Four days before I flew from Washington, D.C., to Mali, I received a list of 20 pre-trip suggestions from the U.S. Department of State. Among the recommendations: Draft a will, discuss your funeral wishes with your family, designate a hostage negotiator and leave DNA samples with your medical provider.
My stomach knotted when I read the advice. Mali is on the State Department’s highest-level don’t-go-there list, along with such volatile nations as Haiti and Iraq. But until then I hadn’t been worried. I’d be working in Mali with a nonprofit, One Global Village, that has served there for years. I knew the organization’s leaders and their emphasis on safety. And while the Islamic State group was terrorizing Mali’s north, we would be in the relatively safer south, working in a remote rural village.
I survived the 2020 journey without being kidnapped, robbed or shot, a feat I’ve managed on trips to numerous locations — from Guatemala to the West Bank — that provoke stern warnings from the State Department.
Popular destinations, including Mexico and Jamaica, have travel advisories. In Mexico, the department breaks down the advisories by state, with 13 states receiving “do not travel” and “reconsider travel” warnings. Kidnappings in Mexico earlier this year raised questions about the safety of traveling to Mexico.
Here are some insights on understanding advisories and staying safe.
Deciphering the alerts
The State Department issues travel advisories for every country and assigns one of four grades:
- Level 1: Exercise normal precautions
- Level 2: Exercise increased caution
- Level 3: Reconsider travel
- Level 4: Do not travel.
Most countries are Level 1 or 2. With Level 3, the State Department suggests that you avoid travel due to serious safety risks. With Level 4, you face “a greater likelihood of life-threatening risks,” and the government may be unable to provide assistance.
The State Department also issues warnings for events ranging from political protests to hurricanes. In late June, for example, the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Paris issued a security alert when riots erupted after a police shooting in a nearby suburb. The U.S. Embassy in Dublin released a similar alert in July after a 57-year-old American was assaulted by teenagers.