State Dept. terror alert: Should you cancel your trip abroad?

fearBy Mary Forgione

Los Angeles Times Daily Deal and Travel Blogger

If you're nervous about traveling outside the U.S. after the worldwide terror alert issued Friday, take a deep breath. Most travelers won't need to reconsider their plans, but anyone going abroad should register their whereabouts with the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) -- no matter what country they're visiting.

"It's the No. 1 thing people should do if they are traveling this weekend," said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, based in Pennsylvania. If something happens, it's the only way the embassy will know how to locate you and give you instructions, Goldman said.

Travelers can sign up free online for STEP, as the program is known, or register in person at an embassy or consulate.

The alert issued by the U.S. State Department advises Americans of potential terrorist attacks in the Middle East and North Africa, possibly coming from the Arabian Peninsula. It says terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda could be planning to carry out attacks between now and the end of August. Many embassies and consulates in the area, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel and Iraq, will be closed Sunday as a precautionary measure.

Travel alerts are issued for short-term events the government "thinks you should know about when planning travel to a country." The agency also issues warnings when it wants to discourage Americans from traveling to a country.

If you decide to cancel your plans to go abroad, don't expect to get your money back. Airlines, tour operators, hotels, bus companies and other travel suppliers rarely give refunds over such alerts, Goldman said.

"Anyone traveling on a tour will be handled by a land operator who is going to treat them like they are fine porcelain china under these circumstances," she said.

Travelers should be aware that cancellation penalties, particularly when it's close to their travel date, could become onerous, said Chris Martin, manager of leisure travel for Montrose Travel. "Travelers really need to check with their travel agent," he said.

And Goldman has this final bit of advice too: "If this alert makes you nuts, cancel your trip and swallow the money loss."