By Amy Farley
August 07, 2013

The global travel alert that the U.S. Department of State issued at the end of last week has been met with a fair amount of criticism and head scratching. It’s vague. It’s frightening. And it’s not very clear what a traveler should do with this information.

The alert, which is valid through August 31, warns U.S. citizens about “the continued potential for terrorism attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.” It was prompted, according to news reports, by intercepted communications between al Qaeda operatives—chatter that Senator Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee characterized on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as “very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.” Though Yemen is obviously a major area of concern right now (the U.S. has not only evacuated the embassy there, but urged all Americans to leave the country), the State Department’s alert is not restricted to any particular region. It even goes so far as to remind travelers of the possibility of attacks on “public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure,” including subway, rail, and aviation services. (A threat that is underscored by a recent ABC News story about terrorists working to develop an as-yet-undetectable explosive liquid.)

President Obama, however, offered skittish travelers some reassurance in an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno last night, saying, “I think that the general rule is just to show some common sense and some caution. So there are some countries where you're less likely to experience a terrorist attack. There are some where there are more dangers.” In other words: use your head if you’re heading to a hotspot.

It’s also worth noting that this current alert is expected to expire at the end of August. Travel Alerts, by definition, are used for situations of only “finite duration.” The more ominous Travel Warnings are issued for threats that are “chronic and long-term.” (See below for a rundown on the differences between official State Department messages.)

If you are planning any international travel, you can stay on top of regional developments and alerts by checking the country pages at You can also sign up to receive text or email alerts via the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

State Department Security Messages

The State Department issues several different types of official security messages, depending on the situation. Here's a rundown of what they mean for travelers.

Security Message

A Security Message is used to communicate information about personal security threats of a general or systemic nature, such as crime trends, demonstrations, peaceful actions intended to disrupt normal activity, or localized events not likely to affect large numbers of U.S. citizens.

Emergency Message

An Emergency Message is reserved for imminent events or threats that may require immediate action by U.S. citizens, such as potentially violent demonstrations, civil disturbances, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, extraordinary measures by local authorities such as martial law, or other breaking events that pose a potential imminent threat to the safety and security of U.S. citizens.

Travel Alert

A Travel Alert usually is used for situations that are expected to be of finite duration or affect only part of a given country or, in some instances, region of the world. Generally, Travel Alerts are drafted to expire after 90 days, but can be tailored to a specific threat. They can be renewed or revised as situations develop.

Travel Warning

A Travel Warning is issued when the State Department views the threat to U.S. citizens in a specific country to be chronic and long-term. Travel Warnings may be issued in response to civil unrest, dangerous conditions, terrorist activity and/or because the United States has no diplomatic relations with the country and cannot assist a U.S. citizen in distress. A Travel Warning is valid indefinitely.

Have a travel dilemma? Need some tips and remedies? Send your questions to news editor Amy Farley at Follow @tltripdoctor on Twitter.