Of course, whatever I'd learned about internal problems in Peru last May would have been of mixed value if I'd been a tour passenger or traveling on any of many restricted air fares. In such instances, the next move may not be entirely in the traveler's hands: Suppliers can cancel without forfeit, but generally you cannot.
For example, if the State Department is vetoing travel to an area, chances are your flight or tour will be canceled or changed. When State is only saying, "go at your own risk," travelers who want out may have to pay a penalty. It depends on the airline rules in some cases, on the judgment of tour operators in others - although you can, of course, take your case to court if you wind up in a dispute.
Of three charter operators with Peruvian tours, one, Travam, canceled trips through May 31. Another, "25" West Tours, continued its program but said it was allowing passengers who didn't want to go drop out without a penalty or by forfeiting only the price of any hotel space that might be noncancelable. A third, Delite Tours Ltd., was doing business as usual.
"It's just a strike," said Delite's Joe Aimee. "Hey, you go up to Central Park in a week than they do in a year in Lima. Nobody seems to worry about that."
How would he treat cancellation requests from passengers who might not accept either notion and worry anyhow? "Well, if we feel that there's no problem and they're within the (no) cancellation period, they'd pay the penalty. On the other hand, if we feel there would be a problem, there'd be no penalty. I mean, I'm not stupid or inhumane, you know . . . But if I checked with my people and they say everything's okay and they (the passengers) are just nervous or skitish, that's their problem."
So when it is your problem, how do you cope with it? Clearly, when it's "your money or your life," there's a certain advantage to giving up the money. But it's unlikely that you'll be faced with that choice. Either the airline or tour operator will back off first, through sometimes they will elect to bypass the troubled area and substitute another destination. If you know this early enough, however, you may be able to say whether you want to accept the alternative or not.
If you must accept the original place or pay a penalty, the problem is somewhat magnified. In that case, the most practical course of action is the same as it would be for independent travelers: Call all possible sources of information and try to assess what they tell you.
Even though the U.S. Passport Agency is offering aid, for the time being I think I'd still prefer to follow in the footsteps of a Foreign Service officer who in unofficial conversation admitted, "If I were a traveler, I'd be doing things I'm not anxious for people to do. I'd call the (State Department's) country desk."
During Monday-Friday business hours, there's at least an easy way for most people to get the country desk's telephone number. In 85 cities you can look under "U.S. Government" listings in the phone directory and call the local number for the Federal Information Center. The center's operator can then give you the proper State Department country desk number for Afghanistan, Zaire or what-have-you.
When questioning people, don't just ask, "Is it safe?" To get enough information to go on, be ready with specific questions that bear on whether your visit will be what you planned it to be. But don't expect forecasts.
Disturbances, of course, do not necessarily have any effect on tourists. I once had a long lunch and missed an entire revolution. I've also discovered that being one of the first tourists to return to a country after a troubled period can have built-in bonuses: In postrevolution Portugal a few years ago, I was spoiled with superattentive service, my choice of superior hotel rooms and newly reduced prices.