Travel safety – Understanding State Department travel advisories
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 Two: 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.
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.
You may also want to read Digital security when traveling: 10 must-do tips
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.
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.