By Mr. Stephen Baack (IMCOM)November 21, 2013
ANSBACH, Germany (Nov. 21, 2013) -- When a friend asked me to take a weekend trip with her to Prague earlier this year, I hesitated. Everyone I know who has traveled there insists it's more than worth the trip, but the last few things I learned about the city included a travel alert and an hour-long television special on scams.
But I had never actually been there, so I started off with some casual research online in the hopes of alleviating my concerns. Googling "Prague Scams" returned links with no shortage of tourist stories of being ripped off by taxi drivers or overcharged by restaurants. Even the less alarmist search results with titles like "Is Prague really that bad?" didn't seem to help either. Another result linked to a blog that prominently displayed the sentence, "In the center of Prague, there are many restaurants and you'll be able to find an honest one." Well, I should hope so.
Still, I knew I could not rely on this information because nearly all of it arrived through unverifiable, personal experiences detailed on blogs or message boards with virtually no consideration of crime statistics or official embassy information. Even my own search terms "Prague scams" was, I admit, unfair.
SECURITY REQUIREMENTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
So, what's a good way to get solid, reliable information on foreign travel? The first is not only a recommendation, but a requirement for all Soldiers and Department of the Army civilians assigned to U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach: a briefing from the USAG Ansbach Security Office.
According to Army Regulation 380-5, attending foreign travel briefings are "in the best interest of the traveler, as well as the command, to ensure the traveler is fully prepared for any particular security or safety concerns that their travel to foreign areas may introduce."
"What we do is have personnel come in and we provide them with a country-specific threat briefing produced by the State Department," said Manuel Melendez, USAG Ansbach security specialist. "We have them fill out a travel form with traveling location, dates, purpose of trip, emergency contact information and supervisor signature. Should there be a travel request to a country that holds a current travel warning or alert, it requires approval from higher in order to go."
In addition to the briefing, Department of the Army military and civilian personnel planning to travel outside the host nation must have completed and be current on their Antiterrorism/Force Protection Level I awareness training before departing, according to John O'Brien, who serves as the USAG Ansbach antiterrorism officer.
The second recommendation is to review the official U.S. Department of State's Travel.State.Gov website, which provides up-to-date, country-specific information that includes entry and exit requirements for U.S. citizens, known threats to safety and security, crime information, and guidance on public transportation, medical services, road conditions and children's issues. Maybe most importantly, the page lists emergency and embassy contact information.
DRIVING INFORMATION AND REQUIREMENTS
About a week later, I asked my friend if she was planning to drive the whole way to and from Prague, since she told me she had driven there previously and was thus familiar with the driving requirements and laws. Also, she undoubtedly knew the requirements for insurance and licensing before traveling outside Germany's borders.
It turns out I was wrong on all counts and I would have to do some research.
What did Google say when I searched for "Driving in Czech Republic"? Out of about 88,700,000 results, the top result was "Avoid driving in Czech Republic."
The second result was more positive and listed a requirement that I found in many other online articles about driving in the country: road tax stickers, also known as "vignettes." As always, rules differ from country to country, even throughout the European Union. Unfortunately, information differs from source to source as governments update their driving regulations, but one useful website to get an idea of the latest toll rules in different European countries is www.dalnicni-znamky.com/en/.
Just make sure to double check with the customs office about the rules you see on this website and others. This is spelled out in Army in Europe Pamphlet 190-34: "National requirements for liability insurance, customs documents, and drivers licenses vary and are subject to change. The local customs field office can provide information on international driving requirements." When in doubt, ask the local experts. In this case, stop by or call the USAG Ansbach Customs Office, which is located at Barton Barracks in Bldg. 5254 in Room 316. To reach them, call 0981-183-7842 or (DSN) 468-7842. Their information is up-to-date and is drawn from authoritative sources.
Before talking to customs personnel, AE Pamphlet 190-34 has a quick and easy rundown of what you'll need and what to consider in the "International Driving Requirements" section. To see or download the whole document, visit www.ansbach.army.mil/documents/DriversManualGermany.pdf.
Those driving abroad who hold a U.S. Forces Certificate of License also need to acquire an international driving permit and, just as importantly, need to ensure their insurance covers them in the country or countries through which they are driving. If you are renting a car in Germany to drive to another country, don't assume your insurance has you covered. Verify it.
When it comes to driving, don't forget about that State Department website. It has plenty of useful information on driving regulations in other countries. Drivers are required to have their headlights on at all times while driving in the Czech Republic. I only know this because of the State Department website, which has no shortage of useful information on issues many travelers might not even consider -- and links to pages on how to handle them.
USAG Ansbach website: Winter may not officially be here, but freezing temperatures and precipitation have already moved in and made traveling more hazardous. The new USAG Ansbach website (www.ansbach.army.mil) has its own weather page with information that covers not only the immediate area, but Europe as well. Using the links on the right side of the page, you can find out which European countries have weather warnings in effect (www.meteoalarm.eu/en_UK/0/0/EU-Europe.html), learn how to handle your vehicle safely in the snow and ice (www.ansbach.army.mil/documents/DrivingSafeinWinter.pdf) and get real-time weather updates and forecasts depending on your planned location.
CDC information: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a dedicated "Travelers' Health" page on their website (http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/) that, in a few clicks, can show you what vaccines you should have before you go, what health hazards to watch out for and how to get medical care if you need it.
TRiPS: The U.S. Army Combat Readiness and Safety Center has your back with the Travel Readiness Planning System (TRiPS) on the Privately Owned Vehicle Safety portion of their website (https://safety.army.mil/povmotorcyclesafety/), which addresses both cars and motorcycles. TRiPS itself is an online tool for travel via privately owned vehicle and, based on your input along with some composite risk management principles, offers the user a risk assessment and recommendations to mitigate those risks. Depending on whether you are a Soldier and on your command policies, this may be required.
Two weeks later with passport ready and bags packed, I set off with my travel companion for the three-hour drive east on the A6 into the Czech Republic, feeling more confident and more relaxed. Two days later after having met only nice people and experiencing practically zero hassles, I had no regrets about crossing my T's and dotting my I's before my trip.
Navigating all these requirements and information may seem Kafkaesque at first and will give even adventurous travelers a reasons to stay home, but you'll be rewarded with an invaluable peace of mind while driving through landscapes that some only get to see on wall calendars, touring castles that have endured historic rebellions, and eating in restaurants that have been open longer than America has been a country.
Knowing exactly how to keep all your bases covered when you travel is an indispensable life skill. I don't know about you, but having to wonder if my insurance has me covered is like having to wonder if I left my front door unlocked or the stove on during a trip. Once you are comfortable with the process, you'll only be worried about the right things: Where to eat, what to drink, which castles to visit and how many photos to take.