When planning your next international trip, be sure to make one more stop on your Internet wanderings: the U.S. State Department's Travel Advisories website. While you're unlikely to be vacationing in North Korea or Iraq, you might be surprised by what countries appear on this page.
Don't panic, though. Knowing how to read different travel advisories is crucial, as is putting each advisory into context.
The Department of State used to break down advisories into two categories: Travel Alerts and Travel Warnings. In January 2018, that system was replaced with numbered levels, Level 1 through Level 4, assigned to every country. This means countries that are deemed safe for U.S. travelers still have a travel advisory on record, even if it's Level 1—the lowest safety and security risk level.
Travel Advisory Levels
Level 1, Exercise Normal Precautions
This is the “lowest level for safety and security risk,” acknowledging that there is inherent risk in all travel but not suggesting any extra precautions are required.
Level 2, Exercise Increased Caution
The State Department deems countries assigned Level 2 to present “heightened risks to safety and security.” These risks may be only in certain parts of the country, or everywhere.
Level 3, Reconsider Travel
Travelers are advised not to visit Level 3 countries “due to serious risks to safety and security.” Again, these risks may be only in certain parts of the country.
Level 4, Do Not Travel
This is the “highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks,” during which the U.S. government may be unable to provide assistance. Americans are advised to not travel in Level 4 countries, or to “leave as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Slightly more nuanced information is on this map. The map shows not only the different levels (represented by colors, though the colors are inconsistent across the site, which can be confusing) but also which places have higher risks in certain areas rather than the entire country.
Travel Advisory Code Meanings
In addition to the numbers and colors, the web site also utilizes one-letter codes in its more detailed descriptions to indicate “established risk indicators” for each of the levels that dictate caution. Those codes are:
C = Crime: This doesn't mean pickpocketing. This means “widespread violent or organized crime.”
T = Terrorism: This can indicate terrorist attacks that have already happened, or specific threats of attacks.
U = Civil Unrest: This can be “political, economic, religious, and/or ethnic instability” that may cause disruptions or security risks.
H = Health: This could be a specific outbreak of disease or an infrastructure that is unable to handle medical emergencies.
N = Natural Disaster: This might be an ongoing natural disaster or “its aftermath.”
E = Time-Limited Event: This is a short-term event (from an election to a major sporting event) that may have a security risk.
O = Other: This umbrella code covers many potential risks, so travelers should read the Department of State's information on that country for more details.
Every country's listing on the State Department's website includes a level number, a color, and any appropriate letters for specific risks. Each country has its own Travel Advisory page on the site, too, so you can read all the information by either searching for your destinations by country name on this page or by clicking on a country on the map.
So, Should You Freak Out About a Travel Advisory?
Simply seeing “travel advisory” should not be enough to make you cancel your trip. Find out the reason behind the alert and put it in context. Hearing that Mexico or France or South Africa has been assigned a Travel Advisory level isn't enough information; the advisory's specific cautions may not relate to your itinerary at all.
Above all, be informed and prepared. Do your research. Read travel advisories from other English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, as well as accounts from recent travelers. Invest in travel insurance. Understand the risks, determine your comfort level with them, and know what your government will (or won't) do to help if you run into trouble.