Kerri Westenberg
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I have long suggested that travelers heading overseas review the U.S. State Department’s information about their destination country. It sounds nerdy and unnecessary, but it stems from my long tenure as a travel editor. I’ve heard horror stories. I embrace the notion that advance knowledge can ease any trip, and potentially keep travelers from harm.

Now the State Department has changed the way it shares information on its website, travel.state.gov.

Until Wednesday, the department had been issuing warnings and alerts for individual countries. Warnings were for counties that required extra caution due to potential terrorist activities, rising crime and other concerns. Alerts were meant to note temporary risks, stemming from things such as natural disasters, political unrest.

But not many people understood the difference between the two — or read them.

Now, warnings and alerts for countries of concern are gone. Instead, every country is assigned a “level of advice,” ranging from 1 to 4. Within countries, specific areas may warrant a different level.

Level 1, the lowest, calls for travelers to exercise normal precautions. Level 2 — exercise increased caution — suggests heightened risks to safety and security. For level 3 — reconsider travel — the department advises avoiding travel “due to serious risks to safety and security.” Level 4 means do not travel. “This is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks,” the State Department fact sheet reads.

The revised system caused a stir when five states in Mexico were given level 4 advisories. Mexico has a level 2 rating, but 11 of its states — including areas such as Puerto Vallarta and suburbs of Mexico City — were given level 3. Of Mexico’s 31 states, half are now under level 3 or 4 warnings.

No matter where you go, Mexico or beyond, read up at travel.state.gov beforehand.

Send your questions or tips to Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com, and follow her on Twitter: @kerriwestenberg.