Is It Safe to Travel to Europe Right Now?

Between the chatter about a potential visa requirement for U.S. citizens crossing the pond and concerns surrounding safety, Europe has been no stranger to news headlines as of late. To top it off, the U.S. Department of State just issued a travel alert throughout Europe this summer, alerting Americans to the heightened risk of terrorism in light of the recent attacks in France, Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. 

Although the alert doesn’t pinpoint to any specific intelligence suggesting an imminent attack, it expresses a general apprehension about the potential for more attacks. “Credible information suggests that there is a continuing threat of attacks in Europe by individuals linked to or inspired by terrorist organizations like Da’esh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda,” says William Cocks, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t book a trip. The alert, which became effective on May 1, is intended to inform rather than deter travelers from packing their bags. Here are a few other important things you should know about the alert.

There’s a difference between a travel alert and a travel warning.

Although “travel alert” and “travel warning” sound like synonyms, they actually serve two very different purposes. According to the U.S. Department of State, a travel warning is issued to caution travelers about any risks associated with visiting a particular destination as well as to encourage them to strongly reconsider whether they should visit at all. Reasons might include unstable government conditions, a civil war, ongoing crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks. These warnings typically remain in place until the situation changes.

On the other hand, a travel alert is released for short-term events that the State Department wants to put on travelers’ radars. This may stem from a health outbreak, evidence of an elevated risk of terrorist attacks, or an election season that could result in strikes and demonstrations. So, should you cancel a trip when a travel alert is issued? It depends. Consider your individual situation and assess your own level of comfort. If you do plan on traveling to the particular destination with a travel alert, be vigilant and understand the risks that come with visiting the destination. 

This isn’t the first time the State Department has issued a travel alert on Europe.

This is not the first, second, or even third travel alert the U.S. Department of State has issued on Europe. It’s the fourth time the continent has had a travel alert in the last year. The most recent one was released last November, just before the holiday season (it expired this February 2017). Last May, the U.S. Department of State also issued a similar alert for summer travel, citing several events, including the Euro Cup in France and World Youth Day in Poland, as targets (this expired in August 2016).

This travel alert has an expiration date.

For now, this current travel alert will expire on September 1, 2017, but could be extended depending on the situation in Europe. Check travel.state.gov for any updates.

The travel alert includes all of Europe.

Although not every European country has faced a terrorist attack recently, the travel alert encompasses all of Europe. “U.S. citizens should always be alert to the possibility that terrorist sympathizers or self-radicalized extremists may conduct attacks with little or no warning. Extremists continue to focus on tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets and shopping malls, and local government facilities as viable targets,” says Cocks. “In addition, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, high-profile events, educational institutions, airports, and other soft targets remain priority locations for possible attacks. U.S. citizens should exercise additional vigilance in these and similar locations, in particular during the upcoming summer travel season when large crowds may be common.” 

John Gobbels, Vice President and COO of Medjet, a company that offers travel medical, security, and crisis response memberships, adds that while some countries would be considered safer than others, European travel, when planned appropriately, is overall still safe. “We are much more likely to suffer a sudden illness or have an accident while traveling abroad than being the victim of a terrorist attack,” he says. 

When asked about the broad travel alert, Cocks says, “We are not advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Europe. We are advising U.S. citizens to the potential risks when traveling to Europe so that they can make informed travel decisions.”

If you’ve already booked a trip to Europe this summer, you need not cancel it.

“My advice is to travel, but do some pre-planning and take steps during the [trip] to maintain situational awareness,” says Gobbels. So, what can you do if you plan on traveling to Europe this summer?

For starters, make sure you are up to date on the latest U.S. Department of State information for the destination you are visiting. Register your travel plans in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages in the event of an emergency. Other simple safety precautions include giving friends and family detailed copies of your itinerary, setting up your phone plan for international use, understanding your travel insurance benefits and limitations, and familiarizing yourself with local 911 numbers (France is 112 and Britain is 999, for example) as well as where the American embassies are located and how to contact them.

“If this broad swipe makes people think more about being safe during international travel, then I think that’s a good thing,” says Gobbels. “The world is an ever-changing place and we need to make the appropriate changes to keep ourselves and loved ones safe. I believe that with some pre-planning and changing attitudes about travel, we can still enjoy all this world has to offer.”

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