International travel is exciting, but also comes with certain built-in risks. Sometimes these risks can be as simple as the street taco that didn’t agree with your stomach, or encountering a language barrier when trying to find a tourist hot spot. In today’s political world climate however, certain high-risk safety concerns must be considered before you choose to travel abroad. Advance preparation and arming yourself with knowledge goes a long way to diminish potential life-threatening risks. Knowing the facts about travel alerts and travel advisories is a good place to start.
What’s the Difference?
The job of the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs is to protect lives and serve the interests of U.S. citizens abroad. According to them, a travel alert and a travel advisory are simply two ways of keeping you informed and only differ by time and level of risk. Realizing many travelers were confused by the prior vague system, they’ve now created a simpler way to communicate risk: travel alerts (short-term risk) and travel advisories (potentially higher-risk, longer-term warning ranking system).
With the new system, a travel alert is issued to identify a short-term danger posed by an event such as a health concern, weather event or mass protest. A travel alert is information U.S. embassies and consulates abroad regularly issue to inform U.S. citizens about specific safety and security concerns in certain countries. This “heads-up” information is released for short-term events or temporary situations that could, in time, potentially lead to a travel advisory.
It is wise to pay attention to travel alerts that may impact a country you are thinking about visiting. Watch to see if an alert turns into a longer-term concern – a travel advisory. can include political demonstrations, crime trends and even weather events. There are a variety of ways to receive regular travel alerts. The U.S. State Department’s Staying Connected area outlines all of your options.
In 2018, the U.S. State Department updated their travel advisory system, making advisories easier to understand. Travel advisories give more specific, longer-term, high-risk safety and security information about every country in the world and use plain language to help U.S. citizens plan and prepare. Those planning for international travel can now easily view a four-level ranking system that is updated daily and outlines why the country was given a particular ranking. In addition, this system explains why the advisory was issued. Using one-letter codes: C for crime, T for terrorism, U for civil unrest, H for health risks, N for natural disasters, E for special events such as an election or O for some other reason.
Travelers may also wish to utilize the U.S. State Department’s color-coded travel advisory map. Updated daily, areas of increased security risk are shaded differently than those with less risk. The legend provides U.S. Embassy locations, consulates and more. Simply click on the area you wish to visit and you’ll get more specific information.
Travelers should note however, that conditions can change quickly in any given country. Be prepared and plan ahead.
Before you travel, it would be wise to receive updated travel advisories and alerts in a variety of ways; including the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) daily newsletters and advisories, social media and RSS feeds. When enrolling in the free STEP service, you will enroll your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. With this you receive important information about safety in your chosen country, enable the embassy to contact you in case of emergency and provide family and friends with the ability to get in touch with you.
An additional advisory to be aware of is the U.S. State Department Worldwide Caution. U.S. government facilities worldwide are always in a heightened state of alert. These cautions give you general information and specific recommendations on how to prepare. Terrorist attacks, political violence (including demonstrations), criminal activities and other security incidents often take place without any warning. U.S. citizens are urged to maintain a high level of watchfulness and practice situational awareness when traveling abroad. It is vital that you enroll in the STEP program and keep important embassy contact information with you if traveling to high-level countries of risk. You will also need this information if your passport is lost or stolen, which will have to be replaced before returning to the United States.
It is wise to note there are certain things the Department of State can and can’t do in a crisis. For instance, anyone evacuated on a U.S. government coordinated transport must sign an Evacuee Manifest and Promissory Note prior to departure.
As you can see, knowing the difference between a travel alert and a travel advisory is only the beginning. Know all the facts before you choose to visit a high-risk country and how to get help in case of an emergency abroad. Travel.State.Gov is a helpful starting point and provides everything from international travel checklists to advice for U.S. volunteers abroad. When you diligently plan and prepare, you can travel with confidence anywhere you go.
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