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Should You Cancel a Trip Due to a Government Travel Advisory? Here’s What They Really Mean

by Eben Diskin Feb 2, 2024

Travel advisories are kind of like the Pirate Code in Pirates of the Caribbean – more like guidelines than actual rules. We look at them. We furrow our brows and nod and pretend to take them seriously. Then, in all likelihood, we simply book the trip anyway. But it’s undeniable that when it comes to travel safety, we separate destinations into two buckets: less luxurious, more adventurous countries where travel warnings are likely and expected, and standard vacation destinations whose safety we take for granted. When a travel advisory is attached to a country in the latter category, it may give us more pause than usual. That’s why when the United States State Department urged Americans to “exercise increased caution” in the Bahamas recently, it took many by surprise.

According to the advisory, “gang-on-gang violence has resulted in a high homicide rate primarily affecting the local population. Violent crime, such as burglaries, armed robberies, and sexual assaults, occur in both tourist and non-tourist areas. Be vigilant when staying at short-term vacation rental properties where private security companies do not have a presence.”

We might take safety into account when visiting parts of Africa or the Middle East due to political unrest and specific terrorist threats targeted toward Americans, but the Bahamas? The advisory is only a Level 2 – by no means the strongest – and should by no means derail your plans to visit the Bahamas. But it’s a good reminder to really examine what travel warnings are, what they actually mean, and how seriously we should take them.

What are State Department travel advisories?

The US State Department’s travel advisory system is a four-tiered ranking of each country based on its safety and security conditions. The point is to help US citizens make informed decisions about travel, based on the perceived safety of the destination.

Countries are ranked with a travel advisory level 1-4 based on their risk to US travelers.

Level 1: Exercise normal precautions

These are the safest countries, where travelers don’t need to take any special precautions. The risks and concerns are considered on par with those travelers would encounter during typical international travel.

Level 2: Exercise increased caution

Countries considered “fairly safe,” though with a higher-than-average chance of disorder. Travelers are encouraged to be more alert and aware of their surroundings.

Level 3: Reconsider travel

These countries may contain threats to travelers’ safety. Those threats could come in the form of terrorism or natural disasters. Exceptionally poor infrastructure might also be an issue.

Level 4: Do not travel

Level 4 really doesn’t mince words. The highest security risk due to life-threatening risks like nuclear terrorism threats, rebellions, war, and bombings, these countries are considered the most dangerous in the world for travelers. If anything were to happen to you during your visit, the US government might not even be able to assist, given limited diplomatic relations or other political issues.

Traveling to a Level 4 country might also complicate your travel insurance. Most travel medical insurance plans will exclude any coverage if you enter into a Level Four Advisory Country,” P.K. Rao, president of INF Visitor Insurance, tells Conde Nast Traveler. Indeed, since Level 4 countries are considered dangerous, insurance companies may also consider them too high risk to offer coverage, though the situation varies by country and insurance type and provider.

For each travel advisory level, you’ll also be able to find specific reasons for the designation. A letter-coded system indicates why the country is considered dangerous (T = terrorism, N = natural disaster, K = kidnapping, etc.).

How seriously should we take travel advisories?

Look, everyone should be safe out there. Nothing ruins an otherwise great trip like…you know, getting kidnapped. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that safety – even the State Department’s estimation of safety – is subjective.

There’s undeniably a certain bias in the administering of travel warnings, where Western, first-world nations are more likely to be considered safe (often in spite of their domestic issues), while poorer, non-Western countries are regarded as inherently more unsafe.

“The State Department has a long history as a policymaking agency of the US government,” writes Ryan Larsen in his dissertation, A World of Warning: Exploring U.S. Department of State Travel Warnings and Alerts. He hints that advisories might have underlying political biases and motivations, too. “Countries that do not share the U.S. values of democracy and civil liberty, that is, countries that are autocratic, were chosen as likely having lower regard from the American perspective. Based on these variables, not only did Dependent and Deviant classified countries have more Travel Warnings and Alerts than Advantaged and Contender countries, but they did so overwhelmingly.”

It’s not exactly surprising that the US assigns non-democratic nations stricter travel warnings than political allies, though it does raise the question: are travel warnings true safety indicators, or mere reflections of the geopolitical landscape?

“It is shown that primarily Western, white, Christian, democratic, and economically powerful countries generally do not receive Travel Warnings,” Larsen says, suggesting that this could be intended to shield allies from the negative economic consequences of discouraging travel. “If Americans heed a Travel Warning, they withhold not only their presence in a given country, but their money.”

While many countries don’t advise any extra precautions for visiting the US itself, many do note troubling crime and mass shooting statistics that travelers should be aware of. New Zealand advises its citizens to “exercise increased caution” when visiting the US (level 2 of 4), due to terrorism threats. Violent crime targeting members of minority communities is also cited as a concern. France warns travelers about crime in specific areas, like Boston and Atlanta, and Japan raises the alarm about the possibility of active shooter situations, with advice on how to react.

No one is suggesting that travel advisories are a nefarious instrument of political persuasion. They’re incredibly helpful tools that every traveler should consider before booking a trip, especially if you’re not up to speed on your destination’s safety situation. It is, however, important to remember that advisories are informed by a number of factors, some of wich might be more relevant to your travels than others.

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