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A New World of Security Concerns for International Travelers

By Peter Savage, Passport Health and Travel Writer

The World Trade Center terrorist attack made no change in the threat that a traveler should evaluate before taking a trip abroad, but it did bring the threat to the forefront, making it more conspicuous and worrisome in a whole new way. The changes for security considerations are: (1) the new widespread CONCERN about the threat; (2) the increase in INCONVENIENCE and time spent at security checkpoints and borders; and (3) the new POWER and recognition given to security and police personnel. These three closely related factors touch every aspect of your travel planning and changes the world of travel security.

So what do these changes mean for you as a person about to take a trip? For many it has meant that the perception of risk from terrorism is so great that they won't travel and have canceled scheduled trips. Considering the measures that have been taken worldwide, this perception is probably exaggerated, but certainly understood and respected. And, it is true that security experts admit that airlines have not yet done all that can be done for increased protection against attacks including installing impenetrable cockpit doors or full screening of all luggage. Note, though, that checked luggage screening began on January 18,2002, so hopes are that this will increase protection against threats like luggage bombs.

As ever, the first rule for arranging a safe trip is good advance planning and the first element of a good plan is threat analysis. This means quantifying the risk and minimizing your CONCERN about bad things that might happen. The increased airport vigilance, while uneven, has removed the element of surprise from a terrorist attack and, consequently, removed much of the likelihood of your being affected by such an attack.

For a trip abroad, if you call the Regional Security Officer (RSO) at an American Embassy overseas, that office will certainly have focused on that threat and can give you pointers on what to watch out for. You can contact the Regional Security Officer by calling the Department of State during business hours in Washington, DC, at 202-647-4000. Ask for the country desk of your destination, and then the name and telephone number of the RSO at the embassy. Be aware that you may encounter misdirected calls and delays. This office can also tell you about what sort of inconvenience to expect on entering and leaving the country, passing through customs and security.

Calling the airline itself is also a wise precaution in discovering what to expect on your departure in terms of security checks. Checking with those you plan to visit about problems to expect should also give you an indication of how concerned you should be.

The INCONVENIENCE factor in this new world of security is one that will touch every aspect of your travel plans. First, if you are traveling to a place reachable by rail or road, the inconvenience factor may make it more practical to avoid going by air. Second, the combination of the inconvenience and the whim of security or police forces at check points and borders forces travelers to make important choices at every juncture. If there is a terrorist or crime threat, as in Colombia or Venezuela, you may want to purchase a more detailed intelligence report from a company like or Kroll Associates. A corporate traveler can’t afford not to take such a precaution under the present circumstances to avoid legal exposure of the company.

Other concerns that are now at the forefront are:

  • What kind of assistance, emergency travel medical insurance and evacuation policy fits your level of risk?
  • What documents do you need that you might not have needed before?
  • Should you dress differently to avoid fitting some profile at a security checkpoint?

For example, you clearly want an assistance component to your emergency medical insurance which is capable of responding with legal referrals if you get hung up at a border trying to leave the country. (See WTA’s Advanced Planning – Key to a Safe Trip Abroad pamphlet for more info on travel health insurance and references for insurance carriers;

You want to carry a doctor's written authority to carry syringes among your personal effects if you need a syringe kit on your trip.

Wear shoes that can be removed easily at security checkpoints because they may have to be put through the screening device.

Being a youthful backpacker with an unusual hairstyle may not be the ideal image for avoiding more thorough scrutiny at security checkpoints.

INCONSISTENCY is the rule at various airport security checkpoints. Unhappily, there is no likely cure for this in sight given the new authority delegated to security screeners.

Every returning traveler has a different story of the inconvenience, lack of consistency -sometimes humorous, sometimes idiotic - in facing security at checkpoints or borders. The world of security concerns has changed drastically and there is probably no "normal" to return to. Security lies in careful planning and asking questions before you go.

For more detailed information about traveling abroad, see WTA’s Advanced Planning – Key to a Safe Trip Abroad, Topics discussed include country specific information, transportation, extensive currency information, and what to take with you.

For information on travel within the U.S., see WTA's Personal Security While Traveling in the U.S., Topics discussed include hotel security, car rental security and security issues for women.