The U.S. State Department comes out with a slew of travel advisories, but before you completely change your plans, it’s important to know the difference between travel warnings and travel alerts. The advisory notes are often determined through a variety of sources in the destination’s Consular Affairs Bureau in the U.S. Embassy/Consulates. They not only generate the advisory, but also assess the extent of danger/risk in the country, naming the advisory either a warning or alert. Though both are important to keep in mind, warnings are slightly of greater concern and should be properly assessed before proceeding with your trip. Sometimes, the warnings and alerts can be far more conservative than needed, so don’t automatically cancel your trip without doing a little research into the security situation yourself.
Broadly speaking, travel warnings are more open-ended and long-term, raising awareness of areas that are recommended for Americans to avoid due to political instability, negative American sentiments, etc. The U.S. government also commonly issues warnings against travel to countries where it has limited ability to assist citizens if they get into trouble, such as Iran, where the U.S. has no diplomatic representation. Warnings are reviewed every six months. A few countries that currently have warnings are: Iran, Pakistan, and Central African Republic.
On the other hand, travel alerts are more time-specific and for short-term threats such as imminent political dangers (i.e. a coup) or weather disasters (i.e. a cyclone). Alerts generally have a specific expiration date, after which the government does not see any foreseeable harm to American citizens. A few countries that currently have alerts are: Egypt and Kenya.
There may also be discrepancies between the travel advisories of the U.S. and other countries, as the U.S. has always been far more cautious and conservative with its warnings than the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
All Americans traveling internationally, even to a supposedly “safe” destination, should register with the State Department via its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service that gives you access to breaking alerts and travel information in case of a crisis by text or e-mail.