State Dept. advises travelers

War: If you're going to Europe, don't leave common sense behind. Here's the latest advice from Washington.

Strategies

May 23, 1999|By Harry Shattuck | By Harry Shattuck,Houston Chronicle

As the conflict continues in the Balkans, concerns spread far beyond the war zone. "Do you think I should cancel my vacation in Italy?" one reader asked recently. "Is it still safe to cruise to the Greek islands?" another inquired. "Are American travelers being targeted abroad?" yet another pierced the heart of the matter.

Donna Hamilton, deputy assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, senses the uneasiness, too. "We don't tell people whether or not they should go places, but we try to provide information that will help them make wise decisions," Hamilton said recently.

State Department-issued consular information sheets for every country in the world are available free of charge. So are travel warnings issued for all or parts of specific nations (now totaling 28).

Separate "Tips for Travelers" pamphlets, available for $1 to $1.50, cover popular destinations such as Mexico, Canada, Central and South America and the People's Republic of China. Several other publications focus on general travel advice. subhed: Taking precautions

Most travel remains essentially safe. Indeed, cruise lines and tour companies are redirecting itineraries originally scheduled in the Balkans to Italy and Greece. But common-sense precautions, while always important, take on increased significance when our country is in the international spotlight.

One strong recommendation from Hamilton: "Don't do anything that labels you as an American." Resist the urge to take along those Oriole and Redskin T-shirts. "It's best not to wear anything with a logo," Hamilton says. "Don't call attention to yourself; try to blend in with others."

Don't become involved, either -- even on the periphery -- in any demonstrations. A worldwide caution in effect since the beginning of NATO military operations March 24 against Serbia-Montenegro advises: "Demonstrations against these operations have taken place and are continuing at a number of U.S. embassies and institutions worldwide. These protests have sometimes turned violent." Though tourist facilities and private Americans have not been targeted, all U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert.

Embassies helpful

The State Department continues to encourage U.S. citizens to register with the embassy at any foreign destination, but Hamilton suggests not lingering at embassies, which have become targets for terrorists. Online registration is now available at some embassies, and Hamilton says, "We've asked all our other posts to look at adopting this procedure."

Hamilton advises travelers, before leaving home, to record phone numbers of embassies at every intended destination. "If you have a problem, someone is on duty at all times," she says.

Hamilton offers other suggestions for international travelers:

"Purchase health insurance. It's not expensive. The ability to get medical care overseas can be difficult. It's especially important that this insurance covers possible emergency evacuation.

"In any foreign city, the dangers are the same as in U.S. cities. Even in a reasonably comfortable place, petty crime can be a problem. Don't carry purses that can be moved off your shoulder. Don't walk away from an ATM machine with money in your hand.

"Always make copies of your passport information. Keep one copy with you in a place different from the passport itself. Leave another copy with someone at home.

"Leave your itinerary with someone at home.

"Start thinking now about the year 2000. Nobody knows what is going to be affected by computer problems. Make certain you have enough money in case credit cards aren't accepted. We're also a bit concerned about places that are real cold; if computer problems affect electricity, we want to make sure travelers have a way to keep warm."

The State Department's Web site at travel.state.gov will include updates on Year 2000 issues affecting travelers.

That online site also provides the easiest and quickest way to access consular information sheets and travel warnings. Or call 202-647-5225 for recorded information; or from your fax machine, dial 202-647-3000, using the handset as you would a regular telephone, and listen to instructions; or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Overseas Citizens Services, Room 4811 N.S., Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C. 20520.

"Tips for Travelers" pamphlets and other publications also are available at travel.state.gov. Or call 202-512-1800, or write to the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

In brief --

ONLINE

Before a trip, or during one if you travel with a computer, check www.mastercard.com/atm or www.visa.com/cgi-bin/vee/main.html to find an ATM when you run short of cash. Each Web site can be searched by region or airport. The Mastercard site also has what it describes as a map for finding ATM's in the United States.

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