries with no plan modification or additional fees. @securitykitten prefers GoogleFi for the faster global 3G speeds, but their plans contain a firm data cap and overage charges if you plan to tether. If your phone is unlocked, you can also consider buying a SIM card at your destination if you need to do a lot of local calling.
- Consider purchasing a travel health insurance policy, particularly if you’re traveling somewhere without universal health coverage for non-residents, or if you might be participating in high risk activities.
- Choose a chip-and-pin enabled credit card that is preferably not your primary bill auto-payment method to bring on your travel, and contact the provider in advance to inform them you will be traveling abroad. (@mopman adds an great reminder that some credit cards carry not insignificant international transaction fees – ensure you check this with your bank).
- TIP: Apple/Android mobile pay is very popular in certain countries, and it may circumvent your need to use a chip-and-pin card. It will also often still work if the connected card is stolen or cancelled.
- Read up a little on your destination. Understand the general geography, weather, economy, customs and courtesies (like tipping), criminal statistics, food and water safety, corruption, and political climate. Learn the current exchange rate to your country’s currency. Learning a couple phrases in the local language, (particularly courtesies and greetings), is usually appreciated.
- Make a copy of your important travel documents to lock in your room safe for the duration of your trip, in case of a lost or stolen wallet.
Have a Good Attitude
So you’re going to training in Springfield, population 700, with nothing but cornfields for miles in every direction. Or maybe you’re going to a country you never wanted to visit and you don’t speak the language. Everything’s terrible and life stinks, right?
Let me let you in on a secret: I have never in my life traveled anywhere I didn’t like something about! In the most isolated Midwestern town I’ve ever traveled to, I found an amazing Amish market with the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten! I had amazing traditional Central American chocolate and an incredible boat ride through the glaciers in Anchorage. I saw adorable meerkats at a private zoo in Germany. The street food in Hyderabad was absolutely worth a brief upset tummy. These are the things you will remember in 10 years. You will not remember the hotel room – they start to blend together.
It’s important to remember that people are complicated individuals with lives and hobbies, wherever you go. Life might be much faster paced or much slower paced than what you’re used to, but people still eat, have families, and find recreation. If you keep your spirits up and ask around, you’ll find something cool to do anywhere you’re sent.
Packing the Game Console?
I love gaming too, but try to leave the PlayStation at home if at all possible on your first trip to a new place. Give it a chance. If you still absolutely hate it after 3 days, Auntie Lesley will give you a pass on watching cable and playing smartphone games.
Plan Outside Business Hours
Traveling for business is a very different experience than traveling for pleasure. Significantly – packing requirements will be different, and your schedule will be different. This shouldn’t be an excuse for you to stay in your hotel room. Particularly in large cities, there are plenty of sights to see after business hours. While museums may frequently be closed after 5PM, outdoor sights will likely remain open much later – and be less crowded! Many attractions and tour companies offer passes and tickets at discounted rates in the evenings. There are also musical and theatrical events, even on weeknights. Tripadvisor /Viator are a great resource for finding interesting things to do prior to your travel, including booking walking or bus tours to get your “feet wet” early in your trip.
Keep in mind that lots of smaller attractions have active Facebook pages where you can seek additional information from locals or employees. I like to take some notes with operating hours, locations, and prices to bring with me.
Ask a Local, and Keep an Open Mind
Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues, employees, or the hotel concierge for recommendations of local stuff to do or places to eat. People usually love talking about their favorite things! Even if what they suggest isn’t normally your cup of tea, consider giving their recommendations a shot (with reasonable health, security, and safety considerations).
The absolute worst that is likely to happen in 99.5% of cases is you’ll be stuck ordering the plain tomato soup, or you’ll be bored and bemused for a few hours. Conversely, you might have a great time, and discover a new favorite food. Either way, you’ve had a new life experience and you’ve grown as an individual.
Be the Travel Agent
Traveling with a group can be tough – even deciding where to eat can take a while if everybody is polite and introverted. Don’t be afraid to make yourself the travel agent for a day and take charge. Once you’ve identified something cool to see or a great place to eat, do a little research and suggest it to your traveling companions, and you’ll probably be surprised how many people were just waiting for somebody else to take the initiative. If you can tell them how you’ll get there and what the entry fees and hours are, all the better!
Have an Escape Plan
It’s important for any introverted traveler to plan familiar and reliable places to recombobulate that frequently exist and are similar in any unfamiliar city. Two reasons:
1) When something goes wrong (hotel room not ready, plane delayed, etc), this will give you a place to spend an hour or two and rethink your plans, and
2) When you get fed up with being around the same coworkers or customers, it will provide you something do to alone.
These places are unique to you and I can’t tell you exactly what yours are going to be. In general, they should:
- Be open across a broad range of hours.
- Have a place to sit comfortably, preferably with free WiFi.
- Be safely and easily accessible by ride-share, walking, or taxi – even if your phone’s dead.
- Have reasonably clean public washrooms.
- Be reasonably secure.
- Allow you to stay for an hour or two.
- Have friendly employees or patrons who can give you directions or assistance.
- Provide you something to do, even if it’s just read a map without disruption.
- Outlets are a plus.
My personal choices are shopping malls and yoga / crossfit studios. They exist pretty ubiquitously and it’s easy for a stranger to patronize them without a lot of logistics. They provide me with familiar surroundings and some peace and quiet to think about my next move. Any rideshare or taxi driver probably knows where one is. Some other suggestions that exist in nearly any medium to large town might be:
- Gyms with drop-in rates, or that are national / international (OrangeTheory is very popular in infosec)
- 24-hour diners
- Libraries / Book stores
- Coffee shops
Bars are great and all but I don’t recommend them for this purpose in specific. The last thing you want to do when you’re nervous and lost is start drinking in a place you don’t know.
Whatever you choose, make sure you have those factors in the back of your mind, and even consider looking up where your choices are on a map before you travel. You’ll have a fallback plan when something goes wrong (or you just need some time to yourself). Don’t spend all of your time there, but use them as needed to recharge.
No amount of Vitamin C alone will reliably keep you from getting sick! The facts are simple – you will likely be in a confined space with a few sick people during any flight, class, or conference. The #1 best way to prevent con/airport plague is adequate sleep, healthy meals on a schedule, and washing your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water. Bring hand sanitizer, but don’t rely on it exclusively – it doesn’t kill everything. Don’t rub your eyes or put your fingers in your mouth if you haven’t recently washed them. Try to drink plenty of water and juice to moderate caffeine and alcohol.
No Problem is Insurmountable
Everybody makes mistakes while traveling. I’ve been in 7 countries this year and have a go bag, and I still occasionally forget to pack basic stuff. Things are going to go wrong. You’re going to forget something important like deodorant or medication, or it’s going to rain your entire trip, or your luggage is going to get lost. Maybe your wallet will get stolen or misplaced.
Do your best to plan sensibly, but realize plans will sometimes go awry. There are very few places you will travel for an information security job where even these problems will be insurmountable or deadly. There are convenience stores, pharmacies, and Western Unions all over the world. Clothes can be replaced. Replacement credit cards can be overnight-ed to your hotel. Toiletries can be replaced. Cables and adapters can be same day delivered by Amazon or door-to-door delivery services. Even money, passports, and mobile phones can be replaced within a day in most places. Consider it a learning experience.
The first thing you must do when something goes massively awry is take a deep breath and think. The second thing you should do is contact the authorities if a crime has been committed. This may be local police, or your country’s consulate, or both. Your employer’s loss prevention, physical security, or travel team will probably be able to assist you with next steps. Your hotel desk or concierge can also provide assistance in many situations you might feel are impossible crises.
You can do this! Keep calm and carry on!