Why American travelers turn up "missing" overseas - AmericaNowNews.com

Why travelers turn up "missing"

More than 65 million Americans travel overseas each year. The U.S. Department of State has the daunting task of keeping all those Americans as safe as possible in an increasingly dangerous world. But it turns out, there's a lot we can do to protect ourselves and our families when traveling abroad.

It's a topic that America Now co-host Leeza Gibbons takes seriously, because the perils of international travel recently hit very close to home.

"There was a time last summer when I could have imagined my own daughter might have been on a ['Children Who Are Missing'] alert. She was traveling in Vienna, she's a college student, when I got a call from the embassy. They had opened a missing persons report on my daughter. You can imagine my heart sank," Leeza recalls.

She traveled to the Department of State to share with what Leeza says she wishes she had known then, to keep others from getting a phone call like that.

Consular Chief Lynne Skeirik has held embassy posts in Europe, South America and Mexico. She says reports of missing Americans are all too common.

"A busy embassy could easily get 40 or 50 calls a day," she says. "We feel like we're the lifeline between the family back in the States and the child who's missing overseas. The vast majority of them are somebody who is having a great trip; they just forgot to check in, and they're fine."

That, Leeza says, is exactly what happened to her daughter.

"I said, 'When I find out she's okay, I will kill her,'" she shares.

There are lots of parents who feel same way.

So how do so many Americans get in trouble when traveling overseas?

"There are some things that are very common that you would never think twice about that you can't do in a foreign country," says Skeirik. "One good example, you can't take photographs of military installations or government buildings in a lot of foreign countries. You can be arrested for that. There are dress restrictions, especially for young women. In many countries, a pocket knife is considered a weapon, and suddenly somebody says, 'Oh, this person's carrying a weapon. They're going to jail.'"

Skeirik notes that's why it's so important for people to be well informed before they go. She says the best source for up-to-date information on overseas travel is the State Department's web site.

"We have country-specific information, the laws in that country, the customs in the country. The other great thing about that web site is we have a program called STEP. And we really recommend that every American who's traveling overseas use the STEP program," Skeirik adds.

Enrolling in the STEP program online only takes about five minutes on the website.

"Basically what you're doing is saying, 'I'm an American citizen. Here's my itinerary, and so it's a way for us to push information out to you, immediate information that updates the security situation or the travel situation. It might be a situation where we say, 'Okay, we are now advising Americans that they should depart the country,'" Skeirik explains. "You don't want to be the guy that doesn't get that message!"

Leeza was most surprised to learn that if you end up in the hospital unconscious or in a coma and you're not enrolled in STEP, the embassy cannot inform your family.

"If you're unconscious, we have to respect your privacy," says Skeirik. "If you've enrolled in STEP, you've given your consent for family to be contacted. Then no matter what happens to you, we can always contact your family."

If you or your family are among the 65 million Americans who will travel to foreign countries this year, be sure to enroll in the STEP program and travel safe.

"Hopefully, you'll never get a call like the one I did," adds Leeza.

Copyright 2012 America Now. All rights reserved

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