The Traveler

Issue: July 2015

An informational bulletin on security, medical, and travel related issues






Regional Information

Africa - East Asia - Europe - Near East - South Asia - Western Hemisphere


US Embassy and Consulate Assistance for Travelers: What, When, How?

When you woke up in the hotel room that morning, it seemed like it was going to be a good day. But now you’re here, in a foreign country, and that thing, that bad thing that happens to people when they travel but never to you: it just happened. Your passport was stolen. You were mugged. There’s been an attack. Now you have to decide what to do. Do you call the local police? Or, wait, the US Embassy? You’re supposed to call the embassy, right? But how do you call them – and, once you do, how can they help you?  

What are US embassies and consulates, and where are they?
The US Embassies, consulates, and missions are diplomatic spaces representing the presence of the United States in a foreign country. They are the epicenters of interaction between the US and the host country’s government and military, as well as its education and business communities. They build outreach to civic groups and schools, and they handle the screening process for the issuance of US travel visas to citizens of the host country. And, yes, they provide support to private US citizens traveling or living in the host country. Thousands of people each year seek assistance from their countries’ embassies. 

What’s the difference between an embassy and a consulate?
Embassies have ambassadors and are usually located in capital cities. Consulates are headed by a Consular General who is a high ranking diplomat. Consulates are generally smaller and located in smaller cities (though this is not always true), and while a country can only field one embassy and post one ambassador per host country, it can establish multiple consulates in the same country. Both embassies and consulates have a staff of diplomats called Consular Officers, whose job it is to assist U.S. citizens in need.

Currently, the US State Department has the largest diplomatic presence in the world: 307 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions operating in 190 foreign countries. Consulates and embassies can adjust their operational status based on local conditions, and facilities can temporarily shutter due to internal unrest or other security or environmental conditions. For countries with which the US does not have official diplomatic relations, there is no US State Department presence. This is the case, for example, in Bhutan, North Korea, and Iran. The US also does not maintain a physical presence in some smaller countries, including several small island nations and Guinea-Bissau. 

Embassies, consulates, and missions support travelers in three main capacities. First, they act as a mini-US government outpost, providing a way to get in contact with the US government regarding things like taxes or official US-issued paperwork. Second, they act as a facilitator between US citizens and the local government. And finally, they assist travelers during major crises.  

What can they do?
• They can help you get a new passport if yours is lost or stolen.
• They can help you navigate the process of starting a business or entering into a legal agreement in the host country, usually by putting you in touch with a lawyer. 
• They can help you get medical attention, get medical insurance, and/or arrange funerals in the host country. 
• They can help you find a translator.
• They can, and will, provide support if you’ve been assaulted, including sexual assault response.
• They can tell you how to transfer money legally. 
• If you go missing, they can help your next of kin, though they cannot carry out investigations or assume the role of any local law enforcement body. 
• They can help you coordinate paying your taxes or voting from abroad. 
• If your child is born while abroad, they can issue a birth certificate, provided that both parents are naturalized US citizens.
• During a national emergency, for example, a civil war or natural disaster, they will provide support, to include coordinating the evacuation of all US citizens in country.
• If you’re arrested, they can provide some support, including sending a representative to the jail to visit you and helping your family visit you. They can help you connect with international prisoners’ welfare groups, and take reports about any mistreatment. They may be able to provide food supplements and reading materials. In places where prisoners can use money, they can help family members transfer funds. They may also be able to arrange visits from clergy.

What can’t they do? 
• They can’t give you money or pay your bills, including medical bills.
• They can’t get you out of jail or interfere with court proceedings.
• They can’t help you with marrying a local.
• They can’t get you a plane ticket if you miss your flight.
• They can’t help you enter or stay in the country without the appropriate visas from local officials.
• They can’t give you legal advice.
• They can’t send packages.

What will it cost?
Embassies and consulates don’t charge for most of their services, although a traveler will have to pay for things like the cost of a new passport. One exception to the “no cost” principle is emergency evacuation. In the case of a mass evacuation of all US citizens, the embassy may retroactively charge people who were evacuated the cost of a coach-class ticket. 

How can you contact an embassy, consulate, or mission?
The easiest way to remain in touch with the local embassy or consulate is through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (known as STEP), which travelers can access online prior to departing, online once in country, or in person while in country. Once a traveler registers, they’ll receive important information about safety conditions in the destination country via email or phone. The registration also populates the embassy’s list of US citizens in country, which can smooth the process of getting embassy assistance during a major event or disaster. Alternatively, the main State Department web site,, has a search function linking to all embassy, consulate, and diplomatic mission contact information and addresses.

You can also download the Assist America Mobile App for Android and iPhone with the ability to locate the Embassies/Consulates of more than 20 countries worldwide.
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So You Want to Go to Cuba...

In mid-December 2014, President Barack Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations and ease tensions with Cuba. Travelers immediately reacted. The Associated Press reports that the first quarter of 2015 saw a 36-percent increase in the number of visits by Americans to Cuba compared to the same reporting period last year. More than 50,000 US citizens made the trip. It looks like hundreds of thousands of US citizens will be able to travel to Havana in the next few years. Once travelers step off the ferry or tarmac, what will they find? Beautiful beaches and lovely Old World architecture, say the travel blogs and books – but what challenges? And if something goes wrong, what will the diplomatic situation and the related travel limitation mean for travelers seeking help?

Bureaucratic Barriers
At present, tourism is still technically illegal, but the necessary paperwork and transport options are becoming easier for casual and business-minded travelers to navigate. The US government permits travel under twelve categories, spanning from religious travel and family visits to the vague “support for the Cuban people”. Travel agencies report that would-be vacationers and business travelers probing investment or partnership opportunities are finding the tourism ban to be a minor obstacle. 

Getting There
Like securing the necessary paperwork, physically reaching Havana is becoming more feasible. Airline companies, led by Delta, are pushing for direct travel routes to open as quickly as legally allowed. The Carnival cruise company is pushing for permission to begin docking at Cuban ports in the next few years. And a planned ferry line from south Florida to Havana promises to eventually turn getting to Cuba into a simple overnight boat ride

Petty crime is likely to be the most widespread issue for most travelers. Official crime statistics for Cuba are not available, but the US State Department warns that the historically low level of opportunistic petty crimes is rising apace with the increase of visitors. Pickpockets and purse snatchers target travelers in touristy areas of Havana, and hotels–particularly those in older areas of the city–lack security protections. Violent crimes are rare; however, US travelers have been attacked on occasion. Perpetrators have generally been armed with knives and small caliber guns. Incidents have most frequently happened when travelers were engaging in illegal behavior, specifically when hiring sex workers. 

Travelers report that scams are casual and common, and they usually involve individuals who try to bilk travelers out of a couple of bucks. Famously, the Cuban cigars hawked as being factory produced are most often home-rolled. Travelers with vehicles have reported a “puncture” scam, where locals will surreptitiously pop tires on parked cars and then offer assistance – for a price. 

The Cuban Government
The government is autocratic and very sensitive to dissent, so protests and demonstrations are extremely rare. However, the government’s close monitoring has historically extended to foreign travelers, who, they fear, might foment anti-government sentiment. Anecdotal reports suggest that the government has become slowly less concerned with monitoring foreigners. The US government still warns travelers that their electronics may be seized by the government for no apparent reason, and that travelers should not assume they have any privacy while they are in the country.

Natural Disasters
Cuba is at risk for flooding, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The government is usually proactive in evacuating people during bad weather, but infrastructure is limited and buildings are not rated for seismic activity. In a catastrophe, Cuba’s diplomatic isolation would delay any response from the international community. 

Getting Medical Attention
Medical facilities in Cuba are not standardized. Some facilities may be clean and more affordable than US hospitals, but investigative reports on others have found filthy conditions, insufficient beds, and poor care. Ambulance response is also inconsistent. Since 2010, the Cuban government has required all citizens to provide evidence of travel insurance that covers medical emergencies. The first round of new rules from the Treasury and Commerce departments, following President Obama’s December announcement, lifted some of the restrictions on insurance companies, which can now provide travelers with coverage while they’re in Cuba. However, travel companies arranging individual visits to Cuba still urge US citizens to get additional coverage. Because of the restrictions on direct flights, the cost for US citizen travel insurance coverage is slightly higher than that covering travelers of other nationalities, by about one dollar per day. 

Getting US Government Assistance
The status of Cuba’s diplomatic relationship with the US affects the services the State Department provides for travelers. There is no US embassy in Cuba, but there is a diplomatic “Interests Section” in Havana, on Calzada between L and M streets. The Section is staffed by diplomats, and, according to the web site, it “provides the full range of services for American Citizens in Cuba.” The Interests Section can fulfill basic services, like passport replacements, but other services may be slow or limited.  Reports from travelers and conversations with staff at the Interests Section suggest that services requiring sensitive interactions with the Cuban government can be difficult or complicated, and travelers can expect delays. .
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8 Tips for Getting a Great Night’s Sleep While You’re Traveling

You’ve checked into your hotel, unpacked and laughed at the price of a package of mini-bar Reese’s Pieces. You should pull the curtains and call it a night, but just thinking about sleeping in a strange bed in a strange room has you stressed out. But you don’t have to spend the entire night having a staring contest with the red light on the smoke detector. Here are a few tips for ensuring that you’ll get a solid night’s sleep when you’re on the road:

Check out the reviews. Before you book your hotel, check the reviews on TripAdvisor or Yelp to see if any guests have had a terrible experience in a particular room or on a certain floor. When you check in, explain that you’re a restless sleeper and ask if you can get a room in the middle of the hall, away from elevators, stairwells and vending machines. Oh, and an interior room that doesn’t face the freeway or the pool. Yes, you might sound a little fussy, but you’ll be a well-rested kind of fussy.

Make yourself comfortable. If you have room in your suitcase, take whatever you need to be comfortable at night, whether that’s your own pillow or the slippers you always wear before bed. Even if you don’t bring your own pillow, your own pillowcase might be a good choice in case of any potential sensitivity to the detergent the hotel uses on their linens. There’s a difference between closing your eyes and feeling them swell shut.

Check the curtains or blinds. If you check in to your hotel before it gets dark, check the curtains or the blinds while it’s still daylight. If they don’t close all the way—or won’t stay shut—it’s better to find out before that one light outside shines on your wall all night. Also, turn the thermostat down a couple of degrees before you go out for the evening. For maximum sleep potential, you want your room to be as cold as well as dark.

Handle issues immediately. If something is bothering you or keeping you awake, handle it immediately. Don’t lay there getting extra stressed, tossing and turning because there’s a traveling hockey team practicing their hip checks against the hallway walls or because the thermostat doesn’t work. Call the front desk and—best case—the hotel staff can handle the situation quickly. Worst case, you might have to change rooms, but that could happen before you lose sleep over the situation, literally.

Sleep only zone. Establish your bed as a sleep only zone. Don’t spread your files across the duvet and try to work in bed. And don’t eat in the bed either. 

Start preparing for sleep. As soon as you get in for the night, start preparing yourself for sleep. Put your phone on the charger, set your alarm and leave your phone alone until the morning. Give yourself permission to relax in a way that you can’t always do at home with everyday distractions. And if you do have a go-to nighttime routine, whether that’s reading, taking a hot bath or watching soccer highlights, stick to it.

Do not disturb. Go ahead and put that do not disturb sign on the door. There’s always the chance that someone will give the wrong room number to room service and some hotels (especially in Europe) can start their housekeeping routines very early in the morning.

Block it out. You probably already packed earplugs and an eye mask so you could sleep on the flight, so break those out. Earplugs, or a white noise app, can help you block out the sounds of the hotel’s ancient radiator or the restless spirit that haunts your room. If random sounds aren’t your thing, make or download a playlist of quiet songs before you leave for your trip. According to Spotify, Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” is the most “slept to song” in its library.
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From the Assist America Case Files

Return of Mortal Remains to the US

Debbie and Paul* were on vacation in Mexico. One day they decided to take a bus trip to visit the ruins. Paul decided he wanted to climb the ruins but they were very slippery and he lost his footing and fell 30 feet to the ground. He was immediately taken to the hospital. Concerned with the level of care he would get there, Debbie called Assist America for help.

The Assist America coordinators spoke to the treating physician and learned the Paul was seriously injured, sustaining multiple fractures, a punctured lung and major internal bleeding. The hospital would not be able to properly treat his level of injuries so Assist America arranged for him to be evacuated to a more appropriate hospital where he could receive the critical care he needed. 

Assist America monitored Paul’s care overnight but unfortunately he passed away the following day. Debbie was extremely distraught but Assist America was there to help, locating a local funeral home where Paul’s remains could be prepared for travel back to the US for burial, and assisting Debbie with the her travel arrangements as well. The family was so thankful to have this service during this very upsetting time.

*names changed for privacy

Member’s comment:
“I was at a loss when my husband was critically injured and passed away on our Mexican vacation. Assist America was a complete miracle for me. They took care of everything so I could just concentrate on my husband and children. Thank you!”
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8 Reasons Why Luggage Still Gets Lost

When it comes to flying, people usually worry about two things—arriving on time and their bags getting lost while they’re traveling. Simply, travelers want to get where they’re going with the stuff they had when they left.

And while Mother Nature and engineering can make you late, lost luggage often comes down to more human factors. According to the industry consultants at SITA (specialists in air transport communications and IT solutions), airlines lost almost 22 million passenger bags in 2014—about .06% lost per 1,000 bags checked. Which, to be honest, isn't too shabby. But they still do get lost, even when everything else runs on schedule.

How come? Here are eight reasons, and what you can to do keep your bags from ending up among the lost:

You’re cutting it too close
While folks love to complain about the airlines, the primary reason your luggage gets lost is probably your fault. It's always user error, right? You needed to get to the airport earlier. Depending on that airport and your destination, airlines shut down flight check-in anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes prior to a scheduled departure. And in order to keep flights on time, it’s common now for airlines to begin boarding flights BEFORE the check-in cutoffs take effect.
According to American and American Eagle pilot Todd Simoneau, flight crews are on strict schedules and the long hours pilots work mean they don’t want to wait around any longer than they must. “For many airlines, pilots don’t get paid until the aircraft’s door is closed and they’re away from the gate,” Simoneau said. So, while pilots might wait for a passenger making connections, they won’t wait for bags.
Obviously, if you check in for your flight too late, you flat out won’t get on the plane. But check in too close to that drop deadline, and your luggage risks not flying with you. Airlines have the right to refuse to check your bags, forcing you to take them through security. Otherwise, if they’re checked and don’t make their intended flight, your bags will fly on the next scheduled aircraft to your destination. The airline must offer you the choice to pick it up later or have it delivered to you at the airline’s expense.

You’re traveling heavy
The combination of multiple or larger bags and a small plane (such as those used on shorter commuter routes) can cause space or weight problems in the jet’s belly. If you’re toting golf clubs or your collection of Hawaiian long boards, they could get left behind for the next flight in the hope that there's more room.
Your travel plans changed
Weather, mechanical failure, or over/underbooking can force you to a different flight than you planned. Sudden changes in travel schedules can force baggage to change planes and even airlines. If there’s not enough time or attention to detail involved, bags can go astray. Just make sure the luggage tags from the airlines are correct and properly attached, and that your name and address bag tags are updated.

You’re flying on multiple airlines
Some routes to far-flung locales involve flying different carriers on the same journey. For example, a major airline might get you to the big island of Hawaii, while a puddle jumper drops you at the smaller resorts on Lānaʻi. It’s on you to make sure the airlines are communicating with each other before you fly,  routing your bags all the way to your final destination. Always keep the sticker bag tags the agent hands you after you check in as the bar codes on them make tracing your luggage a matter of a quick laser scanning. And it doesn't hurt to take a few quick pics of the bags with your cellphone, so you can show airline agents should they go missing. 
Your luggage wasn’t up to the trip
Drop some money on decent luggage, especially if you’re a frequent traveler. If your luggage disintegrates on the luggage cart, while being loaded onto the plane, or on its way to the carousel, it’s not the airline’s fault or responsibility to repair it or recover the clothing scattered over the tarmac.

You forgot to control the weather 
A plane can fly in the rain. It can take off in a minor snow storm. But, lightning will not only keep a plane on the ground, it’ll also shut down the ground crew activity. A thunderstorm will keep the baggage cart idle, increasing the chances that luggage isn't loaded on time once scheduled flights resume.

You’re dangerous...or at least they think you are
By now, you know you can’t travel with liquids in excess of 3oz. So, perhaps you check that bottle of schnapps or Thermos of your mom’s Irish stew in your checked luggage. Unfortunately, those checked bags get X-ray’d, too. If TSA sees a container that makes them nervous, they’ll pull the bag off the line and sort through it until they’re satisfied. Who knows if the bag makes it back into the mix on time.

You’re dealing with humans
If there’s one factor in travel that you have no control over—other than the weather— it’s the actions of other people. Even in an age of barcodes and computer tracking, a well-meaning person can toss a bag in the wrong pile or load it onto the wrong flight.
In most cases, lost luggage makes it to its owner within 24 hours of arrival. According to the Department of Transportation, all fees incurred in finding and delivering your bags to you are on the airline. However, if you have documentation that you needed something in that lost luggage before it got back to you, the DOT allows you to claim up to $3,300 in replacement fees.
No matter why your bags wander off, be sure to keep notes, photos, receipts, and whatever else will protect you from lost money and property. It may well be one of those rare occasions when you have a big corporation on the hook.

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Flying Solo With Baby: A Step-By-Step Guide

Flying with a baby or small child involves a lot of logistics. And when you are traveling solo as a single parent with one (or more than one) baby or young child, the logistics can seem that much more overwhelming. How are you going to get a baby, stroller, gear, and yourself through TSA lines without an extra set of adult hands? How are you going to get a bathroom break in-flight with no one to hold your child? These and a million other questions are probably racing through your mind. To help in planning for your next solo trip with your little ones, here’s a checklist that walks you through all the logistical considerations of single parent pre-flight planning, navigating the airport by yourself, the in-flight solo parent experience, and more.

The Week Before Your Flight
Make a comprehensive packing list for you and baby. Evaluate your luggage options before you pack.  Can you carry, push, or pull everything you will be bringing by yourself?  I often find that the following combination of items works well when traveling as a solo parent with a baby: umbrella stroller + good roller suitcase (to check) + backpack to serve as both carry-on and diaper bag. You might also be able to handle a backpack and a separate diaper bag if you can hang one or more items from your stroller. Consider shipping baby items that you will need at your destination in advance—diapers, wipes, formula, etc.  Alternatively, investigate whether there are stores convenient to your destination to buy what you need.

Call the airline or check your reservation online to make sure you still have your original seat assignments and have not been separated from your child, if you’ve bought a seat for your baby. If you are traveling internationally and your baby is small enough to fly in the bassinet, call to confirm that your request for a bassinet and your corresponding bulkhead seat reservation is still on-file.

Getting to the Airport
Consider having someone drop you off curbside with your bags. Driving yourself and carrying the baby and your luggage on parking lot shuttles is hard. Alternatively, you can take a taxi, but remember to book a car service that will have a car seat for your child. If you have to drive yourself, consider paying a bit more to park in a closer parking lot where you can easily walk to your terminal (often hourly/daily lots are only a few dollars more per day than the economy lot).

Checking In & Checking Bags
Try to check-in online at home if possible. You can often skip the long lines at the airport by bypassing check-in entirely. If you have checked bags to drop, there is often a “bag drop” kiosk or separate line that is shorter than the full check-in line for your airline. If you are flying with a child who will be sitting on your lap during the flight, inquire at check-in about how full the flight looks. Often, the agent can block an empty seat next to you if there is extra space (note that the gate agent may have more power to do this than the check-in agent, but it never hurts to ask at this stage in the process too).

Getting Through Security
Look for the TSA family lane, which is now available in most airports. Those lines are almost always shorter. Remember that all liquids and gels need to be in a separate zip-top bag and placed into a bin. If you are traveling with an infant or small child, the TSA liquid limits do not apply to you. You may, however, be required to go through special screening as a result. Keep the baby in a stroller or carrier until you get all of your personal items (including your shoes) into bins and onto the conveyor belt.  As the last step, take your child out of his stroller (you may also be required to take the baby out of a carrier).  Put the stroller through the x-ray machine last. Walk through the metal detectors. With a baby or small child, you will not be asked to go through the more advanced scanning machines. Once you are through the metal detectors, put the baby in your carrier or stroller before gathering up all of your other belongings.  Don’t be afraid to take your time or pull to the side to get yourself organized.

Getting to Your Gate
Depending on the size and layout of your airport, you will either walk or ride a shuttle or train to your gate.  Be prepared to take a little extra time to wait for elevators if you have a stroller.  Airports are rarely all on one level. Now is the time for bathroom and food stops, assuming you have enough time. If you are traveling with a formula-fed infant, buy bottled water to use to mix powdered formula.  Also, consider taking a bathroom break to change your baby into a fresh diaper and to go yourself where the bathrooms are bigger and logistics are easier.

At the Gate & Airline Boarding
If you plan to gate check a stroller and/or car seat, check in with the agent as soon as you get to your gate. The agent will give you a claim check and will “tag” your gear. If you plan to put the stroller or car seat in a protective bag, make sure to tag the bag itself. 

Be aware that many airlines no longer offer pre-boarding with children, so you may not be able to board early. If you are traveling by yourself with a child (especially if you are using a car seat or stroller that require extra juggling), this can be stressful as you are thrown in with the masses hurrying to board.  Relax and take your time. Walk aboard and smile at the friendly flight attendant. You might need her help or sympathy later!

In Flight
If you are using a car seat, strap your baby in right away so you can free up your hands. As soon as you get on board, get your luggage stowed so you can access what you need in-flight. If possible, leave your full diaper bag under the seat in front of you with easy access to all of the baby gear you might need without opening an overhead bin. If you are taller and need the legroom, stash the essentials in your seat back pocket and put your other items in the overhead bin.

Do what you can to entertain and contain your little one until takeoff.  Often watching other passengers board is ample entertainment. As the flight takes off, consider feeding the baby or letting him or her use a pacifier to help with ear pressure changes (do the same on landing, when the pressure equalization is more difficult to handle). Important rule of thumb – don’t ever wake a sleeping baby to do this!  If they sleep through takeoff or landing, their ears will adjust.

During the flight, do whatever you need to do to keep your baby happy – walk the aisles, feed & play with him, etc.  Lap babies of a certain age can get squirmy being cooped up so long, so be prepared with lots of in-seat toys and entertainment. Get up as often as you can to mix things up. And try your best to get the little one to sleep, especially on red-eyes. A familiar blanket or stuffed animal may help. In-flight bathroom breaks involve the toughest logistics as a solo parent.  Often it is easiest to keep the baby in the carrier or balance him on your knee. Sometimes on longer international flights, there might be a friendly flight attendant who will hold your little one for a moment.  But don’t count on it, and don’t do it if your baby is going through a stranger anxiety stage.

At Your Destination
You’ve made it to your destination but the logistics aren’t quite over. Get your baby off of the plane and wait for your gate checked items on the jet bridge. Strap the little one into stroller and be on your way.

Now do everything in reverse—navigate through the airport (and if you are traveling internationally, you will have to clear immigration and customs) and claim your luggage. If you are visiting family or friends, it is easiest to have someone pick you up at the airport with a car seat waiting. Your other choices are taxis (again, a car seat is needed), public transit (very hard to do with a baby and luggage, even in the easiest of cities), or a rental car (can be challenging getting on and off rental car shuttles, but the driver will help you).

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Regional Information

For the latest, up-to-date information regarding key regions, click on the links below:



East Asia




Near East


South Asia


Western Hemisphere

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