Should I Cancel My Trip Over Terror Alerts?

Deciphering what different alerts mean for travelers

Do terror alerts matter when you travel?
••• Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images

In March of 2002, the United States Department of Homeland Security announced the formation of the Homeland Security Advisory System. The color-coded scale offered five levels in order to gauge the potential of terrorist attacks on American soil – the lowest being “low,” color-coded green, and the most severe being “severe,” color-coded red. Since the introduction, the color coding scales have been elevated and de-escalated a number of times, only to be replaced outright in 2011.

Since then, the United States and allies have experienced difficulties in expressing levels of danger that travelers may face in the world. Through experimentation, travelers now have three different systems that provide warnings about risks travelers may face while traveling at home or abroad.

Though they may not be the easiest systems to understand, terror alerts can have serious implications on travelers as they adventure around the world. What does a travel alert mean? Does it supersede a national terrorism advisory? By understanding the major international alert systems, travelers can make the best decisions when it comes time to travel.

U.S. State Department: Travel Alerts and Travel Warnings

For many travelers, the U.S. State Department is the first place to stop in order to determine the risks in planning a trip to certain parts of the world. Before departure, smart travelers often check for travel alerts and travel warnings to assess the risks they may face while traveling abroad.

A State Department travel alert is a short-term incident that could affect travelers during their next trip outside the United States and is only in effect for a short period of time. Examples of a short-term incident include an election season that could result in protests and common carrier strikes, health alerts due to outbreaks of disease (including the Zika virus), or credible evidence of a potential terrorist attack.

When the situation is over or under control, the State Department will often cancel these travel alert.

Unlike a travel alert, a travel warning is a long-term situation where travelers may want to reconsider their travel plans before even making plans. Travel warnings may be extended to nations that do not welcome American visitors, unstable or corrupt government structures, ongoing crime or violence against tourists, or the consistent threat of terrorist attacks.Some alerts have been in place for many years on end.

Before traveling, every traveler should make sure a travel alert or warning is not in place for their destination country. In addition, travelers should consider enrolling in the free STEP program from the State Department to receive alerts while traveling and review the resources available from the nearest embassy.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security: National Terrorism Advisory System

The first national scale for assessing terror threats, the Homeland Security Advisory System, was officially retired in 2011, just over nine years after it was implemented. In its place came the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), announced by then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The NTAS overhauled the previous alert system by removing the color-coding, which never dropped below “Elevated,” color-coded yellow. Instead of five levels of alerts, the new system reduces potential threats to two levels: Imminent Threat Alert, and Elevated Threat Alert.

Imminent Threat Alert is reserved for warnings of credible, specific, or impending terrorist threats to the United States by militant groups or other nations. The Elevated Threat Alert, on the other hand, only warns of a credible threat against the United States, without specific information on a location or date. According to the public guide, an alert may be issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security, in conjunction with other federal law enforcement entities. These entities include the CIA, FBI, and may include other agencies.

The alerts were designed to “…provide a concise summary of the potential threat, information about actions being taken to ensure public safety, and recommended steps that individuals, communities, businesses, and governments can take to help prevent, mitigate or respond to the threat.” Since the implementation of the new system, several alerts have been issued, including one in the wake of the Orlando nightclub mass shooting in 2016.

The United Kingdom: Terrorism Threat Levels

British officials have utilized systems to measure the threat of military or terrorism strikes since 1970, with the implementation of the BIKINI State. In 2006, the BIKINI State was formally dropped in favor of the UK Threat Levels system.

Like the previous Homeland Security Advisory System, the UK Threat Levels indicate the potential of a terrorist attack throughout the United Kingdom, including England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The system is broken into five categories: the lowest being “low,” and the highest being “critical.” Unlike the Homeland Security Advisory System or the BIKINI State, there is no color coding attached to the terrorism threat levels. Instead, threat levels are set by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre and the Security Service (MI5).

Threat levels do not necessarily have an expiration date and are subject to change based on information received by British Authorities.The UK Threat Levels issue two different advisories for two locations: mainland Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales), and Northern Ireland. The threat levels offer advisories for international terrorism and Northern Ireland-related terrorism.

How Travel Insurance is affected by travel warnings and terror alerts

Depending on the international situation and credibility of a threat, travel insurance may be affected by a change in the international terror alert systems. If a threat raises to a high enough level, a travel insurance provider may consider a situation to be a “foreseen event.” Should this happen, a travel insurance policy may not provide coverage for travel to a certain region or nation after the international warning has been issued.

Subsequently, a travel insurance policy may not extend trip cancellation benefits for travel warnings or terror alerts. Because a terrorist attack has not happened, travel insurance may not consider issuing a warning a qualifying event to trigger benefits. 

However, travelers who purchase a travel insurance policy before an alert or warning has been issued would potentially be covered in the event of a terrorist attack. In addition to trip cancellation benefits, travelers may be covered under trip delay benefits, trip interruption benefits, or emergency evacuation. Prior to purchasing a travel insurance policy, ensure the level of coverage with their travel insurance providers.

Although they can be confusing, understanding terror alert systems can help travelers make the best decisions as they prepare to go abroad. By knowing what an alert means and how travel insurance may be affected, every traveler can be prepared for any scenario at home or abroad.