The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and growing threats around the globe have created an overall sense of unease among travelers. The concern has raised alarms on all levels. On Nov. 23, the State Department issued a worldwide alert that warns U.S. citizens of possible “risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats.” The message, which expires Feb. 24, highlights the potential dangers, noting that extremists might target recreational venues, such as sporting arenas, theaters and open markets, as well as aviation facilities. To better understand the new challenges of international travel, including what to do in the event of an incident, we spoke with Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director for Overseas Citizens Services of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
What should Americans do if they are traveling abroad and a terrorist attack occurs?
One of the first things is to pay very close attention to the news and to what guidance local authorities and the U.S. Embassy are putting out. Is that to shelter in place or to depart? Usually in the case of a terrorist attack, it is to shelter in place until the situation is stable enough that people can assess what is happening and what they should do next. The other thing is to call home. Many of the calls we received in the beginning [after the Paris attacks] were from people letting us know that they were safe. That’s wonderful. We are always glad to hear that. But we really want them to call their families, who are the next people who called us.
Contacting family whether by telephone or social media is really vital to let them know that you are okay or, conversely, that you need help — so that they can get the information to us and we can work with local authorities to track people and see what they need.
In the midst of a crisis, where can travelers get the best and most reliable information?
We encourage people to enroll in our Smart Traveler program, so that when we send out messages, they will receive those. [Also], the embassy’s Web site and the local news. Be aware of what networks are available and in what languages. But again, paying close attention to what local authorities are telling people to do is really important.
What shouldn’t you do?
You shouldn’t panic. That’s going to be hard, because it can be a very scary situation. Get to a safe location if you are not already in one. One thing we would say: Don’t go to the embassy. Usually when these kinds of attacks occur, we want people to hunker down in a safe place. Moving about in the streets is not a good idea. It’s what the local authorities advise against. The embassy really isn’t equipped to be a safe haven. Furthermore, 1) people put themselves at risk by going there, and 2) the embassies are often targets themselves.
Should people stay put or book a flight out after an attack?
Stay put until it’s safe to move. If they are uncomfortable being in that location, in that country, and they want to change their flight to leave, they can start looking into that. It’s very difficult to stay put sometimes, but often that is the best advice the local authorities can give us.
What happens if an American visitor has to evacuate the area?
Our first recommendation is to get on a commercial flight and get out of there as quickly as possible. We would provide a charter or, in the worst-case scenario, Department of Defense transport, a last resort when commercial flights are not adequate to meet the demand. But it’s pretty uncommon for us to do that. We caution people that if we are going to evacuate you, sometimes it takes time to put that together. We are going to have to ask you to sign a promissory note to reimburse us for the cost. And you’re going to end up going where we take you and not necessarily where you want to be. It is not the most advantageous travel plan.
Should Americans let the State Department know they are traveling abroad?
If they let us know, we very much appreciate that. What happens after an attack, we get information from the public and individuals who are injured or from family and friends. But we also reach out to the local authorities and sometimes physically go out to the hospitals and morgues to try to identify anyone who might be a U.S. citizen.
Should visitors always carry a passport or other identification verifying their nationality?
Having something that identifies you as a U.S. citizen is always very important.
Should you leave a copy of your itinerary with a family member or friend, so they know your whereabouts?
Yes, indeed. Leave your itinerary and establish a communication plan — how often should your family or friends expect to hear from you? Many of the calls we received after the Paris attacks were from people who knew that they had a loved one somewhere in France, but they weren’t sure quite where. Having a phone that works overseas is really important. You obviously can’t reach out to people unless your phone works. And pre-program numbers into your phone. For example, adding in the phone number for the after-hours duty phone for the U.S. embassy and knowing what the local 911 number is.
People are more hesitant to travel these days. What would you say to them?
Everybody has their own threat comfort level or threshold for risk. If you are going on business, you may not have much of a choice. And then it’s about having a plan, so you can think through what you would do and know what your company’s policies and procedures and resources are, should there be an incident. If you are going on vacation, think about what you are comfortable with, knowing that in the aftermath of an attack there will be heightened security. That will mean, on the one hand, that you might feel safer but, on the other hand, you should expect intensified screening and delays at airports. But again, it is an individual decision.
Any final thoughts?
No matter where you go and when you go on vacation, remember that things can happen anywhere. People tend to let their guard down when they are one vacation. Don’t do anything abroad that you wouldn’t do at home.
Note: A few hours after our conversation, the agency released its Worldwide Travel Alert. In a response the next day, Bernier-Toth wrote in an e-mail, “We are urging U.S. citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance and exercise particular caution during the holiday season and at sites frequented by tourists. . . . We are not advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Europe, or any region in particular.”
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