Travel safety – Understanding State Department travel advisories

by Aug 15, 2019Safety & Security

State Department travel advisories can be confusing. We’ll help clear up the questions about travel risk with security tips from a travel security expert at Global Rescue.

The U.S. Department of State issued a Level 2 travel warning for Peru in 2019 advising travelers to “exercise increased caution” in the country. But the warning doesn’t convey the entire story unless you read further, because parts of Peru also now carry Level 4 travel warnings – meaning do not travel there at all. Certainly, this might appear a bit concerning if you were planning a nice vacation to visit Lima, Machu Picchu, and perhaps north to the Amazon River. Should you be worried?

There are four categories of State Department travel advisories:

  • Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions
  • Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution
  • Level 3: Reconsider Travel
  • Level 4: Do Not Travel

Of the 209 countries, for which there are State Department travel advisories, only 12 are currently classified as “do not travel,” including 11 in Africa and Asia and one in South America (Venezuela). Of course, many more Level 2 and Level 3 countries also have Level 4 areas – which adds to the confusion for the traveling public.

Travel Safety State Department Travel Warning Police

To try to clear things up, we spoke with security expert Harding Bush, associate operations manager for Global Rescue, a company specializing in medical, security, intelligence and crisis response services to corporations, governments and individuals.

“Travel warnings are simply State Department classifications of the risk level in that country, and then also specific regions in each country,” said Bush. “It is one piece of information to consider as you plan your travel, but it is not the only information you should rely on.”

Indeed, Bush points out that the State Department travel advisories are specifically intended for embassy staff and government employees and not necessarily for the general traveling public, although the information is still excellent and valid to consider.

An additional — and he feels more accurate — perspective regarding ascertaining and managing travel risk is the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) travel advisories, said Bush.

A quick look at the Peru advisory page from the FCO paints a more detailed and frankly reassuring picture. For Peru, it notes there are reports of thieves targeting cars traveling from Lima to the airport, but that of the 70,000 British nationals visiting Peru each year, most visits are trouble free. There is information on concerns and precautions to take during the rainy season and an amazingly detailed webpage on drug trafficking and organized crime and terrorism, plus an incredible wealth of information on what regions are most at risk with website links to useful Peru government information.

One bit of advice offered by the FCO is to seek local information before you travel to any specific area in Peru. And that is advice Bush said is essential to any travel, anywhere in the world: “Seek out local connections wherever and whenever you travel,” said Bush. “Travel with local guides or outfitters with local connections. Locals know better than anyone what the risks are. Local guides and outfitters with local connections typically have essential relationships with governments, police, and military.”

The other smart travel tip Bush offers even if you are traveling to a Level 1 country is to never “be a visible target.” In a pre-departure course he used to teach at the Department of Defense he told people to think like a bad guy. “Who would you rather target in a crowded train station?” he asked. “A person who looks lost and confused, keeps fumbling with a mobile phone and looking at a map, or a person who is walking forward without hesitation, eyes up and looking around?”

To not stand out as a potential target, Bush says to do your best to blend in with the locals. And to always have a plan. Know how to get from the train station or airport to your hotel because you have studied a map in advance. Know which exit you need to take from the train station or airport or public square, and then which way to turn once on the street to get to public transport. Know which bus or train to take or what type of taxi to get into.

No matter which countries on your travel agenda in the coming weeks, months or years, be sure you are a smart traveler and follow the checklist below to help ensure your travel safety:

Before you travel

  • Enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)to receive email and text alerts and make it easier to locate you should an emergency occur – such as an uprising, terrorist attack, protests or natural disaster.
  • Follow the State Department on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Review the State Department travel advisories for any country you will be visiting.
  • Review the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advisories for any country you will be visiting.
  • Be sure you have good travel and emergency evacuation insurance and ensure it will cover you completely for any activities you are likely to do and destinations you are likely to visit.
  • Tell family and friends where you are going and leave a detailed itinerary along with contact information as well as travel insurance and emergency evacuation insurance policy details.
  • Store embassy or consulate contact information for the countries you are traveling in on your mobile phone.
  • Save on your mobile phone contacts for your travel insurance and emergency evacuation so it’s close at hand.
Global Rescue Banner Ad travel insurance for when it matters most
We have partnered with Global Rescue to provide our emergency evacuation and rescue insurance should that need arise. In addition to the rescue and evacuation coverage, the member website has a robust “Destination Reports” section that gives a general risk assessment for travel to any country, plus a full security assessment, health assessment, entry and exit requirements, important numbers, and other key destination details and advice.

Global Rescue Travel Risk Advisory Peru

When you are traveling

  • Stay aware of your surroundings at all times, think about what you are doing, and trust your instincts. Do not take risks you would not take at home.
  • Know how to minimize your risk from terrorism and know what to do if there is a terrorist attack. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has an excellent article on terrorism and travel here.
  • Do not openly display valuables – mobile phone, wallet, digital camera, etc. Use a TSA-approved lock on your luggage and your backpack (or other lockable zippers for a daypack). Invest in RFID protected purses and wallets.
  • Learn about and understand local customs and dress codes and obey local laws. Doing something that might seem trivial to you, but violates a country law, can have serious consequences.
  • Be aware and careful when taking photographs, videos or using binoculars. In some countries local authorities might misunderstand your intentions, especially if you are anywhere near a military facility. And in some countries it is explicitly forbidden to point a camera or take photos of any government facility.
  • Use properly licensed and insured tour operators for any adventure activity you plan.

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  1. Wendy Pappas

    This is great information. I did not know that the travel warnings were mostly meant for goverment officials and embassy. I thought they were for the general public. It is a great idea to research the area you are traveling to, to see what the warning is. I especially like the idea of hiring a local tour to travel with. I always try to study maps and reseach how to get to the hotel and from train station to where I am going, but I am afraid I still stand out as a tourist. Thank you for all the great tips.

  2. Eric Gamble

    Great info on how to understand the state department travel advisories and then what to do with regards to the info they provide. It always shocks me when people discuss travelling to a country without checking out proper warnings and information or not taking out travel insurance to protect themselves or their belongings. You don’t have to be scared by the information but it does help you to become more alert and cautious if need be.

  3. The Roaming Renegades

    Great tips. I think its always good to do some research wherever you go beyond just the places to see but about the political situation in the country too. It’s good to know about the warnings and the advice your government is offering so you are well informed. However we’ve been to a few countries where there has been certain advisories about them and we’ve never come across any trouble, I think if you use your common sense and avoid areas of trouble then almost every country is safe just as your own backyard isn’t always safe!

  4. Kelly Francois

    These are great tips. I was completely unaware of the United Kingdoms Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I have added this to my research list. As a solo traveller, I always do extensive research before travelling, so that I am aware of the surroundings of where I choose to stay. Whenever, travelling to “travel at your own risk” countries, such as Mexico, I always make arrangements to join a tour group to tour the destination. If I am staying at a resort, I will arrange this directly with them, as they are aware of the reputable guides. Canada’s travel advisory site also notes areas to avoid completely in certain countries (such as Perus, Mexico, etc.), so I do find that very helpful. Thank you for the article, I found it very helpful and a topic that isn’t regularly discussed.

  5. Alison

    It’s just great advice to make sure you are planned when arriving at a new destination and to try and blend in and walk like you know where you are going.. even if you don’t! I feel like even though I try to blend in, I still stand out as a foreigner but walking with confidence does wonders. Love all these explanations about the levels of warning. It is so important to check your government’s website to understand any warnings about your destination. I think being informed is a critical part of a successful voyage.

  6. Laura Pedlar

    This seems like the information given doesn’t always give the full story unless you dig deeper. I’m from the U.K. and usually check the info on the Foreign Office website for advice on travelling to certain countries if I’m unsure.

  7. Tania M.

    Some very useful advice here for everyone travelling overseas, not just to Peru. Travelling with local guides in risk areas is a very good idea, for your safety. Not standing out is sometimes difficult when you clearly don’t look like a local, for example, me in India recently. Ha! But being alert and aware is paramount. Great article.

  8. Catherine Swartz D'Cruz

    Peru is on our short list for family vacations. We’ve been holding off mostly because we think our youngest can’t quite handle Machu Picchu hiking. I didn’t realize that there was a Level 2 warning for Peru or even what it meant, exactly. We do try not to make ourselves visible targets, but it’s more challenging because we travel with three young children. Thanks for adding a few more resources to help us travel more safely.

  9. The Holidaymaker

    Level of risk and safety is not something we want to think about when traveling, but it is a necessity. You provide some great travel tips that we should follow regardless of the country we are traveling to, before and during our trip. A source I use beyond the Government of Canada is my travel insurance provider, they also will let you know which countries have a higher level of risk and therefore could impact your coverage (read the fine print). I didn’t realize Peru had received a Level 2. Good topic we should all be more aware of. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Daniels Beitss

    Fantastic information here especially on the information about how to understand the state department advisories. I am from the UK so we have something similar here and I always check their guidelines and advice before going to a country, especially one which is outside the European Union or US/CANADA/NZ/AUS/JAPAN. I am quite surprise how many warnings there are in most countries in the world, however small, they are stated.

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