Disasters can happen at any moment, as we learned from the recent Tsunami experience in Southeast Asia. While Europe offers a far more stable political system than most developing countries, protests and political unrest are not unheard of here, and the ground around Pompeii is just as unstable as it always was.
But there are also emergencies that have nothing to do with a country, its politics, or its geography. According to the US State Department, over 6000 US citizens die abroad every year, and many more face sudden illness.
What can the traveler do to assure family or business associates of his or her whereabouts or well-being? First, you can leave them with your itinerary. Second, you can register your travel with the State Department. If you're a US citizen, you've been paying for these services through taxes all along, you might as well take advantage of them.
Registering Your Trip With the State Department
Did you know that the State Department actively tries to find US citizens during a disaster? They won't become a travel agent for people trying to get out of a bad situation, and they can't order you out of a foreign country, but they will evacuate citizens if things get really sticky.
First, check the State Department's information on the country you'll be visiting by checking the Alerts and Warnings from the Bureau of Consular Affairs. The State Department keeps a close watch on developments that might hamper the movement of US citizens around the globe.
Once you've assured yourself that you've made the right destination choices, you're ready to register your trip by using the State Department's Travel Registration Page. The information you enter may be used in the event of a disaster by The Department of State and its overseas embassies and consulates. In addition, you can specify the people who are allowed to know your whereabouts through contact with the Department of State. In the event of an emergency, concerned family members or business associates listed on the registration form can contact the Office of Citizens Services via a toll-free number: 888-407-4747.
Overseas travelers can use 317-472-2328.
Here is the State Department's list of issues that can be discussed by calling one of these numbers: "Death of an American citizen abroad, arrest/detention of an American citizen abroad, robbery of an American citizen abroad, American citizens missing abroad, crisis abroad involving American citizens, after-hours number for an emergency involving an American citizen abroad."
What Else Can the State Department Do for the Traveler?
The State Department says that "U.S. embassies and consulates assist nearly 200,000 Americans each year who are victims of crime, accident, or illness, or whose family and friends need to contact them in an emergency". The State Department offers help for travelers who encounter serious legal, medical, or financial difficulties. Consular officers can also notarize documents, issue passports, and register American children born abroad. Knowing the services offered by the nearest Consulate to your destination can be vital in an emergency.
Prepare Yourself for the Most Common Travel Emergencies
Before you go, make copies of your Passport Information Page and all tickets plus any other important documentation and keep them in your carry-on (in a different place from where you keep your passport, of course). In the event your passport is stolen, a consulate can efficiently issue a temporary new passport from this information. You may also wish to leave some information, including your passport number, with a friend or relative. For more trip-planning information, see Europe Travel 101: Before You Go.
If you take medications, make sure you have your doctor's phone number, the generic name for the drugs prescribed to you and a history of your inoculations written down. Be aware that American drug companies have a history of giving cute names to drugs to make them sell; you want the scientific name of your medications so that a pharmacist in Europe can determine exactly what you're taking. In an emergency, you may be able to get medications you need from a local pharmacy if you know the generic name.
Consider Travel Health Insurance. If you are concerned, make sure it has evacuation coverage, a costly endeavor if you ever should need it.
Travel Emergency End Notes
For more on the US State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs can do for a traveler in an emergency, see their Emergencies Abroad page.
For an interesting story on a travel emergency and some good advice in the sidebar concerning consular services, see The Government's Fallen and You Can't Get Out.