travel security

You don’t want to be around when this poster comes down…

Ask anyone who travels to foreign countries regularly and they’ve likely heard this question more times than they can count. Sometimes it’s asked by a close relative or friend, just as often by complete strangers. Other times it’s not stated, just implied with raised eyebrows.

The less the person asking has traveled (or in my experience, the more their travel has been comprised of cruise trips), the more likely they are to ask it. When your range of travel experience is limited to controlled situations like theme parks, you tend to see what you don’t know as automatically suspect. If you watch a lot 0f 24-hour TV news, especially Fox, you tend to see the whole world as downright scary.

In nearly two decades of solid travel, I’ve almost never faced real danger abroad. That includes travel in the Middle East, trips to Guatemala and Honduras, living for a year less than 25 miles from the North Korean border, and a year of living in Mexico. My closest calls with death have mostly come on the home turf—which is statistically typical for most people. My greatest fear is being hit by some soccer mom in a big SUV who is jabbering on her phone or texting instead of looking where her giant hunk of metal is heading on the road. (Odds of dying in a car crash: 88 to 1.)

In the end, what will probably get me is heart disease (6 to 1 odds) or cancer (7 to 1): these are the odds-on favorites. Terrorist attacks and plane crashes are about as likely as being struck by lightning. Sure, it happens, but not very often. If we had as many people dying in plane crashes as from car crashes or from domestic gun violence (odds of 306 to 1), there would be a jet going down in flames every single day. Or to put it another way, we’d have to have a 9/11-level terrorist attack every month.

Texas strip mall

Knowledge is Power

The best way to counter any fears, however, is to be informed. I’ve met clueless backpackers in a country that didn’t even know there was a volatile election coming up, or that 100,000 people were protesting in the streets one town over. Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t protect you from bullets or tear gas. (A trip to Syria anyone?)

Here is a load of resources to consult if you’ve got questions about the situation in your destination. Always consider the source though. The govenment-issued reports—especially the U.S. ones—tend to err on the side of caution. They have diplomat families to protect and would much rather be safe than sorry. I would trust them much more if they compared the risk of violence abroad to the risk in say, Washington D.C. But they’ll never go there. Also take the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree posts with a bit of skepticism in the other direction. Grizzled long-term backpackers who have seen it all are much braver and carefree than your typical first-time traveler. And they’re more savvy about staying out of trouble.

Official Government Sites

U.S. State Department Travel Advisories
Overseas Security Advisory Council
Australian Government Travel Advisories
Canadian Government Travel Advisories
UK Travel Advisory Site

Scary Places Reports

Polo’s Bastards
Come Back Alive Danger Finder

Message Boards

Lonely Planet Thorn Tree
BootsnAll
Fodors

I’ve consistently found the BBC to be the best source of real international news you can get quickly for free. The Economist provides more depth if you’re willing to subscribe and The Week gives you a good feel for what’s happening around the world each week.

Most cities have an English-language newspaper you can find online. That will give you a real sense of things that don’t make the international news but may be very important locally—like a big transit strike. Usually just putting “English newspaper [city]” will do it. Or try thePaperboy.com.

For current health dangers where you’re going, check in with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, Intl. Society of Travel Medicine, and TripPrep.com.

Remember though, there are always plenty of perfectly good reasons to not go where you’re thinking of going. The easy action is to just open a bag of Doritos and grab the remote instead. Sooner or later you need to accomplish more than just eat-sleep-work-death. You have to get up and go.

P.S. – A bonus if you got this far: the odds of dying from a shark attack in Florida are 1 in 17,241,109. Makes the lottery look like a sure thing in comparison.

P.P.S – You can use a gun owner’s ID to vote in Texas, but not a university student I.D. And you’re scared of going to where?

[Photos from Flickr Creative Commons. Click on picture for photographer credits.]