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Fair Warning: How To Use Government-Issued Travel Advisories

Recently, the US Department of State issued a travel warning for Europe. Not just a hot spot of a city or a country on the verge of collapse, but an entire continent. Sounds ominous, right? Before you change your travel plans, take some time to learn exactly what travel warnings are, who issues them, and how can travelers use them to their advantage.

While the continent-wide advisory raised some eyebrows, governments publish fairly pithy sets of information on individual countries so that their traveling citizens are better informed about all manner of on-the-ground issues a person might encounter while in country—running a range that covers entry requirements, adoption laws, cultural norms, health notices and, yes, terrorism alerts.

Travelers should understand that governments issue these alerts, advisories and warnings to enable citizens to make the best decisions for themselves. They don’t have the weight of law, but they can be written sternly enough to feel like they do. When reading government-issued consular sheets, it’s important to look in more than one place, so we took the time to review several English-speaking countries’ travel advisories. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the traveler to decide whether they’ll go or not.

United States

American citizens should always head to http://travel.state.gov to bone up on the place they’ll soon be visiting. Near the bottom of the mainpage, click over to “Alerts and Warnings”  or use the site search to find your country, then prepare to get educated. Travel alerts are issued for short-term situations like a disease outbreak or strikes, while travel warnings are issued for long-term and more serious events like civil wars and ongoing threats of violence. It’s always a good idea to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) so you can receive up-to-date info about your destination.

Canada

Under “Travel Advice and Advisories” you can either enter the name of your destination in a search box, or simply click the heading to see all listings. Countries are rated along a scale that starts at “Exercise normal security precautions” and runs up to “Avoid all travel.” In between lies “Avoid non-essential travel” and “Exercise a high degree of caution.” Except for “Avoid all travel,” each of these categories is sometimes modified with a parenthetical “(with regional advisories)” implying that some parts are more dangerous than others. Conveniently, you can see and sort all countries by threat levels to get a quick scan of places to avoid.

United Kingdom

The Brits are super detailed in their advisories, which you’ll find on its Foreign Travel Advice page. It’s a listing of 225 links arranged alphabetically for all countries and territories. Unlike Canada’s easy to sort site, you’ll have to visit individual pages to get the full story on each destination.

Australia

Oz’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s travel page conects you to its Smart Traveller page, where you’ll find links for regions, a search box and a link to “List all countries.” Warnings range from “Exercise normal safety precautions” to “Do not travel.” In between you’ll find “Exercise a high degree of caution” and “Reconsider your need for travel.” Little dots next to each warning level are colored coded as well from green for normal to red for no-go. The circles can also be half yellow and half red to communicate that a region is tipping into dangerous territory. You can read the full explanation for their system here.

But what does it all mean?

To get a better sense of how travel advisories work, we looked at each country’s statements regarding Belgium, site of one of the most recent terrorism attacks in the West.

Issuing Country Warning level
Australia Exercise a high degree of caution. Pay close attention to your personal security at all times and monitor the media about possible new safety or security risks.
Canada Exercise a high degree of caution
United Kingdom Threat level remains at Level 3 – a serious and real threat
United States No warning issued

Strangely enough, while the US reported on the Brussels attacks in its travel warning for Europe, there is zero mention of those attacks in its consular information sheet on Belgium. In fact, it reads, “While Belgium has historically been largely free of major terrorist incidents, two terror-related events have occurred in the past year.” And then goes on to list attacks that occurred in 2014 and 2015 because the last time the countries page was updates was June 8, 2015. Canada, Australia and the UK all have theirs updated as of April 3, 2016. This seems like a glaring oversight on the part of our government.

Your best bet is to visit all four government sites to take in the different perspectives each country offers for travelers, and then make your own informed decision.





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