How to Navigate Travel Advisories

Tips & Tricks

"Safety first” is more than just a saying — it’s a directive. That’s especially true when traveling, as nothing threatens to derail a trip like a dangerous experience.

The U.S. State Department ranks every country with its own travel advisory, with the system ranging from Level 1 (Exercise Normal Precautions) to Level 4 (Do Not Travel). Keeping an eye on these designations can help you stay safe and in-the-know about your potential vacation destination.

So what to do when you’ve booked a trip only to have circumstances in your destination change? It depends on the severity of the situation, of course. The State Department's advice on what to do during a crisis abroad is mostly of the common-sense variety, with suggestions like “keep the contact details for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate with you” and “be sure you know more than one way to get towards safety — the crisis event may make some roads unpassable or unsafe.”

But in general you should do what you would always do on a trip — like let loved ones know where you are and stay in touch with them throughout your travels — just to a greater extent. Especially important: knowing where your embassy is and how to contact it if the need arises.

Plan, Don't Panic

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As of this writing, 13 countries have reached the Level 4 designation (Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Venezuela, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Iran, Central African Republic, Afghanistan and North Korea). These are as uncommon as they are extreme, with matters like armed conflict, civil unrest and kidnapping listed as reasons to stay away. A further 16 — including Turkey, Burundi and Sri Lanka — are at Level 3 (Reconsider Travel), largely due to such issues as terrorism and political violence.

Burundi may not be the most common of tourist destinations, but Turkey certainly sees its fair share of western travelers. If you’re taking a trip there — or anywhere you suspect might put you at elevated risk — it would behoove you to check the State Department’s website, conduct your own research into recent goings on and follow best practices during your excursions. The page on Turkey, for instance, says that U.S. emergency services are very limited in areas like Hakkari and Sirnak but makes no mention of Istanbul, which is the country's main tourist destination and widely considered safe to visit these days.

This emphasizes something important: that events warranting special caution can be highly localized, and a country having a heightened travel advisory doesn’t mean there are no safe cities to visit. Look up why an advisory might be in place, understand how it will and will not affect you and focus on areas known to be safe for tourists. Do your homework, but don’t panic.

Context Is Key

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Consider also that everywhere from Germany and the United Kingdom to China and Morocco are currently at Level 2 — these designations are useful, but by no means  the end-all be-all on travel safety. (It's also worth pointing out that several countries have travel advisories against visiting America, largely due to the rate of gun violence.) Be vigilant, not afraid, when indulging your wanderlust.

The good news is that the lion’s share of countries fall under Level 1, meaning the risk-reward ratio is almost always in your favor. Abide by the safety-first principle, but don’t scare yourself out of what will most likely be a rewarding experience.

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