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Do NOT Cancel Your Travel Plans Because of Terrorism

I had a different post planned for this Pre-Thanksgiving short week but it had to be pushed after I saw that the US State Department released a world wide travel alert today.

That’s right- an alert for the entire WORLD.

Now I think the State Department does a lot of great things for travelers (I’ve actually worked with them on projects in the past), but I’m afraid this travel alert is completely useless. It simply plays into the culture of fear that has been brewing extra strong over the past week.

Go ahead and read it. You’ll see it provides zero useful information but a lot of vague warnings.

To quote:

“U.S. citizens should exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation. Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowed places. Exercise particular caution during the holiday season and at holiday festivals or events”

The alert lasts for 3 entire months (until February 24th). 3 months of avoiding transportation and public places? During the holidays? That’s not feasible or reasonable.

Look, I get why the State Department does stuff like this- they are covering their own butts in case something does happen. But as a citizen and a traveler, this travel alert means basically nothing to me, except a lot more people warning me to “be careful” every time I leave the house.

What’s the Real Threat?

Moreover I would say that warnings like this, whether intentionally or not, are used to enforce the idea that the US is “safe” and the rest of the world is “unsafe.” This is fundamentally untrue. When it comes to terrorism in particular, the threat is incredibly overhyped.

When you look at the statistics, your likelihood of being killed by terrorism while traveling abroad are less than your likelihood of being struck by lightening while traveling abroad. Do you know what the leading cause of death for Americans abroad is? It’s not homicides, it’s car crashes. By a large margin.

According to this really handy article, the amount of Americans who have been killed by terrorism since 9/11 is so small that it’s barely statistically relevant. Here are just some of the things that are more likely to kill you than a terrorist attack:

  • Heart Disease (the number one cause of death in the US)
  • Prescription Medication
  • Brain parasites
  • Something Large Falling on Top of You
  • Police officers (yes, really)

Taking all that into account I am not afraid of terrorism. I am however terrified of gun violence, and I don’t need to leave the country to be faced with that danger. 

1035x1479-GUN-CONTROL_v1

Chart from Rolling Stone

Concerns Based in Reality

Now I’m not saying you should hop on the next plane to Syria without a care in the world. Obviously there are real dangers out there that are better left alone.

I’m saying that you need to use that brain in your head to think critically and evaluate the real level of risk. You can’t let vague warnings and nightly news programs scare you from seeing the world. The media functions best as a fear machine, designed to keep you coming back for more. The State Department warnings are meant to tell you of the worst possible scenarios.

So how do you decide if it’s safe to travel?

We’ve talked about this before, in regards to “dangerous” countries like Colombia and Mexico. We also talked about it from the perspective of solo female travel. In each of these cases, my answer is the same: question your sources, talk to people with experience, and evaluate for yourself. Everyone’s level of risk comfort is different, so figure out what feels right to you.

Live Your Life

Most importantly, remember that it’s your decision and your life.

9/11 happened when I was 16, a junior in high school (incidentally, one of the planes crashed in my very own hometown, less than 5 miles away from where I sat in class). I’d barely even been abroad at that point. My entire travel related life and career has existed under this omnipresent yet vague shadow of potential terrorism. If I let it get to me I would never go anywhere. I’d never have seen wild elephants in Sri Lanka, or visited the landmine pocked Plain of Jars, or met so many wonderful people in Colombia. I never would have lived on the beach in Mexico or lived on the beach that other time in Ecuador or eaten so much street food in China. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for any amount of sitting on my couch watching CNN.

This is not a trivial issue. Travel is such an important tool for opening people’s minds, building international connections and greater empathy for the world around us. Look at all the people whose hearts were touched by what happened in Paris, a city so many people clearly identified with and loved. Travel helps that happen.

Fear tears us apart, closes us off and in many sad cases makes us hateful. It makes the world seem like it’s full of big and scary others, when it’s actually full of people just like you and me. And some bad guys sure. But the good outweighs the bad, especially when you look at it from a place of reason and not fear.

So, when your parents or your great aunt or your neighbor send you that State Department warning as you plan you next trip, maybe you can send them this?

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. -Helen Keller

41 Responses to Do NOT Cancel Your Travel Plans Because of Terrorism

  1. Kayti Clayton November 23, 2015 at 10:48 PM #

    I was just having this conversation with my sister today. Great article and your timing couldn’t be better.

  2. Cest La Vibe - Travel & Lifestyle November 23, 2015 at 11:51 PM #

    I just saw on my facebook feed that people are genuinely concerned that travel just became less safe! haha.

  3. Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate November 24, 2015 at 1:28 AM #

    Thank you for this! I’m planning a group trip to Eastern Europe for next August (it ends in Istanbul), and people area already wanting to cancel =(

    • Amy (Two Drifters) November 24, 2015 at 11:00 AM #

      that’s a big shame. I might be interested in that trip, tho, we’re aiming to go to Eastern Europe next August….

    • Steph November 24, 2015 at 11:08 AM #

      I love Eastern Europe! I’m actually considering going to a conference in Istanbul in February.

  4. LisaLDN November 24, 2015 at 2:03 AM #

    Great article, and so relevant right now! I’m about to set of on a longer trip next month, and will have to fly over Syria and Iraq on the way (unless the airline flies around them). It worries me slightly, but when I start thinking statistics it really helps! 🙂

  5. Silvia November 24, 2015 at 2:48 AM #

    Whaaat? I thought this must be satire until I saw that the worldwide alert is actually real. It’s really scary to me to think that the U.S. is so successfully hyping up fear like this. I think you said it perfectly: fear tears us apart.

  6. James November 24, 2015 at 3:41 AM #

    Well said – reminds me of the time some friends from a very dodgy part of cleveland warned me not to go to a part of Colombia with a fifth of cleveland’s crime rate… Needless to say I survived ????

  7. Isabel November 24, 2015 at 3:51 AM #

    This is such an amazing peace. We need for people talking from this perspective!

  8. Edna November 24, 2015 at 4:19 AM #

    Living in Paris I’m hearing about so many Americans cancelling their trips to France, or Europe in general, and it’s SO incredibly frustrating.

    As someone wrote on my Facebook page: “Europeans must find paranoid Americans amusing given our cognitive dissonance at home.”

    • Steph November 24, 2015 at 10:30 AM #

      Honestly, if I’m surprised more people aren’t afraid of traveling to the US given our violent crime and gun death stats.

      • Amy (Two Drifters) November 24, 2015 at 10:59 AM #

        ^^ for real. soooo many shootings here in the states.

    • stephieme November 27, 2015 at 5:13 AM #

      I’m an American living in Paris right now as well. and I agree this travel alert is very much overhyped and will possibly cause more harm than good. You’re far more likely to be killed by a car hitting you wherever you are than by a terror attack.

  9. florabaker November 24, 2015 at 4:45 AM #

    I’m incredulous that the U.S. is actively promoting such fear-mongering! If there’s anything we learn from travelling, it’s that for every bad guy there are thousands of good ones. Thank goodness most Europeans I’ve talked since Friday 13th are refusing to let it affect them.

  10. Emily November 24, 2015 at 5:11 AM #

    This makes me so angry! Not your post…the fear mongering. The government instilling this idea that the US is safer. Yet refuses to do anything about gun control. I love my country, I do. But I’m honestly disappointed and embarrassed. And frustrated. If one more person asks me to come home or tells me ‘please be safe out there’, I’m gong to lose it. YOU be safe out there…you’re probably more likely to get hurt than I am. #endrant

  11. Mel Hattie November 24, 2015 at 5:57 AM #

    This is really frustrating. Being Canadian obviously it doesn’t apply directly to me, but American directives about fear seep into Canada through media and cultural osmosis. Growing up since 9/11, the biggest fight our generation is involved in is one against fear. Largely fought against our own governments. People should be going out of their way to travel now. Out of their way to smile to someone on the street who doesn’t look like them and ask about their day. Out of their way to extend a hand to strangers and say, “Hey, I don’t want to live afraid. What about you?”. Great post.

    • Steph November 24, 2015 at 11:12 AM #

      Beautifully said.

    • Vanessa November 24, 2015 at 5:09 PM #

      I was going to comment, but this says it all. Beautiful, Mel!

  12. Polly November 24, 2015 at 8:34 AM #

    Amen. I’ve been having this conversation a lot over the past few days… getting shot (or, um, in a car crash) is far more likely than being involved in a terrorist attack.

    I lived in Russia throughout 2012-2014 when the State Department continued to issue warnings about staying out of Russia or at least out of public spaces as an American. I mean, sure I wasn’t going to walk into an anti-western rally, but as long as you use you’re brain travel is no different the day after a blanket travel warning was issued than the day before.

  13. Michael Hodson November 24, 2015 at 10:41 AM #

    I kinda think everyone is overreacting to this warning. I am NOT a fan of hysteria, but pretty much everything in this warning makes total sense. To be clear, it does not advise anyone to not travel… it is just pointing out that people should be exercising additional caution while doing so right now.

    That… makes sense.

    Here is the whole text of the warning:

    “The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to possible risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats. Current information suggests that ISIL (aka Da’esh), al-Qa’ida, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests. This Travel Alert expires on February 24, 2016.

    Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq. Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis. Extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, and aviation services. In the past year, there have been multiple attacks in France, Nigeria, Denmark, Turkey, and Mali. ISIL/Da’esh has claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt.

    U.S. citizens should exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation. Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowded places. Exercise particular caution during the holiday season and at holiday festivals or events. U.S. citizens should monitor media and local information sources and factor updated information into personal travel plans and activities. Persons with specific safety concerns should contact local law enforcement authorities who are responsible for the safety and security of all visitors to their host country. U.S. citizens should:

    Follow the instructions of local authorities. Monitor media and local information sources and factor updated information into personal travel plans and activities.
    Be prepared for additional security screening and unexpected disruptions.
    Stay in touch with your family members and ensure they know how to reach you in the event of an emergency.
    Register in our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
    Foreign governments have taken action to guard against terrorist attacks, and some have made official declarations regarding heightened threat conditions. Authorities continue to conduct raids and disrupt terror plots. We continue to work closely with our allies on the threat from international terrorism. Information is routinely shared between the United States and our key partners in order to disrupt terrorist plotting, identify and take action against potential operatives, and strengthen our defenses against potential threats.”

    • Steph November 24, 2015 at 11:08 AM #

      Hey Mike, I already responded on FB, but I wanted to reiterate that I think the reason travel bloggers in particular are over-reacting is not necessarily because of the State Department Warning itself but because of the already-happening media reaction to it. I know I’ve talked to a handful of people just in the last 12 hours who are genuinely considering canceling their travel plans because of the warning (and not to Belgium, to places like South America). Or a family member of mine who was afraid to go to a concert in central Pennsylvania because of what happened in Paris. My response as above is basically that you need to put these warnings in perspective, evaluate the risks for yourself and also that you can’t let fear dictate your life. I know you agree with that :).

  14. Amy (Two Drifters) November 24, 2015 at 10:56 AM #

    This is a fantastic article, and I hope its message gets shared again and again. Danger is everywhere. Just being alive is an inherent risk. Really agree with what you wrote!

    Although…now I’m beginning to develop an unreasonable fear of brain parasites…..;P

    • Steph November 24, 2015 at 11:05 AM #

      I mean those things are SCARY.

  15. Del November 24, 2015 at 11:32 AM #

    Bravo Steph! Just posted it on my FB feed.

  16. Leah November 24, 2015 at 4:28 PM #

    Such great points, Steph. We leave for Australia in January and when people have said things to me lately I think, “Hmmm, I could be killed in my van driving across town.” It’s hard to know. I probably wouldn’t fly into Syria right now, but the entire world warning seems fairly absurd.
    P.S. Nice last name!! 😉

  17. renegadepilgrim November 24, 2015 at 6:57 PM #

    Yeah, I almost canceled my trip to Sweden after the attacks in Paris. But, since I was in Paris during the attacks, I felt a little more compelled towards being safe than sorry. However, I also didn’t want to let the fucking terrorists win, so I chose to continue on my trip, had a great time in Gothenburg (the coffee and the food!!!!) and then returned to Paris a week later for my return trip. I just got back from my travels on Saturday, and I will freely admit the relief I felt when I touched down on US soil.

    I think the difference in my experience vs others is the closeness to the attacks to where I was staying, the fact my company (this was a work/fun trip) had over 630 employees and 5000 hosts in town, all of whom could have been involved in the attacks, and the general sense of feeling like I had no control over the situation gave me a lot of anxiety over continuing my travels. I still am paranoid getting on public transportation in Portland, and find myself to be hyper aware of my surroundings in a way that is not normally a part of my everyday routine. I am sure this will wane with time and I will go back to my usual way of being. In the meantime, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to tell people to be aware and let them decide for themselves if they should travel.

  18. Alyssa @ UnevenSidewalks November 25, 2015 at 2:55 AM #

    You did a fabulous job with this article! I think you really hit the nail on the head! It’s so easy to get frightened by everything you see and hear. More often than not, once you are out traveling you almost forget about those “fears”. I was at the post office mailing a package to Costa Rica and the lady said “Oh, Costa Rica. Isn’t that where they have all this terrorism?” I almost laughed in her face. I walked away feeling sad that people just watch the news and assume that the whole world is a place of terrorism. “No ma’am in fact I lived there for 2 years and it’s like home.”

  19. Qamar November 25, 2015 at 3:10 AM #

    The appropriate article for this time
    Thank you 🙂

  20. Gloria Atanmo November 25, 2015 at 6:12 AM #

    Best thing I’ve read in a while. THANK YOU!!!!

  21. Noelle November 25, 2015 at 1:44 PM #

    Totally agree with this article.

    As someone who lived in the DC area during 9/11 and was in London for the tube bombings, that still isn’t going to keep me from traveling. Things can happen anywhere. Sure, being generally precautious is good, but you can’t stop living your life. Considering how close I live to DC I now, I may actually be safer traveling than I am at home (somewhat sarcasm, somewhat true)!

  22. Scott November 25, 2015 at 2:39 PM #

    When I saw the “breaking news” headline about this warning, I rolled my eyes and was all fired up about how dumb it was until I read the full statement a couple days later. Now that I have digested that, I think what truly gets us fired up about a warning like this is that we know it will lead to people – and the media – then proceeding to blow it ridiculously out of proportion. Should you be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for suspicious behavior abroad? Of course you should, just realize going in that the most suspicious behavior you’re likely to encounter is a pickpocket.

    We are going to Belgium and France next week to do Christmas markets, and while we never thought of changing our plans for even a millisecond, I’ll probably keep my eyes peeled a bit more than usual, but that’s the extent of it.

    The saddest part is the facts regarding safety abroad or safety at home for that matter (just think how many people are afraid of going “downtown” at night) consistently don’t match up with the level of fear we have for it, but unfortunately that’s where we are as society. Staying up all night worrying about heart disease isn’t as ‘sexy’ to us, but worrying about someone (who probably looks different from us) doing something bad to us is. Sucks.

  23. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer November 25, 2015 at 2:45 PM #

    Great article Steph, I get warnings from people all of the time when I make plans to travel to places with the state department warnings, and while I appreciate them thinking about my safety, I do not change my travel plans. I tell my family all of the time that it is just as likely for something to happen to me as when I make a decision to go abroad. Will definitely be sharing this one

  24. sofiadunc November 26, 2015 at 3:13 AM #

    I agree with you. We must not restrain ourselves from traveling anywhere out of fear because there is danger anywhere in the world.. like you said, you’ll mostly be killed in a car accident than be victimized by terrorist attacks. We must not live in fear, we must embrace it.

    But yeah, we must be cautious at all times.. but that doesn’t mean isolating yourself.

  25. Katie November 26, 2015 at 3:25 AM #

    Your last few paragraphs are perfectly written. It gave me the feels. You’re right — there’s so much more good in the world than bad. One of our favorite countries is Colombia. It often gets a bad reputation, but we’ve never met so many kind-hearted and helpful people. Great article — thanks for summing up why we should CONTINUE to travel.

  26. Isa November 26, 2015 at 4:01 AM #

    This is why I read your blog! Thank you for an exceptionally relevant article and for putting focus on the fear the media creates. It has nothing to do with the real world and the sooner people start realizing that the better.

  27. kelliedmogg November 28, 2015 at 2:36 AM #

    Glad you made the time for this post. It’s relevant always and I feel it every time I travel alone, particularly as a woman. Always warnings of the unknown from everyong, no matter the crime going on right here.

    Great message. Thank you.

  28. Luke Mitchell November 30, 2015 at 4:22 AM #

    It amazes me to see the way Americans bloom when they leave the USA. I’ve nothing against the States at all, I just think that by trying so hard to protect their own people, they’re actually hobbling them, which is a shame really because Americans are super friendly people.

  29. Olga December 4, 2015 at 5:49 PM #

    Thanks for this article! I completely agree with you that the whole fear buzz is just to create more fear and to position certain countries against each other, marking them “safe” and “unsafe” for people. It’s kinda dumb, but I guess it controls crowds.

  30. Kristina December 5, 2015 at 2:00 AM #

    Thanks for writing this, I was super annoyed when I saw that alert. I think your points that we are creating an idea that the US is safe and the rest of the world unsafe, and that travel is not the issue are particularly important. I’m glad to see the world identifying with Paris, it’s true that many people love it so much because of travel.

  31. joujou March 25, 2016 at 6:00 PM #

    Me and my daugtger are planning to go to Paris in three months. I paniked a bit. After I heard the warning from the State department. My 19 years old daugther said ” mom we are going, we not going to let the terrorist put us in fear. Therefore, I will not cancel my reservations.

  32. BABSY October 16, 2016 at 5:17 PM #

    I am a very fearful one unfortunately and my dreams almost nightly are that someone is trying to kill me. I know this is irrational because the rest of my large family don’t have these dreams. I take things too literally and try not to listen to news too much but when there is something big going on, I can’t stay away from the latest news. I am flying somewhere soon and that is the reason I came on here to look at what people were saying. I feel a little bit easier now but hate this time leading up to the flight when I should be excited for my children but can’t really show it.

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