The recent tragic terrorist attach in Paris and the crash of the Russian plane in the Sinai, Egypt, have caused fear and many people are canceling trips or questioning the safety of travel. I have been shaken by these shocking events as well and asked myself what the right thing to do is with regards to traveling: I will continue to travel and I think you should, too! I do think you should be careful and mind your safety, and here are my tips how to stay safe when traveling:
1. Fly, don’t drive!
Yeah, I wanted to get that out of the way up front! Regardless of the tragic airplane accidents that get lots of coverage in the media, flying is still the safest way to travel. Your chances of dying are 16 times higher on a bus, 20 times higher on a train and 200 (!!) times higher in a car than on a plane. I wrote about it in detail here, if you want to read the statistics for yourself!
If you want to do even more, you can consider the Airline Safety Rating of you carrier of choice before buying the ticket. While I have flown on 3* carriers frequently and will continue to do so, it might ease your mind to pick the safest airline flying to your destination of choice!
2. Know your destination
It’s hard to tell from a beach photo on the internet or in a brochure whether it’s in an oasis of peace or a conflict zone, so it pays to learn a little bit about your next destination (and not just for safety’s sake).
You can start with the travel advisory of your government. The UK provides detailed advisory and identifies the following list of “most dangerous” countries, recommending to avoid all travel or all non-essential travel!
You probably are aware of wars or conflict in Afghanistan, Irak or Syria, so this list shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
You’ll sometimes also find a list of countries considered “dangerous” because the government advises against traveling to a part of the region! That advice is helpful – when you read it in detail and you should not take these countries of your travel list, because a small, remote area of the country is considered dangerous! For example, Thailand and the Philippines are on that list due to conflicts in small, remote parts of the countries. I live in the Philippines and travel frequently to Thailand, both are perfectly safe for visitors – as long as you avoid these areas. The US even has Mexico on its list, due to drug related violence in some provinces, yet millions of Americans visit Mexico’s beautiful beaches every year to enjoy peace and quiet! Avoiding these countries makes about as much sense as avoiding a trip to Disney World, because of high crime rates in Washington DC, South Central LA and Oakland! Avoiding those specific regions makes perfect sense – you don’t want to wander into a war zone because you didn’t look at a map!
You can get detailed travel advisory from the UK Foreign Office and the US State Department – chances are the areas in question are not on your travel list anyway!
3. Watch where you are going
Once you have picked a destination, ask the locals for any safety recommendations to avoid stumbling into danger in a safe country! I once received a travel warning for Germany that made it sound like a war zone. I consider Germany to be among the safest countries on Earth, so I laughed. It was warning about local protests – and that was a valid point. Protests can turn into rock throwing, but as long as you don’t stand between the police line and the protesters, you are perfectly safe. I met two guys in Rio de Janeiro who had been mugged the night before on Copacabana beach – every guide book tells you not to go to Copacabana Beach at night! So, invest a few minutes to read blogs before you leave about areas to avoid and ask hotel staff at check-in for any additional recommendations – it’s worth the peace of mind you get in return! A good place to look is Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum – while it’s geared towards backpackers, the fact that many travel for long periods of time and on a budget, results in great, realistic, first-hand experience and advice!
4. Respect local law and customs
Learning about cultural differences is part of my fascination with traveling: It’s amazing to see how much people around the world have in common and what distinct differences have developed over the centuries! Even if that doesn’t really interest you, you should inform yourself about local law and customs! You (hopefully) avoid breaking the law or offending the people around you at home, and I recommend to do the same abroad to stay out of trouble!
Few countries have as many rules as Singapore, where you can easily rack up a few thousand dollars in fines in a weekend with behavior that would be acceptable in Europe or the US, so it’s usually not that hard to comply. Drinking alcohol in a Muslim country or topless sunbathing in a conservative country are bad ideas – even if your hotel is not “enforcing” the law or customs, it’s wise to avoid it. An official might decide to make an example of you with a rarely enforced law – and “everybody else does it” won’t help you then!
Some countries have laws or customs that might not make a lot of sense to you or me. I look at those before I leave and either decide it’s worth to accept them for the duration of my visit – or not visit that country at all! For example, I really wanted to see the pyramids and tombs of the Egypt of the Pharaoe’s, so I dressed modestly, skipped alcohol and accepted the scams and hassle of touts and frequently found corruption you’ll face as a visitor! I also accepted the safety risk of traveling to a country that has a small minority that’s hostile to tall, blond white folks regardless of who you are or what you do – and chose to focus on the friendly, welcoming majority I met in the country! Would I recommend to see the pyramids? Absolutely, it’s a unique treasure of mankind! Would I accept all these things to relax on a beach to take advantage of bargain prices for hotels? Probably not, when there are plenty of other nice beaches available without the need for compromise!
5. Timing is everything!
Egypt is home to some of the most amazing historic monuments and artifacts of mankind and it is one of my must-see recommendations. Despite the violence in the region and the tragic, recent airliner crash, I do recommend to see it – in the future, because now might not be the best time to go! There is a lot of confusion and very few facts, so you might want to wait until the dust settles and you can the assess the situation based on facts, not fears! The pyramids have been around for a few thousand years and will still be there in a few years! I’d apply the same recommendation to the beaches of Tunisia. I can wait to visit West Africa – until Ebola is stamped out!
The same matter of timing applies for other countries near conflict zones or in areas with natural disasters. We had to cancel a trip to Nepal due to the earthquake. We will give the country time to heal and will add it back to our destination list in the future! Caribbean resorts have lots of specials in September – it’s Hurricane season and if you don’t want to worry about a possible evacuation, you might want to pick a different time or place! A quick google search for your destination and “climate chart” will give you an idea of temperatures and rain in seconds – something I do before booking any trip! I love hiking and volcanoes make for great pictures – but do you want to hike an active volcano?
And sometimes, there is nothing you can do about the timing. I lived most of my adult life in San Francisco – and was lucky to never experience a big earthquake! I have been many times to Phuket – and never worried about being hit by a Tsunami. And I won’t worry about a terrorist attack and I won’t buy any lottery tickets either! The probability of experiencing a tragic event, be it of natural or human causes, is about as big as winning the lottery (which means very, very very small!), so I won’t plan my life around it! I love to travel and I do make sure to travel safely – a tragic event can occur anywhere, whether you call it “home” or “travel” and even staying at home with a blanket pulled over your heard won’t change that.
So, I encourage you to plan your next trip, make it as safe as possible with the tips above – and then enjoy the trip and all the things you experience! We tend to regret more things we DIDN’T do than what we did do, so go ahead and see the places you always wanted to see!