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Safe Travels

Know your embassies! (US Embassy, Berlin)

I really really really hate that I’m writing another blog about the safety of foreign travel so close on the heels of my Paris piece.

When I wrote about Paris in November, I promised that I would write at a later time about practical safety tips for traveling abroad. Regrettably, today is the day.

You all know the general advice about being vigilant and exercising normal (or perhaps a bit more than normal) caution while you travel. Aside from that good advice (and aside from rereading my Paris blog here as many times as necessary), there are some very tangible steps you can take to give yourself greater peace of mind while traveling.

First, register your travels with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (aka STEP; available here). STEP is a free program for US citizens that allows you to register your international trips with the nearest US consulate or embassy. You’ll receive safety alerts for the countries you’re visiting, and in the case of an emergency while you’re traveling, it will help US officials find you. As you may recall from November, the US Embassy in Paris struggled to identify and locate Americans who were in Paris at the time of the attacks. Having more people enrolled in STEP probably would’ve helped. I will admit that, although I’ve used STEP for trips to Africa and South America, I’ve never used it for Europe. But now I’ll be adding STEP to my pre-departure checklist for all of my trips.

Even if you use STEP, it’s also a good idea to identify the US embassies and consulates in the cities you’ll be visiting, and keep their addresses and phone numbers with you.

Second, buy travel insurance from a reputable insurer with a worldwide presence. If an emergency arises, you can call them collect from wherever you are, and they will have resources available to help you immediately. I also recommend that travelers buy insurance directly from third party insurers, rather than insurance offered by airlines or tour operators, because if the emergency directly affects your airline or tour operator, they may not be in a position to help you. Remember when that Costa cruise ship sank off the coast of Italy a few years ago? Costa was too underwater (pardon the pun) to assist its passengers in making alternative arrangements home – at least not immediately. But those passengers with a third party insurance plan were able to get home quickly and safely.

Finally, if you’re still feeling a bit nervous about foreign travel, consider taking a tour instead of traveling independently. Tour operators also have resources available to handle emergencies, so you won’t be alone and on your own if something happens. And many tour companies are very responsive in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks or natural disasters, if you feel like you need to change your destination.

So with that extra bit of assurance, it’s time to get back to exploring the world. Safe travels, all.

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