Daring to Travel When Your Government Says Don't

government travel warnings

Khalil Hamra, AP

When traveler Earl Baron went to Syria last year, a relative made this plea: "Promise me that whatever you do, you won't go to Iraq." Little did his family know the country, on the State Department's travel warning list, would be Baron's next stop.

He toured the northern part of Iraq, a country whose quirks – a Chinese restaurant that actually sold only Kurdish food, for one – gripped him more than its danger.

"I do believe that a rewarding travel experience to such places as Pakistan, Nepal, Philippines, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Lebanon is more than possible and shouldn't be abandoned simply because of a travel warning," Baron said. "And that is why I didn't hesitate at all about traveling to Northern Iraq during my recent trip to the Middle East."

With Egypt joining – and still remaining on – this list of "no go" countries due to political tensions, many hardcore globetrotters are choosing to ignore the warnings and carry on with their itineraries.

The "List"

Countries or areas of the world get travel warnings when lingering conditions such as war make them unstable or there are short-term events such as flu outbreak or extreme weather risks. The U.S. has separate "travel warning" and "travel alert" lists. Iraq and Afghanistan seem like logical no-go areas to most travelers, but the inclusion of Mexico for ongoing regional drug-related crime and violence hits a nerve with some travelers who say only specific places remain unsafe.

The warning lists look similar for many governments. Mirroring America, Australia also splits its list in two, one a group of countries against which the government advises all travel and another with countries to which citizens should reconsider the need to travel. Every country on the first list matches with the U.S. list.

However, Mexico is not on Australia's list, and Indonesia, on its "reconsider travel" list due to the possibility of a terrorist attack in Bali, is not mentioned in the U.S. In this case, the differences in alert systems come down to proximity to the country; more Australians travel to Indonesia and more Americans travel to Mexico.

Medellin Colombia

Ben Bowes, Flickr

The individual information governments receive and the experiences of embassy staff members and travelers from those countries also account for varied warnings. For instance, the State Department information for Colombia (pictured to the right) states "U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crime, including kidnapping and murder." The advice also applies when the particular government feels it can't help its citizens because of lack of embassy or consulate resources in the given country.

Which country's advice should you follow? The one you're from, because only it can help if you encounter trouble in a country on the advisory list. The government always advises citizens to register at the U.S. embassy when going anywhere, but especially to locations with travel warnings. Going to such a country won't affect your aid from the embassy, unless it's a place where resources are scarce.

Assessing the Danger

If a traveler wants to go to one of the "dangerous" countries, he should start by talking to other travelers, says Baron.

"I actually prefer to contact other travelers who have recently been to the places I'm planning to visit, as they are often able to provide a much more detailed account of the situation," he said.

Even if your personal assessment signals the "all clear" to go to Pakistan or Chad, scrutinize your insurance policy, since some companies don't cover a trip to a dangerous place. Most standard travel insurance policies are void in nations on a warning list.

Travel insurance company WorldNomadsGroup is also trying to take the guess work out of travel advisories with its SafetyHub, an online collection of safety advice for countries, says Phil Sylvester, senior producer for Travel Safety.

"What we try to do is speak to travelers on the ground and get a real 'feel' for the dangers," Sylvester said. "We listen very carefully to the government advice – they have enormous resources to gather this information, including top secret intelligence-gathering services."


eriktorner, Flickr

A Nice Time in a Danger Zone

British program coordinator Kristian Godfrey happily went on a work assignment to Zimbabwe (pictured to the left) in February 2008 despite the U.K. advising against travel there. The trip came in the weeks of rising tensions surrounding the presidential race between incumbent Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai.

"I never felt personally threatened during my time there; quite the opposite in fact," Godfrey said. "But there was a feeling of uneasiness about the place, though it was a case of maintaining common sense."

American Stephanie Yoder went to Serbia in 2008 right after Kosovo declared independence and witnessed people rioting outside the American embassy. She had already bought plane tickets as part of a larger trip to Bosnia, Montenegro and Slovenia.

"I did a small amount of research and learned that the riots had died down and American travelers weren't being targeted, so I really wasn't all that worried," she said. Aside from some snide remarks about being American, Yoder's visit went smoothly. She said she'd do it again.

"Obviously, you don't want to go diving into a riot and you want to be well-informed, but if I stayed away from every country that had a state-department warning on it, I would miss out on so many interesting places."

Foolish or educated? Once a traveler makes the choice to go to a "no-go" area, hindsight is the only true judge.

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