A couple of months before my recent trip to Europe bombs exploded in Brussels, including two at the airport. I don’t frighten easily, but like much of the world I stopped in my tracks to get more news. Since television and social media survive partly by being home to drama queens and kings, I may have made a mistake. So, after a day focusing on the carnage, I got to work solving my problem: how to feel safe while traveling in the age of terror. One solution? The STEP program.
An acronym for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, STEP is a free service of the US State Department. It allows US citizens traveling abroad to connect with the US embassy in case of emergencies and events like those in Brussels. STEP brings the traveler actual, real-time information about events where you’re traveling.
How to Enroll in the STEP program
First of all, create an account. It’s free and easy. Complete the form online by supplying your name, email address and phone number (I used my google voice number, which gives me free texting any time I’m on wifi). Add your date of birth and an emergency contact (I chose someone who will be in the USA while I’m traveling outside the country.) Provide a passport number, issue and expiry dates. Include (optional) information about yourself, like health and accessibility issues.
Why Enroll in STEP?
Once you’ve got a STEP program account, you can enroll any upcoming trips you’ve planned. What are the benefits of sharing your travel plans with STEP? According to the US State Department’s website, you will
- Receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country to help you make informed decisions about your travel plans. (Italics are mine)
- Help the US Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency
- Help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency
I also recommend that travelers follow the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs on twitter for updates on alerts and warnings.
Informed, not Fearful
The atmosphere of fear and drama that media creates by coverage of events like those in Brussels and Nice far outstrips the reality of risk to travelers. Being an informed traveler is the best way to avoid unwitting participation in that fear. Keep things in perspective.
The secret to living and travel in the age of terror is to react rationally, with less fear. Yes, there will surely be terrorist attacks in the future. Will they happen to you? The risk is extremely minimal. You can reduce it further by enrolling in the STEP program. Furthermore, take the normal precautions of a good traveler:
- Stay aware of your surroundings
- Steer clear of demonstrations and large public gatherings
As I wrote in The Traveler as Ambassador: “The world isn’t as dangerous as the media (and your cousin) think. Yes, there are crimes of economics and crimes of politics…but both are rare if you behave like the smart, savvy, confident person you are.”
First Responders Respond
While on the Houston-to-Newark leg of my trip, I met a group of a dozen Belgian firefighters heading home after two weeks of training in the USA. I asked them about the terrorist bombing at Brussel’s airport. Several had been on duty that day, helping Belgians and visitors by allaying fears and standing between them and potential danger. Most interesting to me were their responses to my question, “How are you holding up as emergency responders in the age of terror?”
By being informed, not fearful.
Living life rather than remain glued to a media feed
Traveling whenever they can and exploring the world, not hiding from it
Being respectful of people they meet (like nosy writers on a plane to Newark)
Finally, I’ve said it before and here it is again: safe doesn’t mean that you stop exploring places you haven’t yet explored, or avoid travel to places you’ve dreamed about. My advice is this: understand your fears; find out whether they are well-founded or a product of media hype and myth. Stay informed. Start by enrolling in the STEP program.
- US State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) https://step.state.gov/step/
- Traveling as a family? One adult can enroll, listing family members as accompanying travelers.
- Traveling as a large group? Select “Create Organization/Group Account” at the bottom of the homepage. You can quickly enroll a large travel group by uploading a spreadsheet of travelers’ information.
- Click here to learn more about a destination country.
- Locate US embassies around the world at this link
- Also, know the difference between the US State Department’s Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts.
- Travel Warnings are issued to recommend postponing travel to a country due to civil unrest, dangerous conditions, or terrorist activity.
- Travel Alerts are for short-term, fast-breaking events that could pose significant risks to you or affect your travel plans. Examples might include an election season likely to have many demonstrations or disturbances, a health alert like an outbreak of H1N1, or evidence of an elevated risk of terrorist attacks.