Travel

Is Your Vacation Destination Safe?

Check out travel advisories before you book to get the real scoop on the risks you'll face.

News reports about terrorist attacks, rampant crime or an unsettling string of deaths in an idyllic destination such as the Dominican Republic may give you pause when selecting a vacation spot—or make you wonder if the place you chose is safe to visit at all.

Before deciding you may be better off with a stay­cation, keep in mind that for most travelers “the actual risks are more mundane,” says Matthew Bradley, of International SOS, a medical and travel security services company. In most places, you’re likelier to experience petty theft, traffic accidents or gastrointestinal problems than a terrorist attack. Instead of writing off certain places because of bad press, use these strategies to judge a destination.

Check government advisories. To review the U.S. Department of State’s advice for travelers, go to https://travel.state.gov and click on “Travel Advisories” at the top of the home page. Each country is rated one of four levels, with Level 1 advising travelers to “exercise normal precautions” and Level 4 indicating “do not travel.” Read the full advisory and the Safety and Security section because these write-ups describe the severity of the dangers you could face and drill down into regions or cities that carry higher—or lower—risks than elsewhere in the country.

Sometimes advisories issue alarming warnings, such as “terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks” or “pickpockets and purse-snatchers operate aggressively,” even in seemingly benign countries. But be aware that the advisories “err on the side of caution,” says Bradley. Ted Blank, a travel agent in Stillwater, Minn., recommends cross-checking the State Department’s perspective with travel advisories written by other governments, such as the United Kingdom. (Only U.S. State Department advisories discuss risks specific to American travelers and allow you to sign up for safety alerts at https://step.state.gov.)

Balance government reports with guidebooks and other objective resources. GeoSure is a smartphone app that scores cities and neighborhoods worldwide on risk factors, such as women’s safety and health and medical risks. Scores range from 1 to 100, with higher numbers indicating a greater degree of danger. If a hotel you booked is in the thick of alarming news reports, call and ask what precautions the staff are recommending for guests, rather than simply asking, “Is it safe?” says Michael McCall, professor of hospitality marketing at Michigan State University.

Call for backup. For an extra layer of security, organize your trip through a travel agent or tour operator. Travel agents can give you real-time information from local contacts, distinguish secure tourist zones in the midst of riskier regions, and help you adjust your itinerary. A reputable tour operator (start your search at www.ustoa.com) will have on-the-ground partners to help assess the safety of upcoming trips and reroute you as necessary.

Travel insurance may help you recoup the costs of canceling your trip or cutting it short, depending on the circumstances (see Disaster-Proof Your Vacation With Trip Insurance). Most insurers exclude countries under U.S. sanctions for national security or other reasons; some insurers also impose higher premiums and certain restrictions on “high risk” countries.

Finally, if an outbreak of violence or a natural disaster is standing in the way of your trip, try to negotiate a refund or credit directly with your airline or hotel. “Companies often evaluate these situations on a case-by-case basis,” says Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso, a luxury-focused network of travel agencies.

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