The threat of terrorism shouldn't dissuade you from the vacation of a lifetime—terrorists win through fear. But that also doesn't mean you should ignore the world around you, and if the latest warning from the U.S. government is any indication, you'll need to be on heightened alert this summer if you're heading across the pond.
Following terror attacks in France, Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom since the beginning of 2017, the U.S Department of State has issued a travel alert to U.S. citizens traveling to Europe, effective May 1, saying these events demonstrate that the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham,ISIS or Da’esh, al-Qa’ida, and their affiliates have the ability to plan and execute terrorist attacks in Europe.
The alert expires September 1, but warns that extremists target "tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities,though places like hotels, airports, and parks can be "soft targets" as well. The State Department also uploaded the warning to its Facebook page.
The alert cites recent attacks in France and Sweden, among others.
An alert of this type is not to be confused with a travel warning, which the Department of State issues in instances such as civil war or political instability, and last for much longer periods of time—sometimes years.
This is the first European travel alert of 2017, following a holiday travel alert issued on November 21, 2016 that expired on February 20, 2017. Last May, the Department of State issued a similar European alert for summer travel that expired August 31, 2016, citing several major events, including the Euro Cup in France and World Youth Day in Poland as potential targets, though both events occurred without incident.
Previously, international travel insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance revealed that following the November 2015 attacks at Bataclan in Paris, the city saw a 12.8 percent decline in traveler interest, according to a study of 650,000 Americans' holiday travel plans. In the same survey, Istanbul saw a 60.2 percent drop, and Brussels a 19.6 percent decline.
For Americans who still plan to visit Europe during summer 2017, the State Department recommends checking the US embassy website in your destination for any updates, along with these specific actions:
Follow the instructions of local authorities, monitor media and local information sources and factor updated information into personal travel plans and activities
Prepare for additional security screening and unexpected disruptions.
Stay in touch with family and ensure they know how to reach you during an emergency.
Have an emergency plan of action ready.
Register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
If you're unfamiliar with (STEP), enrolling allows you to upload details about your trip, including your passport number, flight details, and destination, to receive e-mail alerts regarding safety and security information for the duration of your trip. The under-utilized service only takes a few minutes, but could prove invaluable in the event of an emergency.
These days, travel alerts and warnings seem ubiquitous ingrained in our public consciousness via the Internet and social media, transmitted from the annals of the State Department to first class lounges and boarding areas and everywhere in between.
Yesterday, the U.S. government re-upped its March 2015 warning against American citizens traveling to Iran, especially, emphatically, for travelers holding dual Iranian and American citizenship.
It was the fifth State Department warning this month alone—after Honduras, the Democratic Republic of Congo, North Korea, and Cameroon. Last month, the department issued a warning against travel to Turkey a day before the Ataturk airport bombing, which they renewed following the attempted military coup on July 15. It followed eight others in July: Mali, Iraq, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Sudan, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon.
With everything happening in the world today, it can be hard to know what to do when confronted with new, potentially unnerving, information. But what are the actual differences between a warning and an alert—and should you cancel your trip? It depends.
What is a travel warning?
According to the State Department, a travel warning is a broad-reaching caution for when the government wants you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all. Travel warnings may stem from unstable governance, extenuating circumstances, frequent violence and terrorist attacks, or civil war.
Of the two, travel warnings tend to stay in place for much longer than travel alerts: Travel warnings remain in place until the situation changes; some have been in effect for years.
For example, the warning against travel to the Darfur, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan regions of the Sudan were most recently updated in January this year—from an original warning that was published in June 2015.
Travel alerts are issued on the heels of specific, one-off events. According to the State Department, examples of reasons for issuing an alert might include an election season that could mean strikes, demonstrations, or disturbances; a health alert like an outbreak of H1N1; or evidence of an elevated risk of terrorist attacks.
These travel alerts are usually assigned an expiration date weeks or months in the near future. For example, the travel alert issued for Europe in May, following attacks in France and ahead of June's UEFA European Championship soccer tournament and the Tour de France, expires at the end of this month.
While a travel alert is issued on the heels of what intelligence and government sources consider a one-off or short-term event for example, the anti-government protests in Ethiopia, with temporary repercussions that may appear to have more imminent danger, travel warnings are often rooted in longer-term instability endemic to a region that poses a great risk to travelers ,like the fighting in Syria.
Every trip is different and it's important to consider your own, individual circumstances when deciding whether or not to call off travel plans. The most important thing to remember when an unexpected warning or alert is issued is to keep threats in perspective.
#We should review the State Department’s warnings and alerts, Traveler's Ombudsman Eric Jordan wrote earlier this year. Then, rather than avoid travel, we can take the precautions we believe are reasonable.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issue their own set of travel notices separate from the State Department. In addition to providing information on communicable diseases particular to regions and countries around the world, the CDC site also features recommendations for precautions and inoculations on a country-by-country basis—including the United States.
The State Department also maintains a Worldwide Caution page, which is continually updated with information on the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world. It also hosts a find-your-closest-embassy directory for consular assistance and help in case of an emergency.