Getaway Day: Why The Smart Traveler Program Is So … Smart

Fear of the unknown is one of the greatest hindrances to travel. (Sharyn Alden photo.)
By Sharyn Alden

There are lots of ways you can be a smart international traveler, but whether you’re a seasoned traveler or heading overseas for the first time, the key to smart travel is preparation.

Naturally you can’t prepare for every potential problem; you can’t control airline or train delays, or take the wheel when an erratic driver is about to collide with your cab. But oh boy, there are lots of things you can do to maximize your chances of having a great, safe trip.

Trip insurance is one. This is one of the smartest purchases travelers can make.

My story says it all. In Europe, after a disastrous fall that led to hospitalization, my trip insurance saved me thousands of dollars I would have otherwise had to pay out-of-pocket. The company also had local contacts who could navigate the local language. Because of them, I was efficiently evacuated back home without a hitch.

That’s tough stuff to do by yourself. Who wants to plan an evacuation while you’re in severe pain and don’t have the stamina to deal with  details?

Another important thing to sign up for before leaving home is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. The program was set up to protect the interests and lives of U.S. citizens when they travel abroad, but it also can have big benefits for you and your family.

I think of STEP this way: By enrolling in the program you see what’s going on in the world through the broad lens of the U.S. State Department. Then you can appropriately apply these updates to your travel needs.

You subscribe to STEP online. You’ll need to provide your full name and email, and the countries you plan to visit. If you’re currently traveling, you can sign up for email alerts and updates pertaining to your itinerary.

You can also get travel information, alerts and warnings by downloading the free Smart Traveler app from iTunes or Google Play.

Here are four great reasons to enroll in STEP:

  1. Get help with evacuation when needed. You’ll be notified if there’s a pending natural disaster or emergency in your area, and you’ll get evacuation information once a disaster hits. While you could conceivably get news about weather or other pending problems from local sources, this isn’t just about you getting news. It’s about your government getting you out of harm’s way should the need arise. People who use STEP are often easier to find and help compared to those who aren’t registered. Travelers who don’t register may be scrambling to find their way out of a disaster, and since their whereabouts may be unknown, it may be more difficult for them when recovery efforts begin. Additionally, STEP facilitates getting you to the nearest U.S. embassy if you need help.
  2. Receive timely safety updates. When you’re on the go you may not be checking for travel alerts resulting from protests, conflicts, or other political issues. STEP alerts you and helps you stay informed.
  3. Make it easier to contact you if a family emergency arises back home. Not every place on the planet has Wi-Fi or good cell-phone coverage. As you head out sailing in the Mediterranean or snorkeling in the southern Caribbean, you might not be easy to contact if a loved one has a medical crisis. STEP helps expedite the notification process so you can get home faster.
  4. Get official travel information about destinations before future trips. These updates will help you make informed decisions about where you may want to go.

What surprises me about STEP is how often I hear travelers say they’ve never heard of it and write it off as unnecessary.

Here’s my take from a few real-world scenarios:

  • When I was on my way to Split, a city of about 100,000 on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, I received an email from the State Department telling me to expect a political demonstration of about 30,000-40,000 people. I stayed in Dubrovnik another day to avoid the crowds.
  • On my way to Amsterdam in May, STEP said it was the weekend of the annual Uitmarkt, a cultural festival that was expected to draw a half a million people. I made sure to avoid the city’s central core.
  • On a ship sailing to Jakarta, we learned a cyclone was probable. Scary stuff, but we made it to our destination and got a flight out before the rains started.
  • When a family member at home passed away, STEP helped us notify another family member who was hiking in the Swiss Alps.
  • In Sousse, Tunisia, true to form, I wandered away from the main market area and got caught up in a maze of streets and buildings that all looked the same. I called a friend back at the hotel who had no idea how to find me, and I hadn’t run into anyone who spoke English. It was getting dark when I was able to reach someone at the nearest U.S. embassy through STEP, and they helped me get back.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” J.R.R. Tolkien said. Sometimes that’s true; at other times there’s STEP to help get you back on track.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.