Europe Travel Alert: Should We Change our Travel Plans?

Palais Royale, Brussels, Belgium

New alert from the U.S. State Department calls European travel plans into question for some.

The U.S. State Department recently issued a Europe Travel Alert after the horrific terrorist attacks that unfolded in Brussels on March 22, 2016. Since these new attacks (and the ones in Paris in November), many individuals and families who were thinking about traveling to Europe during spring and summer—or who already had travel plans in place—were left wondering whether they should change or cancel plans.

The Europe Travel Alert 

Deciding whether or not to travel to a destination that has been a terrorist target is a highly personal decision. Although the chances of being a victim of terrorist activity are generally slim, different people have different perceptions of risk.

Some vow that they will not allow terrorists to alter the way they live or travel and feel that bad things can happen anywhere. Others are simply unwilling to take any added risks that make them feel more anxious, uncomfortable or vulnerable. The randomness and unpredictability of terrorism stokes fears and complicates decision-making.

The State Department Europe Travel Alert reads in part:

The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to potential risks of travel to and throughout Europe following several terrorist attacks, including the March 22 attacks in Brussels claimed by ISIL. Terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation. This Travel Alert expires on June 20, 2016.

Distinguishing between State Department Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts

Since January, the State Department has issued 12 new Travel Warnings (in addition to prior ones still in effect), which are more ominous than Travel Alerts. They essentially urge Americans to carefully consider any discretionary travel to the identified areas. The website states:

We issue a Travel Warning when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all. Examples of reasons for issuing a Travel Warning might include unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks. We want you to know the risks of traveling to these places and to strongly consider not going to them at all. Travel Warnings remain in place until the situation changes; some have been in effect for years.

In addition to the Europe Travel Alert, the website lists 7 other Travel Alerts posted since January 2016 that are more tempered in nature, explaining:

We issue a Travel Alert for short-term events we think you should know about when planning travel to a country. Examples of reasons for issuing a Travel Alert might include an election season that is bound to have many strikes, demonstrations, or disturbances; a health alert like an outbreak of H1N1; or evidence of an elevated risk of terrorist attacks. When these short-term events are over, we cancel the Travel Alert. 

Although there are historical precedents, the newest alert is more nonspecific than most others because rather than identifying countries or cities within Europe, it paints a broad geographical brush alerting travelers not to go anywhere on the continent. (According to the Wall Street Journal, this is the first continentwide alert since 2010.)

Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles (Museum of the City of Brussels)
Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles (Museum of the City of Brussels)

Things travelers to Europe can do to reduce their risk and/or feel safer

While no one can assure travelers that they will be safe in Europe or elsewhere, the alert does offer some common sense advice: 

  • Register with STEP

Before travel, register online for the Department’s free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive updated information on the destination to which you are traveling and to help the U.S. Embassy, family and friends to contact you in the event of an emergency.

  • Be prepared for lines and scrutiny

Anticipate additional security screening and unexpected disruptions.

  • Monitor the News

Before you go and after you arrive, monitor media and local information sources for updated information and follow instructions of local authorities in an emergency.

  • Stay connected

Stay in touch with your friends and family members and ensure they know how to reach you in the event of an emergency.

  • Remain vigilant in public places and when using public transportation

This one is a bit more difficult to follow if you plan on visiting tourist attractions. The alert cautions travelers to “be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid crowded places. Exercise particular caution during religious holidays and at large festivals or events.”

Other tips for traveling during an age of terrorism

Experienced travelers, travel writers and other experts have also made worthwhile suggestions. You may want to read the articles in their entirety to help you evaluate the pros and cons of European travel.

  • Don’t get rattled by the presence of extra security; it is there for your safety.


  • Keep some cash on hand.
  • Keep your cell phone charged.


  • Consider adding an international voice and data plan if you don’t have one.
  • Keep phone numbers and social media accounts of airlines and hotels close at hand should you need to make changes.
  • Familiarize yourself with Facebook’s Safety Check so you can inform family and friends you are okay in the event of an emergency.

Source: Conde Nast Traveler

  • Avoid markets and malls.
  • Choose visits to small towns rather than big cities.


  • If you are ambivalent about your travel plans, purchase travel insurance that allows you to cancel for any reason.


“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

– Mark Twain

On What does ‘exercise vigilance’ mean?

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