On Site: U.S. Department of State Develops New Strategies to Keep Travelers Informed

Travel Agent sat in on a press conference held by the U.S. Department of State as part of the 2011 ASTA Travel Retailing & Destination Expo. We heard from Hugo Rodriguez, director of American citizen services and crisis management who brought members of the media up to speed on all that the Department of State is doing to better serve American travelers abroad.

"All of the turmoil we have experienced in 2011 has fallen squarely in my lap," he says. "There are many more opportunities to run into difficulty today than in the past and we are working very hard at the State Department to try and keep Americans out of trouble and to respond to their needs as quickly as we can."

The number one priority of the State Department is the welfare of U.S. citizens. In order to maintain the highest level of support and security, Rodriguez outlined a four-point plan. Number one revolved around passports.

"Our message is that we are able to respond to passport demand much more quickly and easily than in the past," Rodriguez says. "There are 28 passport agencies around the U.S." Rodriguez also pointed out that travelers and agents can visit travel.state.gov to find the access forms for passports online. Usually a passport turnaround takes four to six weeks. Expedited service is two to three weeks. If a traveler has to leave the country in under two weeks, they can visit one of the facilities and get a passport in five days, or sometimes on the same day.

September 17 is Passport Day in the U.S. Normally passport agencies are not open on Saturdays, but they will be on this coming Saturday, which is a great opportunity for families looking to travel. No appointment is necessary, and you don't have to take your children out of school. Twenty-six of the 28 facilities are offering this service.

Agents should know that travel.state.gov is a one-stop portal for travel info. "We want travelers trips to start here. Knowledge is power," says Rodriguez. "One of our key products is our country-specific page (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program), one for every country in the world. Users can access all sorts of pertinent information before they leave."

The site will be upgraded and rolled out in December and with this will come a checklist tailor made to a traveler's desired country of interest. The checklists will prompt travelers to check necessary visas, etc.

Finally, the State Department is rolling out a Smart Traveler app, which has the capabilities to store itineraries, information and notes. It is accessible from the iPhone.

Visit travel.state.gov