by Chris Goff
As you read this, I’m likely 33,000 feet above Ohio en route to New York City for ThrillerFest. I can’t wait! This year’s ThrillerMaster is John Sandford, best known as the author of the PREY novels. Silver Bullet Recipients are: Harlan Coben, James Rollins, Stephen Hunter and Lisa Unger. The premier conference for thriller enthusiasts has outdone itself! And the Rogues are lucky enough to have James Rollins as their panel master this year.
But I have to get there first.
You would think as much as I fly that I wouldn’t be fazed by air travel. After all, I’ve read KJ Howe’s blog on Turbulence. I know I have a better chance of being killed by a meteorite, becoming President of the US or being killed by a shark than dying in a plane crash. Reassuring—except for the fact that this past week’s headlines have featured a shark attack in the Bahamas, a plane crash in Dallas, and a near-Earth asteroid that will pass as close as 19,000 miles from us. Hey, that’s within the distance that some of our spacecraft orbit Earth.
So, my how-to on how to travel wisely.
First, I refuse to fly on the 737 Max. Rumor has it, they will put them back into service in early July. They maybe have tweaked the software, but I’d rather take the train (1 day, 21 hours). Or drive (27 hours, not counting stops). I’d go by ship, except it isn’t an option from Denver. Of course, more people die in car accidents than airplane crashes, trains can derail, and no mode of transportation is fool proof. All things considered, the 4 hour flight from Denver to NYC is worth the risk. Coupled with my fool proof technique of gripping the arms of my seat until my knuckles turn white, all the while praying until we reach altitude, I’ve got this!
Next, I’m going to heed the advice of experts.
Doing research for my last book, RED SKY, I discovered the newsletter, Black Bag Confidential. In it, Jason Hanson (an ex-CIA agent, who writes about and teaches people “self-defense tricks only a spy knows”) offers tips on things from bugging out to defending your home from intruders to safe travel advice. He’s got some great ideas, though at times he seems to border on paranoid. I suppose it comes with the territory.
Here are a few of his guidelines for staying safe while you’re on the go:
1. Treat your travel plans like they’re top secret.
Dang! All the publicizing I’ve done of my plans to be at ThrillerFest means that everyone who has seen my FaceBook page or read my Tweets knows I’ll be out-of-town. I’m already screwed!
2. Grab an extra key and a higher floor at the hotel. According to Hanson, this is especially important if you’re traveling solo. First, two keys will make the hotel desk clerk and anyone watching you think you’re traveling with someone. And second, most crimes happen on the lower floors of a hotel. Hanson suggests snagging a room on the third floor or higher.
My personal recommendation: Don’t go above floor seven. I’ve been told by firefighter friends that the extension ladders on firetrucks can’t go any higher than that. Better safe, than sorry. The caveat: The concierge floor is on sixteen. Fair trade off?
3. Don’t use the hotel safe.
It only stands to reason! People lock the safes and can’t remember their codes, therefore most hotel personnel will have the bypass code to open them.
This is one rule I never adhere to. I’d rather risk locking my valuables up in the room, than lug them around all day. Plus I can’t count the number of times I’ve left my book bag on the floor in a conference room. I’ll take my risks with the hotel.
4. Get a door stopper alarm.
That way, you can lock your door from the inside and, if someone tries to break in, an alarm goes off.
Of course, that’s not taking into account your conference roommate who was holding down the bar with the agent and friends until 2 a.m.
I wish I’d known about this a few years ago when I was staying at the ThrillerFest hotel during a romance conference in the late 1990s. I went with a friend, who had been nominated for a Rita (it’s like an Edgar® or a Thriller Award for romance writers). We’d gone upstairs to bed around midnight, and at 1:30 a.m. the phone rang. My friend answered and a woman said, “Hi, I saw you in the elevator and you looked nice. I need someone to talk to.”
My friend said, “It’s 1:30 a.m.” and hung up.
Five minutes later, the phone rang again and I answered.
“Don’t hang up,” the woman said. “I just need someone to talk to.” I told her not to call back and hung up.
Five minutes later, the phone rang. My friend answered.
“You f*&@ing bitch,” screamed the woman. “I know what room you’re in.” We did the only reasonable thing. We called security.
They said, “Yeah, this has been going on for about the last six months. We think it’s an international flight attendant who stays here overnight from time to time.”
“You’re not sure?”
“Well, it’s an inter-hotel call. We can’t trace those. So, we don’t know what room she’s in, but it happens when a specific crew stays in town. Trust me, she’s harmless.”
We were not reassured. We demanded another room and they obliged, but only after I told them either to give us another room or send someone up to sit outside our door for the rest of the night. We were moved to the concierge floor, but—as luck would have it—the room they put us in had a broken door lock. Being a thriller writer, my mind started working. Maybe the woman wasn’t a flight attendant. Maybe she was a disgruntled employee, who had more than just the hotel safe bypass code.
My friend and I jammed a chair back under the door handle. I know, it doesn’t really work, but we figured we’d hear the chair splinter before anyone came through the door.
The rules change depending on where you travel.
In December, my husband and I are going on a cruise to Antarctica (oops, mum’s the word!) and Jason has a-whole-nother set of safety suggestions for that trip. The high seas are dangerous. In 2017, U.S. authorities reported a total of 106 crimes committed on board ships that reported to US authorities, including: 76 sexual assaults, 13 serious assaults, 8 thefts of more than $10,000 and 2 kidnappings. Hanson points out that crimes are reported to the country the ship is flagged to, and sometimes justice is hard to come by.
His tips include: using the buddy system (there’s safety in numbers), taking your own alarm (doorstopper mentioned above), being extra careful on the balconies (although more spouses shove each other overboard than strangers), taking care of your steward (make him a friend and he’ll protect you), and having a weapon.
That’s right. Forewarned is forearmed. You may not be able to bring your gun on board, but you can always walk off with a steak knife.
So, I hope I see some of you in New York. I’ll be staying at the…oh, yeah, top secret. But you’ll be able to find me in the bar at the Grand Hyatt on 42nd Street, and know this—all my valuables will be locked up in my hotel room safe and I’ll be the one carrying silverware!
In all seriousness, what sort of things do you do to keep yourself safe when traveling? Do you have any special tips?
I'm with you, Chris. No Max 8. I can't tell you how long it took me to finagle a flight to Greece so it avoided a Max 8. (Let's hope they don't switch planes on me. I am flying out of one airport and back into another just to make this happen.) Biggest tip: Listen to the CIA guy about not announcing travel plans online! I can't tell you how many people post shots of them on vacation then come home to find their house burglarized. (It's right up there with the nitwits who post their screen shots of their brand new TV or stereo, and curse the bad luck of getting burglarized a day or two later. It should be obvious not to post belongings on social media.) Granted, my husband is always home when I go to conferences, and he'll be home when I go to Greece–and I am not announcing travel dates. Even so, I rarely post about it while I'm there. I also rarely post that I'm going. (That above mentioned trip is far in the future!) I definitely don't post shots of me at airport! It's a safety thing.
I have barricaded my hotel room door at night with chairs and luggage racks. I'm not proud. Yes, it might be a hazard in the event of fire, but that extra two seconds it will take to move them is worth the peace of mind!
And beware burglars!! I travel often with my sisters–which means my husband is still at home!!
Lots of great tips here, Chris….I do look forward to seeing you and some of our other Rogues at Thrillerfest this coming week (and yes, my husband will be home with the pups!) As for safety, appreciate your suggestion about getting a room between the 3rd and 7th floors (didn't know that the firemen's ladders only reach that high!). One thing I always do when leaving a hotel room is to "hide" my computer and hope for the best. Thanks for a thought-provoking post….Karna Small Bodman
These are really fine tips to avoid trouble, Chris. Thank you! Love the door stopper — hadn't heard of that. Particularly for women alone, as we often are when we go on book tour, it's really smart to be thoughtful about where and how we walk, where we stay, and how we travel. One of my favorite tips — when walking through a parking lot between cars, make sure to watch for rolled-down windows on the sides of cars you'll be passing.
I am guilty of taking pictures at the airport, and posting vacation photos. Note, I'm about to post photos taken at ThrillerFest. Fortunately, my husband is at home holding down the fort.
LOL. Most women I know have barricaded a door in a hotel room. Do you think men do this ever?
I use the hotel safe for my computer, but I carry only a small Surface Pro when I travel. When the safe isn't possible, I usually leave a great tip for the maid who'll be coming into the room and hope that's enough of a deterrent.
That's a great tip. I never heard that before.