How does a travel alert affect your vacation plans?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 6 2010 1:23 PM

How Does a Travel Alert Affect Your Vacation Plans?

It makes you more paranoid.

How concerned should Americans be about travel to Europe? Click image to expand.
How concerned should Americans be about travel to Europe?

The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert on Sunday to warn Americans of the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe. Rather than encouraging Americans to cancel their vacations, the alert merely advises Americans to "to be aware of their surroundings" and "to adopt appropriate safety measures" while traveling abroad. How do you tailor your vacation to fit these precautions?

Be more paranoid. Before traveling, register your trip plans with the relevant American embassy or consulate. This way, the embassy can find you in case you need help or if you need to be notified of an incident at home or abroad, terrorist or otherwise. While in transit, try not to use baggage tags that directly identify you as an American citizen, and don't wear expensive clothing or accessories that will make you stand out in a crowd. Once you've arrived, avoid public demonstrations, civil disturbances, and other volatile situations. Be cautious when using public transportation, since subways, boats, and airplanes are favorite terrorist targets.

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Had the State Department wanted to discourage Americans from going to Europe, it could have issued a travel warning. Travel warnings are reserved for countries that will be volatile or dangerous in the long term—countries that are at war, say. (For example, the State Department recently renewed its longstanding travel warning for Sudan in light of widespread, violent attacks on Westerners.) Travel alerts, on the other hand, raise awareness about short-term problems. They have been issued for a variety of reasons this year, such as government protests in Bolivia  and the Typhoon season in the Pacific.

The fact that the State Department issued an alert for an entire continent indicates that it did not receive specific intelligence. The alert has been criticized for its vagueness and lack of useful information. But as Slate's Anne Applebaum wrote Monday, a blanket statement can help the government evade blame if a terrorist attack does happen, and Americans will just forget about it if it doesn't.

Bonus Explainer: Will airfares go down now that the government has issued a travel alert? Don't start packing just yet. Airlines haven't seen a surge of ticket cancellations. The travel advisory was most likely too broad to alarm Americans enough to change their vacation plans.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanksAndy Laine of the State Department.

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