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What is the difference between travel warnings and travel alerts?

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Question: What is the difference between travel warnings and travel alerts?
Answer: Travel alerts (formerly called travel public announcements), generally short term in nature, are issued because of situations like political unrest, recent violence by terrorists and on anniversary dates of specific terrorist events, and contain information about terrorist threats, political coups and other short-term conditions which may pose "significant risks to the security of American travelers," according to the government website. Examples of travel alerts would be those regarding 2006/07 and 2007/08's drug gang violence in Mexico, or 2008's trouble in Thailand and Mumbai.

Travel alerts are milder than travel warnings, in which the State Department recommend that Americans avoid travel to a country altogether because of its long term instability or "...when the U.S. Government's ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of its staff." In winter, 2009, travel warnings existed for travel to and/or in Iran, Iraq, Haiti, Nepal, the Philippines, and Israel, the West Bank and Gaza among 22 other countries and areas; an example of a temporary warning was the travel warning issued during the spring, 2008 turmoil in Tibet, for instance, or the update of an existing Haiti travel warning after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

I've been traveling in countries when the US government issued travel alerts for that country, and I've always been perfectly safe -- however, though it is always important to follow basic travel safety rules when you're on the road, times of unrest abroad necessitate particular attention to safety. If a travel alert has been issued for a country, consider registering with the US embassy in that country (more on that below).

Remember that Uncle Sam will help you with emergency evacuation from a troubled country, but it comes in the form of a repatriation loan via the Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management (ACS), which can be called upon to rescue you from a bad situation abroad. We've always heard that repatriation loans are like dialing Dad for dollars if unexpectedly destitute and that, just like when calling home, you have to wait overseas for the money to arrive and eventually repay that loan (and explain how this happened, too). The situation in Lebanon in summer, 2006, showed this to be the case, when Americans needing help to get out of the country got the help and a big bill -- though those bills were forgiven after public outcry, there is no reason to believe you'll ever get an ultimately free ride home if you find yourself in a dangerous situation.

Helpful Government Travel Safety Sites

  • Current Travel Alerts

  • Current Travel Warnings

  • Consular Sheets -- find the country to which you are traveling alphabetically and check for travel warnings or public announcements, as well as locating the US Consular in that country. Get up-to-date, specific instruction and facts on current safety and health conditions.

  • Registration With US Embassies -- Registration at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country in which you are traveling may make it possible and easier for Uncle Sam to find or contact you in the event of an emergency in that country. The US government has this to say about registration with embassies abroad:

      "Registration is particularly important for those who plan to stay in a country longer than one month, or who will travel to...a country that is experiencing civil unrest, has an unstable political climate, or is undergoing a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a hurricane."

  • The Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management (ACS) -- more from the US government on emergency travel help and repatriation loans.

Axis of Evil and State Sponsors of Terrorism

These alerts and warnings lists usually overlap with countries comprising the "Axis of Evil" and countries the US government considers "state sponsors of terrorism" -- learn more about the places that the US government doesn't want you to visit (like Cuba):

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