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What Travel Alerts and Warnings Really Mean

Submitted by Josh Lew on May 6, 2011 12 Comments

What Travel Alerts and Warnings Really Mean

The U.S. State Department has issued many travel alerts and travel warnings since 9/11. Right after the terrorist attacks in New York, people seemed to pay more attention to the State Department’s advice and avoided travel to many potentially dangerous destinations. Almost ten years later, some people are beginning to think that the State Department is overdoing it.  There have already been over two dozen alerts this year and the latest one, a broad alert issued after the death of Osama bin Laden, has people questioning how seriously they should be taken. The State Department announced a worldwide alert after bin Laden was killed, saying that all citizens traveling or living abroad should have limited travel outside of their homes or hotels while outside the U.S.

There are two types of travel advisories issued by the State Department.  “Alerts” are issued when there is a potentially dangerous situation in a country, but not any ongoing problems. “Warnings” are issued for countries that have ongoing conflicts that make them unstable. Usually, violence such as combat and bombings contribute to countries that receive a travel “warning,” which do not expire. Currently, countries like Haiti and Mexico are on the warning list, as is Saudi Arabia.

Again, these advisories are not a prohibition on travel. Perhaps some squeamish travelers put too much value in the alerts and warnings, but lots of Americans seem to be taking them as a reminder to be cautious, not a warning to stay away. It is possible to cross-reference U.S. warnings with the warnings from other nations. Canada and the UK both issue similar advisories to their citizens, while many travel insiders consider the British advisories to be more realistic and focused on real danger rather than potential danger.  Truly plugged-in travelers can use additional sources like local and international media outlets to find additional information about the situation on the ground at their destination. Ultimately, the decision to travel or not to travel lies with the traveler themselves. Things like the number of traffic accidents or the amount of crime against tourists in a destination will affect safety much more than terrorism.

But State Department alerts and warnings shouldn’t be completely ignored. Obviously there is a greater risk of retaliation against U.S. citizens for the killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and any kind of violence can happen abroad. However, the wording (stay in your hotel or home unless you have to) makes the State Department seem like they think that  all Americans are perpetually afraid and incapable of taking care of themselves while in a foreign country.

While there are fears of retaliation for the top terrorist’s death, the blanket alert by the State Department seems a bit over-the-top to many travelers, who don’t necessarily feel that their trip to the Bahamas is going to put them in Al Qaeda’s crosshairs. There is no mention of specific places where the level of danger is higher than elsewhere, and the alert is supposed to last for three months. You can see all travel alerts and warnings on the U.S. State Department’s travel site

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