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What Every Traveler Should Know About Travel Advisories and Alerts

These days, you’re probably not planning a trip to Iraq or Afghanistan—most nations are currently advising citizens against all non-essential travel to these countries. And due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, governments around the world are issuing even more travel advisories and alerts than usual.

Though global crises such as pandemics should always be taken seriously, not every government travel warning means you need to immediately cancel a trip to a particular part of the world. In fact, within the past few years the governments of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. have released travel advisories and alerts about the following popular tourist destinations: Thailand, Mexico, China, India, and even the United States.

Before you decide to avoid these countries altogether, it’s worth taking a closer look at what a government’s travel advisories and alerts mean, why they’re released, and how to evaluate them.

What Is a Travel Advisory?

Governments issue travel advisories to let their citizens know about safety concerns that may affect travel to a particular country or region. Travel advisories may also note parts of the world where a government does not have the ability to respond to the problems of citizens traveling there—for example, if the government doesn’t have an embassy in a particular country, or if the functioning of its embassy is threatened by local violence.

In the United States, travel advisories are issued by the State Department.

The State Department’s travel advisories detail a variety of potential risks in a given destination, including terrorism, natural disasters, political unrest, wars, health concerns, and outbreaks of crime. The State Department offers travel advisories for all countries across the globe, along with a risk level for each on a scale of one (“exercise normal precautions”) to four (“do not travel”). In some cases, certain regions of a country may have a higher rating than the country as a whole.

The State Department uses eight different letters to denote the reasons for its travel advisory levels:

  • C: Crime
  • T: Terrorism
  • U: Civil unrest
  • H: Health risks
  • N: Natural disaster
  • E: Time-limited event
  • K: Kidnapping or hostage taking
  • O: Other

Travel advisories may remain static for months at a time, or they may change rapidly when circumstances demand.

Governments occasionally publish global or worldwide travel advisories in extraordinary circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed countries such as the United States, Canada, and New Zealand to advise their citizens against any non-essential international travel.

What Is a Travel Alert?

Travel alerts are issued to cover “specific safety and security concerns in a country, such as demonstrations, crime trends, and weather events,” according to the State Department. Alerts often come from embassies and consulates and may cover breaking news or shorter-term problems for travelers.

Alerts don’t necessarily mean “don’t travel,” but rather contain information that’s worth knowing about so you are prepared.

Unlike travel advisories, which can remain in place for months, alerts tend to be much shorter-lived; most alerts on the State Department’s country pages are less than a month old.

How to Evaluate Travel Advisories and Alerts

In general, a travel advisory—no matter how strongly worded—cannot legally stop you from traveling to a particular place. After reading an advisory, it is up to you to decide whether to heed or ignore the advice, and to determine whether your planned trip is essential or not. While your government will usually try to help you if you run into trouble abroad, you will always be traveling at your own risk.

Not all travel warnings are created equal. When deciding how seriously to take a particular travel advisory, below are a few questions to ask yourself.

Is the Entire Country Affected?

In many cases, violence, unrest, or natural disasters are confined to a particular region while the rest of the country is still safe and welcoming to tourists. For example, in recent years the U.K. has cautioned visitors against traveling in Gulf Coast states of the U.S. during hurricane season. And while Mexico’s recent struggles with violence are well publicized, government warnings apply only to select states; many popular tourist destinations such as the Mayan Riviera have remained safe.

While your well-being always comes first, keep in mind that the fallout from an isolated act of violence can affect an entire country’s tourist industry—and have a disproportionate effect on the economy of a developing nation.

What’s the Danger?

For travel advisories dealing with violence or terrorism, pay attention to what kind of attacks are taking place and who the targets are. Assaults that specifically pinpoint foreign tourists should raise a bigger red flag than civil unrest among locals. If violence generally happens away from primary tourist locations, there may be less risk for visitors.

How Up to Date Is the Warning?

If you’re looking at a travel alert that’s more than a few months old, it may be worth doing a little research to check the current situation on the ground and see if there’s been any improvement. The websites of international newspapers are often a good source of accurate and up-to-date information. Searching Google News can help you find these. (Compare multiple sources to avoid being taken in by less reputable publications.)

Is the Warning Corroborated by Other Governments?

To get a fuller sense of what’s happening in a particular country, check travel warnings from multiple sources (see our links below). Critics have speculated that some advisories are unduly influenced by politics, so checking a U.S. advisory against a Canadian or an Australian one can give you a fresh perspective—or confirm that a threat is cause for a change in your travel plans.

Will You Have a Safety Net?

Find out whether your home country has an embassy or consulate in the place you want to visit, and make sure it’s fully staffed and functioning. If the worst happens, you don’t want to be stranded in a foreign country without an embassy to help with emergency evacuation or to get you in contact with family and friends at home.

Is Travel Insurance an Option?

Keep in mind that travel insurance may not cover you in all countries or circumstances. According to TripInsuranceStore.com, most policies do not cover acts of war, riots, or civil disorder. Other exclusions apply too, so read your policy carefully before purchasing.

What Happens If You Decide to Ignore Travel Advisories

Each year, many tourists choose to visit certain countries despite their government’s warnings. If you decide to do the same, consider taking the following safety precautions.

Register Yourself

Let your government know when and where you will be traveling so that you can be reached in an emergency. U.S. citizens can register themselves here; Canadians can do so here. Other countries have similar programs.

Check In

Leave a copy of your itinerary with family or friends at home so that they know where you’re supposed to be and when. Stay in touch on a regular basis by email, phone, text, or Skype.

Stay Informed

It can be tempting to take a complete break from the world when you’re on vacation, but if you’re in a place where conditions are unstable, you’ll want to keep yourself posted on what’s happening by following the news on your phone.

Be Prepared

Have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Find your home country’s embassy or consulate in the area you’ll be visiting and store its contact details in your phone. But be aware of what the embassy—and your home government—can and cannot do. (For example, if you’re injured, the State Department can help you find medical assistance in your destination, but you or your relatives will have to foot the bill.)

Protect Yourself

Purchase a travel insurance policy after reading carefully to see what is and isn’t covered. Consider getting a policy with a “cancel for any reason” option so you can back out of your trip without penalty if you feel uneasy. Check out 10 Smart Ways to Carry Money While Traveling to help shield yourself against crime. Finally, do your research; read up on the political or cultural situation of the area you’re visiting and know exactly which threats you might face.

Where to Find Travel Warnings, Advisories, and Alerts

Below are a few governments offering travel advisories in English. (Keep in mind that the State Department does not offer information about U.S. territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, so you’ll need to turn to foreign governments for any advisories about these destinations.)

The downside of travel alerts and advisories is that they can strike more fear into travelers than necessary. But read as a precaution, travel warnings and alerts can provide even the most seasoned travelers with the latest information, and are a good refresher for how to handle an emergency should you encounter one.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Kate Sitarz contributed to this story.

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of IndependentTraveler.com. Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at sschlichter@smartertravel.com.

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