"Should I stay or should I go?"
It's a question we've been hearing a lot lately. Choosing whether to travel abroad in these uncertain times is difficult, and while a myriad of travel-related sites dispense advice, picking your way through them can be frustrating. Ultimately, no one source can give you a definitive answer. But by piecing together information from various sites, it's possible to gain a broader perspective and decide with more confidence whether to visit overseas destinations.
Here is a guide to the most useful travel advisory sites.
* U.S. Department of State Travel Warnings
With political tensions around the globe increasing, this site can be helpful in ascertaining potential travel risk and learning about a country's background. However, the State Department tends to be overly cautious, and its warnings are often colored by political calculations. Also, check the date on each advisory -- some are more than a year old.
* U.S. Transportation Security Administration
Spawned by the Sept. 11 attacks, the TSA manages airport security. Though it can be confounding to know what Threat Level Orange means, the site has helpful advice for navigating today's security measures. Click on "Can I Take It With Me?" to see what items are barred from carry-on luggage. Lots of objects, such as ski poles and knives, can be checked but not carried on board. One tip absent from the site: How to keep TSA inspectors from handling our laptops like the gorilla from the old Samsonite commercials.
* U.S. Department of State Passport Services and Information
The passport advice includes how and where to apply as well as printable application forms. "Frequently Asked Questions" covers passport renewal, getting passports quickly and what to do if your passport is lost or stolen, among other topics. The "How To . . . " section has tips on applying, adding pages to a full passport and obtaining passport records.
* U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Travelers' Health
With advisories on disease outbreaks and recommended inoculations, the CDC is an important site to consult before venturing to some Third World countries. Special sections cover safe food and water, traveling with children, and advice for elderly and disabled travelers. CDC Travel is a richly detailed site that can help you understand the health challenges you may face when traveling in the developing world.
* U.S. Customs
Getting your nail-clippers overseas is just half the battle. The other half is getting exotic treasures through customs when you get home. The U.S. Customs site includes an online brochure called "Know Before You Go," covering what you can bring into the States, penalties for failure to declare and duty-free shopping regulations. Another section covers medication -- check this if you plan to bring back prescribed drugs.
* Canada Department of Foreign Affairs
Some U.S. travelers find other countries' travel advisories more balanced than those from the U.S. State Department. To access Canada's Foreign Affairs Department, first click "English," then select "Travel Reports" for updates by country -- or click "Heads-Up" for recently issued warnings. Country travel reports and updates are nicely organized, with the most recent advisories listed at the top of the page. This site's strength is the specificity of its reports.
For a perspective from Down Under, see Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs travel page at www.dfat.gov.au/travel.
* U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The British Foreign Office provides advice on some 200 countries, with a column featuring recent travel updates (each notice is dated). Travel advisories seem more measured than those of the U.S. State Department. Beyond travel warnings, country pages include useful advice on local customs, health concerns and laws. In Jordan, for example, if a driver hits a pedestrian, the driver is always guilty and may be subject to imprisonment. Good to know.
* World Travel Watch
This weekly report about hot spots around the globe covers political uprisings, natural disasters and disease outbreaks from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The site, from the San Francisco publisher Travelers' Tales, provides timely updates that often go beyond warnings and examine countries' social, political and health conditions. Rounding out the site is a feature called "Region in Focus": In February, Greece, host of the 2004 Summer Olympics, was covered. As a publisher of literary travel anthologies, Travelers' Tales advisories are thoughtful and avoid hard-to-decipher bureaucratese.
* Robert Young Pelton's Dangerous Places
Kidnapped at gunpoint near the Panama-Colombia border in January, Robert Young Pelton, author of "The World's Most Dangerous Places," had an unwelcome opportunity to practice survival skills honed during decades of adventurous travel. His site, an online catalogue of strategies for navigating the world's hot spots, includes detailed country guides (click on "Dangerous Places") for 31 countries, including the United States. The "Black Flag Cafe" is an online forum where travelers can discuss their exploits or seek advice.
* Travel Document Systems
Wondering what documents you need to enter a country and how long you're allowed to stay? This visa agency can help you procure the necessary papers. Each country page specifies what type of visa you'll need, the cost of the visa and how to apply. TDS typically adds a surcharge of $40 per visa plus return shipping. That might sound expensive, but this is a time-saving and headache-preventing service. For those traveling on short notice, the site can expedite applications for passports and visas. Extremely urgent applications can be processed in a day plus delivery time. TDS also provides country overviews and advice about health and safety for more than 100 countries.
* Corporate Travel Safety
This compendium of advice from a former police detective includes, among other tips, a checklist for determining whether a hotel is safe: Do doors have deadbolts and peepholes? Does a hotel use key cards rather than traditional keys? From the home page, scroll down and click on "Travel Safety Tips." The site sells some nifty products, such as a small safe that looks like a can of shaving cream.
* iJet Travel Intelligence
Aimed at corporate travelers, most of iJet's services require payment. You can view recent alerts for free, but when I checked, only three warnings were posted. iJet's weekly country reports cost $14.95. For $25, "Worldcue Traveler" can provide itinerary-specific travel intelligence reports and real-time travel alerts. Travelers can have alerts automatically forwarded via e-mail or wireless device. This feature is probably the site's most valuable service: Within hours after last year's nightclub attack killed nearly 200 people in Bali, iJet was sending dispatches about the precise location of the attack and clarified that a second explosion was not at the U.S. Consulate but a few hundred feet away.
* Lonely Planet
A valuable resource for staying on top of the ever-changing global landscape, the publisher Lonely Planet complements its destination overviews with international news for travelers (click on "Travel Ticker"). A monthly advisory in this section covers political, health and weather alerts. A heavily trafficked forum called "Thorn Tree" lets travelers correspond with one another, either in public discussions or via private messages. This people-to-people advice is subjective, but it's often more insightful and descriptive than official government warnings.
* CNN Travel
CNN's travel page includes a section called "Travel Advisor" (scroll down -- it's on the left) with news, advisories and warnings. Click "Resources" for advice on obtaining a passport and getting through customs. Travel News has breaking stories from around the globe, such as a recent item about Oman issuing a warning to its citizens advising against travel to the United States. The site is best for breaking news but doesn't have great depth.
* Usenet Archive
Usenet is a vast array of forums, accessible through a branch of the popular Google search engine. Enter a country name or other search term to find discussions relevant to your concerns -- for example, "Malaysia travel safety" or "travel Turkey." Usenet, which predates the World Wide Web, contains tens of thousands of discussion groups, and hundreds of these relate to travel. Once you find a discussion of interest, you can read the comments and post a follow-up question. But don't expect someone to reply to your e-mail address; you should return to the group to see any answers. Also, it's best not to include your "real" e-mail address because spammers often grab these from online groups.
Michael Shapiro, author of "Internet Travel Planner" and creator of NetTravel.com, is a travel columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.