An American Abroad: Navigating State Department Travel Warnings

Stay safe in this post Bin Laden world. There is sure to be some backlash; work on your Canadian accent 😉

— A friend offers us some advice in light of recent events.

We’ve lived outside of the United States for almost 10 years, with more than four of them on this around-the-world journey. In that time, we’ve consumed our share of U.S. State Department travel warnings.

So what do those advisories mean to me? Do I pay attention to them? As an American traveling abroad, am I frightened?

I got to thinking about this because this morning I received a note from my mother suggesting that we be extra careful while we’re in Bali (making reference to the terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005). She followed up with an article about the recent State Department travel warnings issued after the announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Ah, warnings. Mothers in general tend to worry about these things. My mother also happens to be a former diplomat. Considering all this, she’s usually exceptionally good about keeping travel safety concerns in perspective.

So when she asks me to be especially careful, I pay attention.

Navigating State Department Travel Warnings

Then there are all those State Department travel warnings are regularly released – some general, some country specific. Do we pay attention to them?

As I see it, these travel warnings are a service. And as with any service, I consume them in tandem with other data from different sources on the ground and in the environment around me.

So we went to Myanmar in the spring of 2008, despite the general advisory in effect there after the Saffron Uprising. The word on the street from travelers at the time was: “All good.” And indeed it was as beautiful – and safe – a time as any to be there.

Afghanistan, fall of 2007. Advisories seem like a permanent feature in this poor country. We could have dropped into the north while visiting Tajikistan, but we opted not to. Not so much because of the advisories, but for what our friends in the journalism, counterintelligence and NGO communities working in Afghanistan had to say. They unanimously responded: “Now is not a good time.” We listened.

Note: Some travel and health insurance companies will not cover you or certain events if you travel to a country under a travel advisory. Before embarking on such a trip, check with your insurance company.

What about now?

Are we afraid? Not any more so than usual. Which is to say, not really. Threats and risks play tricks with our minds. Am I really any less safe here in Ubud, Bali than I was a few days ago? (When I watch the motorbikes whizz by with increasing speed, sometimes I think so.) But from the standpoint of being a target of terrorism, am I any more in harm’s way than if I were on American soil?

I don’t think so. In a world with or without Bin Laden, I actually feel more anxious for my family and friends in the United States than I do for us. Perhaps one’s perception of safety changes with distance.

So we’re not sitting in our hotels, frozen. Yes, we’re careful. But, we’re out there doing what we always do.

I hope you are, too.


What about you? Do you follow your country’s travel warnings?

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  1. says

    Forget the motorbikes — I’d be more scared of the Bali dogs! 😉

    Good advice here. My dad is a bit scared with me being in the UK for the next week and my sister living in NYC, but just how much can we do? Stay out of crowded areas?

    It’s always good to be conscientious…but if there were ways to guaranteedly avoid a terrorist attack in the western world, we’d all be doing it already.

  2. says

    I think you guys have the right approach. The State Department is truly excessive. I generally look at New Zealand’s travel advisory/warnings if I’m going to consult any. They are far more even handed.

    It’s really unfortunate because the State Department puts out a blanket travel warning for Mali, which has just been bolstered because of OBL death and anticipated responses from AQIM. Mali if it can be considered unsafe at all, is potentially dangerous in the north, near the border region with Niger and Algeria. Bamako, Djenne and Dogon Country are more than safe. But the blanket travel warning does not distinguish between Mali’s different regions. This hurts Mali immensely, but it also means that that many people aren’t experiencing the wonder of the place and instead, they are sitting at home with a lot of false preconceptions.

  3. Joe says

    I had a look into this the other day as my mom was also worried and information she’d heard simply referred to ‘Americans abroad’ making no distinction between non-US countries. Digging a little, we found that the Netherlands isn’t thought to be under any greater threat than it was last week. (Mind you, we had a gun nut shoot up a shopping mall not far from The Hague American-style about a month ago.)

  4. says

    @Kate: After some of the dogs we came across in South America, the Bali dogs don’t scare me…yet. Watch me jinx myself.

    As you said, there’s no way to 100% prevent a terrorist attack so the best thing is to be aware of your surroundings, but not let fear rule what you do. Enjoy your time in the UK!

    @Phil: We’ve used Australian warnings before, but never New Zealand. Good advice.

    I completely agree with you about the blanket warnings for a whole country when only one area of the country really has issues. It really does hurt the country in terms of tourism, but also just general impressions of the country. The same thing happens with media coverage – they make it seem like the whole country is going up in flames when it’s only a specific area having problems.

    @Roy: I hope you’re right regarding the retaliation. Unfortunately, if anything does happen now it will be seen as “retaliation” whether there’s any basis to that or not.

    @Joe: You bring up a good point. The reality is that we’re all more likely (statistically) to get hurt in “non-terrorist” events than a targeted attack, whether it’s getting hit by a car or being in the wrong mall at the wrong time. Glad to hear Netherlands is on the safe list :)

  5. Robin says

    Keep you head up & ears to the ground … if you can do this at the same time, let me know (mind you with your recent yoga sessions, you never know!). Safe travels as always!

  6. says

    Good attitude about State Department Warnings. Can’t live your life in fear although a good dose of precaution and extra vigilance is good. Safe travels.

  7. Pete De Ritter says

    I read a book a while ago titled The Science of Fear. The premise was that we often fear things that we don’t need to and don’t fear things we probably should. Good read.

  8. says

    @Robin: A few more days of yoga and I might be able to keep my head up and ears to the ground :) On a more serious note, we do make an effort to stay observant and keep aware of what’s going on around us. This isn’t only for safety reasons, but to be sure we don’t miss what’s going on.

    @Tim: Fear can cause people to act in ways they might not otherwise. Bad things can happen at any time and anywhere, so we try to keep vigilant while still enjoying the people and places around us. Thanks for your wishes for our safe travels!

    @Pete: I’m now curious to read this book. The premise that you mention makes a lot of sense to me and goes with what I’ve observed of people’s behavior and the choices they make. Thanks for sharing this recommendation.

  9. says

    You make an excellent point when referencing warnings and advisories. Yes take in consideration of the warnings but sometimes it better to listen to the people there who are living and experiencing whats going on rather then the service.

  10. says

    I typically ignore all the State Dept warnings, as I believe they promote the culture of fear. More than anything, I believe in listening to my gut.

  11. says

    @Kirk: I completely agree that people living in or traveling through that particular country are usually the most reliable source for updated and balanced information. For example, they will know if one part of the country might have potential problems that you should stay away from or if there are certain bus routes that have issues.

    @Anja: Another thing to keep in mind is that these travel warnings are a bit like insurance policies – governments don’t want to be liable if something happens to one of their citizens somewhere so they err on the side of caution. I’d say listen to your gut and also find someone on the ground to provide a second opinion on the security situation.

  12. says

    Excellent points Audrey. I think it is good to pay attention to the warnings and go with how you feel. I agree, I wouldn’t go to Afghanistan either. There is being adventurous and then there is being reckless. When a country is in turmoil it is not a good time to go. One thing that an American friend pointed out to us the other day was a very good perspective. When the attacks happened on 9/11 in New York the whole world said, go to the US and New York in particular and show your support. So why is it different for Bali? When the attacks happened there, the US (and Canada and every other country) quickly said don’t go.
    I agree that we all have to be careful in todays world, but we also have to use our own judgement.

  13. says

    @Dave & Deb: Completely agree with the distinction between adventurous and reckless. There are certain areas that are best left to explore at another time when things are more peaceful or stable.

    Interesting point about 9/11 and people suggesting to go to NYC to show support and what happened in Bali when it stayed on travel warning lists and people stayed away for years (tourism is now back to pre-bombing levels finally). One can say that developing countries don’t have the resources to fight terrorism which makes them a target, but I would say the potential for something big happening in the United States is pretty high as well (I often feel that in DC).

    Point is, don’t let fear paralyze you but make decisions based on your judgment and information you gather.

  14. says

    We just can’t constantly live life in fear thinking about the very worst. The thing with travel advisories for me is this – I know the US is making those advisories because they have some other ground-level (in some cases, CIA) intel on the place beyond recent events.

    I personally usually never check them, but now I think I will do so more often. That doesn’t mean I won’t visit the place. It just means I’m gathering enough personal intel to make a personal decision on whether to go or not.

  15. says

    @Lola: Completely agree with you regarding living life in fear. Having parents who worked for the State Department, I know there is a lot that goes into those travel warnings. But, I also know that sometimes the intel is for a small geographic area of the country and the rest of the area is completely fine. It makes me sad to think of those areas losing business and travelers because a warning is for another part of the country thousands of miles away. Best thing is to try and talk with people on the ground to find out the local situation.

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