How to Make Sense of Travel Advisories for U.S. Citizens

In January, the Department of State revamped its travel advisory page and how it provides information about other countries. Before the list only included countries that had a travel advisory, but now the list includes all countries with the following classifications:

  • Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions: This is the lowest advisory level for safety and security risk. There is some risk in any international travel. Conditions in other countries may differ from those in the United States and may change at any time.
  • Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution: Be aware of heightened risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
  • Level 3 – Reconsider Travel: Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
  • Level 4 – Do Not Travel: This is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or leave as soon as it is safe to do so. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.

The website specifies that a county could fall in a level two warning but have a region that falls under level three. This is the case with Mexico. The entire country has a level two warning, but the Chihuahua State has a level 3, and Colima has a level four.

So what does all that mean? How should we proceed if we find our destination with an advisory telling us to reconsider travel or not travel at all?

Right now, popular European destinations like Italy, France, Spain, and Germany  have a level two advisory, citing terrorism as the reason.

Guatemala and Turkey, two of my favorite destinations, have a level three advisory.

More alarming is the description used to describe Guatemala’s advisory:

“Violent crime, such as sexual assault, carjacking, armed robbery, and murder, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking, is widespread, particularly in the border regions.  Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”

My kids and I spent time in Guatemala two summers ago, a time when it had a travel advisory, and we loved it. It remains one of our favorite destinations.

I’ve only once changed my itinerary because of warnings. It was back in 2010 when Bangkok was declared a state of emergency because of red shirt protesters. I watched the news daily, wondering what to do about my stop in Bangkok before ultimately rerouting my trip.

So I don’t ignore travel warnings, but at the same time, I don’t instantly let them dictate my plans. Here’s what I suggest when you find your destination on the advisory list:

  • Research. Read news articles, forums, and travel guides to get other perspectives on the destination. Be careful about advice on travel forums. People tend to judge a destination based on one encounter, and this is a dangerous precedent. If I were to judge St. Louis on the recent carjackings that have become popular in parts of the city, I would miss out on all the great things this city has to offer, but because I live here, I know the carjackings are just one part of the St. Louis’ story. The same is true for every destination; you just have to view them in the same forgiving light you view your hometown.


  • Travel smart. 
    • Don’t carry around a lot of cash.
    • Don’t wear expensive jewelry.
    • Be alert in large crowds.
    • Take Uber in countries where taxi kidnappings are mentioned.
    • Avoid dodgy neighborhoods.
    • Don’t stay out late.
    • Don’t walk alone after dark.
    • Limit alcohol consumption.
    • Dress culturally appropriate

I spent last summer traveling around Colombia (Ecuador and Peru) with my daughter. Colombia had a travel advisory, which caused my dad to worry, but in looking up the world’s most dangerous cities, I found that my city was ranked 14, which was higher than any of the Colombian cities we were visiting.

To further put this into perspective, the U.S. has recently appeared on other countries‘ do not travel list for terrorism, mass shootings, and natural disasters.

I question the legitimacy of that advisory in the same way that my friend, Cigdem, questions why Turkey finds itself on our list year after year.

And I’d have to agree with her. The only thing I’ve suffered from in Turkey is eating too much baklava and drinking too much tea.

Related Posts

Tulum: Mexico Beyond Cancun

Tulum: Mexico Beyond Cancun

As Oliver and I board our flight to Cancun, I feel like I somehow stepped into a time machine back to college. There are men wearing neon tank-tops talking about how much beer they plan to drink once we land to others who brag that they have […]

Planning for South America

Planning for South America

We decided on South America many months ago, or rather my daughter, Emma, pitched the idea to me in a way that was convincing enough to change my mind. I was planning to go back to Southeast Asia, one of my favorite regions of the […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *