Disaster abroad -- go or stay? Answers: Where you can get straight talk on emergencies that might affect your travels.

October 19, 1997|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

For months, you've been planning that trip to Indonesia. Then you hear about the massive brush fires on Borneo and Sumatra, the great clouds of unhealthy air throughout the region. Then there's the Garuda Indonesia jet that crashed Sept. 26 amid thick Sumatran haze. And the cargo ship and oil tanker that collided on the same day between Sumatra and Malaysia. And the Sept. 28 earthquake on Sulawesi Island that killed at least 16 people and did nearly $2 billion in damage.

Sounds bad. But Indonesia is an enormous country, and your reservations are in Bali, 1,700 miles southeast of Medan, the smoky Sumatran city where the plane crashed. Besides, your reservations are for late October. Cancel? Stay the course?

Bali has been unaffected by the fires, State Department officials and tour operators agree, and unless you planned to venture from there into certain parts of Sulawesi or the scorched Kalimantan area (on the island of Borneo), there's no reason to change plans.

But what about next time? When such crises hit, whether they're fires, storms, droughts or even crime waves, would-be travelers are stuck in an awkward position. You need information more specific than most newspapers or newscasts, aimed at broad audiences, are able to give.

When such doubts arise, whom do you call?

* Call your hotel (directly, not via its centralized 800 line). But as long as it hasn't actually closed down, its employees have an economic interest in reassuring you, no matter what the situation on the ground. Maybe they'll tell you all they know; maybe they'll be selective. (If you're really suspicious, try the bar or gift shop first, then the front desk.)

* Call your tour operator or cruise line. But keep in mind that these companies stand to lose money if too many travelers cancel. Again, someone may be tempted to paint you a rosy picture. To discourage that, be sure to ask for the source's name and title along with the information. Depending on circumstances, you also may want to ask about refund or rerouting options.

* Call your airline. But the representatives there can probably only tell you if flights have been canceled or delayed, or if your airport is closed.

* Call a government tourist office. But again, remember that though they're government operations, those offices are basically in the business of promoting their homelands. Every tropical storm in the Americas in recent years, no matter how severe or mild, seems to have been followed by a blizzard of upbeat news releases, each offering reassurances that it's "business as usual" at the destination in question. Sometimes it is, sometimes not.

* Here are more alternatives:

The U.S. Department of State (phone 202-647-5225, Web site http: //travel.state.gov/travel_ warnings.html) and the federal Centers for Disease Control (phone 404-639-2572, Web site http: //www.cdc.gov/travel/travel .html) each offer information by phone recording, Internet site and fax. The State Department usually worries more about political stability than weather, and the CDC worries more about inoculations and contagions than fires or floods, but each can be helpful. Even when information isn't that specific, the State Department's consular information sheets are good preparation for unfamiliar territory.

The Internet is full of bad information and sites that promise more than they deliver -- but its usefulness as a timely global resource grows daily. If currency is fluctuating wildly, you can check exchange rates daily at http: //www .oanda.com/cgi-bin/ncc. For a map that may go into more detail than your atlas, you can try http: // www.mapquest.com. For worldwide, up-to-the-hour weather reports and satellite photos, there is http: //cirrus.sprl.umich.edu/ wxnet/, a directory that leads to various meteorological sources. For a broader directory of travel-related sources, you can use one of the leading "search engines" such as Yahoo, or try the more narrowly focused http: //www.netguide.com/ travel.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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