When Americans go abroad during this year’s summer travel season, it’ll be at a time of increased uncertainty — both in the air and on the ground.
Airlines have topped headlines in recent weeks for their treatment of passengers, beginning with an incident on a United Airlines flight where security dragged Dr. David Dao off an overbooked flight last month. Since, it has been a bad time to be an airline.
A woman was allegedly hit on the head with a stroller by a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight. A giant rabbit died aboard a different United flight. One woman claims she was forced to pee in a cup on yet another United flight. And a fight broke out in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport earlier this month after Spirit Airlines canceled nine flights over pilots who refused to work. And that’s just a sampling of the latest.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State has put out a travel warning for all of Europe, a major summer travel hotspot, citing “widely-reported incidents in France, Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom [which] demonstrate that the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS or Da’esh), al-Qa’ida, and their affiliates have the ability to plan and execute terrorist attacks in Europe.”
The State Department is advising all Americans traveling to Europe through August to exercise extra caution when in large tourist locations — including hotels, clubs, restaurants, parks, high-profile events, places of worship and educational institutions — as well as transportation hubs (particularly airports), markets or shopping malls and local government facilities. The U.S. is also considering a ban on all laptops, tablets and other large electronics in carry-on baggage on flights between the U.S. and Europe, citing safety concerns.
Ultimately, there is a lot travelers can do to avoid unexpected disruptions as they travel — and prepare in case of a major emergency, said Karen Christensen, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services at the State Department.
“There are always issue, whether security or safety issues or weather issues,” Christensen said. “What we really want is for travelers to be thinking carefully before they go.”
Preparations can range from a number of things travelers don’t even think about, Christensen said, like whether their medications are legal in other countries or if they left stray bullets from the shooting range in their bag (which happens to a “surprising” number of people who end up arrested overseas, she said).
The Miami Herald spoke to Christensen during her visit to Miami earlier this month about what precautions travelers can take before they set out this summer.
Q. What are the most important things American travelers should do if there is a terror attack or natural disaster in a country they’re visiting?
A. For any trip overseas, preparation is crucial. We recommend that people follow our Traveler’s Checklist:
▪ Get informed: Visit travel.state.gov/destination to read about where you are traveling, including our travel warnings and travel alerts. This information will help you prepare for your trip and be aware of any security and safety concerns.
▪ Get required documents: Apply early for your new or renewed passport, and allow extra time to get foreign visas you may need. We expect more than 20 million passport applications this year, so apply early. Normal processing time for passport applications is six to eight weeks. If you apply ahead, you’ll avoid any last-minute stress.
Make sure your existing passport will be valid at least six months after you return home and that it has at least two blank pages (and maybe more depending on your destination).
Traveling with children under age 16? Check their passport expiration dates closely – passports for minors are only valid for five years. If you’re traveling alone with children, some countries require custody documents or notarized consent from the other parent.
▪ Get enrolled: Sign up for free at STEP.state.gov to receive safety and security updates and let us know how to reach you in emergency.
▪ Get insured: We cannot overestimate the need for medical and emergency evacuation insurance. A medical evacuation back to the United States can cost $100,000 or more, and many providers will require cash payment upfront. Travel insurance can help cover these costs.
Even with good planning, you can find yourself in the middle of a crisis overseas. In the event of an emergency, such as a natural disaster, civil unrest or terrorism:
▪ Follow the directions of local authorities, and monitor local news.
▪ If you need assistance, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
▪ Contact your friends and family, using phone, email or social media to let them know you are safe.
Q. Atlantic Hurricane Season begins June 1. What do you suggest travelers do to protect their trips from the impact of a potential natural disaster?
A. Prepare for the unexpected by having insurance coverage for medical expenses, emergency evacuation, flight delays/cancellations, etc. Medicare and many U.S. healthcare policies do not provide coverage abroad. While traveling, monitor weather and local news reports. In the event of a hurricane, follow instructions from local authorities and hotel staff. Contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance.
Q. What services can U.S. travelers count on at embassies abroad?
A. Careful planning and research can help you avoid most problems overseas, but U.S. consular officers are available worldwide to help in case of an emergency.
▪ We can help with lost or stolen passports. If you lose your passport, report it immediately to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate and make arrangements to get a replacement passport, for a fee.
▪ If you are victim of a crime, we can help you contact local authorities and connect you with victims’ assistance resources in the United States.
▪ If you need financial assistance, we can help contact friends and family to arrange for them to send funds.
Q. What safety tips should travelers consider when traveling abroad via cruise ships, with faith-based groups or as part of the LGBTQ community?
A. We recommend that travelers have the proper foreign visa for all stops on the cruise, even if you do not plan to disembark. Simple things can aid in your preparedness such as asking your cruise line about their procedures in case of emergency and types of medical services your ship can provide.
While aboard the cruise ship, remain vigilant and exercise normal precautions as you would in any foreign country. Take measures to safeguard your valuables such as storing your travel documents and other valuables in a secure spot, staying clear of scams, and beware of pickpocketing. If you take prescription medications, be sure to carry an adequate supply — just in case you are delayed on your return home.
Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals and families travel safely each year without problems. However, laws and attitudes of some countries may affect LGBTI travelers. Tolerance and legal protections vary from country to country. Check out our tips for LGBTI travel at travel.state.gov/lgbt, as well as country specific information for your destination.
LGBTI travelers should take copies of important documents such as legal and health documents and parentage and/or custody papers for accompanying minor children, especially when traveling in countries where legal rights differ from those in the United States.
Be wary of new-found “friends.” Criminals sometimes exploit the generally open and relaxed nature of the LGBTI scene.
We recommend faith-based travelers research the laws and conditions of their destination countries. Many countries have laws that restrict religious expression including public and private prayer, wearing religious attire or symbols, speaking to others about your religious beliefs, among others.
If you are traveling under a sponsoring organization, be sure they have plans for various emergency situations such as local threats to security, natural disasters, and injury or death of a U.S. citizen traveler. The organization should also have knowledge of the visiting country’s local laws and customs about religious expression.
Q. What should travelers who are expecting, traveling with young children or traveling with elderly family members consider before planning a trip?
A. We are noticing an increase in numbers of older U.S. citizens traveling or retiring abroad. Older travelers should consider health insurance that covers emergency medical and dental treatment abroad and medical evacuation to the United States. If you have a pre-existing medical problems plan, it’s best to carry a letter from the attending physician, describing the medical condition and any prescription medications you take, including the generic or chemical name of prescribed drugs.
Be sure to have a plan in place when traveling with children and the elderly on how to contact each other in case of separation or emergency. If you are traveling alone with your children, some countries require the written travel consent of the other parent. Check these requirements at travel.state.gov/destination ahead of time to avoid delays.
Q. In an era of geopolitical events overseas, travel uncertainty and issues like the United Airlines incident, what is your top suggestion or most useful tool that could help American travelers hoping for a stress-free international trip?
A. Preparation is really the key to a successful trip. Do your research, get the required documents, and don’t forget travel and emergency evacuation insurance. Our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at STEP.state.gov [lets us] reach you in an emergency.