There are currently 69 countries under various travel advisories and warnings, including every member state in the European Union. That's about 35% of the world you're technically either not supposed to visit, or to strongly consider not visiting. This according to the State Department, who're a little like a dad watching his kid go off to college: they got your back, they definitely do give good advice, but there's a part of them that wishes you'd never leave home. But because we don't want you missing out on that 35%, we have some edgy travel tips from three key sources: a spokesperson for State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, a seasoned backpacker & travel blog founder, and an FBI agent whose identity we’re not allowed to reveal (typical). Here is everything you need to know about taking the flight less flown.
Know what a travel alert is
Haiti was recently issued a short-term travel alert to warn tourists of possible civil unrest preceding their twice-postponed upcoming elections. An alert is typically issued for a short-term event that potential travelers should monitor before booking a flight and, like the half gallon of 2 percent in your fridge, has an expiration date, typically 90 days.
And how it’s different from a travel warning
North Korea is probably going to be a dicey travel move for decades to come, so that means there’s a big, meaty travel warning on the country. A travel warning is issued for constant instability, crime, war, frequent terrorist attacks, or to warn American travelers that the country does not have US presence on the ground -- or is permanently out of Funyuns.
Don’t avoid a country because it has one or both
The first thing you might notice while scouring the list of countries on travel.state.gov is that the entire continent of Europe is under a travel alert. Yes, thanks to terrorism, said alert encompasses cities currently featured on black and white posters in every freshman dorm room, and every gelato eating, siesta-taking, study abroad location that was ever flown to via Ryan Air.
But this guide ain’t for those countries. This is for places that can be legit dangerous because, as awful as terrorism is, you’re still more likely to get hit by lightning then fall victim to a terror attack. As far as the actually questionable destinations, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular affairs is trying to help you make educated decisions when it comes to traveling to certain countries and what to avoid if you do. And it’s not so that they can put a fat “We told you so” in their back pocket because...
Ask the State Department if you need help -- they won’t be annoyed
The purpose of the alerts and warnings is to inform you about the state of the country you want to visit -- not to penalize you if you need a hand (or a military airlift). Cranky Internet commenters bloviating about their tax dollars going towards your rescue on future articles about your harrowing experience should not dissuade you from asking for help.
Though they can’t always do anything right away
Even in Iran and North Korea, the US has reach through “protecting powers”, third-party countries acting in the United States diplomatic interest in an emergency. But for a country like Yemen, with no embassy, no consulate, and no protecting power? It’s going to be tough.
“At the end of the day, the protection of US citizens overseas is the state department’s highest priority.” says Ashley Garrigus, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “But where we don’t have people on the ground, we’re really limited in what we can do for you.”
Sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program
In the event of an emergency, make it easier for the State Department to make sure you’re ok by signing up for the Smart Traveler program. Signing up with STEP includes providing your passport information and travel itinerary. Based on that itinerary, you'll get information you need about the country you’re visiting via email alerts. Heck, they’ll even call you if something dire happens in the region.
“Say it’s something like the Nepalese earthquake,” says Garrigus, “we’ll call you, and say, ‘Are you ok? Do you need anything from us?’ So when your family calls us, we’re able to say we reached out to a loved one and they confirmed they are in a safe location and will be in touch as soon as they can.”
Copy that passport
If you choose not to enroll in STEP, you should still give someone you trust a photocopy of your passport, as well as your full itinerary so they know where you are and when you’re supposed to come back -- unless running away to Caracas was your plan the whole time.
Use the State Department to do your homework
Is the country backpacker friendly? Do you need a Visa to visit this country? Should you beware of any regions due to civil unrest preceding an election or general governmental upheaval? Are any regions you want to visit inaccessible by car? What is the weather like during the time you’ll be traveling? Should you take malaria pills with you? Can you drink the tap water?
Should you even brush your teeth with the tap water? Will you get your camera confiscated if you’re filming in religiously or politically sensitive areas? Or worse, thrown in foreign jail? Will you have access to an ATM or should you keep cash on you? Important questions that the State Department probably has the answers for, wherever you’re going.
If they don’t, search for expatriate sites dedicated the country you’re visiting. They’ll have crucial information tailored to an American POV, from examples like the above, to where to watch the Cubs lose all over the globe.
If you’re visiting multiple countries, keep an eye on their relationships to each other
Does one country have any conflict with the country you’re from, or a country you have previously visited? In particular, most Middle East and North African nations, with the exception of Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco, will be strict about your entry if you have an Israeli stamp on your passport.
Invest in maps and GPS
If you’re going to be doing some really out of the way traveling through far-flung villages and off-the-grid trekking through the bush, always have a map and a GPS that’s not reliant on cell coverage -- your anytime minutes just don’t work everywhere.
And a personal locator beacon
Our FBI friend highly recommended one, and you don’t need to be a G-Man to qualify; these devices have been available to the general public since the 2003. Do you need PLB if you’re milling about in Prague? No. But headed somewhere that the occasional tsunami is known to hit? Couldn’t hurt.
The Bond-level travel accessory operates by allowing you to transmit an emergency distress signal that communicates with various international military satellites and is monitored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine your last location, which hopefully won’t be in the ocean, or the atmosphere.
Be mindful of how locals are going to perceive you as a foreigner
While you might be hitchhiking across borders and camping out in fields and busking with a ukulele for toilet paper money, you’re still going to be perceived as a tourist with money to burn because of your accent or the way you look and dress. In plenty of countries, that won’t matter too much, but could be an issue in poorer regions.
“You’re going to get hassled for money,” says Nader Diab, co-founder of travel blog and humanitarian aid group Globe Jumpers (and, full disclosure, a distant cousin of the author). “You buy a bottle of water for $1, the next day the same guy will sell it for a dollar and a half. You can’t judge or get angry. They think because you’re traveling and you come from a foreign place that you have a lot of money. For them it’s survival mode every day, and it’s the same thing in any country where there’s a lot of corruption and poverty.”
Try not to get yourself kidnapped
There are some situations you should avoid if you'd like to live out the rest of your life without ever once having been kidnapped. Nader had been traveling in Burundi for three weeks and felt like he knew the area well enough to travel without his Burundian friend -- big mistake.
"I took a motorbike taxi to the market, and I asked him to drive me to the school first," he said, of the school where he volunteered. "As I went in to grab my stuff, he called up his friends and said 'I'm going with this tourist guy downtown' -- he thought I was going to be exchanging money and I was really lucky that day because the security guy at the school heard him telling his friends to start planning a truck because they were planning on kidnapping me."
Stay vigilant -- only take rides from people you know, stay close to your travel companion -- especially a local who knows his or her way around -- and learn enough of the language to know when you're about to be taken to a place where not even Liam Neeson's skills can save you.
Don’t be ostentatious
Don’t flaunt jewelry or expensive name brands. Don’t flash giant wads of cash. Don’t brag about swimming in your Scrooge McDuck-like vault of gold coins because frankly that’s not even physically possible.
Be mindful of how locals will perceive you even if you know the languages and customs. Even if you’re an expatriate or have family in county, you have to be cognizant of being an outsider, despite the fact that you may look like a local and understand the language.
Whether it's your tattoos or your accent, something about you is going to make you stick out like a tourist in Times Square. So? That means you can’t take all the advice above for granted, thinking you won’t need it. Just because a tourist family from Nebraska speaks English doesn’t mean hustlers in New York City aren’t trying to con them. And if you are a member of a nice tourist family from a Nebraska? Well guess what, you’re armed and ready to take on way more than New York City now.