There you are, at the hotel bar of a swank resort in that exotic destination you’ve been bragging to your pals and coworkers about for weeks. It’s sunny, beautiful, and a 12-hour plane ride away from your own personal reality that you have no problem putting on hold for a week. That is, of course, until a new, unexpected reality finds you under that Tiki hut umbrella in the form of some natural disaster or major crisis that nobody saw coming. Mother Nature is in a nasty mood and she decided to take her angst out on your little vacation spot.
What could you have done before your trip to plan for the unexpected? Well, for starters, you could “what if” the trip and try to plan a pre-ordained solution for every foreseeable problem. But let’s be real. That’s not very practical and a bit of a waste of time. You’ve been thinking for weeks about the sun and good times, not tsunamis and riots, right? So in addition to finding someone to water the plants, here is one essential thing every US citizen can do before leaving home on that great trip abroad.
The US Department of State offers a free service to American citizens traveling and living abroad called Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP. It is very simple program that could be a life saver. When you register in STEP you simply submit your travel itinerary and a means of communication while in your destination country. Should there be an emergency such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption, or even a human-caused crisis like civil unrest while in-country, the STEP program will provide your information to the applicable local American Embassy (AmEm) and consulates. They will know how to get in communication with you, most likely through email or mobile phone, assuming the communications infrastructure still functions. More importantly, they know that you might show up on the embassy doorstep seeking personal assistance or something even more serious like evacuation.
The STEP program is first and foremost an awareness and communication tool. When something big and bad happens, they get the word out to the Americans they have knowledge of…but they have to know you are there. Registration doesn’t guarantee preferential treatment ahead of other Americans but at least you are on the local AmEm radar for possibly being affected. Sorry, there is no such thing as an evacuation upgrade using your STEP Points. Nonetheless, it’s still not bad for a free service from the US Government.
One more thing, in addition to STEP, the main State Department travel web site for Americans on international travel (travel.state.gov) offers a wealth of destination information that should be referenced just before heading out the door to the airport. The most important of the “must-brings” is the all-important American Embassy and consulate addresses and contact phone numbers for American Citizen Services and the Regional Security offices. Put these cautionary steps on your pre-trip “To Do” list right there with buying new bathing suit and remembering to bring your camera.
Travel security writer Rick Charles is a lifelong airplane geek. He is an international travel risk manager for a global aviation organization based in Washington, DC. He is a former professional military aviation crew member and controller. He has served in various national security risk management roles for close to 25 years. Rick is a Stanford University/IATA Certified Aviation Management Professional, and an aviation subject matter expert on the Supply Chain and Transportation Security Council of ASIS International, the world’s foremost association for security professionals.