What to do when the State Department issues a travel alert

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— Courtesy Michelle Baran
A now peaceful Tahrir Square in Egypt

Crises and government-issued travel alerts go hand in hand. But what do these alerts mean and how seriously should travelers take them?

In the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing aftershocks in Japan, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert advising against non-essential travel to the island country.

Last month, the State Department recommended that U.S. citizens evacuate from Egypt due to the political uprising there, and the current travel warning advises U.S. travelers to defer non-essential travel to Egypt.

First off, it's worth noting some differences in terminology. According to the State Department's website, a travel alert is issued for short-term events, things such as political demonstrations, or a health issue, like the H1N1 outbreak.

The State Department issues travel warnings "when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all." A travel warning might be issued for a country in the midst of a civil war, ongoing violence, or frequent terrorist attacks. "Travel warnings remain in place until the situation changes," the State Department noted. "Some have been in effect for years."

Generally speaking, travel companies, tour operators and travel agencies will respect the advise of a travel alert or warning at first. For example, in the case of Egypt, travel companies worked to evacuate their clients out of the country.

But now, tour operators are starting up trips to Egypt again, even though the State Department's travel warning is still in place. In an attempt to reactivate tourism business, tour operators will often gather their own intelligence about whether it is safe to return to a destination, provide the clients with that information and let them decide.

"Our decision to head back to both Egypt and Tunisia came after extensive meetings with our ground operators, community leaders, and tourism officials," said Alan Lewis, chairman of Grand Circle Corporation, which owns the travel brands Grand Circle Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel.

To further complicate matters, U.S. embassies also send out "warden messages," messages that used to actually be delivered by a "warden" to U.S. citizens in a foreign country. Today, these messages often provide additional helpful advice and information attained by U.S. embassies.

For instance, with the nuclear threat in Japan, U.S. Ambassador John Roos in Japan has been issuing updates daily. The latest recommendation is that American citizens within 50 miles of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant evacuate or remain indoors.

The State Department encourages U.S. citizens traveling abroad to sign up for STEP, its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which enables travelers to register their contact information and travel details prior to leaving for a trip. The State Department then uses that information to communicate travel alerts, warnings and updates from embassies to U.S. travelers, and also to try to contact them to make sure they are accounted for in the event of a crisis or emergency.

More from Budget Travel:

Budget Travel reader reaches out from Japan

Tsunami watch: Facts for travelers

Is Egypt ready for tourists?

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