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State Department unveiling new international travel advisories

(SBG Graphic)

International travel can be the thrill of a lifetime, but terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters can turn an overseas adventure into a terrifying fight to survive.

It's the job of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, as part of the U.S. State Department, to keep overseas travelers safe and informed.

"Our goal is to provide U.S. citizens, who are planning to travel abroad or live overseas, with information that will help them determine what their travel plans are and what their activities are, in order to keep them safe," says Michelle Bernier-Toth, who serves as acting deputy assistant secretary in Overseas Citizen Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

In 2016, that meant getting information to the almost 70 million U.S. citizens who traveled abroad for pleasure or employment.

The previous system was a bit antiquated, a list of alerts and warnings, and the State Department saw potential for a better system.

Now, instead of warnings if something has happened in a specific place, the State Department's new website will have advisories for every one of the nearly 200 countries on Earth, with maps and specifics that are accessible on mobile devices and are quicker to access and easier to interpret.

Part of that overhaul is a new four-tiered system, Level 1 through 4, for each country, or even for specific regions of a country.

Level 1: exercise normal precautions.

Level 2: exercise increased caution.

Level 3: reconsider travel.

Level 4: DO NOT TRAVEL.

"The information will be presented in plain language with graphics that indicate for levels two and three and four, exactly what the risk is to U.S. citizens," says Bernier-Toth, "whether it's terrorism, crime, natural disasters, health issues, civil unrest, whatever it is, there will be a really straightforward system for demonstrating that and indicating that."

Bernier-Toth says some countries will have a mix of advisory levels. Take Mexico, for instance. Now, American travelers are warned to avoid some areas at night, or to stay away from some areas where kidnappings are rampant.

The new system will have a map showing which areas are Level 4, which are Level 3, and which are considered the safest.

But even with the most serious advisory, the State Department can't stop you from traveling. They just may not be able to help you if you get in trouble.

"For example, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen, we have nobody on the ground, so our ability to assist somebody who gets into trouble is extremely limited," says Bernier-Toth.

And with the new system, maybe there will be fewer instances of U.S. citizens needing help overseas.

If you plan to travel internationally, Bernier-Toth has two more pieces of advice. First, make sure you enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, to receive travel and security updates and help the U.S. reach you in an emergency.

And second, purchase medical travel insurance. It could save your life.

"Sometimes, for example, you can't get into a hospital in some countries unless you pay up front," advises Bernier-Toth. "And if you don't have the wherewithal to do that, you could be in a lot of trouble."

And Bernier-Toth says that insurance could help get you home in a medical emergency.

"The cost of a medical evacuation from a foreign country to the United States can be exorbitant," she said.

You can find the newly designed website at travel.state.gov. It's now mobile friendly, and the State Department plans to unveil the new advisories in mid-January.

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