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    February 2018

    Assessing Safety of Travel Abroad

    Member institutions frequently ask United Educators (UE) if they should allow students or staff to take school-sponsored trips to a particular country based on security or health concerns. UE does not take a specific position on the advisability of any given trip but generally supports the approach that many educational institutions take—prohibiting travel to a country or area when the U.S. government cautions against it. In addition to considering government travel advisories and health warnings, UE strongly recommends that institutions follow additional practices to keep community members safe.

    Travel Advisories

    In January 2018, the U.S. State Department rolled out a new system of travel advisories to give U.S. travelers information about the relative safety of different countries. It replaces all prior State Department travel warnings and travel alerts. Under the new system, all countries are ranked in one of four levels according to a variety of factors, such as terrorism, crime, and natural disasters:     

    • Level 1—Exercise normal precautions 
    • Level 2—Exercise increased caution 
    • Level 3—Reconsider travel 
    • Level 4—Do not travel  

    The State Department does not prohibit people from traveling to Level 4 countries. However, it explains that “[t]his is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or to leave as soon as it is safe to do so.” 

    In addition to the overall travel advisory level for each country, the State Department may assign a different level to a specific area or region within a country. For example, as of January 2018, Mexico as a whole was ranked Level 2, but five states—Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas—were designated as Level 4 and several others as Level 3, all because of violent crime.  

    Travel Alerts. U.S. embassies and consulates also may issue periodic travel alerts warning people of specific safety or security issues—such as a weather event or expected political demonstration—within a country. They typically include recommended actions and identify sources of assistance. Alerts are listed on the State Department website below the applicable travel advisory for that country.  

    Travel Health Notices

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issues three levels of travel health notices. The most serious is the Warning Level 3 to avoid nonessential travel because of widespread serious outbreaks of a disease (e.g., the Zika virus in 2016) or other public health concerns that are a high risk. Other levels are: 

    • Watch Level 1: Practice Usual Precautions (“Usual baseline risk or slightly above baseline risk for destination and limited impact to the traveler”)
    • Alert Level 2: Practice Enhanced Precautions (“Increased risk in defined settings or associated with specific risk factors; certain high-risk populations may wish to delay travel to these destinations”) 

    UE’s Recommended Practices 

    Institutions should also consider these practices related to study abroad programs: 

    Establish a Travel Policy 

    The policy should cover school-sponsored travel by students, employees, or members of the general public. It should clearly state whether travel is permitted to countries or regions identified in a State Department travel advisory or a CDC health warning. Many institutions are evaluating the State Department’s new travel advisory system to determine how it may affect their policies. For a sample interim communication about potential policy changes, see the safety update from the University of Texas. 

    Verify Insurance Coverage 

    Liability, accident, health, and other insurance policies vary greatly, including whether they cover employees, students, or other travelers. Also, some carriers do not cover claims or lawsuits brought in foreign countries, and some do not cover hostilities or terrorism that occur outside the United States. Check with your broker or underwriter to verify coverage. 

    Use Assumption of Risk and Release Forms 

    Consider options that enable students to avoid travel to an area that is under a travel advisory or warning. To reinforce the voluntary nature of the trip, provide each participant an assumption of risk and release form or a similar waiver. The document should confirm that the participant has read and understands the travel advisory or warning and other identified travel risks. Such release forms should be drafted or reviewed by the institution's legal counsel. For an example that was created before the new travel advisory system was implemented, refer to the University of Arizona's Assumption of Risk and Release

    Create Evacuation Procedures 

    Evacuations may become necessary in the event of a medical problem, civil unrest, or other emergency. Ensure that options are in place to remove one or more travelers or the entire traveling party. Take into account the difficulty of evacuations from remote locations. The local U.S. Embassy or Consulate can provide information and, possibly, resources for safe and swift evacuations. Also, some companies, such as International SOS, will provide evacuation services. Institutions should contact these companies during the trip planning process. 

    Use State Department and U.S. Embassy or Consulate Resources 

    Each travel abroad trip should be registered with the State Department through its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which enables the local embassy or consulate to notify the group in case of an emergency. In addition, trip leaders should have the contact information and location of the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate while traveling

    Keep Copies of Passports 

    Educational institutions should collect two copies of each participant's passport. Trip leaders should keep one in a secure location, such as a safe, while abroad. These will be helpful in proving a participant's citizenship and identity if a passport is lost or stolen. A readily accessible duplicate should be kept at the educational institution. All passport copies should be properly disposed of after the trip ends. 


    State Department “Fact Sheet: New Travel Advisories for U.S. Travelers"
    State Department “Travel to High Risk Areas"
    State Department's Students Abroad page 

    For UE members:  

    By Hillary L. Pettegrew, senior risk management counsel 


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