Travel Tips: The Difference Between a Travel Alert and a Travel Advisory
Determine if your trip is still on after a travel alert or "do not travel" advisory from the U.S. State Department.
The U.S. State Department issues travel advisories to every country around the world. Each advisory is ranked on a scale that includes four standard levels of advice, from "Exercise normal precautions" to "Do not travel." When an alert or "do not travel" advisory includes a destination you were planning to visit, you likely have questions and concerns. But before you imagine the worst-case scenario and cancel a trip, here's what you need to know.
First of all, a travel alert is different from a travel advisory, and the biggest difference between the two is time. According to the State Department, an alert is issued by U.S. embassies and consulates abroad "to inform U.S. citizens of specific safety and security concerns in a country." Temporary situations, such as a disease outbreak, a public demonstration, or a weather event are among the things that could lead to a travel alert.
Travel advisories take into consideration more ongoing issues, like civil unrest or a rise in crime. When that happens, the U.S. State Department will rank that country a three or a four because it wants you to either reconsider travel or not travel at all. If a country is ranked one or two on the travel advisory scale, then you may feel free to travel but exercise caution and be aware of any heightened risks.
For example, Russia currently has a level four travel advisory due to the ongoing conflict with Ukraine, while a Labor Day demonstration in Greece got an alert even though the country's travel advisory level is one.
Although this information should never be taken lightly, understanding the events behind both alerts and warnings will give travelers context for planning their own itinerary. One thing to remember is that not every part of a continent or country with a high travel advisory is dangerous.
"Countries generally don't fit in a one-size-fits-all category," John Rendeiro, former Vice President of Global Security and Intelligence at International SOS, told USA Today back in 2016. "Variable levels of risks exist within countries, as there are safer and more dangerous parts of the United States as well."
As an example from personal experience, I recently visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although the U.S. government advises "to reconsider travel to the DRC due to crime and civil unrest," I visited the country's Virunga National Park, but I didn't blow off the recommendations. Prior to finalizing my plans, I e-mailed the park directly, and through our correspondence, a ranger assured me that a member of the park's team would escort me into the Congo at the border and I'd be accompanied by an armed guard throughout the entire trek. Overall, the park was extremely well run and I had no issues doing what I came to do: see the gorillas.
After being a few feet away from a gorilla family and watching one of the babies spin from a tree branch, I'd say it was one of the best experiences I've ever had.
No matter where travelers go, they should always prioritize their safety and exercise caution. When in a foreign country, keep in mind the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and the long list of U.S. embassies worldwide, which are there to help and inform citizens about how to handle themselves when visiting other countries.
Updated on June 24, 2022
Fact checked by Elizabeth MacLennan