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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  1. This is such a tough topic and in the end it’s completely personal. I wouldn’t even think of going to Belgium because they don’t seem to have their security act together at all. I am scheduled to be in some neighboring countries later this year and will just keep monitoring the situation. The STEP program is worth using but know that you have to give them a local phone number and address for a contact where you’re going which can be difficult (trying to figure out how to do it for a river cruise right now).

  2. Registering for the government alert program is a great idea. I believe most countries have them. When I see lots of police and security with their machine guns, or metal detectors at entrances, I actually don’t mind. If there’s more security, all the better.

  3. Indeed, European travel is under attack and it is going to be a though personal decision on traveling or cancelling your plans. I’m sure this will probably have no effect on seasoned travelers.

  4. The first time we encountered enhanced security was in Sochi during the Winter Olympics. This was a destination that many well-meaning friends and family admonished us against visiting. There was heavily armed security everywhere: Cossacks and police, warships rimming the port on the Black Sea, and snipers in winter camouflage positioned strategically along the routes to the various mountain venues. As everyone knows, preparation paid off. I am distressed and surprised that Belgian security appears to be falling short, particularly since the EU has its HQ there. We spent about a month in total in Brussels last year and would return in a heartbeat. We’ve been also “advised,” by well-meaning people who don’t travel as much as we do, not to go to places as diverse as Thailand, China, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mumbai, and Istanbul in the last two years. While I would never disparage someone else’s fear, I remind myself that it’s not fear that wants to rule me. It’s other people who want to rule me using fear. We will keep traveling.

  5. I guess we’re with the group of people who feel that random acts of terrorism (both foreign AND DOMESTIC) can happen anywhere. Nevertheless, we try to be aware of what’s happening in our surroundings as well as letting friends and family know our itinerary and registering with the STEP program. Unfortunately, the increasing climate of fear that has been created by both terrorists AND political opportunists in the US does nothing positive and keeps people from exploring a world which would help increase tolerance and understanding of different customs and religions. And in a perfect note of irony I couldn’t help but notice the reasons for issuing a Travel Alert “might include an election season that is bound to have many strikes, demonstrations, or disturbances…” 🙂

  6. I was just in Istanbul before it was rocked by a series of bombs in the tourist areas and have to say that it would make me a bit nervous to return. There seemed to be quite a bit of security in place already and to have such horrific acts of terrorism take place anyway, makes me very wary. I would likely go alone but not take family members — such as my grandchildren — until things settle down. I see people taking chances on travel in Mexico ( night buses through cartel controlled states for example) and while nothing might happen, in some cases disaster does strike.

  7. We have two trips to Europe planned for this year and we won’t be changing plans. Danger is everywhere, but it is usually slight. Like our pilot son says, the most dangerous part of a flight is the drive to the airport.

  8. Very good practical advice! The point about visiting smaller towns is a good one. And if we explore Europe on our own later this year, this is where we\’d focus our explorations. We usually like to escape the bustle of the big cities after a few days anyway. We\’re scheduled to visit Europe by cruise this summer – we may have to cancel since we might be moving right then! (But it won\’t be because of terrorism.)

  9. Thanks for compiling this very timely post. I recently signed up for the STEP program and appreciate the other tips you’ve shared. I didn’t know about Facebook’s Safety Check. I don’t have any European travel booked this year but do have a possible trip that may develop. I’m wondering if editors may decrease coverage of certain European destinations in coming months, thinking their readers may not be interested in reading about them.

  10. Thanks for a very helpful posting about travel alerts and warnings..Great advice about STEP and the information to keep close at hand. However, I would take issue with the advice from Conde Nast Traveler. Avoid markets and cities? Not a chance.

  11. Very well put by Betsy and Anita. I, too, feel it’s become too much of a political tool to encourage more nationalism. As a UK citizen I love travelling around Europe. Admittedly I have never travelled to Belgium but am surprised that a country so at the heart of the E.U. and ‘all that is correct’ seem to have failed in their mechanisms for safety.
    Whilst I wouldn’t take unnecessary risks (I wouldn’t at home either) – I would still like to travel, but with that added element of awareness. I refuse to let political fear dominate.

  12. The alert sounds so very frightening and sort of final, doesn’t it? I think alerts like this are necessary, but seasoned travellers will decide probably to go anyway and avoid big events, crowded places and potential hot spots – although of course there are no guarantees. But danger is everywhere, and not visiting somewhere after an attack is a bit like closing the stable door when the horse has bolted. Would I travel in Europe, yes, cautiously and hopefully – just as I do in Bali (so close to us in WA) where there have also been terrorist attacks in the past.

  13. Great post, Irene. I’ve missed your blog and am glad to be back.

    In Canada, we have a similar program to your STEP program and I am subscribed to it for the travel warnings and alerts. I agree that we can’t stop travelling because there is some perceived danger, but when there is a true warning, we would be foolish to ignore it. There are many other places to go that are not as dangerous as one where a clear warning is issued for our benefit.

  14. I think if we all stayed away from Europe, the terrorists win. However, I think we’d all be wise to take extra precautions like those you curated, and perhaps rethink which countries we really want to visit in the immediate future.

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