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It’s prudent to register with the State Department even for travel to a place such as London, above, in case an emergency arises.

Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

State Department can help travelers

  • Article by: EMILY BRENNAN
  • New York Times
  • February 9, 2013 - 2:25 PM

Here’s some perspective on how drastically our travel habits have changed in recent years: In 1989, 7 million Americans had passports, according to the State Department. Today 113 million do. Gone, too, are the days when Americans stuck almost exclusively to the London-Paris-Rome circuit, said Brenda S. Sprague, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services.

“That gives them the potential to get in more trouble,” she said. “But now they’re better able to keep in touch with us, and we with them.”

Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Sprague on what help the State Department can offer you abroad.

 

Q: Say you’re thinking of going to a country off the tourism grid. What’s your first step?

 

A: Determine whether it’s a good time to go. Look at the country-specific information on http://travel.state.gov. For every country, it gives you assessments of its stability, crime, road conditions and tourism infrastructure as well as information on visa requirements and embassies. We issue travel warnings for countries that have serious, ongoing problems like terrorist attacks or very high crime. Travel alerts are issued for short-term situations, like “there’s an H1N1 flu outbreak here” or “a hurricane is expected here.” They’re very objective assessments of possible risks for U.S. travelers. Take all of it to heart.

We also have links for specific groups like older travelers, LGBT Americans, students, disabled travelers. And be honest about your own abilities. For the novice traveler, with no knowledge of the language or contacts, I would not suggest biking across the Sahara.

 

Q: You’ve deliberated and decided to go. Now what should you do?

 

A: Register for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) on our website. You tell us who you are, where you’re going and how to get in touch with you. And that’s how we send you security or emergency messages, which could range from “there will be a demonstration from here to there; avoid that part of town,” or, if things have the potential for turning violent, “you might want to get the hell out, and this is the fastest way to do it.” We also post these messages on our website, app, Twitter feed and on individual embassy websites.

Even when a situation deteriorates, as in Egypt during the Arab Spring, commercial travel goes on for a long time. And if it does break down, we’ll arrange charter travel to get U.S. citizens out, but you’ll have to pay for that.

 

Q: Say you’re going to a place like London. Is it necessary to register with the embassy there?

 

A: Yes, because situations change quickly. If you were in Britain the day the subways were bombed a few years ago, you’d be interested in knowing what that meant for you.

And often the emergency that arises is particular to you, like a family member dying or falling sick. Your family may be intimidated by the language barrier, or the person who had your contact abroad is the one who’s sick. If you register, we know how to get in touch with you.

 

Q: What if you get sick abroad?

 

A: Before your trip, get travel insurance that provides coverage for medical emergencies. You’re not covered by your host country’s medical programs, nor are you covered by Medicare. Sometimes your health insurance in the U.S. will compensate you after the fact, but hospitals abroad want money upfront, and costs can be exorbitant. Under special circumstances, we can give you a loan for an evacuation flight, but you’ll have to repay it. A medevac can easily reach $100,000.

 

Q: A mundane but common problem: What should you do if you lose your passport?

 

A: Get yourself to an embassy or consulate. They’re the only places where you can get a replacement passport that’s good for one year.

 

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