Traveling is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you are reading this, you likely agree. We find it is one of our happy places and feeds our souls. It is both an adventure and relaxation. But as with most things in life, it has inherent risks. It is important not to live in fear of the what-ifs, but it is silly not to do all you can to mitigate those risks. It is always best to be prepared and use whatever tool, especially the free ones at your disposal, such as the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
There are many ways to protect yourself when traveling, such as travel insurance, which we are huge advocates for all ages. It is the first thing we buy after booking our flights. We all carry home insurance that covers fire loss. How many houses burn down? Very few, but if you are that victim of losing your home to a fire, that insurance helps you rebuild your life, whereas, for most of us, it would be financially impossible without that insurance. When traveling, the same rules apply.
If you want to learn more about the importance of travel insurance, check our blog post – Travel Insurance: Protecting You and Yours.
The second thing we do after buying travel insurance is register for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It is a free service provided by the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. Your tax dollars are already paying for it.
It is surprising how few people know about this service, especially when traveling to unstable parts of the world. We make sure to ask everyone we know before they leave for an overseas trip if they have registered for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), and 95% of the time, the response is, what is that? So, let’s chat about why you should register for your next international trip and how quick and easy the process is.
What is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program(STEP)?
Protecting the lives and interests of U.S. citizens abroad is a core mission of U.S. Embassies and Consulates. The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is a free service that allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll in their trip or extended stay with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Therefore, they can provide important safety and security information and support during a crisis or emergency.
What are the benefits of enrolling in STEP?
STEP could aid you in many ways before and during your trip.
- You’ll receive the latest safety and security information for your destination country so that you can make informed decisions about your travel.
- Emergencies happen at home when you are traveling. STEP will help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency
- Even in the safest of cities, protests, and civil unrest can occur. The service provides the latest information on what areas to avoid in case of events such as strikes, demonstrations, or lockdowns.
- If you become ill or injured and require hospitalization, they already have all your information and know you are in the country. It will expedite the process of getting guidance on what to do next.
- Natural disasters or terrorist attacks can occur at any time. The local U.S. embassies and consulates will take steps to verify and confirm the safety of the Americans they are there to represent and protect.
- Should you run into legal issues or are a victim of a crime while abroad, they are there to assist you in navigating the process.
Check out our Packing for Success Guide
Why should I register for STEP? Can’t I figure this out on my own?
One of the benefits of traveling abroad with a United States Passport is the protection your country provides. The United States is a powerful entity in diplomacy and military strength. Civil and political unrest has impacted many countries, making it unsafe for Americans who are there. If the U.S. Government knows where you are, through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), it can plan to offer assistance to you in circumstances where your safety is in danger.
What happens when I enroll?
When you enroll in Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), you stay informed on the current information about your destination country, which comes in various forms.
- Alerts from the U.S. Embassy about safety and security
- Updates on any travel advisory can be health-related, government instability, impending severe weather, or even crime-related.
- If you live abroad, it provides information about U.S. Embassy events and services, town hall meetings, voting info, federal benefits, and legal obligations to the U.S.
- When enrolled in STEP, you stay connected. The U.S. Embassy contacts you and assists in an emergency overseas. If your family or friends in the U.S. are having difficulty getting you urgent news while you’re traveling, the service can use the information in STEP to try and reach you.
Are you tired of Long TSA Airport security lines? Check out our article on How to avoid them.
What can a consulate or Embassy do for me when I am overseas?
Consular officers at Embassies and Consulates can assist U.S. citizens who encounter serious legal, medical, or financial difficulties overseas. For example, if your passport is stolen while traveling, we can help you obtain a replacement to continue your trip. We can also provide the names of English-speaking doctors or local attorneys, give loans to needy U.S. citizens, and provide information about dangerous conditions affecting your overseas travel or residence.
They also perform non-emergency services such as helping with routine passport applications, absentee voting, selective service registration, receiving federal benefits, and filing U.S. tax forms. Consular officers can notarize documents, issue passports, and register U.S. citizen children born abroad. Most embassies and consulates have websites with more information about their citizen services.
In a crisis, such as a natural disaster or severe political instability, the Department of State provides information and assistance to U.S. citizens in the affected area.
Did you know there is a 24-hour number to reach the U.S. Embassy in emergencies for U.S. citizens traveling abroad? Some U.S. Embassies within the country may be reachable 24 hours a day, but if not, the main number is available at all times.
From the U.S. or while using a U.S. cellphone
Dial 001 or +1, then 202-501-4444
We all worry about what is happening to the information we share with others. The information you provide to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is pretty basic but still personal. There are laws in place to protect the information you give to STEP. One concern I hear is then they will know where I am. Here is the bottom line if you use your passport, the system knows where you are. The closest Embassy may not know, though, and you are unaware of what is occurring in that country.
Let’s share some real-life stories
- On our last trip to Iceland, an exceptionally peaceful and safe country, a work stoppage to protest conditions for workers in the service industry was scheduled. Except for management, all workers were absent from work for 48 hours. This occurred during two of the three days we were there. Some hotels were not as prepared as others. We verified with our hotel they had a contingency plan and what would occur. Restaurants were closed, and no housekeeping was available. It was a bare-bones staff, but they would stay open and do their best. It was not the case at all hotels or restaurants.
- Before our travels to Spain, we received an email from the state department warning us of a new crime directed at tourists. It was unique, and we could have easily been victims, not knowing what to avoid and how to prepare.
- A couple from one of our hometowns was traveling overseas for an extended month. Shortly after departing, their son was in a severe accident. The Embassy provided assistance in getting the couple home very quickly and escorted them until they were on the plane. Once they arrived in the U.S., they were greeted and expedited through customs to immediately be transported to the hospital to be with their son.
- During the terrorist attacks in Paris, many families desperately tried to reach their loved ones traveling or living in Paris. The families there struggled to get word to their loved ones that they were ok. The U.S. Embassy was able to facilitate the tracking of U.S. citizens and their status. It also guided Americans in Paris on what to do during the crisis.
- While visiting Barcelona, Joelle was there during the annual Catalonia freedom protests seeking independence from Spain. She was there in the heart of it. Though usually peaceful, we were warned there was a potential for violence. Many streets and highways would be blocked and impassable. Details were provided on what areas to avoid. On the morning of her flight, road blockages on the airport route were planned. Due to the advisory, Joelle left early for her flight before the protests began.
- Some friends were in the Caribbean when a massive hurricane was approaching. There were frequent updates on evacuation plans, where to go for safety, and the services available. Once the storm passed, assistance on how to get off the devastated island was provided.
- Once in Paris, we received an email warning us of demonstrations likely to get violent. It provided the location, which was where we were planning to be that day. We avoided the area and stayed safe.
- Transportation strikes are pretty common in Europe. It could make getting to an airport or other destination very problematic. An advanced warning can allow you to have contingency plans.
Traveling soon? Check out our Country Travel Guides.
Registering for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
Now that we have discussed why you should get this valuable service let’s talk about what is involved in registering, not surprisingly. It is quick and easy. It can be done via a computer or a mobile app. We chose the computer as it is faster and easier to navigate. We find the process user-friendly and well-presented.
*If you chose the mobile app, the app could be found in your APP store under Smart Traveler.
A Walk Through the Registration Process
There are four options to choose from on the Home page. (The group option is not visible in the photo above). The bullets below explain each option.
- If you are an infrequent traveler, enrolling in a single trip may be best by clicking the “TRAVELING? Enroll a trip” option.
- The staying-at-home option is to track alerts and warnings occurring in a country you are considering traveling to or have people you know visiting there. Perfect for parents with students traveling abroad.
- Those who travel often can create an account by clicking the “FREQUENT TRAVELER? Create an account” option. An account allows travelers to quickly modify their travel information and enroll in additional trips in the future. Much of your information is prepopulated for future trips.
- A large group of travelers can be enrolled by selecting the “Create Organization/Group Account” option at the bottom of the homepage.
The screens for each step in the registration process
First screen: Answer two questions.
Screen two: Review and accept privacy act information.
Screen 3: Provide your name, date of birth, gender, citizenship, email, phone, and passport number. No address is needed.
FYI If you are traveling with someone, you can enter them into this profile, so you don’t have to register separately. Remember that they will be tied to the lead person registering in an emergency. If at any time you go separate ways during the trip, it may be best for each person to register for themselves.
Screen 4: Provide trip details. You will need at least one address of where you will be staying. If moving around a lot best to add each address.
Screen 5: Provide emergency contact info for someone back home that can be reached in an emergency.
Screen 6: You will be taken to a page of any travel advisories that pertain to this country and other info. Below is from our Greece trip.
Screen 7: One last page to review and confirm your entries.
That is it. You are done. It may take 5-10 minutes if you have the hotel addresses ready.
You will receive an email shortly confirming your trip registration.
U.S. embassies and consulates assist nearly 200,000 Americans each year who are victims of crime, accident, or illness or whose families need to contact them in an emergency. When an emergency occurs, or if a natural disaster, terrorism, or civil unrest strikes during your international travel, the closest U.S. embassy or consulate can be your source of information and support. By registering your travels, you are helping the Embassy locate you when you might need them the most.
Using the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is like having insurance. STEP is voluntary and costs nothing to you. You hope you’ll never have to use it, but it’s good knowing it will be there if an emergency occurs.
Ready to Register Your Trip? Click link below
Have on you at all times the Embassy location and contact details for any country you are traveling in and your passport number. We try not to carry our passports when sightseeing, but we always have a photocopy of the passport. That said, check the specific country regulations before you go, as some do require you to have a passport on you at all times.
We carry a card with all the above info, travel insurance, and medical info. In a crisis or severe injury or illness, you may not want to waste time googling the info or returning to the hotel to get the information.
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Our Recommended Travel Resources
Our favorite travel insurance site!
If you book a trip, don’t forget to get travel insurance within 14 days of your first booking. We could not be stronger advocates of being well-insured. Not just for the little stuff but the big things like medical emergencies. We never leave home without it. Over the years, we have used many sites but have now found our go-to place. Squaremouth.com does a fantastic job; it has a user-friendly interface, uses top-rated and reputable insurance carriers, and most policies cover COVID-19 medical issues and cancellations. They also mediate on your behalf if you have problems with your policy.
To empower you as a consumer, we suggest you read our blog post on the importance of travel insurance and how to get the best coverage from top-rated companies for an affordable price.
Medical transport back home from anywhere in the world
They are the premier global air medical transport. One caveat to travel insurance is that medical evacuation usually gets you to the closest facility to care for you. Medjet gets you back to the U.S. to the hospital of your choice once you are stable enough to fly. They cover Covid-related transports as well.
Medjet carries its own policies. The policy is only for transport and no other aspects of travel insurance. They have individual trip policies starting at $99 and annual policies for around $300. Most of their policies limit the age to 74 and younger. Prices are not based on age below that.
To learn more about how Medical Evacuation membership with Medjet Assist works, check out our blog post for a more detailed review.
Hotels, home rentals, BNBs, flights, and other transportation & tours
Expedia is a US-based company whose mission is to power global travel for everyone and everywhere. Whether planning a family vacation, booking for business, or organizing the trip of a lifetime, they are a fantastic resource. Wanderers Compass focuses on independent travel, and using sites like Expedia makes that possible. Every aspect of travel you need, from airfare, accommodations, rental car, and cruises to activities to do at your destination, can be booked on Expedia.
Hotels, Home rentals, BNBs, Flights, and other Transportation & Tours
Booking.com connects millions of travelers to memorable experiences, various transportation options, and incredible places to stay – from homes to hotels and much more. It is one of the world’s largest travel marketplaces for established brands and entrepreneurs of all sizes.
We always check Expedia and Booking.com to verify prices. At times, one is sold out of rooms while another at the same place has rooms. As well we often find some European hotels, especially smaller ones, on Booking.com but not on Expedia. It could be they are a Europe-based company. Try both before booking accommodations.
Are you traveling with a family or having an extended stay at your destination?
With over 2 million bookable vacation rentals, VRBO connects homeowners with families and vacationers looking for something more than a hotel for their trip. The VRBO community offers families or groups various rental property types such as condos, cabins, lake rentals, beach houses, etc.
VRBO is under the Expedia group ownership now, which many were worried about, but it hasn’t panned out to be a concern. It is a massive network with access to all lodging forms should issues arise. Joelle has used VRBO for many years with her family with no problems.
As the leading marketplace for travel experiences, Viator believes that making memories is what travel is all about. And with 300,000+ experiences to explore—everything from simple tours to extreme adventures (and all the niche, interesting stuff in between)—making memories that will last a lifetime has never been easier.
With industry-leading flexibility and last-minute availability, it’s never too late to make any day extraordinary. This one site has it all and has experiences throughout the world. We use them often during our travels, especially for food tours. We especially take the time to read the reviews provided.
An excellent source for travel essentials and guides
We now have our own Amazon Storefront with all our favorite travel accessories and gear in one place. Check out our travel store at the link below.
Amazon is one of the most comprehensive online shopping sources in the world. On behalf of their customers, teams worldwide provide lower prices, better selection, and rapid delivery. They offer a vast inventory, and their 1.7 million small and medium businesses worldwide selling on Amazon.com offer extensive options to customers.
We buy most of our travel books, accessories, and luggage from Amazon. We have ordered up to two days before travel and get what we need.
(Airport and sightseeing service)
A global leader in ground transportation for travelers. They help hundreds of companies worldwide enhance their services and boost their revenue with our 5-star ride experiences and hassle-free automation.
Founded in 2015 in Athens, Greece, Welcome Pick-ups goes above and beyond the standard transfer service as the first company to deliver a holistic, in-destination travel experience. From the moment a traveler arrives at a new destination until they return home, Welcome accommodates all their travel needs (transfers, travel products, things to do, information) as the easiest, friendliest, and most personalized solution.
Discover Europe by Train
Rail Europe sells train and bus tickets for travel across Europe. They cover 24 countries, 105 rail operations, and 20,000 stations. They are the official rail and bus operations agents in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Rail Europe continues to add coverage all the time.
It is a fast, easy, and economical way to purchase European train and bus tickets. Eurail passes are also available to buy through their site.
Travel documentation services
Do you feel like you are wasting time visiting an on-site photographer only to be embarrassed by the photo? Would you like control of the final product? Get the perfect VISA or passport photo online with PhotoAID.
When traveling, you often need to apply for official documents such as a passport, ID, and different kinds of licenses or cards. Those applications require a picture that must meet specific conditions to be accepted, depending on the country. Now, it is possible to take this picture at home without the help of a professional photographer. The PhotoAiD app allows you to take the perfect biometric photo that will be guaranteed by yourself without leaving your home.
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