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What Does a Government Travel Warning Mean for Your Trip?

09/16/2013 07:07 am ET | Updated Nov 16, 2013

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From a traveler's perspective, the idea of a trip to Damascus right now (and pretty much anywhere else in Syria) is clearly out of the question. With constant headlines about possible U.S. air strikes and uncertainty surrounding additional chemical weapons attacks on civilians, you'd have to be living under a rock not to be aware of the current situation. But what if your travel plans concern one of Syria's neighboring countries?

On Friday, travel warnings were posted for Pakistan, Turkey and Lebanon on the State Department's website. Quickly reading through them, each advisory bears a different set of concerns and caveats: in Pakistan, which had a separate travel alert posted earlier in the summer, the State Department warns that U.S. citizens are repeatedly being "arrested, deported, harassed, and detained" for visa issues, thus making travel to Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad rather unpleasant and difficult. Meanwhile, in less-risky Turkey, which has had no recent prior travel warnings, the advisory simply encourages travelers to "be alert for potential violence" and "avoid demonstrations and large gatherings."

Clearly, different sets of circumstances, though a message of caution remains constant throughout: (i.e., don't go, but if you do, you're traveling at your own risk.) A travel warning doesn't actually prohibit anyone from traveling. It's just meant to make the traveler more aware. What these advisories fail to tell us is the reality of being on the ground in these places: Are the airports open? Are hotels accepting guests? Does public transportation work? Are businesses open as usual?

These questions are important to ask, though for answers it is necessary to look beyond the State Department's website. Tourism boards, national airlines and even individual hotels will often provide current, relevant tips for travelers.

In the case of Jordan, a country that shares extensive borders with Syria, and which continues to be directly involved in the crisis by hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, travelers may be surprised to learn there is no current travel warning. But does that mean a U.S. traveler can pass through Amman without disturbance? Royal Jordanian, which operates multiple flights daily from the U.S. into Jordan, is continuing with its regular schedule, and a representative from the airline explained that travelers on the ground in Amman would have no reason to alter their plans. (Meanwhile, the airline has suspended all flights to Syria; and, during previous crisis situations, the same was done for both Egypt and Libya.)

And in Israel, which shares sensitive border areas with Syria in the north, tourist numbers have been at a record high all summer long compared to similar periods in 2010 and 2011. Itineraries through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or the Red Sea destination of Eilat are unlikely to be affected at all, though it's probably not a good idea to venture into northern areas like the Golan Heights or the Sea of Galilee while the situation in Syria remains so volatile.

Turkey, too, shows no signs of disruption in travel plans (then again, the bulk of tourists usually head to Istanbul and Antalya, in the west, which are nowhere near the Syrian border), nor any reaction to the State Department's recent travel warning. In fact, as recently as yesterday, an email was sent out announcing a new global marketing strategy for the world's sixth most-visited tourist destination. Not exactly the kind of news you expect to read about a country on high alert!

Remaining aware of your surroundings is essential during any trip, especially in an area of the world as sensitive as this. Yet for all the State Department's caution, these travel warnings do little but point out the obvious: that these countries share sensitive borders with Syria. Clearly, the closer you get to the border, the higher the risk. But for trips to high-profile cities like Istanbul, Izmir, Amman, Petra, and Tel Aviv, the disruption will be minimal.

Resources for travelers when there's a travel warning:

-Check the State Department website (or follow them on Twitter)

-Visit the individual country's tourism board (Turkey; Lebanon; Pakistan; Jordan; Israel)

-Contact the embassy (Turkey; Lebanon; Pakistan; Jordan; Israel)

Get more travel advice and deals at ShermansTravel.