Understanding the New U.S. State Department Travel Advisories and What They Mean for Your Trip Tasmiah Rashid June 14, 2018 Travel Guide, Travel Tips So, you think you’re ready for your vacation. Fantastic! You’ve packed your sunscreen, secret extra cash for emergencies, your fancy camera and of course – that adorable jacket you just splurged on so you can look ultra-stylish in all of your pictures. But did you have a look at the Travel Advisory list to see where your destination falls and how to prepare accordingly? No? Well, luckily for you we’re here to guide you through your rookie mistake! Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department made some improvements to the way they communicate information to intrepid U.S. travelers like you, particularly about travel safety and security precautions. In this newly minted system, every country in the world has an assigned Travel Advisory level ranging from 1 to 4, with each level delineating timely and reliable advice for each destination. Read on to learn everything you need to know about these travel advisories and what they mean for your upcoming trip! Travel Advisory 101 We know what you’re thinking, but what is this Travel Advisory anyways? Natural disasters, political climate, health hazards…it’s all pretty fickle anywhere you go! The ever-changing world needs a finger on its global pulse and that’s exactly what the U.S. State Department did by introducing this new classification system for U.S. travelers. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the Travel Advisory list is an overview of every country in the world, based on CTUHNEO — Crime, Terrorism, Civil Unrest, Health Risks, Natural Disasters, Time-Limited Event (like an election that may pose a safety risk), and Other, all of which fall into a level from 1 to 4: – Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions: This is the lowest advisory level, making it the safest. – Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution: At this level, be aware of “heightened risks to safety and security”. – Level 3 – Reconsider Travel: At this level, the U.S. State Department advises travelers to “avoid travel because of serious risks to safety and security”. – Level 4 – Do Not Travel: This is the highest advisory level. The U.S. government may have “very limited ability to provide assistance”, so travelers are urged not to travel to these countries or are advised to leave as soon as it is safe to do so. At first blush, these rankings may come off a little stringent, emulating laws or regulations, but it’s important to keep in mind that these are recommendations, not rules. Sure, there are some countries that U.S. citizens are actually prohibited from traveling to, but this list was created as a measure to apprise travelers, to help them make informed decisions about the essential aspects of their trip: safety, timing, where to stay and what they may encounter or experience while there. In addition to the overall insights and number, don’t forget that there are also regional rankings in the mix. Particular states and areas within nations have separate rankings, as a way of keeping travelers aware of the more dangerous parts of their destination countries. For example, if you’ve been dreaming of going to Mexico or Thailand but aren’t sure what part of the country you want to see, go ahead and take a peek at its Travel Advisory page to aid in your decision making. While these countries as a whole are classified at a low level 2, certain areas within the country are classified as high as a level 4! A few things to remember… It’s important to remember that while a U.S. Embassy always has your back, you are still subject to the laws of the nation you’re visiting. While you’re on vacation, relaxing and mazing out your time off, it’s easy to forget that there are still rules and regulations you need to follow. Do your best to check on the major ones — the laws that are the most important and perhaps even most different from the ones you’re used to, these are the ones that you may unknowingly violate and be arrested, fined or banned for. Travel Advisory pages are set in place to help you out with this and highlight specific details about events, political climates, and so much more to help you make informed decisions for your trip! Headed to Russia for the much-anticipated tournaments? There’s a dedicated Travel Advisory page for that! Find out everything you need to know about your travels and stay here. While these advisories are a treasure trove of information, offering up some great advice and alerts, you should always implement your own additional research, especially if you’re traveling to a riskier or less-traveled-to destination. Do a quick search on your own before you go to check up on additional imperative details like dress codes, standard salutations and tipping etiquette. They sound like dismissible details, but as a traveler, you probably already know that even the smallest friendly or mindful gesture can take you a long way while you’re abroad! Levels 3 & 4 When prepping to travel abroad, it’s always a good idea to confirm that you’re not putting yourself in harm’s way by traveling to your destination, even if it’s your dream trip — safety comes first. The countries that are classified as a level 3 or 4 are updated on a 6-month basis, twice as much as those designated level 1 and 2, so to say the least: tread softly and heed to the warnings. That being said, again, remember that these are just recommendations and by no means are these set in place to indicate that these countries are off-limits to travel to. Political, social and even natural climates are in constant flux in these nations ranked at a 3 or 4, meaning that the status of your security in these places is too. Travel Advisory pages have many tools for you if you’re heading to one of these nations, things that will help you learn about and plan your trip accordingly, with event-specific information and safety alerts being updated constantly. You can definitely still have a wonderful vacation in a level 3 or 4 destinations, so long as you do some solid planning ahead and follow these simple tips: Make it a quick trip. Keep it short and sweet and don’t stay any longer than you need to. This will be your best bet to skip out on any dangers, especially if you have a set plan and/or are staying with a local! Pre-book your accommodation and stay in touristy areas. For all the family and solo travelers out there, we know this may be against your off-the-beaten-track ways, but hey, these areas are usually more populated and house more foreigners like you, so consider the tourist traps as a safety net in these high-risk areas. Have a contingency plan in place. Assess your travel insurance plan, talk to the local embassy, have a planned time and mode of communication with loved ones back home and keep them up-to-date about your daily itinerary. Stick to an itinerary. Map it out, scope out the information on the things that are the most important for you to see and make sure you pre-plan your travel routes and modes of transportation. Splurge on a data plan. You don’t want to be caught in a sticky situation, without being able to call for help. Having an international data or phone plan may just be your saving grace when you’re lost or encounter an emergency! If you can, seek local advice on your itinerary and strictly follow their advice on areas to avoid. Be respectful of local customs. This one goes for any country in the world, but in high-risk areas in particular, be sure to try your best to keep a low-profile (a.k.a. don’t take photos of people, or sensitive places, without permission) and be mindful of the people, religious beliefs and social norms of the setting you’re in. Don’t be a show-off. You’re already a foreigner in a place that’s slightly risky to be in, don’t be the object of ogling or a target for theft with overt displays of wealth or inappropriate dress code (oh, and on that note: never carry large amounts of cash). More Ways to Stay Safe! Whether you’re traveling to a level 1 or a level 4 country, you can never be too careful. Here are some ways to stay informed and protected, regardless of where you’re traveling to. – Stay in-the-know about safety and security. Along with the new Travel Advisory program, you can now also enroll in STEP or the Smart Travel Enrollment Program – a free service provided by the State Department for U.S. citizens and nationals to register your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Once you’ve enrolled, you’ll be updated about important information about the conditions in your destination and in the case of an emergency (natural disaster, civil unrest, change in travel advisory) the U.S. Embassy can contact you directly and also let your loved ones back home know you’re safe! – Before you depart, be sure to check your destination country’s page on the State Department website. Here, you’ll find everything you need to protect yourself, from updates on visa requirements, laws, local customs, health risks and of course safety precautions you’ll need to take, all of which go down to region-specific details for select places. – As mentioned earlier, countries deemed level 1 & 2 update their travel advisory numbers annually, but remember that level 3 and 4 nations are updated on a biannual basis. If you’re headed to a higher-risk part of the world, don’t forget to do a check on its level. A change in level could also change the course of your trip and the experiences you’ll have on it. If a country goes down a level, your once slightly-risky trip just became one that looks a lot more like smooth-sailing, and, unfortunately, vice-versa. Want more advice about these advisories? Ask us more questions or tell us what you know about Travel Advisories in the comments section below!