On December 21, 1988, Pan Am flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, by a terrorist bomb which an unsuspecting passenger carried on board. All 259 passengers and crew, as well as 11 people on the ground, were killed in that disaster. 

     A week before the bombing a man had telephoned the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, and told them that a Pan Am flight to the United States from Frankfurt, Germany, would be blown up in the coming weeks. The warning, taken serious by the State Department, was forwarded to dozens of embassies and the FAA.  The FAA in turn sent it to all U.S. air carriers.  Somehow the urgency of the message was lost in the Frankfurt terminal. The day after the bombing, a security team at the Frankfurt terminal found the message on an office desk, under a stack of papers.
 
     Fallout from this incident led to Pan Am being sued by the families of the victims and it was suggested that the State Department didn’t do enough to warn the airline.
    
     At that time computers were only beginning to find their way into the American home, and the World Wide Web was only a thought in the minds of a handful of futurists. Today the internet is at everyone’s fingertips.  State Department warnings still go out to governments of other countries, airports around the world, and all air carriers whenever circumstances dictate.  But the savvy traveler knows it is his or her own responsibility to find out just how hazardous their trip might be, and they must take it upon themselves to read the State Department advisories on its website (www.state.gov).  This website includes a listing of all nations and warns of potential hazards that the traveler should be aware of.   These warnings are of two categories: Travel Alerts and Travel Warnings.

     Travel Alerts are temporary events lasting at most only a few weeks or months.  These alerts cover things such as possible strikes and demonstrations, health alerts (i.e., a localized flu outbreak), or an elevated risk of a possible terrorist attack.  Once the event has passed, the alert is cancelled.  A travel alert is no reason to cancel a trip, but will inform you of additional precautions you may need to consider. Hopefully they will make you more observant and vigilant during your journey.

     Travel Warnings, on the other hand, are much more serious and are posted when there is serious risk.  These events could be life threatening and the traveler should consider postponing a trip to destinations so flagged until it has been revoked (which could take many years).  Things like intense crime or violence, civil war, and frequent terror attacks are among the reasons for their release. 

     Some travelers feel that the State Department has become overly cautious, sometimes issuing warnings and alerts for the most mundane things. For those who believe this or have suspicions about cancelling or postponing their trip, don’t simply disregard the State Department advisories, get a second opinion. 

     There are a number of nations other our own that have their fingers on the political pulse of the world and advise their countrymen of potential travel hazards.  Some of the best alternate advisory sites include: the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs travel warning site, the British Foreign Office travel site, and advisories issued by the Canadian Government.  Use your search engine to find these websites and see what they have to say. Sometimes these adviseries and warning have only to do with Americans, so DO NOT proudly display your muscle-shirt embellished with an American flag!

     It also doesn’t hurt to keep up with current worldwide affairs in the news, especially if the political climate of the country you are traveling to is one of the top stories of the evening broadcasts. (Recently the report of three murdered surfers—two Australians and an American—made national news.) Keep abreast of the situation at your intended destination, not just the weather.  If there are public demonstrations, what is the cause of the disturbance?  Is the country showing animosity to travelers?  If so, is this animosity directed only toward Americans while tolerating other English-speaking nationalities?  Arm yourself with the best information you can as early in your planning stage as possible, and check again about a month before you are scheduled to leave, just to make sure that conditions haven’t gotten worse. 

     Because international events can change the world political setting in a matter of days, consider joining the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). 

     STEP is designed specifically for the international traveler, and it will update you on the conditions in your destination country, help the Embassy contact you in an emergency, and help your family and friends get in touch with you if necessary.  It can also get you to safety in the event of a natural disaster, non-political unrest (like soccer riots and student protests), and catastrophic accidents at or near your hotel (building fires, train derailments, etc.).  The service, paid for by your tax dollars, is absolutely free.  It makes sense to use it, so be safe and register before your journey.  Visit the website (https://step.state.gov/step/) and answer some questions concerning your trip.  For the frequent traveler there are instructions on how to create an account. 

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STEP on it!