U.S. Department of State Does not Preach the Gospel: When to Ignore Travel Warnings
I’ve never been one to follow the rules. I left a safe, secure job to create a travel series for public television, for crying out loud, so I can say with some certainty that insecurity doesn’t bother me as much as it might some people. To that end, I also tend to ignore authority when its tenets inconvenience me; especially U.S. Department of State travel warnings, and here’s why (in some cases) you should too:
They are largely political plays
Often, State Department travel advisories and warnings are based on geo-political pandering on the one hand and brinksmanship on the other. For many places, they are aimed specifically at members of the diplomatic corps or for people with dual citizenship that may get into sticky situations when leaving their other country — as has happened to Iranian-Americans — not at the casual traveler.
That’s not to say I’m drooling to go to Syria or Eastern Ukraine (both of which have department warnings posted) at the moment — I’m not. But it wouldn’t stop me from swinging by Kiev if I happened to be in the neighborhood.
I’ve never felt safer than in some countries with warnings issued
Of the 37 countries with travel warnings and alerts listed on the department’s website as of this writing, I’ve only been to two. Pretty paltry, I know, but both Israel (where I filmed episodes for the original webseries) and Mexico (where I filmed a full episode for the public television series debuting this Friday) had those warnings in place at the time I traveled through.
And the truth is, I felt safer in each of those countries than I sometimes do in Los Angeles where I live. (Only yesterday, the main street at the end of my block had a reported bomb threat that shut the whole thing down.) And yes, I filmed in Cancun, Mexico — tourist trap of the Western Hemisphere — not Ciudad Juarez. I’m not on a mission to get kidnapped, I just don’t let the demagoguery intimidate me.
As for Israel, being alone there was a huge plus. Not only did I never feel threatened in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, because people weren’t quite sure of my ethnic makeup, individuals from all walks of life warmly reached out to me. My one regret is that I didn’t go into Palestinian-held territory when I had the chance.
In actuality, the one city in which I’ve known I was being followed and might have been threatened was New Delhi. A country rapidly becoming infamous for horrific violence against women only now being widely reported, India is not listed in the State Department’s warnings.
Ignore commercially-funded media and cross-check information
The U.S. media machine is the worst I’ve ever seen for spreading the epidemic of fear when it comes to international coverage. Our commercial news outlets are ravenous ratings-monsters outdoing the sensationalism factor of every other free-press and even some not-so-free-press countries in which I’ve watched the news. And that’s 19 or 20 countries at this point.
I have South African acquaintances who were in Baghdad when Western forces pushed into the city in 2003. They watched the CNN feed reporting bombings all around them one night and when they didn’t hear any they walked out of the hotel to a quiet neighborhood.
Take any commercial media reports with more than a grain of salt, and if you need other information about a destination you’re considering, check the United States' information against other countries’:
Great Britain https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
The one department function I do think is a decent idea for solo travelers is to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. STEP is helpful in expediting the issue of a new passport while abroad or, in extreme cases, helping to locate and evacuate you when the dung hits the fan.
But keep in mind that is rare. For many of us, we are much more at risk inside the United States than we are elsewhere; regardless of what our media and government would have us believe.