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U.S. State Department Replaces Complicated Travel Warnings & Alerts System with Simple Level 1 – 4 Grading

Did you ever look into the U.S. State Department’s website to try to figure out if a country you wanted to visit was safe? And did you leave that website somewhat or perhaps totally confused? You weren’t alone. Countless travelers, news organizations, travel professionals and yes, even State Dept. employees couldn’t quite work it out. So now it has been replaced with a simple Level 1 – 4 color-coded grading system that debuted this January.

At a press conference announcing the now widely well-received change, Michelle Bernier-Toth, acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizen services, told reporters, “We shouldn’t need to spend more time explaining the difference [between travel alerts and warnings] than we do explaining what the threat actually is.” In a moment of total frankness about the short-comings of the previous system, she added, “I…was tired of explaining the difference between a travel warning and a travel alert even to some of my colleagues.” Those days are over.

The Breakdown

The criteria used to determine a country’s safety, or even a region within a country, remains unchanged. It’s just the way it’s presented to the public that underwent the sorely needed overhaul.

  • Level 1 (Blue*) is a safe country in which you should “Exercise normal precautions” (e.g. Canada, Norway, Bhutan)
  • Level 2 (Yellow) “Exercise increased caution” (e.g. United Kingdom, South Africa, Dominican Republic)
  • Level 3 (Orange) “Reconsider travel” (e.g. El Salvador, Mauritania, Cuba)
  • Level 4 (Red) “Do not travel” (e.g. Yemen, Central African Republic, North Korea)

*In some places throughout the State Dept.’s website, Level 1 is indicated as Blue, in others — such as the currently clunky color-coded map (see below) — it appears as White, but only for some countries. Australia and New Zealand, for example, are Blue and disappear into the ocean.

The Nuance

Rather than paint every country with a wide brush, there is also a gradient system when certain regions of a country are more dangerous than others. On the interactive color-coded world map,  those countries appear with their color code as noted above, but slashed with grey lines. You can click on the country for a pop-up that leads you to detailed information (but as noted above it is rather clunky at this time) or go to the Travel Advisories page and enter the country name for the detailed information (works very well). So, for example, India as a whole is a Level 2 (Exercise increased caution) country, but on the color-coded map it has the gradient coloring because the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir is a Level 4 “Do not travel” area, except for the eastern Ladakh region and its capital, Leh. It’s also advised that no one travel anywhere in India alone, especially women.

The Reasons

Additionally, each country’s Advisory page clearly lists one or more letter codes inside a circle on the title bar, indicating why there is reason for caution in that country (India example), which is then outlined in detail. Simply hover your cursor over each letter for a summary explanation. The letter codes are as follows.

  • C – Crime: Widespread violent or organized crime is present in areas of the country. Local law enforcement may have limited ability to respond to serious crimes.
  • T – Terrorism: Terrorist attacks have occurred and/or specific threats against civilians, groups, or other targets may exist.
  • U – Civil Unrest: Political, economic, religious, and/or ethnic instability exists and may cause violence, major disruptions, and/or safety risks.
  • H – Health: Health risks, including current disease outbreaks or a crisis that disrupts a country’s medical infrastructure, are present. The issuance of a Centers for Disease Control Travel Notice may also be a factor.
  • N – Natural Disaster: A natural disaster, or its aftermath, poses danger.
  • E – Time-limited Event: Short-term event, such as elections, sporting events, or other incidents that may pose safety risks.
  • O – Other: There are potential risks not covered by previous risk indicators. Read the country’s Travel Advisory for details.


If you’re not interested in working out the regions of a complicated country that may be safe in some places and dangerous in others, and you just want a “no worries” country to visit with as near total peace of mind as is possible these days, use the color-coded map or this quick-loading, streamlined “at-a-glance” summary sheet. There are scores of safe “Blue” countries to explore.

Country assessments are on-going, so don’t rely on something you saw last year for a trip this year or next. Level 1 countries will be reassessed yearly, and the rest will be reassessed every 6 months.

And once you settle on where to go, we’re always here to help you find the perfect hotel at a great rate with no-exclusions Cash Back rewards.

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