When trouble strikes and you're far from home Caution: If you are traveling overseas and get caught up in a crisis, safety is the first priority


October 25, 1998|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Terrorism, war, political upheaval, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods.

From Hurricane Georges to bombings in eastern Africa, travelers do not get some kind of magic exemption from trouble. Each year, thousands of Americans are caught up in crises far from home.

If trouble hits during a vacation or business trip, the first priority should be your safety. Only after you have secured your situation by finding shelter or leaving the troubled area should you worry about the cost of getting out of trouble.

Some tips on what to do if your trip crosses paths with a crisis:

* Avoiding a crisis before you go: Travel warnings and consular information sheets are available for every country in the world. They can be accessed over the Internet (at http://travel.state.gov) or by fax by dialing 202-647-3000 from the phone on your fax machine.

* If you want to cancel a trip because of a crisis: Immediately contact your travel agent or tour operator. Try to come to an agreement regarding cancellation or delay of the trip. Ask for a letter outlining the agreement, or failing that, send a notorized letter yourself.

Laws on refunds vary from state to state. If you disagree with the decision of your travel provider, contact the Attorney General's Office of the state where the travel was sold.

Other help can come from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Consumer Affairs (202-366-5580), the American Society of Travel Agents hot line (703-739-2782) and the International Airline Passengers Association (972-404-9980).

* If you are caught in a crisis overseas: Unless you are in a major tourism area, travelers should register their names, contact numbers and itineraries with the nearest U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate.

If there is a major crisis - war, terrorism, political upheaval or weather-related catastrophe, the State Department will set up a crisis task force.

If you are traveling in the country in crisis, contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate for information on what is happening.

Also contact your travel provider and try to arrange alternative travel.

* If someone you know is caught in a crisis zone: The State Department offers welfare/whereabouts service through U.S. embassies and consulates. The service tries to locate American citizens in foreign countries when relatives or friends are concerned about their welfare or want to inform them of emergencies at home. The State Department handles about 200,000 inquiries a year.

To make a request, call the State Department Overseas Citizens Services at 202-647-5225. If you are already in a foreign country, contact the American Citizen Services Section of the nearest embassy or consulate. Be prepared to provide information on the person you seek, including date of birth, passport number, last known address and travel itinerary.

After the Bureau of Consular Affairs receives the call, it collects names of Americans in the crisis country and sends them along to the embassy and consulates, which will attempt to contact the Americans.

Officers in the crisis country may be assigned to search hotels, airports, hospitals or even prisons in person. When possible, they will work with local officials. The first priority is dead or injured citizens.

If the State Department locates the person you are seeking, but that person does not wish to have you receive information about their whereabouts, your request may be denied under the U.S. Privacy Act.

* Evacuation: If commercial travel is disrupted and the State Department decides an evacuation of Americans is in order, military or other government transportation may be arranged. However, the State Department cannot order Americans to leave a crisis zone. They can only recommend.

* Injury: If an American is injured overseas, the nearest embassy or consulate will assist family members in the United States to transmit payment for medical services and to arrange transportation home. The State Department will also forward medical history information from the United States to doctors treating injured Americans overseas.

Except in a major crisis, injured Americans who must be treated in U.S. military hospitals or be airlifted by U.S. government or military aircraft will be billed for the full price of treatment and transportation.

* Death: If an American dies overseas, the State Department will make every effort to locate next of kin listed on the passport application.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs will help families arrange burial in a foreign country or return of remains to the United States. All costs must be borne by the family, but the State Department can transmit private funds overseas to cover the costs of local services.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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