Travel Safety — Where can US citizens and other travelers get necessary information?

Front view of the Perito Moreno glacier, Patagonia by pclvv,

As events unfolded in Egypt during recent weeks, countries across the globe watched from a front row seat via television and the Internet. Newspapers and magazines were loaded with detailed news stories and images from Egypt.

The US State Department and European Union governments placed Egypt travel warnings prominently on their websites. Everyone knew it was dangerous for travelers in Egypt.

That being said, can we always depend on the news media and government agencies and departments to warn and inform us of travel safety dangers?

Unfortunately, the answer is, “It depends.”

In January, a serious situation developed in Patagonia acutely affecting travelers there.

Patagonia is the southernmost region of South America, located in both Argentina and Chile. Both Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and the magnificent Tierra del Fuego National Park are located in Patagonia.

On January 11, 2011, citizens of the Magallanes region of Chilean Patagonia struck over a regional natural gas price increase of 16%. They erected highly effective road blocks throughout the area. Access to the Argentine border, other regions of Chile, airports, and the region’s cities by travelers and others was shut down. In the regional capital, Punta Arenas, there were demonstrations. Cars were burnt at many of the road blocks. On the first day of the strike, two women died.

As many as 600–1,000 travelers were stranded, due to the strike. Photographer Thom Hogan wrote about his experience being marooned in Patagonia. He and his group were stranded for 4 days, while others were stranded longer. Before they could get out with the help of the Red Cross and Chilean military, they managed to pass through numerous road blocks on foot, manned by angry Patagonians. At one point they hiked about 10 kilometers, with all their luggage, to get to safety. Many times during their ordeal they were heckled and screamed at by Patagonians, and scared to death.

Did you miss this story in the news in the US and Europe? Most people did, as in general, main stream media outlets didn’t cover the story. Even on the Internet, it was hard to find. A few travel information websites including Consumer Traveler’s own forums had information on the strike, as did Reuters’ Spanish language website had limited coverage of the strike.

The US State Department travel website, and other government websites weren’t much better. On the US State Department website, I went to the Chile Country Specific Information page and found nothing about the situation. Neither the State Department’s “Travel Warning” page or their “Current Travel Alerts” page had any mention of the dangerous situation in Chilean Patagonia.

The one place the US State Department published information about the strike and the serious problems it was causing travelers was the US Embassy in Santigo Chile “Warden Message” page, a location few US citizens know exists.

Warden Messages are important messages for US citizens traveling, working or living abroad about safety and other critical matters, issued by the appropriate US Embassy.

Considering the dangerous Chilean Patagonia situation which has now ended, many are asking how travelers can get essential safety information before and during their travels, even when dangerous situations aren’t considered newsworthy.

As a US Citizen, I start at the US Department of State website, on their “International Travel Information” pages. Other countries, such as Canada, have similar information on their websites.

I start with “Country Specific Information.” In each countries’ information you’ll find specific data about their “safety and security” as well as “crime.”

I check their “Travel Warnings” page. Travel Warnings are issued when “long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country.” Details about the perilous situation in Mali where westerners are being kidnapped can be found here.

I check their “Travel Alerts” page. Travel Alerts are issued to “disseminate information about short-term conditions, either transnational or within a particular country, that pose significant risks to the security of U.S. citizens.” You might be following the news about the political and social unrest in Tunisia. The State Department has a detailed travel alert about Tunisia.

As we learned during the Chilean Patagonia situation, it’s also critical to check the “Warden Messages” issued by US Embassies in the countries you’re visiting, on their individual websites. Other countries’ embassies offer the same service.

Before leaving on a trip abroad, I also search for, and then bookmark websites which offer reliable traveler safety information for the countries I’m visiting. I check them before and during my travels. Travelers to Chilean Patagonia who had bookmarked would have had timely information about the troubles in Patagonia.

When US Citizens travel abroad they should register with the State Department in their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Other countries, such as the United Kingdom have similar services.

Prior to leaving the US on each of my trips, I enter my complete itinerary, and contact information on the STEP website. By using STEP, in an emergency, the US State Department can contact me while I’m traveling to give me information and assistance, and keep my family, at home, informed of my situation.

Finally, I believe in the value of travel agents, and use mine for every trip abroad, without exception. I use my travel agent for a host of reasons, not the least of which is, if things go awry while away, and they sometimes do, no matter how well travel is planned, I can count on him for professional assistance. That’s something you don’t get from a booking engine which calls itself an agent, or when self booking.

  • wendy reinan

    GREAT positing!/

  • David Mathe

    Ned, a well written
    article. I was on this trip with Thom Hogan. We along with the several thousand
    others were ignored by the press. Even calls to the US State Department in
    Santiago were initially ignored. Ultimately after 4 days we were rescued by the
    the Red Cross and the Chilean Air Force. It was never as bad as what happened in
    Egypt, Syria, or Libya – but not what I expected. When the Chilean Air Force
    finally got us to the Punta Arenas it still took several hundreds of dollars of
    phone calls to the American Express travel agency to get my flight arraignments
    updated. The Platinum AMEX travel folks that I talked to had no information that
    we had been held hostage for four days. DJM