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Travel: How to check the safety of your next travel destination

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How can you decide if a destination is safe?

Safety can mean different things to different people, from the likelihood of civil unrest or terrorism, to the level of COVID-19 infections, or whether you can drink the tap water or wear flashy jewelry in public. Depending on where you get your news and advice from, a destination could appear to be very safe or very unsafe before you’ve even arrived.

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For example, I visited Kuwait before the pandemic and didn’t know much about the destination before I arrived. I personally found it to be one of the safest places I’d ever visited. On the other hand, when I visited Turkey, I happened to have my phone stolen in a restaurant. So, while it’s generally a very safe destination to visit, my personal memory of safety in Istanbul was clouded by this single incident.

Rather than just basing your decision on one other person’s experience or water cooler gossip, how do you determine the safety for yourself?

For starters, I’d avoid throwing out a broad question on social media. Someone who may not have even visited the place might convince you that you shouldn’t visit because they saw something online that may have been #fakenews.

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a statue in front of a building © The Points Guy Kuwait City, Kuwait (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

The best place to start is the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Advisories. The website displays information and advises on safety and gives each country a safety warning rating from one to four:

  • Level 1: Exercise normal precautions
  • Level 2: Exercise increased caution
  • Level 3: Reconsider travel
  • Level 4: Do not travel

Before the pandemic, most countries were classified as Level 1 or 2, which meant they were reasonably safe to visit (provided you took normal precautions). COVID-19 turned the travel world upside down and led the agency to add most of the world’s countries to its highest advisory last April. The State Department has lowered levels for some destinations, however. For example, travel to the United Kingdom and Israel was reduced in May from Level 4 to Level 3. As of late July, at least 87 countries remained under Level 4 advisories.

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This State Department site does tend to err on the side of caution, even pre-pandemic. For example, it warns there is a risk of terrorism in Iceland, though you certainly may not feel like it when you are there (I sure didn’t). Don’t let this website scare you from visiting somewhere it deems Level 1 safe, even if it does list lots of caveats to that safety.

However, the Level 4 advisory for so many countries is very clear-cut – you should not travel to these destinations until the advice changes, even if you are permitted entry or vaccinated against COVID-19. You should also carefully read the terms and conditions of your travel insurance policy as traveling to a Level 3 or 4 destination may invalidate your insurance policy. This could be disastrous if something goes wrong during your travels.

Note that conditions can change rapidly in a country at any time. To receive updated Travel Advisories and Alerts from the State Department, choose the method that works best for you at travel.state.gov/stayingconnected.

Normal precautions for traveling right now, even if you are fully vaccinated, would include:

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  • Check entry requirements to determine if you are required to present or take any COVID-19 tests. Pay close attention to the types of tests required;
  • Practice social distancing;
  • Wear a mask where required by local rules or guidelines, especially in places like public transportation and supermarkets;
  • Wash and sanitize your hands regularly — it’s a good idea to carry hand sanitizer with you if you’re not sure how easy it will be to find hand-washing facilities at your destination.

Even if you’re fully vaccinated, remember that many foreign countries have only vaccinated small numbers of their populations. So, you likely won’t experience relaxed restrictions like you may be starting to enjoy at home right now.

Related: UPDATED: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

If you are still undecided about a destination, for example, what the exact risk of terrorism in Iceland currently is, another valuable resource for considering safety is the Foreign Travel Advice section of the U.K. Government website. There are detailed guides to safety with insights for 225 different countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Along with essential information about COVID-19 restrictions, there are handy tips and cultural knowledge you might not find in a glossy holiday brochure.

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For example, while Singapore is considered an extremely safe destination, you might not know that public drunkenness is frowned upon and may result in a much harsher penalty than elsewhere. Meanwhile, Jordan is a relatively safe country to visit, but the website warns to go nowhere near the border with neighboring Syria. There are all sorts of travel tips here, and it’s updated regularly with things like entry requirements, local currency and embassy contact information.

Suppose there’s certain information you are looking for about a destination beyond general safety for mass tourism, and government travel websites don’t have information this specific. In that case, you may wish to consult a resource like TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet (which is owned by Red Ventures, TPG’s parent company) to see if this question has been asked on a forum before.

I often find that my exact question has been asked, and numerous experienced travelers in that destination have answered. If it’s just one random answer, I might keep looking, but if 10 different people are all giving the same advice, I would feel comfortable following it, especially if it was recent.

Just keep in mind that if someone advises “XYZ country is very safe” or “XYZ country is not safe, and you shouldn’t visit,” this is likely just their personal opinion or experience, and you should start with the government advice linked above.

a large brick building: Colorful building in La Candelaria neighborhood in the historic center of Bogota, Colombia © The Points Guy Colorful building in La Candelaria neighborhood in the historic center of Bogota, Colombia Bogota, Colombia. (Photo by Jesse Kraft/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Bottom line

All travel comes with some level of risk, and these government resources are not a guarantee that your experience will be exactly as they promise. Still, they do err on the side of caution, which should be comforting for inexperienced travelers. The more you travel, the more risk you may be comfortable accepting — resources like these will help you make the right decision for you.

Unfortunately, much of the world is considered off-limits due to the pandemic, which will hopefully change as vaccination programs continue and COVID-19 cases fall.

Additional reporting by Ana Figueroa

Featured photo by George Rose/Getty Images

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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