Before you get wrapped up in the more exciting aspects of travel planning, take some time to think about safety. Your destination may not have the same safety, health, and security conditions as your home country. Understanding these differences and preparing for them is a fundamental part of safe travel.
Thankfully, there are plenty of resources to help you understand the safety threats at your destination and prepare for an emergency. The right knowledge and proper precautions are the key to spending less time worrying and more time enjoying your trip.
- See all travel advisories from the U.S. Department of State.
- See all travel health notices from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- How to Uncover the Potential Risks of Your Destination
- Understanding U.S. Department of State Travel Advisories
- Understanding CDC Travel Health Notices
- Should You Reconsider Travel to Countries with a Travel Advisory?
- How Travel Advisories Affect Your Travel Health Coverage
- Recommended Precautions to Enhance Travel Safety
Safety should be at the forefront of your mind any time you plan an international trip. Research potential threats to your safety and health before deciding on a destination.
Effective research methods include searching for recent headlines in the news to get a feel for current events and politics. You should also refer to the trove of travel health and safety resources from the U.S. Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Ask these questions about your destination to guide your research and identify potential risks to your health and safety:
- Has the U.S. Department of State issued a level 3 or level 4 travel advisory?
- Has the CDC issued a level 3 travel warning?
- Has it recently appeared in the news for negative or concerning reasons?
- Does it have a reputation for pickpockets, muggings, or petty theft?
- Does it have a reputation for violent and/or organized crime?
- Is there a strong presence of tourist companies, taxi services, etc., known to scam foreigners?
- Is there a risk of natural disaster?
- Is there a high chance of contracting food poisoning or water contamination?
- Is there a prevalence of malaria or other infectious diseases?
- What is the quality of local health care?
- Does your domestic health care plan cover you abroad?
- Will you have access to a doctor that speaks your native language?
Use the primary information you uncover about your destination’s safety to decide whether to continue planning this trip or to find a new destination.
If you do choose to travel against U.S. Department of State or CDC-issued travel advice, it’s all the more important that you understand the risks involved and the precautions you need to take.
One of the most valuable resources for planning a trip abroad is the U.S. Department of State. You can find practical, instructive information about all aspects of international travel on the website of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (travel.state.gov). This is a go-to resource for any traveler, especially because of its travel advisories.
What Is a Travel Advisory?
U.S. Department of State travel advisories are regularly updated safety rankings assigned to every country in the world. Travel advisories also list other important travel information, such as entry and exit requirements, local laws and customs, health conditions, transportation, and more.
Travel Advisory Risk Factors
Advisories are divided into four levels based on the presence of the following threats to safety and security:
- Crime – widespread and poorly regulated crime
- Terrorism – terrorist attacks targeting groups or civilians
- Civil Unrest – potentially violent or otherwise disruptive instability
- Health – disease outbreaks and crises disrupting a country’s medical infrastructure
- Natural Disaster – a dangerous natural disaster or its aftermath
- Time-Limited Events – short-term events that may impede travel
- Kidnapping and/or Hostage-Taking – by criminals or terrorists
- Other – less common, but equally dangerous safety and security risks
Individual advisories may further list specific risk factors, which can include threats such as:
- Arbitrary enforcement of laws
- Armed conflict
- COVID-19, Ebola, or other specific viruses
- Embassy’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens
- Limited healthcare ability
- Maritime crime
- Political violence
- Serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals
Travel Advisory Levels
Here is a breakdown of each advisory level and what it means for your trip:
- Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions
The U.S. Department of State assigns a number (1-4) to every country in the world. A level 1 advisory is the lowest travel advisory level a country can have.
Level 1 travel advisory countries are generally safe for travelers. Because there is always some risk involved with international travel, you should still exercise precautions when navigating these countries.
Some popular travel destinations that typically have a level 1 travel advisory are Switzerland, Singapore, and New Zealand. These countries remain at a level 1 travel advisory level as of 03/23/20.
- Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution
These countries present heightened safety and security risks, but are generally safe to visit if you take the recommended precautions.
Common risk indicators for level 2 advisory countries often include crime, terrorism, civil unrest, and kidnapping, though a level 2 advisory may be the result of any of the risk factors noted above.
Level 2 countries often include Mexico, Colombia, and the Philippines. These countries remain at a level 2 travel advisory level as of 03/23/20.
IMPORTANT! Travel advisories are not only issued on a country-wide level. A country may have an overall travel advisory of level 2, but with elevated advisory levels for certain high-risk parts of the country.
For example, Brazil and Mexico are often under a level 2 “exercise increased caution” advisory (they remain at a level 2 advisory as of 03/23/20.) However, certain locations within these countries are listed within their full travel advisories as “do not travel” or “reconsider travel.”
That’s why it’s vital that you read the entire travel advisory. Learn how to view and monitor travel advisories below.
- Level 3 – Reconsider Travel
Countries under a level 3 travel advisory present a serious risk to the safety and security of international travelers. The U.S. Department of State recommends that you avoid traveling to these countries.
Common risk factors for countries under a level 3 travel advisory often include civil unrest, terrorism, crime, kidnapping, armed conflict, and disease outbreaks.
A prime example is Lebanon, which is under a level 3 advisory as of 03/18/20 due to crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict. Ongoing conflicts on Lebanon’s borders with Israel and Syria pose a serious threat to travelers.
PRO TIP: Concerned about the current outbreak of coronavirus? See how coronavirus affects Atlas Travel health insurance coverage.
- Level 4 – Do Not Travel
These countries present life-threatening risks to travelers. Do not travel to any country under a level 4 travel advisory. The U.S. government cannot guarantee aid for travelers who experience an emergency in these countries.
Any travelers already in a level 4 country at the time the travel advisory is announced should leave as soon as it is safe to do so.
Examples of safety threats that warrant a level 4 travel advisory include extreme violence, terrorism, civil unrest, armed conflict, and kidnapping. A few countries that are regularly under a level 4 advisory are Afghanistan, Syria, and North Korea. These countries remain at a level 4 travel advisory level as of 05/11/20.
IMPORTANT NOTE: On March 19, 2020, the U.S. Department of State issued a Global Health Advisory – Level 4: Do Not Travel for all countries across the world. This global health advisory is due to widespread ongoing transmission of coronavirus. This Advisory is an elevation of the Global Health Advisory – Level 3 issued on March 11, 2020.
How to View U.S. Department of State Travel Advisories
Conditions in each country may change drastically at a moment's notice, so travelers should monitor their destination's advisory level.
Follow these steps to view the current advisory for your destination.
- Visit travel.state.gov
- Click “International Travel” in the navy-colored navigation bar toward the top of the page
- Click “Country Information” in the beige-colored navigation bar
- Type the name of your destination country into the search box in the left-hand sidebar
- Hit “Enter” or click the search icon
- You will see your destination country’s travel advisory at the top of the page
- Click the “Read More” link to view the entire travel advisory
- Read the travel advisory thoroughly, paying special attention to the information for any cities or regions you plan to visit
PRO TIP: U.S. citizens should also enroll in the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Learn more about this program below.
Another indispensable resource to help you plan for international travel is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Like the U.S. Department of State, the CDC also issues travel notices.
What Is a Travel Health Notice?
A travel health notice is a notice issued by the CDC that measures health threats worldwide and categorizes countries based on severity.
IMPORTANT! CDC-issued travel health notices exist separately from U.S. Department of State-issued travel advisories and may or may not be issued in tandem.
Travel Health Notice Risk Factors
Travel health notices are divided into three levels based on the presence of the following issues that impact travelers’ health:
- Disease outbreaks
- Special events or gatherings
- Natural disasters
Travel Health Notice Levels
Here is a breakdown of the three CDC notice levels:
- Watch Level 1 – Practice Usual Precautions
This is the CDC’s lowest travel notice. People visiting countries with a level 1 travel notice should follow the usually recommended travel precautions listed in the country’s "Traveler View" page. Precautions include being up to date on all necessary vaccines, practicing appropriate mosquito avoidance, and more.
One common threat contributing to a level 1 health notice is malaria, which is present in some Central African countries. Another is the presence of Dengue fever in countries all over the world.
- Alert Level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions
These countries pose a greater threat to travelers’ health due to disease outbreaks and crises. People planning to visit these countries should take extra measures to protect themselves against the health threat and prevent further transmission of any diseases. Travelers can find a full list of recommended precautions on the country’s “Traveler View” page.
The presence of life-threatening infectious diseases like Ebola, Polio, and Rubella may trigger a level 2 health notice from the CDC. This is the reason for many level 2 health warnings in various African and Southeast Asian countries.
- Warning Level 3 – Avoid All Nonessential Travel
Destinations with this travel notice present the most severe cases of disease outbreak and pose a significant threat to travelers’ health. In these cases, the CDC’s recommended precautions are unlikely to protect you against the identified risk. You are advised to avoid visiting these countries.
IMPORTANT NOTE: On Friday, March 27, 2020, the CDC issued a Global COVID-19 Pandemic Notice – Warning Level 3 (Avoid Nonessential Travel) for all countries across the world. This global pandemic notice is due to widespread ongoing transmission of coronavirus.
See a map of the CDC’s “Geographic Risk Assessment for COVID-19 Transmission” or monitor the global pandemic notice here.
How to View CDC Travel Health Notices
Conditions in each country may change drastically at a moment's notice, so travelers should monitor their destination's warning level.
Follow these steps to view the current travel health notice for your destination:
- Visit wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel
- Find your destination country using the dropdown list under the “For Travelers” heading
- Click “Go”
- Scroll down to view your destination country’s travel health notice under the “Travel Health Notices” heading
- Click the link for any health notice listed to see an overview of the current situation and get tips for protecting yourself
- Return to the previous “Traveler View” page and scroll down to see a complete list of recommended health precautions, vaccines and medications, health and safety tips, and more
Travel advisories aren’t necessarily cause for alarm. Just because a safety threat is present in a country doesn’t mean it is likely to affect your trip. It just means that you should follow all recommended precautions and stay away from any specific areas listed within the travel advisory as “reconsider travel” or “do not travel.”
You should reconsider your trip if you intend on visiting a high-risk destination. These destinations present the most immediate risk to your safety, health, and security, and should be avoided.
What counts as a high-risk destination?
- Countries or areas under a level 3 or level 4 travel advisory from the U.S. Department of State
- Countries under a level 3 travel warning from the CDC
All travelers should properly research their destinations and take the safety precautions recommended by the U.S. Department of State and CDC.
Not only is monitoring your destination’s travel advisories a useful way to stay updated on the risks around you, but advisories may also directly affect your travel health coverage.
Depending on your travel health policy, some of your benefits may be affected by health notices or advisories being issued for your destination. Other benefits may not apply if your destination has been under a certain level advisory prior to your arrival.
PRO TIP: Review the full Description of Coverage for your plan to determine how your coverage works in the wake of a U.S. Department of State-issued travel advisory or a CDC-issued travel health notice. Pay special attention to your benefit limits and their conditions and exclusions. Also review the policy’s general exclusions carefully. If you have any questions about your coverage, contact your insurance provider directly.
How Travel Health Notices and Advisories Affect Atlas Travel Insurance
Let’s take a close look at the Atlas Travel health insurance policy from Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group to better understand how a country’s safety conditions can affect travel health coverage:
- Treatment of Disease
As noted in the Atlas Travel Description of Coverage, a level 3 travel warning issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can affect your coverage for treatment of disease. Here’s how:
Imagine you were to contract a disease as a result of an outbreak in a location currently under a CDC-issued level 3 travel warning. Your insurance would not cover you for treatment if the CDC-issued warning had been in effect within the 6-month period prior to your arrival in that location.
If the CDC were to issue a level 3 warning for your location after your arrival, you would be covered for disease-related expenses for up to 10 days following the level 3 warning issue date, given that your expenses did not arise directly or indirectly from another policy exclusion.
If you were to remain in the warned-against location for more than 10 days following the date the CDC issued the level 3 warning, you would not be eligible for expenses related to diseases contracted in the warned-against location. You would still be covered for other eligible expenses incurred in the warned-against location.
Additionally, if you were to depart the warned-against location and travel to a new location where there had not been a CDC-issued level 3 travel warning within the previous 6 months, you would be eligible for expenses related to a disease contracted in the new location.
- Political Evacuation
As noted in the Atlas Travel Description of Coverage, a level 3 or level 4 travel advisory issued by the U.S. Department of State can affect your Political Evacuation benefit. Here’s how:
Say you were traveling abroad when safety conditions in your destination abruptly changed, causing the U.S. Department of State to issue a level 3 or level 4 travel advisory for your current location.
Your Political Evacuation benefit would cover the cost of transporting you to the nearest country of safety OR to your home country (as determined by Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group), as long as the advisory had not been in effect for your location within the 6-month period prior to your arrival.
You must contact Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group within 10 days of the advisory announcement to be eligible for this benefit.
As noted in the Atlas Travel Description of Coverage, a level 3 or level 4 travel advisory issued by the U.S. Department of State can affect your Terrorism benefit. Here’s how:
Imagine you were traveling abroad when a terrorist incident suddenly occurred in your destination, leaving you with terrorism-related injuries or illness. Your Terrorism benefit would help cover your medical expenses as long as there had not been a U.S. Department of State-issued level 3 or level 4 travel advisory for your location in the 6 months prior to your arrival.
Eligible terrorism-related medical expenses would be covered for up to 10 days following the date the advisory was issued, given that your expenses did not arise directly or indirectly from another policy exclusion.
IMPORTANT! These benefits and exclusions apply if the location where you incur the expenses is under a level 3 or level 4 advisory, even if the rest of the country is under a level 1 or level 2 travel advisory.
Are you an Atlas or StudentSecure policyholder concerned about coronavirus? Learn how the current coronavirus outbreak affects your travel health coverage.
You should always be proactive about your safety. Although destinations with a level 1 or level 2 advisory may not present an immediate threat, there is always some risk involved when you travel internationally. Thankfully, there are several precautions you can take to enhance travel safety and mitigate risk.
Monitor Travel Warnings and Alerts
Stay abreast of the political, security, and weather conditions in your destination by monitoring key travel resources from the U.S. Department of State and the CDC. Be prepared to react in case security conditions suddenly change.
Enroll in STEP
The State Department's free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a service that allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to register their trip with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Some benefits of enrolling in STEP:
- You will receive important information about local safety conditions in your destination country
- The U.S. embassy will be able to contact you in case of a natural disaster, political or civil unrest, or other emergencies
- Family and friends can get in touch with you in case of an emergency
PRO TIP: Download the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler app to get quick, convenient access to all the latest travel advisory updates, alerts, and warnings, as well as access to maps and the locations of U.S. embassies.
Consider Travel Health Insurance
Make sure you have adequate health coverage for your time abroad. Some domestic healthcare policies may not cover medical expenses incurred abroad, while others may offer limited international coverage.
Travel health insurance can help cover the cost of an unexpected injury or illness abroad. It may even provide crucial support in various other safety-related scenarios.
Here are several ways Atlas Travel insurance from Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group can help you in the event of an emergency:
- Political Evacuation – You may be covered for the cost of transportation to the nearest country of safety OR to your home country if the U.S. Department of State issues a level 3 or level 4 travel advisory for your location after your arrival.
- Emergency Medical Evacuation – In situations where your life or limb depend on your ability to get adequate medical care quickly, this benefit can cover the cost of transporting you by air or ground to the nearest adequate health facility.
- Terrorism Coverage – Those insured by Atlas Travel have coverage for local treatment of an injury or illness resulting from a covered act of terrorism.
- Crisis Response – Policyholders may have coverage in eligible situations for the cost of ransom, crisis response fees, and/or personal belongings surrendered in an express kidnapping.
PRO TIP: Review the Description of Coverage for any policy you’re considering, paying special attention to its benefit limits, conditions, and exclusions. Make sure you know how your coverage is impacted by the issuing of a level 3 or level 4 travel health notice or advisory.
Travel to your destination may expose you to diseases you aren’t exposed to at home, such as yellow fever or typhoid. You may not have had the vaccines you need to protect yourself. Consult your destination’s “Traveler View” page on the CDC website to find out which vaccines medical experts recommend. Then, make an appointment with a doctor to get vaccinated.
Your regular doctor may not carry the vaccines you need, so call ahead to confirm they will be able to administer them. If not, you’ll need to make an appointment with a travel medicine specialist. If you are visiting a country that requires a yellow fever vaccination, such as Ghana or Brazil, you will need to visit an authorized yellow fever vaccine clinic.
Keep in mind that most vaccines must be administered about a month ahead of your arrival date. You should also use this opportunity to make sure you are up to date on all your routine vaccines.
Be Proactive About Bug Bite Prevention
Bug bites are another common cause of disease transmission. Mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and even some flies can spread diseases like malaria, yellow fever, Lyme, Zika, and dengue. Avoid bug bites as much as you can to reduce your chances of contracting a disease.
Here are some tips for preventing bug bites:
- Avoid exposing too much skin
- Use EPA-registered insect repellents on areas that are exposed
- Treat your clothes and shoes with an insecticide
- Choose accommodations with air conditioning or screened windows
- If exposed to the outside, sleep under a mosquito net
Know How to Get Medical Care While Traveling
Prepare yourself for a medical emergency before you embark on your adventure abroad. Research local doctors and hospitals, especially ones that speak your native language. Keep this information in a wallet-sized card you can easily carry with you during your trip.
On that card, you may also want to include your essential health information, such as your blood type, chronic conditions, serious allergies, and the generic names of any medications you take. Keep this card next to your travel health insurance ID card.
Copy Your Travel Documents
Make copies of your travel documents so you’re prepared in case you become separated from them. Copy the ID page of your passport and visa as well as your travel health insurance card, your prescriptions, and your credit cards. Then, store one set of copies in your luggage and give another to someone you trust at home.
Upon arriving at your destination, it’s also wise to photocopy the page of your passport with the country’s entry stamp. This will come in handy in case you lose your passport and need to prove your presence in the country.
Use the CDC “Healthy Travel Packing List”
The CDC provides a customized packing list for each country with everything you need to stay healthy abroad. These “Healthy Travel Packing Lists” include prescription medicines, medical supplies, over-the-counter medicines, and other preventative supplies that may help protect you against a country’s health threats.
They also identify which health documents to take with you in case you require medical care abroad. These documents include your travel health insurance ID card, proof of vaccinations, copies of prescriptions, contact cards, and travel documents.
You can find the packing list for your destination on its "Traveler View" page.
Watch What You Eat and Drink
Unclean food and contaminated water can cause diarrhea, food poisoning, and other diseases. Reduce the risk of these uncomfortable travel setbacks by sticking to safe foods and drinking bottled water.
Generally safe to eat:
- hot prepared dishes
- pasteurized dairy products
- thoroughly washed fruit and vegetables
Stay away from:
- raw or undercooked meats
- unpasteurized dairy
- bushmeat (meat from wild animals)
Bushmeat has proven to increase the transmission of zoonotic diseases like Ebola, HIV, and Coronavirus.
Be Smart About Transportation
Use your common sense when navigating your destination. Old vehicles, especially without seatbelts, are more likely to cause injury in case of an accident. Always arrange payment ahead of time when hiring a taxi to prevent being scammed.
When walking, stay in safe areas and try to stick to the sidewalk. Enjoy the new and unfamiliar environment around you but stay alert. Burying your nose in a map or keeping your eyes glued to your smartphone may make you look like an easy target for pickpockets, muggers, and scammers.
Take Cues from the Locals
Research the culture of the places you’ll be traveling via blogs and websites like Wikitravel, Commisceo Global, and Trip Advisor. Learn about the customs so you’ll be less likely to offend the local people by accident.
When it comes to your safety, having a solid knowledge of cultural aspects—like how to dress—can help you to better blend in and be less likely to become a target of pickpockets or muggers.
PRO TIP: Use our list of the top 50 travel websites to help you prepare for your trip. This list includes the best sites and resources to help you plan for your destination, accommodations, transportation, budget, safety, and more.
Don’t Flaunt Your Wealth
Avoid traveling with items of great value. Expensive jewelry and gadgets may make you stand out, especially in a country less developed than your own. Signs of wealth might make you look like a worthy target to people aiming to take advantage of vulnerable travelers.
Keep Valuables Concealed
Money belts may not be fashionable, but they are indispensable for keeping your valuables safe. Wallets and purses are easily stolen by petty thieves, putting your money, passport, and cell phone at risk. Keep these items safe and secure by storing them in a money belt that you wear close to your body.
Let People Know Where You’ll Be
Enlist your loved ones at home in your safety efforts by sharing your itinerary and means of contact. If you haven’t planned an itinerary, be sure to check in with someone as soon as you arrive at a new place. Let them know how they can contact you if necessary.