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american flag usa stars and stripesBy now, most travelers are aware of the global travel alert released by the U.S. State Department in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday. The alert, which expires August 1, 2011, advises U.S. citizens “in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence … to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations.” The State Department also recommends that travelers keep their eye on local news, stay in touch with family and friends at home, and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows travelers to receive the latest updates and information from the government.

But just how worried should travelers be? Earlier today we checked in with Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of our sister site CruiseCritic.com, to get a sense of whether anything has changed for travelers abroad. (Brown is currently traveling in the United Kingdom.)

“Certainly, people are talking about it, but at this point there’s no concrete confirmation of any [security] changes, and I don’t expect there to be quite yet,” Brown told us in an e-mail. “A lot depends on what [the U.S. government finds] in the intelligence, and there’s a feeling that there will be a backlash that could impact travel but it’s just too early to tell (by backlash I mean an attack somewhere in retaliation).”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary travelers to predict where a potential terrorist attack might occur — and the State Department seems to be reinforcing that uncertainty by making its recent alert “worldwide.” But that doesn’t mean travelers are canceling their trips to huddle up under the bed at home.

IndependentTraveler.com’s managing editor, John Deiner, who’s cruising the Med this week aboard Carnival Magic, reported this morning that so far everything there is business as usual: “No one has said a thing about security on the ship! We were in Croatia yesterday, and it might as well been Miami … no one advised us to do anything differently.”

And @AnjaniLadki told us on Twitter that she’s not planning to make any changes to how she travels: “Being cautious, alert and applying common sense ought to do it. [The] rest is up to fate! Not doing anything different than I would’ve a week ago.”

Facebook user Lora W.M. summed it up most succinctly: “[Terrorists] will never scare me enough to stop doing what I love.”

We advise readers planning overseas trips to take a look at any government warnings or alerts that apply specifically to the destination they’re visiting, and to enroll in the State Department’s STEP program to stay abreast of current news. For more useful tips on staying safe abroad, as well as links to travel alerts from other governments besides the U.S., see our story on Travel Warnings and Advisories.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

paperwork In February, the State Department recommended the implementation of a new passport application form, DS-5513, that makes our current form look like a field trip permission slip — and today is the last day to cast your vote against it. Here’s a sample of what Uncle Sam might ask future passport applicants to reveal:

– Did your mother receive pre-natal or post-natal medical care? If so, list the name of her doctor and the dates of her appointments.

– Please describe the circumstances of your birth including the names (as well as address and phone number, if available) of persons present or in attendance at your birth.

– Please list all of your residences inside and outside of the United States starting with your birth until the present.

– Was there any religious or institutional recording of your birth or event occurring around the time of birth? (Example: baptism, circumcision, confirmation or other religious ceremony. Please provide details including the name, location of the institution, and date.)

But wait, there’s more! The form requires applicants to list residences of all nuclear family members living and deceased, plus fun facts like the name of your supervisor at every place at which you’ve ever been employed, and the address of every school that’s had the pleasure of calling you a pupil.

We get it. Someone in the State Department thinks our current passport application, good ol’ DS-11, isn’t quite as thorough as it should be. But this proposed form belies any sense of moderation. Asking applicants to list the name of their kindergarten alma mater and provide the details of their own circumcision is disturbingly Orwellian. And, on a more practical note, filling out this form would take forever.

Writes PapersPlease.org, “The State Department estimated that the average respondent would be able to compile all this information in just 45 minutes, which is obviously absurd given the amount of research that is likely to be required to even attempt to complete the form.” Did someone at the State Department actually fill out this form in 45 minutes? I’m impressed. Those bureaucrats must be an efficient bunch. I honestly would need to hire a private investigator to ascertain the phone number of the nurse who helped my mom give birth or dig up the full name of the manager at the supermarket where I bagged groceries for a summer when I was 14 years old. (His name tag read “Bob,” and that’s all I can remember.)

U.S. citizens have until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time today, April 25, to submit feedback on form DS-5513. To speak your mind, e-mail GarciaAA@state.gov or submit a comment online at regulations.gov. You can read already submitted comments on regulations.gov as well. I’ve checked, and the majority of comments appear to be fully against the implementation of such a complicated passport application form. Words like “anti-American,” “invasive” and “ridiculous” are copious in the comments. What’s your take?

— written by Caroline Costello

Update, April 8, 3 p.m.: The State Department just announced on its @TravelGov Twitter account that National Passport Day has officially been canceled in light of the potential shutdown.

Update, April 8, 10 a.m.: The Washington Post reports that the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade will still take place if a government shutdown happens. The parade route will be changed as necessary so that National Park Service permits, which would not be valid in the event of a government shutdown, will not be needed.

passport The looming U.S. government shutdown, which is looking more likely by the minute, could spoil your spring travel plans.

United States lawmakers have been postponing passage of the 2011 fiscal year budget, and if Congress doesn’t pass something soon — that is, by midnight Friday — a government shutdown is expected. All “non-essential” government employees would stop working during the shutdown. But some of these employees are absolutely vital to the travel industry.

Among the affected workers would be those employed at U.S. passport agencies. National Passport Day, which was scheduled to take place on Saturday, April 9, will be canceled, and anyone waiting to receive a passport or visa may have to wait longer than expected if a shutdown comes to pass.

For travelers, it gets worse. U.S. national parks, monuments and historic sites won’t be open during a government shutdown. Visitors to Washington D.C. will face particular challenges. As government-run facilities, the Smithsonian Institution museums and the National Zoo will be shuttered. Plus, according to the National Cherry Blossom Festival Web site, a handful of festival events will be canceled or postponed in the face of a shutdown, including the annual Cherry Blossom Parade, which marches down the National Mall (managed by — you guessed it — the National Park Service).

National Park Week kicks off next weekend, from April 16 through 24, during which admission is free at more than 100 national parks. Will it be canceled? Only time will tell. No one can predict the exact length of a possible shutdown, and there’s no way to know the extent to which one’s passport application may be delayed or for how long one may need to postpone that weekend getaway to Yosemite.

Travelers planning spring getaways should prepare for the worst and keep a close eye on trusted news sources. If you’re waiting for your passport to be processed, you can contact the State Department at 1-877-487-2778 or go online to check the status of your application.

Will a potential government shutdown affect your next trip?

— written by Caroline Costello

eiffel tower paris Either we travelers should seriously be worried, or this is just another day in an unstable, unpredictable world. Yesterday, the State Department issued a travel alert for U.S. citizens visiting Europe in response to the threat of terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda. Travelers in Europe should “take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling,” cautions the State Department. Several international governments, including Japan and the U.K., have also issued warnings for travelers in Europe.

Although information detailing when and where the attacks might happen has been vague (to put it mildly), authorities have been clear about one thing: this is not a travel warning instructing citizens to cancel their travel plans. This is a less-severe travel alert, which means the State Department is simply telling people to be watchful and aware.

Travelers have been abuzz over the State Department’s ambiguous warning, which leaves much to the imagination. Short of staying home, what exactly can we do to protect ourselves when faced with an alert covering a vast continent? The State Department recommends that citizens visiting Europe register their travel plans with the U.S. Embassy (you can do so here); yet it provides no clear-cut instruction beyond this one tip.

Seeing that terrorist attacks — as well as theft, kidnapping and other crimes — take place every day around the world, smart travelers know to be on guard when touring public places. Is this warning really of any use to already vigilant vacationers?

When I’m standing in line at a popular international attraction, wedged into a plane seat or holding on to the ceiling bar on a crowded European bus, I’m continually conscious of two things: the location of my valuables (particularly my passport and wallet), and who and what is around me.

I keep my eyes open. I’m not traveling in Europe presently, but if I were, I don’t imagine I would change my behavior in response to this recent travel alert. How about you?

–written by Caroline Costello