The Best Passports For Travel Access

US Passport
Clappstar, Flickr

Applying for visas and dealing with travel-related bureaucracy can be a tedious, irritating process, but the good news is that U.S. passport holders have fairly unrestricted access when it comes to foreign travel.

The Henley & Partners Visa Restriction Index ranked countries around the world based on how freely their citizens could travel with just a passport. The United States came in 2nd place, tying with Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg. American citizens can enter 172 countries without having to worry about red tape, according to the study.So what is the best passport to have? A British, Swedish or Finnish passport is as good as it gets, giving passport holders access to 173 foreign destinations visa-free. In general, being a member of an EU country helps a lot if you want to travel spontaneously, with nine out of 10 of the top countries all part of the European Union.

Some countries however, are not so lucky, with citizens in Lebanon, Nepal and Pakistan finding themselves towards the bottom of the list. Iraqis, unsurprisingly, are expected to jump through a lot of hoops to travel abroad, and have access to just 31 countries visa-free. And the country with the most restrictions? Afghanistan, whose people have passport-only entry to 28 nations around the world.

Recovery Vacations A Hit With Soldiers Returning From War

a soldier's homecomingTroop Rewards provides recovery vacations to returning U.S. soldiers and their families who served overseas. To do that, Troop Rewards relies on hotels and private vacation property owners to donate unused inventory, sort of like a hotel might release a number of rooms to Priceline for bidding.

This year, Florida’s Sandpearl resort is teaming up with Troop Rewards to provide recovery vacations for five military service members who were deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

“This is such a great way to honor, remember and reward the servicemen and women who have served and defended our freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last ten years,” said Tom Burkett, Troop Reward’s Executive Director. “To be able to team up with such a beautiful and inspiring resort is icing on the cake.”The idea of recovery vacations started with a phone call Burkett received in 2009 from a soldier then serving in Iraq. The soldier’s tour was about to end but before re-joining society with his future wife, he wondered what the cost would be to book Burkett’s timeshare suite at a Florida resort.

Burkett told him the going rate was over $800 per night, but for him the rate would be $0. “How can I charge you anything when you have spent the last year risking your life for my freedom,” Burkett says on the TroopRewards website. “Little did he know at the time, that this would the first of many free stays at his resort for soldiers coming back from Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.”

Since then, Burkett has offered his suite every year to help support the troops and enlisted other private vacation property owners, hotels and resorts to provide rooms, raise money to help pay for travel costs and spending money, making the experience mostly free for soldiers and their families.

The resort will provide five military service members complimentary four-night luxury vacations at the Sandpearl Resort starting on Memorial Day.

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Tribute To Slain Diplomat Anne Smedinghoff

anne smedinghoff The Foreign Service lost one of its own on Saturday when a suicide bomber detonated explosives that killed 25-year-old Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and four other Americans, three soldiers and one civilian Department of Defense employee in Afghanistan. Smedinghoff was a second-tour public diplomacy officer who was part of a convoy that was delivering donated books to a new school in Zabul Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which also killed three Afghans and wounded four State Department employees. (Another American died in a separate incident and 18 Afghans, including a Taliban commander and women and children were also killed in a U.S. airstrike over the weekend.) She is the first State Department Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to be killed in Afghanistan. (A USAID FSO was killed in August in a suicide bombing.)

A devastating loss like this one reverberates throughout the Foreign Service community. I never met Anne but a former colleague who served with her at the embassy in Kabul and also taught a course she took in Washington said she was “heartbreakingly young, and a nice, lovely person.”

Just last week they took part in a quiz night at the embassy with questions revolving around events that happened on or near Anne’s birthday. I lived in River Forest, the beautiful town just west of Chicago where Anne grew up for three years, and after reading about her life and career, I feel certain that we lost someone who epitomized all that is good about the Foreign Service.She joined the Service right out of college and volunteered to serve in Kabul after a tour in Venezuela. According to press reports, she wasn’t the type of person who wanted to remain in the safety of the compound. She looked forward to opportunities like the one that presented itself on Saturday and hoped to make a real impact during her year in the country, which was nearly over. Reporters praised her as someone who was responsive and easy to work with.

FSOs who serve in danger posts like Kabul and Baghdad often get plumb follow-on assignments to cushy posts but Anne actively bid on Algiers, despite the tenuous security situation there and the lack of creature comforts. According to a friend who was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, she felt that the places she was needed the most were the “scary” and “dangerous” places, not the posh ones.

She had a taste for adventure. Smedinghoff biked across the U.S. (to raise money for cancer research), Australia and from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and she loved to travel. Her neighbors in River Forest have lined the block with white ribbons and American flags to honor her and her smiling face graced the front page of both the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune Monday. The stories are a fitting tribute to her but it’s a shame that diplomats usually only make the news under tragic circumstances.

Most Americans have at least some awareness of the tremendous sacrifices that our soldiers and their families make for their country but comparatively few are familiar with the Foreign Service and the sacrifices that FSOs and their families make. People might imagine that diplomats spend the bulk of their careers mingling at cocktail parties in Tokyo or Paris but that isn’t the reality of today’s Foreign Service. Most officers spend the bulk of their careers in places most Americans wouldn’t dream of visiting, even on a brief trip, and these days, many are also being sent unarmed into war zones, where they are separated from friends and family members for a year.

I hope that the press coverage of Anne’s life and death somehow serves to remind Americans of the sacrifices that FSOs make for their country and I hope that it inspires, rather than scares off, other young Americans who might be interested in the Foreign Service because our country needs bright, adventurous, patriotic people like Anne representing us overseas.

Inevitably, her death will lead to more debate on whether unarmed diplomats should be serving in war zones, and FSOs in danger spots around the world will now be under even greater security restrictions, making it more difficult for them to be effective. And the security officials at the embassy who approved this trip will unfortunately have to live with the consequences, which will be a very heavy burden for them to carry.

But this isn’t a time for second-guessing; it’s a time for all of Anne’s friends, family members, colleagues and the entire Foreign Service community to grieve the loss of a bright star. The Foreign Service can be something of a dysfunctional bureaucracy but when tragedies like this happen, it unites everyone who has served, past and present. God bless Anne and her family and all those who are serving their country.

On Tuesday, the military identified the three soldiers killed in the same incident as Anne Smedinghoff as 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward of Oak Ridge, Tenn.; 25-year-old Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa of Juncos, Puerto Rico; and 24-year-old Spc. Delfin M. Santos Jr. of San Jose, Calif. They were deployed with the 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.

Read more from “A Traveler In the Foreign Service


Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2013/04/09/5328844/3-ga-based-soldiers-killed-in.html#storylink=cpy

[Photo credit: Anne Smedinghoff's Twitter]

Half The Sky Launches Facebook Game To Provide Funding For Women And Girls Worldwide

About 300 million people play social games on Facebook per month. Now imagine if even a fraction of their time was spent playing games that could trigger funding for positive causes.

That’s the concept behind “Half the Sky Movement: The Game,” a new Facebook game that engages players in a series of stories and adventures related to the challenges facing women and girls worldwide. The journey starts in India, then travels through Kenya, Vietnam and Afghanistan – destinations also featured in the “Half the Sky” book and PBS documentary from New York Times reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Throughout the game, players have the chance to “unlock” funding for these non-profits from the game’s sponsors, which include the Ford Foundation and Zynga.org. For instance, if a player collects books for a young girl in the virtual world, that will activate a real-life donation to non-profit partner Room to Read by the Pearson Foundation. Words With Friends sure doesn’t offer that kind of incentive.

“If we’re able to inspire a portion of this group of players to spend 15 or 30 minutes of their time with this game, the ripple effect of players’ actions will result in significant and much-needed funding for this critical cause,” say Asi Burak and Michelle Byrd, co-presidents of Games for Change, a non-profit that seeks to create social impact through digital games.

“Half the Sky Movement: The Game” launches on Facebook on March 4.

[Photo Credit: Half The Game]

Biking In Afghanistan: The Power Of Two Wheels To Change Perspective

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.” John F. Kennedy

Bikes have long been a simple mode of transportation, getting us from point A to point B. But riding a bike doesn’t just get you somewhere; the process is fun. There is joy in riding a bicycle.

When I travel I am always on the lookout for bikes and what the local bike culture is. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, bikes are everywhere. It’s a city filled with commuters, cross racers and road riders. It’s a city with a strong bike culture and thanks to the work of bike advocates and groups like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance there are plenty of incentives to ride.

Coming from a place like Portland, it’s easy to take my easy bike commute for granted. Other cities are not always graced with the same ease of life on two wheels; but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

My first day in Kabul, we were in the midst of afternoon traffic hour. Cars, minivans and motorcycles were everywhere. There was even the occasional goat on the side of the street. In the midst of this chaotic hustle and bustle, men on bicycles wove in and out of traffic, dodging cars and doing the kind of cycling maneuvers that are normally equated with bike messengers.I was stressed, and it had nothing to do with being in a conflict zone. The thought of bikes in this mess of traffic was too much.

I thought back to my own close calls with cars – the near misses that keep you aware every time you get on your bike. I shuddered and wondered if I would have the mental capacity to deal with cycling in the midst of Kabul traffic on a daily basis. The phrase “this isn’t Portland …” kept popping into my head.

Making a U-turn in the middle of a busy road to avoid a traffic jam, we nearly hit a man with a kid sitting on his handlebars. Both the driver and cyclist insisted on their right of way, resulting in the bicycle tapping the front of our minivan and both our driver and the cyclist shouting at each other. I looked at my friend Shannon who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and knows the ins and outs of daily life. She just looked at me and shrugged. This was normal apparently.

What is not normal, however, is seeing a woman on a bicycle. As Shannon said in a recent interview about her own experience with biking in Afghanistan, “I had one man say to me, with this very shocked look on his face, how impressed he was, that it takes a lot of intelligence to ride a bike, alluding that that’s why women don’t ride bikes,” she said. “It became an interesting conversation starter.”

But that perspective is changing. There’s an Afghan women’s cycling team that competes internationally. One day we happened upon a girl riding to school just south of Kabul. In a country where conflict is a constant and women’s rights have a long way to go, it’s things like this that keep you inspired. Small change leads to big change.

In the rural village of Istalif, Shannon and I were even invited to take a cruise down the main street on a well-outfitted old bicycle, complete with a siren-sounding bell and streamers on the handlebars. The men laughed as we pedaled back and forth. A woman on a bicycle? How amusing!

It’s interesting to think about how much a simple thing like a bicycle can do to change perspective. As Susan B. Anthony once said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The simple joys that come from riding a bicycle are undeniable; the smiles from a group of young Afghan kids on their way to school stopping to ride with Shannon when she was out on her mountain bike are a vivid memory. If there is a cultural bridge to cross, a bike may very well be the way to do it.

At the end of October 2012, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

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