“It is above all up to each traveller to prepare his or her holidays carefully”

Article, 07.07.2015

The Travel Advice service is an important source of information for anyone going on holiday abroad. The staff of the FDFA Helpline is available to assist Swiss citizens in distress in the event of problems that occur at the destination. Here Hans Peter Heiniger, head of the Helpline, points out some basic precautions to ensure an undisrupted holiday.

Hans Peter Heiniger, head of the Helpline
Hans Peter Heiniger, head of the Helpline.

What are the most common problems for which Swiss nationals on holiday seek assistance from the FDFA Helpline? 

 Problems relating to visas, passports or identity cards, whether forgotten or stolen. These we have to deal with every day! It is extremely important to check with the embassy of the destination in question to see if a visa is required, and to leave one’s passport at the hotel when making excursions. Carrying a photocopy is usually sufficient. It is best however to check this point on the FDFA’s Travel Advice web pages (in German, French and Italian only) with the embassies involved or with the hotel staff.

What advice do you give to people who report the theft of a passport or identity card?

We advise obtaining a report of theft from the local police and contacting the airline to find out if it will be possible to make the return journey without an identification document. If not the local Swiss representation – embassy or consulate – can issue a provisional passport to make it possible to return to Switzerland.

What other cases do you frequently have to deal with?

Cases of sickness, hospitalisation, death or imprisonment. It is worth knowing for example that in a country like the United States a single day in hospital can cost as much as CHF 10,000. It is advisable therefore to take out travel insurance, as basic health insurance will not be sufficient. Advice on medical precautions, such as vaccinations, should also be sought from one’s personal physician prior to departure. And it is a good idea to find out about the laws of the country to be visited, and to take care to respect them.  In Thailand for example smoking cannabis or showing a lack of respect for the king can result in imprisonment. Ultimately it is up to each person to prepare by reading guidebooks about the destination, and to take advantage of the information provided by the FDFA.

What kind of information do you provide?

To begin with there is the Travel Advice service on our internet pages, which covers 176 countries and provides security-related information concerning the political situation and crime. It evaluates possible risks and suggests the precautions to take. We also provide a checklist to go through before going abroad (see pdf below) as well as videos on the precautions to consider before travelling abroad. This information is also available on Twitter. Finally Swiss citizens can register on our Itineris internet portal before or during their journey and can download the ItinerisApp free of charge.

What advantages does Itineris offer?

If the security situation in a given part of the world deteriorates drastically and unexpectedly it will be possible for the FDFA to locate anyone registered on Itineris, and send them an SMS or an email. The content of such messages varies. Sometimes we simply ask how the person is, and if any assistance is required. During the earthquake in Nepal last April for example we were able to locate those registered on Itineris and reassure their families. On other occasions travellers may be asked to contact the nearest Swiss representation, or we may notify them of changes in the travel advice for the region in which they find themselves. This might be the case if fighting breaks out.  Furthermore the ItinerisApp provides direct access to travel advice and to the phone numbers and addresses of the Swiss representations nearest to the destination in question.  

What are the sources on which the advice to travellers is based? Personal experience of the country in question can be very different from the picture painted in these pages… How do you explain that?

Our work is independent from that of the travel agencies, being focused on the risks involved in any given destination. It is possible therefore that our web pages paint a bleak, not very reassuring picture of certain countries! It is not our job to extol the friendliness of the inhabitants or the beauty of the beaches, but rather to provide Swiss citizens with the maximum of information so that their travel will be as smooth as possible. We are very strict about the sources we use, our embassies and consulates being the most important.

As for the summer of 2015...

A small plane on a map of Europe
© Keystone

In view of the difficult situation in Greece, what special precautions are you recommending to Swiss nationals who plan to travel there this summer?

We advise Swiss citizens to prepay as much as possible before leaving Switzerland: return flights, hotels, car rentals, meals… It is also advisable to have more cash on hand than is normal as bank withdrawals may prove difficult, at the same time carrying on you the strict minimum. Above all travellers should seek information from their travel agency as the situation evolves.  

What about other sensitive regions in the world this summer?

Among other things, we continue to advise against travel to Syria, Somalia, South Sudan and areas of Ukraine affected by armed conflict and other high-risk countries or regions. It is important to consult the Travel Advice service before making reservations. Information is also provided on the risk of kidnapping and terrorism.    

Should one consider visiting Tunisia after the attack of 26 June which targeted a tourist resort?

The FDFA has been warning about the risk of terrorist acts in all parts of this country for years. Unfortunately the risk of terrorist attacks is worldwide, even in Europe. And travel always involves a degree of risk. The decision to travel or not is always taken at the discretion and in the sole responsibility of the traveller.