International travel can always be a tricky situation, even before the time of COVID-19. But with light at the end of the tunnel thanks to access to vaccinations, State Department officials believe now is a good time to remind travelers of the perils of leaving the United States.
“I’m hopeful that when COVID fades that we’ll see a resurgence in travel and tourism,” Karin King told a virtual audience during a Future of Travel Safety webinar, presented by the Department of State Consular Affairs and hosted by the Travel Adventure Show.
King is the deputy assistant secretary for Overseas Citizens Services in the State Department. She was joined by State Department colleagues earlier this month for the webinar, and they offered plenty of tips for international travel.
“Prepare and plan thoroughly for travel,” King said in summarizing her department’s philosophy. “Plan for the worst, including financially.”
Here are more specific tips offered by King; Beckyi Thurmond, a consular officer in Mexico City; Conor Dickinson, county officer with American Citizens Services; and Chris Marsh, another county officer.
1. Enroll In STEP
Before traveling anywhere overseas, Americans should enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Enter the dates you’ll be traveling and the locations where you’ll be.
According to the experts, this serves multiple purposes. First, it allows U.S. officials to find you in the case of an emergency. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, registering gives you access to security alerts based on your location. Those could be natural disasters, political activity, health issues, or currently, changes in coronavirus policy for moving about or leaving the country.
To enroll, visit STEP.state.gov or download the mobile app by searching for the Smart Tracker app and making sure it lists the Department of State as the developer.
2. Check Advisories For Your Intended Destination
Prior to traveling, or even booking travel, Americans should check the State Department and Embassy websites for any pertinent information. These sites will list any advisories or alerts about travel to your destination.
The State Department tracks trends in every country and re-assesses them on a regular basis based on risk indicators including terrorism threats, civil unrest, crime, health, and disasters.
Every location is given one of four different assessment levels:
- Blue (Level 1): Take normal precautions
- Yellow (Level 2): Increased concern about traveling to this area
- Orange (Level 3): Strongly reconsider traveling to this area
- Red (Level 4): Do not travel
The assessment levels are listed on each country’s individual page or by clicking on the country from a world map. All the information can be found at travel.state.gov/travelsafety.
3. Check The COVID Info Pages
When checking for assessments for the country you’re planning to travel to, a separate link will show you the current coronavirus situation for that country. The information is updated on an almost-daily basis, listing details about what is required to enter or exit a country, and an overall assessment of the situation based on information from the government and boots on the ground.
The COVID information is often broken down for specific states or regions of countries if rules differ throughout the country.
In addition, travelers should check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at CDC.gov for requirements to re-enter the United States. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, a negative coronavirus test must be taken within 72 hours of departure from a foreign country. The waiver process for this is very narrow, including for people who have already been fully vaccinated.
4. Get Travel Insurance
You never know when you’ll have a medical emergency, get sick, or be involved in an accident that requires hospitalization or treatment in a foreign country. Many insurance companies do not cover foreign treatment, so having travel insurance is strongly recommended.
If you are sick, the U.S. Embassy staff can help you find a doctor, assist with getting an air ambulance if necessary, and help in other ways. But they cannot help with the financial side.
5. Figure Out Where The Nearest Embassy Is Located
Having the location and phone number of the local U.S. Embassy (or Embassies) nearest to your final destination (or destinations) can be vital, experts agree. The staff can help if your passport is lost or stolen, often getting you an emergency replacement the same day. This is one of the most common things the staff handles.
Embassy officials can also help with support and filing reports if you are a victim of a crime or are arrested yourself. The experts agreed, however, that travelers need to be aware they are in a foreign country and subject to the laws there, which are often different from the U.S.
The experts agreed that Americans are paying much closer attention to travel advisories and using the State Department’s services during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Travelers should have that same level of preparation for any threat,” said Thurmond, who noted COVIDw will eventually go away but other issues will always be important to international travel. The key, she said, is to plan, plan, plan. “Read the information before you travel,” Thurmond said. “And then read it again.”