Here's the difference between travel alerts and warnings

The U.S. State Department frequently issues advisories for travel to countries around the world. When an alert or warning includes a destination you were planning to visit, you likely have questions and concerns. But before you imagine the worst case scenario and cancel a trip, here's what you need to know.

First of all, a travel alert is different from a travel warning, and the biggest difference between the two is time. According to the State Department, an alert is issued when the government recognizes “short-term events” they think you need to be aware of when visiting a country. Temporary situations, such as a disease outbreak or a public demonstration, are among the things that could lead to a travel alert.

More ongoing issues, like a civil war or a rise in crime, are typically what call for a travel warning. When that happens, the U.S. State Department wants you “to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all.”

For example, the South Pacific's tropical cyclone season recently got an alert, while Venezuela's ongoing issues with crime and shortages in food and medicine got a warning.

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Although this information should never be taken lightly, understanding the events behind both alerts and warnings will give travelers context for planning their own itinerary. One thing to remember is that not every part of a continent or country with a travel advisory is dangerous.

“Countries generally don’t fit in a one-size-fits-all category,” John Rendeiro, Vice President of Global Security and Intelligence at International SOS, told USA Today last year. “Variable levels of risks exist within countries, as there are safer and more dangerous parts of the United States as well.”

As an example from personal experience, I recently visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although the U.S. government advises “to avoid unnecessary travel to the DRC because of ongoing instability and sporadic violence,” I visited the country's Virguna National Park, but I didn’t blow off the recommendations. Prior to finalizing my plans, I e-mailed the park directly, and through our correspondence, a ranger assured me that a member of the park's team would escort me into the Congo at the border and I’d be accompanied by an armed guard throughout the entire trek. Overall, the park was extremely well run and I had no issues doing what I came to do: see the gorillas.

After being a few feet away from a gorilla family and watching one of the babies spin from a tree branch, I'd say it was one the best experiences I’ve ever had.

No matter where travelers go, they should always prioritize their safety and exercise caution. When in a foreign country, keep in mind the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and the long list of U.S. embassies worldwide, which are there to help and inform citizens of how to handle themselves when visiting other countries.

This article originally appeared in Travel + Leisure.