On June 12, about six weeks before the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S. Department of State posted a warning about potential "terrorist action . . . within the next several weeks" in the Persian Gulf.
The posting encouraged U.S. citizens living abroad to check in with their embassies or consulates in those countries and warned U.S. citizens to check the department's public announcements, travel warnings and consular information sheets before making travel plans.
Those circumstances illustrate one of the primary purposes of any embassy or consulate abroad, and that role is one that travelers should remember.
All too often, travelers and tourists think of embassies as service bureaus, a kind of one-stop shopping for U.S. citizens with problems or questions, ranging from the best place to have lunch to how to spring a friend from jail.
The State Department describes the role of embassies and consulates politely but firmly:
"Consular officers are responsive to the needs of Americans traveling or residing abroad. The majority of their time, however, is devoted to assisting Americans who are in serious legal, medical or financial difficulties."
The key there is the word "serious."
Travelers who lose passports, get arrested, lose money or break a bone are perfectly justified in contacting U.S. consular officers in the more than 260 foreign service posts abroad.
While those offices cannot and will not provide a doctor, money or a lawyer, they will provide the names of local doctors, dentists, medical specialists and lawyers. They also can provide other nonemergency services, including information on absentee voting, tax forms and notarization of documents. They also are important resources for the 3.1 million U.S. citizens living abroad.
They certainly do not have the resources to provide tourism or commercial services. That means they cannot find your missing luggage, settle a dispute with a hotel or airline or act as interpreters.
Although embassies and consulates can advise jailed U.S. citizens, they exist primarily for political and diplomatic reasons and abide by the laws of the host country, which means they cannot invoke the Bill of Rights to spring anyone from a foreign prison.
That means the most successful overseas vacations don't involve any contact with a U.S. embassy or consulate for the simple reason that no one wants the kind of trouble that requires their attention.
Preventing problems before they occur and understanding travel basics is the best way to avoid problems, the State Department advises in its travel publication "Your Trip Abroad." This brochure and others are available for $1 to $1.50 from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), Washington, DC 20402. To check before ordering, call (202) 512-1800.
Having some familiarity with a country's laws can be helpful. It is wise to read guidebooks, get copies of the latest Consular Information Sheet on the countries you'll visit and even read the Department of State's Background Notes on the countries.
Much of the information is available at the State Department's Web site, http://travel.state.gov/travel-warnings.html, or call (202) 647-5225. Also, Background Notes may be bought by contacting the superintendent of documents (see above). Some warnings may be obtained by fax by calling (202) 736-7720 from your fax machine or by visiting http://www.state.gov.
For example, in July and August, new travel warnings were issued concerning Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Pakistan, Serbia and Montenegro, Sierra Leone and Somalia.
After the Aug. 20 military strikes in Afghanistan and the Sudan, for instance, the department posted a Worldwide Caution:
"The Department of State urges U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad to review their security practices, to remain alert to the changing situation and to exercise much greater caution than usual.
"Americans should be aware that embassy operations are currently suspended in Somalia, Sudan, Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau. No U.S. consular services are currently available in these countries."
The caution advised that the United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular posts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea and therefore could offer no support services and that consular services in Albania, Eritrea and Pakistan had been reduced to minimal levels.
But it is not enough to simply look for travel warnings--which, for the most part, tell travelers to avoid certain countries and why. The consular sheets offer valuable information about staying safe in countries that are not dangerous enough to warrant a travel warning but can be unstable.
The department also operates the Bureau of Consular Affairs' Overseas Citizen Services to help with overseas emergencies. Families who need to reach someone traveling abroad may call (202) 647-5225 on weekdays and from 6 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. For emergencies after OCS working hours, call (202) 647-4000 and ask for the duty officer.
Chris Reynolds is on assignment. Hazell is a travel writer for the Hartford Courant.