BEFORE YOU GOÖ
Plan ahead. If you donít have a valid passport, apply for one Ė ideally, at least three months before your departure date. See the special section below on Passports and Visas.
Learn and prepare. Youíll find the visit even more enjoyable if you know something about the country or countries you will be traveling in. Buy or borrow some books or travel magazines so you can read about their culture, people, and history.
Books, magazines, newspaper travel sections and websites for travelers can all be sources of information on your destination (as well as advice on everything from discount airfares to international health insurance). Your travel agency and the consulate or tourist bureau of your destination country can often provide free information or brochures.
Preventive measures. Find out if you should be immunized against any diseases endemic in your destination country, or whether there are other health concerns you need to know about. For example, you may need a vaccination or booster shot against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, typhoid, or hepatitis A.
Ask your physician or call a travelersí health clinic, the local health department, or the international travelersí hotline at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (404) 332-4559.
You can also consult the U.S. Public Health Service book, Health Information for International Travel. Ask early, because in some cases a series of immunizations is needed. And for more details on precautions such as health or trip insurance, see the HEALTH TIPS FOR SENIOR TRAVELERS checklist in this series.
Packing advice. Take only the clothing youíll really need so you wonít have to carry too many heavy suitcases. Do pack at least one item for unseasonably warm or cool weather.
Even if youíre going to a tropical beach, bring a sweater or shawl for cooler evenings and air-conditioned environments. But if you can, bring clothing you can wash and wear again.
Remember those comfortable walking shoes. And think about the image you will project with your clothing: some items can advertise the fact youíre a tourist and may attract thieves or pickpockets. Do not bring on your trip any items of monetary or sentimental value.
Keep essentials, such as a change of clothing, in your carry-on bag. Lost luggage is a fact of travel life and locating lost bags takes an average of three days.
Better safe than sorry: plan ahead for a lost or stolen passport. Photocopy the data page at the front of your passport and on the other side of the sheet, note the addresses and telephone numbers of the U.S. embassies and consulates in the countries you plan to visit.
Pack this sheet, along with two recent passport-sized photos of yourself, but do not keep it with your passport!
Tel l others where you are going. Leave a detailed itinerary, including your schedule, hotel addresses and telephone numbers, with a friend or relative.
Also leave a sheet noting your passport number, and the date and site it was issued; and all other relevant details such as credit card, travelers check, and airline ticket numbers.
Keep another copy of this information with you, perhaps with your passport replacement kit. If you must alter your travel plans Ė for example, if you miss your return flight Ė make sure you call or otherwise notify someone at home.
Donít try to do it all. Travel should be exciting, but itís also ideal to allow yourself time to relax. You donít have to be on the go every minute you are away.
Also remember that you will be in a different country, where amenities may not be the same as at home and climate and diet changes can have health consequences.
Reading up on your destination will help you prepare, but it can also be a good idea to consult your physician before you depart.
The State Department: A valuable resource
A great source of up-to-date travel information on any country in the world is the Department of State. Its Consular Information Sheets give useful details on health matters or regulations on currency or entry into the country.
They also warn about any crime and security conditions (such as areas of political instability) and penalties for being caught with illegal substances.
The State Department sometimes recommends that Americans delay or defer their trip to a certain country because it is unsafe. These Travel Warnings are reviewed regularly.
The Department sometimes makes public announcements so that potential travelers are informed immediately about temporary conditions or problems that might pose a risk for U.S. residents traveling abroad.
Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings and Public Announcements are recorded, so you can listen to them by phoning the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-5225. You must have a touch-tone telephone.
You can ask for a printed copy at a regional passport agency, a field office of the Department of Commerce, or any U.S. embassy or consulate. Alternatively, you can write to the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Room 4811, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C. 20520-4818. You must indicate which countries you are interested in visiting and include a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
You can also receive copies of the information direct to your fax machine. Use your fax machine keypad or handset to dial (202) 647-3000. Youíll hear voice prompts that tell you how to proceed.
All the State Departmentís warnings and other information are also posted on its website. The site is also good for anyone looking for information on applying for a passport or visa or travel publications. It even contains details on international adoption and child abduction or legal assistance; and if you would like to read the Consular Affairs mission statement, itís here, too.
Another way to receive consular affairs information by computer is the free Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). Using your computer, dial the CABB at (301) 946-4400. The login is travel; the password is info.
Look for the USEFUL DOCUMENTS FOR TRAVELERS checklist, another in the Helpful Hints series.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
Passports. As stated above, if you donít already have a valid passport, you should apply for one three months before you plan to travel. Some countries also require you to have a visa to enter. If that is the case for your destination, more time will be needed because you must have a passport first.
If you have never had a passport before, you must apply in person at a passport office or one of the many court or post offices designated to accept passport applications.
To complete your application (Form DSP-11) you will need to bring proof you are a U.S. citizen (a certified copy of your birth certificate, a naturalization certificate, or a Consular Report of Birth Abroad), and another proof of your identity such as a driverís license with a photo.
You will also require two copies of a recent portrait photo (many photo centers can take these passport shots for a nominal fee). There will be a fee to process your application. Your birth certificate or other ID will be retained temporarily and returned with your new passport.
If you have had a passport within the past 12 years (and you still have it), you may be able to complete the application process by mail. Ask for Form DSP-82, "Application for Passport by Mail," at any office that accepts passport applications. Some travel agents also keep these forms on hand.
If your trip is due to an emergency, you can ask for a passport application to be processed more quickly (it still takes about two weeks). You must apply in person at a passport agency, and be prepared to show your airline tickets and itinerary along with the ID documents mentioned above.
Another option is to apply at a court or post office and arrange to have the application sent to the passport agency through an overnight delivery service. If you use this service, you will have to include a self-addressed, prepaid envelope for the return of your passport.
On your application be sure to list your dates of departure or other relevant travel plans, and include a check for all appropriate fees (including the $35 expedite fee).
Once you have your passport, sign it in the correct spot on the first page. Write the contact information (page 4) in pencil as you may want to change it over the life of your passport.
This will simplify notification of your family or friends in case of an emergency. Remember that the person or people you are traveling with should not be designated as contacts for emergency purposes.
Visas. Some countries require you to have a visa Ė that is, a government endorsement or stamp in your passport that allows you to visit that country for a specified reason and duration.
In many cases, the easiest place to obtain a visa is the countryís embassy or consulate. A knowledgeable travel agent will be able to help you. Remember that a U.S. passport is not the same thing as a visa, and U.S. passport agencies do not obtain visas for you.
You can find the address for many foreign consulates in your cityís telephone book (alternatively check your local library for a Congressional Directory). Another option is to write to the countryís embassy in Washington, D.C. and ask for the address of a consulate near your home.
The Department of Stateís booklet, Foreign Entry Requirements, lists visa and other entry requirements and locations of all foreign embassies and consulates in the U.S.
More and more countries have established entry requirements regarding AIDS testing, especially for people who plan to be in the country for a lengthy period. Again, the countryís embassy or consulate is the best source of information.
MONEY AND VALUABLES
Avoid carrying cash. Take some cash with you, of course, but just enough for expenses for a day or so.
Obtain a small amount of the foreign currency you will require so that you can pay for incidentals (taxis, telephone calls, snacks, tips, etc.) when you first arrive in a country. You can exchange your dollars for the foreign currency at some banks or from foreign exchange dealers (often available at the airport).
Travelerís checks will protect your spending money. You can exchange them for cash as you need it. Local banks often offer better rates of exchange than hotels, restaurants or stores.
Automated teller machines (ATMs) are often available in countries abroad, and may allow you to make withdrawals with your debit or bank card.
They will usually offer a competitive exchange rate. Before you leave, ask your bank which ATM service is available in the country you plan to visit, and whether you might need to change your PIN number (in some countries, only four-digit personal identification numbers are possible).
Note that this service should be considered only a ďbackupĒ method of obtaining cash because it will not always be available.
Some countries have currency restrictions. In other words, it is against the law to enter or leave the country with its paper notes or coins. Find out whether these restrictions are in place before your trip begins.
You will probably also want to carry a credit card. Carry one that is internationally recognized and leave others at home. Make sure you know what your credit card limit is. It has happened that travelers who have inadvertently exceeded their limit have been arrested for fraud.
Avoid carrying jewelry or other valuables. If you must take valuable items with you (and this goes for things such as cameras, too), register them with United States Customs before you depart. This will prove you already owned them when you left the country. While you are traveling, store your valuables in hotel safety deposit boxes or security vaults.
Driving. American-issued automobile insurance is fine if youíre traveling in the United States and Canada. However, if you plan to use a car in any other country, you must have automobile insurance for that country. If you will be renting a car, find out whether the contract includes insurance and whether it is adequate; you may wish to purchase extra coverage.
Remember that driving in other countries is not exactly the same as driving at home! In most countries outside the U.S., speed limits and distances are posted in kilometers, not miles. And in many countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, you drive on the left-hand side of the road.
Air travel. Overseas flights generally take six hours or more. To prevent fatigue and joint stiffness, walk up and down the aisle periodically and try to do some stretching or exercises in place.
Drink plenty of plain water during the flight to avoid dehydration. Once you have landed, avoid the temptation to nap. Itís best to become acclimatized by staying up. If you are sleepy, take a walk or use your hotel's exercise room.
Reconfirm. If you will be traveling from place to place during your trip, be sure to confirm your next flight or hotel reservation a day or so ahead. Itís best to have a written confirmation or reservation number.
If you are flying internationally, you may be asked to reconfirm your reservation 72 hours ahead of time. If you donít, your name may be deleted from the passenger list and your seat resold.
Register. If your travel plans include a longer stay (two weeks or longer) in an unstable area or where an emergency situation could arise, call and register with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Then, if someone wants to reach you from the United States to make sure you are all right, you will be easier to reach.
PRACTICAL SAFETY PRECAUTIONS
When in RomeÖ Remember that when you in another country you must follow its laws. The U.S. constitution has no force outside the United States.
If you run into a problem or are arrested, you do have the right to contact or ask the local authorities to call the U.S. consulate. U.S. consular staff cannot force your release from jail but they can inform you of your rights and put you in touch with a local attorney.
If you should be detained, they will also stay in touch with you and ensure you are being treated fairly according to local (not U.S.) law.
Protect your passport. Your passport is extremely valuable because it confirms your identity and that you are an American citizen. Ideally, you should keep it separate from your money.
Do not leave it packed in your suitcase while you are out sightseeing. But do keep in your suitcase a sheet or notebook with your passport number and other data from page 1, in case you need to replace it. (See other security measures in the Passports and Visas section).
If you do lose your passport, report the loss or theft to local police. Ask for a copy of their report. Call the nearest U.S. embassy or consular office immediately so you can start the application process for a new one.
In some countries, you will be asked to give your passport to the hotel management overnight or for several days. Itís not a cause for concern unless your passport isnít given back as quickly as promised.
Robbery. You will be less of a target if you follow a few precautions. Donít let your handbag dangle from one shoulder strap. Have the strap cross your body or carry the bag tucked under an arm.
Avoid keeping a wallet in the back pocket of your pants. Another tip is to wrap your wallet in elastic bands. This will make it less slippery and harder to remove from your pocket without your noticing.
Itís best to keep your money and other valuable items in an inside front pocket or in a money belt. You can purchase special belts or pouches in many travel or luggage shops or department stores.
Be watchful. Try not to look diffident or confused. Always look as if you know where you are headed. Be especially alert in a busy or crowded spot such as a marketplace, train station, or elevator. Remember that busy tourist areas are also prime spots for theft.
ASSISTANCE FROM U.S. EMBASSIES AND CONSULATES
Emergencies. If you have a problem while traveling, and especially a serious legal, medical, or financial difficulty, call or visit the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Consular officers are not attorneys, bankers or travel agents. But they are there to provide assistance and advice. If you are out of travelerís checks or need extra money (for medical services, for example) they will help you reach family or friends who can wire you funds.
Advice. Staff at the U.S. consulate can also give information you may need on citizenship rights or the transfer of Social Security or other payments to a local bank. They can also tell you how to go about voting in U.S. elections or submit your tax forms. They can also notarize documents and advise U.S. citizens on property claims.
In case of death. Each year, about 2,000 Americans die while vacationing or traveling abroad. In this situation, consular officers will contact the victimís family.
It is a good idea to make sure you have trip or health insurance that covers the cost of burial or cremation or, if you prefer, shipment of remains home to the United States. If this is not pre-arranged, your family Ė and not the U.S. government Ė will have to pay for these often costly services.
DO NOT BRING HOMEÖ
Remember that it is often illegal to buy and bring home any souvenirs that come from endangered animal species. If you try to bring any of these items home, they will be confiscated and you will probably have to pay a fine:
Anything made from sea turtles.
Ivory, both Asian and African.
Furs from leopards or other spotted cats.
Furs from marine mammals, such as seals.
Feathers and feather products from wild birds.
Live or stuffed birds from Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Venezuela, and some Caribbean countries.
Most crocodile and caiman leather.
Most coral, including that already made into jewelry.
Fruit and vegetables are also not permitted in your luggage.
WHEN YOU RETURN
Have ready Ö When you come back through U.S. customs and immigration, you should have ready to show your passport and receipts for anything you have bought while traveling.
You are allowed to make a verbal declaration on $400 worth of goods without paying duty. You will pay a tax of 10% on any items totaling up to $1000 more. U.S. Customs can give you more information.
Money. You can bring in or leave the U.S. with any amount of money or ďnegotiable instrumentsĒ. But if the amount is more than $10,000 it must be reported on U.S. Customs Form 4790.