— Many Americans who venture abroad rarely listen to travel alerts issued by the U.S. State Department because, they contend, the advisories are "overly cautious" and too vague to offer practical value.
Instead, some American international fliers say they routinely rely on the "more realistic," less politically tinged travel warnings released by other western nations, including England, Australia and Canada.
"American travelers are tired, worn out. We're 10 years from 9/11. I travel all the time and, you know what, people are on autopilot," said New York City-based security expert Bob Strang, who co-chaired New York's Anti-Terrorism Task Force. "They pay no attention."
This week's "worldwide" travel alert from the State Department — drafted hours after the U.S. military killing of Osama bin Laden — urged Americans headed or living overseas to "limit travel outside of their homes and hotels" for the next three months, naming no specific cities or nations where trouble may be lurking. The global alert's arbitrary expiration date and ambiguous suggestion of danger only reinforced, for some frequent fliers, the superficial nature and inadequacy of such federal alarms.
"The advisories are an extension of American squeamishness when it comes to traveling abroad," said Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and travel columnist for Salon.com
"I wonder: Was the advisory issued because of political reasons or is the government just covering its ass?" added John DiScala, who flies to more than 20 countries each year. "Most of my friends who are big travelers don't" heed State Department alerts.
26 alerts and advisories this year
At the State Department — which has written and disseminated 26 separate travel advisories and alerts in 2011 — spokesman John Echard said he believes Americans who visit other lands "are realizing the information is useful."
Echard acknowledged that the State Department doesn’t have the technology to track or gauge how many people are reading their travel warnings. But when this week’s worldwide alert was placed on the State Department’s Twitter account, he said he was able to see that "well over" 600 people clicked on it.
"We aim to have them worded as carefully as possible so citizens can really understand what’s going on," Echard said. "We want to ensure that these are pretty forward leaning so they can comprehend them pretty easily."
State Department "alerts" (released in recent months for the entire planet as well as for Egypt, Japan and Tunisia), are meant to inform Americans about "short-term conditions ... that pose risks to the security of U.S. citizens," says the department’s website. "Alerts" are meant to expire in 90 to 120 days, Echard said.
Meanwhile, State Department "warnings" are dispatched "when long-term, protracted conditions ... make a country dangerous or unstable;" Americans are urged to avoid going to those places. "Warnings" have no expiration date, Echard said. On the State Department’s website, 34 nations are on the warning list, including Mexico, Haiti, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.
For still another layer of updates on possible hot spots, people can register with the federal Fast Traveler Enrollment Program — or STEP. The free service allows Americans roaming or living abroad to let the feds know exactly where they will be so that the State Department "can better assist you in an emergency," according to the agency’s website. "We don’t have a firm number" on how many U.S. citizens have enrolled, Echard said.
Travelers who sign up with STEP receive text advisories on nations where they’ll be working or vacationing, Echard added, although he knows firsthand that STEP alerts can lag.
But it’s the State Department’s broad-brush warnings that have convinced veteran travelers like Smith and DiScala to turn to the foreign affairs agencies of other countries for more detailed and more relevant tips.
"If it’s a sketchy place (where I’m headed), I will cross check the British, Australian and Canadian advisories as well — just to make sure (the U.S.-issued alerts) are not for political reasons," said DiScala, whose website, JohnnyJet.com, offers money saving tips and other travel resources.
"I find the State Department travel advisories to be overly cautious. I will often read the UK’s advisories instead, which tend to be more realistic and less skittish," said Smith, who declined to reveal the name of the company for which he works as a pilot. He said he is abroad about half of every month.
Of course, some American travelers are highly vigilant about threats overseas — especially parents who are toting children along for the ride.
"Traveling with a family, you just don’t want to put yourself in a risky situation," said Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan, founder and CEO of Momaboard.com, an online guide dedicated to parents traveling with young kids. She and her 29-month-old son have flown to 12 countries.
The State Department’s website is her "starting point" for gathering facts on possible perils in other lands but she acknowledges, "I don’t think it’s as dynamic as I would like it to be." So she also does Google searches and relies on Twitter chatter and Facebook friends to gather pre-trip intelligence.
Likewise, security expert and former CIA team leader Kris Coleman recommends "checking a sampling of sites before embarking on a foreign trip." Those include, he said, the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
"State Department’s alerts and advisories are helpful to some," added Coleman, president and CEO of Red Five Security, based in Alexandria, Va.
The State Department is, of course, concerned about possible retaliations against American or western targets by forces that seek to avenge bin Laden’s death. The new, worldwide alert advises Americans to "avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations."
"Mostly what they say is common sense," Smith said.
And the reality is, most road warriors have spent 10 years reading about or listening to scary-sounding federal travel warnings and heightened terror alerts. They’ve become color blind to all the yellow caution lights, said security expert Strang.
"There’s not much they do differently" as a result of the latest alerts, Strang said. "All they think is: The line’s going to be longer at security and they’re going to slow me down driving to the airport. That’s about it."