Safety, Trust and Insurance

Can You Trust the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings?

State Department Travel Warnings

There’s a bureau in the United States government devoted to safety and security abroad. In their own words: “The mission of the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs is to protect the lives and serve the interests of U.S. citizens abroad. We provide information to help you assess for yourself the risks of international travel and what steps to take to ensure your safety when you decide to go abroad.” Lots of Americans look to the State Department for help deciding where it’s safe to travel. But is this a reliable source?

I prefer independent assessments of travel risk because I assume the State Department is inserting their political perspective. But many Americans rely on this information.

You can find an interactive travel map here. The map shows general risk levels by country.

State Department Travel Advisory Map

According to this map, traveling around the United States is safe for Americans. But there are not a lot of other places in the world that are safe. I’m not surprised to see Canada, Australia, and a number of countries in Europe considered safe. But there are a few surprises: Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, and Vietnam.

Decoding the State Department safety warnings

For everywhere else in the world, here are the warning definitions:

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.

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.

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 to 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.

Below are the areas of risk considered by the state department. Travel warnings are based on these factors. And within each country you can see which of these elements is a potential concern according to the State Department.

  • C – Crime: Widespread violent or organized crime is present in areas of the country. Local law enforcement may have limited ability to respond to serious crimes.
  • T – Terrorism: Terrorist attacks have occurred and/or specific threats against civilians, groups, or other targets may exist.
  • U – Civil Unrest: Political, economic, religious, and/or ethnic instability exists and may cause violence, major disruptions, and/or safety risks.
  • H – Health: Health risks, including current disease outbreaks or a crisis that disrupts a country’s medical infrastructure, are present. The issuance of a Centers for Disease Control Travel Notice may also be a factor.
  • N – Natural Disaster: A natural disaster, or its aftermath, poses danger.
  • E – Time-limited Event: Short-term event, such as elections, sporting events, or other incidents that may pose safety risks.
  • O – Other: There are potential risks not covered by previous risk indicators. Read the country’s Travel Advisory for details.
  • K – Kidnapping or Hostage Taking: Criminal or terrorist individuals or groups have threatened to and/or have seized or detained and threatened to kill, injure or continue to detain individuals in order to compel a third party (including a governmental organization) to do or abstain from doing something as a condition of release.

I’m happy to see there aren’t very many countries on the “Do Not Travel” list. But the “Reconsider Travel” list includes a number of countries I would still visit.

Dig into the details of the warnings

Don’t just accept the high level warning from the State Department, take a look at the detailed reasons behind the warning. Let’s look at Nicaragua in particular. The State Department recommends: “Reconsider travel to Nicaragua due to civil unrest, crime, limited healthcare availability, and arbitrary enforcement of laws.”

Reading through the details on this warning, most of the list is related to government response to protests against President Ortega. It’s good advice that when traveling you should do some research before joining any protest or demonstration. First because you want to know what you’re really supporting. And second, because you want to be prepared for local reaction to these actions.

While traveling in Egypt a few years ago I felt quite safe in Cairo, except for the one time I found myself walking near a protest. The military tanks pointing guns at the demonstrators were scary. But I just walked up the street a block and was back to safety.

Of all the State Department warnings about Nicaragua, here are the only things that I think are real risks for travelers (assuming you avoid public protests):

  • Road blocks, including in Managua and other major cities, may appear and limit availability of food and fuel.
  • Some hospitals throughout the country may not be able to assist in emergencies.
  • Violent crime, such as sexual assault and armed robbery, is common.

Let’s put these things in context. I found some news stories about road blocks put up by protesters, mostly in 2018. These seem like an inconvenience for sure. And in some rural areas it was limiting distribution to stores. But this should be easy to assess from within the country before traveling to a remote region. And they’re not stopping people from getting around, so worst case a traveler can always move on from a town that is particularly impacted.

I think the hospital warning applies to many countries. In rural areas of poor countries health care is difficult to access. And even when there is a medical care facility, their access to equipment and drugs may be limited. This is important consider if you’re traveling with a medical condition that might require specialized care.

Most compelling from this list is the risk of violent crime. On the Nicaragua country page I found this:

Crime:  Vehicle burglaries, pick-pocketing, and occasional armed robberies occur in store parking lots, on public transportation, and in open-air markets like the Oriental and Huembes Markets in Managua. Street crime is also common in Puerto Cabezas, Bluefields, San Juan del Sur, Popoyo, El Transito, and the Corn Islands.

Several U.S. citizens have been sexually assaulted in beach locations or at hotels.

Exercise extreme caution when renting or driving vehicles.  In one common scam, “Good Samaritans” pull over to help change a flat tire.  While the driver is distracted, an accomplice steals the driver’s possessions.

Most of this is risk of robbery, which would really suck, but isn’t actually a violent crime. And for the most part these are all things I would caution people about in the United States, or really most anywhere in the world. Perhaps street crime is more common in Nicaragua. And the flat tire scam is worth noting. But nothing that would stop me from visiting.

Research risks and risk mitigation

It’s important to think carefully about what risks apply to you. And what you can do to mitigate those risks. I want to know in advance what are the likely scams and crimes. Most risks can be greatly reduced with a few precautions.

As a source for risk information, government travel warnings can be useful. But I find travel guides to be even more useful and specific. Especially since this can vary greatly from region to region within a country.

When I was in Bogota four years ago I learned that it’s very common for people to have their smart phones snatched from their hands on the street. The solution: don’t use your phone in public. Step into a store, or stand near a security person if you need to use it. I met several tourists and one local guy who ignored this advice, and had their phones taken. But everyone who followed this advice had no problems. This is not so much of a problem in other parts of Colombia.

Understand the State Department perspective

It’s also important to understand the perspective of the information you are using.

The government of New Zealand has it’s own travel warning recommendations. They list the United States as place to “exercise increased caution” due to the threat of terrorism. They also warn: “Petty crime such as theft and pickpocketing can occur, particularly in urban centres, tourist locations and on public transport.” In addition, “There is a higher incidence of violent crime and firearm possession than in New Zealand, however crime rates vary considerably across cities and suburbs and incidents rarely involve tourists….Active shooter incidents occur from time to time in the United States.”

Wherever you are from, it’s worth looking at the travel warnings for visitors to your country. This gives you a baseline for risk that you are already living with. Most people would be comfortable visiting other countries with that same level of risk.

The government of New Zealand offers a similar “exercise increased caution” warning about travel to Bolivia, which is interesting because Bolivia is on the U.S. “Do Not Travel” list due to crime. Both are most concerned about political instability due to the recent President resignation and interim elections. Reading the U.S. warning I’m alarmed about the situation in the country. And reading the New Zealand warning it sounds pretty safe. This is a case where I would want to do my own research. Does the State Department dislike the new government? Have there been threats against Americans due to the U.S. interfering with elections?

I took a look at the UK and the Canadian travel warning websites to get another perspective. They seem to agree with New Zealand that Bolivia is relatively safe to visit. This strongly suggests the U.S. is overly cautious on Bolivia. But I wouldn’t rely on any of these government assessments. Instead I would turn to travel guides for more information. This includes the big guidebook producers but also recent blog posts and trip reports.