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Is It Worth It?
On a recent trip overseas, I arrived at the airport 31/2 hours ahead of my scheduled flight aboard an international carrier, only to find that the flight had been canceled and passengers were being hustled onto other planes.
Gone was the direct flight. Gone was an on-time arrival. Gone were scheduled appointments. Arrival at destination was eight hours, 40 minutes late, plus "aggravation and stress."
Everyone has "horror stories" when it comes to international travel today. And even before the Aug. 10 plot to blow up U.S.-bound planes out of London, the American tourist realized that the overseas environment has changed in recent years, and that airline schedules definitely were not reliable.
That's not to say that there are not flights that leave on time and arrive on time, but they are becoming few and far between, it seems, what with additional layers of security, with airlines packing the flight and overselling (or often canceling if too few passengers have purchased tickets), and fewer flights being sent out because of the high cost of petroleum.
With airline security checkpoints increasingly jammed and carry-on baggage being restricted (flights from London in mid-August barred laptops, books, pencils or pads on board, and restricted such items as toothpaste and lotions), the common wisdom is arrive earlier, pack lighter, prepare to wait and stay calm.
Remember, the need to get to the airport earlier means more waiting time and adjustment to new "minimalism in carry-on items," though today you can sign up for a "registered travelers" program that speeds you somewhat through security.
Officials say people should maintain an awareness of their environment -- that means also keeping one's eyes open in the cabin of the airplane.
Having said all of the above, once you do land, what is the climate for American travelers overseas? When traveling, it's best to maintain a low key, non-attention-getting demeanor so that you blend into the crowd. Leave the expensive gold watch at home, along with the designer luggage, caution travel experts.
Still, experienced travelers -- especially businesspeople -- often say they feel safe abroad.
"I feel safe overseas. No different than Detroit or Washington," said an accountant who proudly told this writer he grew up in the Bronx, so traveling was no different for him because he was aware of his surroundings at all times.
'Ugly Americans' Change Shirts
But gut feelings and experience tell this frequent flyer that, first of all, U.S. citizens no longer casually broadcast their country of origin. Most now leave the Yankee cap at home -- though I was shocked to see walking down St. Petersburg's famous Nevsky Prospect this summer, an American tourist wearing an Hawaii shirt, shorts, a straw hat and a camera slung around his neck -- a sure target for muggers and the "boys on the street."
Many business travelers do not wear overtly American-brand labels on their clothing and avoid corporate logos. Fewer Americans show off their affluence with flashy jewelry.
What about the feelings of Europeans toward the United States and its foreign policy? How does that affect travel? Opinions vary, and much depends on the destination.
"I don't feel a thing as an American or as an Israeli, " said Rabbi Jonathan Porat, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee country director for Western Russia, including St. Petersburg.
Though he agrees that you have to be alert in any city or town, the rabbi believes that Eastern Europeans are friendlier to Americans than Western Europeans, and that Russians really like Americans.
Joel Zack, president of Heritage Tours Private Travel -- a destination firm based in New York City that specializes in custom-designed private tours of Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and all of Southern Africa -- says that people in foreign countries differentiate between the politics of the American government and the individual tourist who is visiting the resident's foreign country, spending money, and taking an interest in his or her nation. He said that Heritage has not had any cancellations due to uneasiness over travel. "They may feel it," he said, but they "go out and live their lives."
Many Jews may have switched over to caps and hats instead of yarmulkes when walking downs the street in the summer. What is certain is that heavy security surrounds Jewish and Israeli buildings.
In some cities in Germany, synagogues often appear to be part of an armed camp. In St. Petersburg, guards in a security hut are stationed at the perimeter of the new building known as YESOD: The St. Petersburg Jewish Community Home. In Helsinki, an iron gate bars entrance to the synagogue until clearance by security guards.
In Strasbourg, France, a visitor must call the synagogue ahead of time to announce his or her arrival that evening or next morning for services. In Moroccan synagogues, the guide sometimes has to summon a member of the congregation or custodian to open the door.
In Vienna, police guard the synagogue. In Rio de Janeiro, a police car stopped and asked this writer to desist from taking a photo of the synagogue, which had a concrete barrier in front of it.
No longer can the American Jewish tourist walk into shul as if he or she were casually entering one at home. Most are closed to public viewing during the day. Even for prayers, it's best to e-mail or phone ahead that you plan to come to services.
This is a must, for example, in Paris, where security is tight at Jewish houses of worship. Also, it's best to carry your passport with you at all times; U.S. citizens traveling to any foreign destination must have proof of citizenship. In Costa Rica, for instance, where there is unbelievably tight security, they may even take your passport from you until the conclusion of the service. This happened to this writer, even though he was accompanied by a known city guide.
None of this, of course, stops most people or American Jews from traveling. It is all part of the world we live in, they say, and most remain thankful for the security precautions.
It seems to me that an extra hour's wait to board a plane or search a bag is certainly worth the experience of attending a synagogue in Buenos Aires, for instance, where one sings Hebrew songs and meets co-religionists. At the end of the service, there are hugs a-plenty among these happy and courageous people, whose Jewish center was destroyed by Hezbollah in the 1990s with great loss of life.
Terrorism did not stop them then, and it seems not to be halting Jewish or non-Jewish travelers from visiting them now, in this post-9/11 world.
Ben G. Frank is the author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine; and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.