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 worldwide 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.

Do Not Cancel Your Travel Plans Because of Terrorism

What’s the Real Threat?

What is the Real Threat - Do Not Cancel Your Travel Plans Because of Terrorism

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 is less than your likelihood of being struck by lightning 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.

Are you going to cancel your rental car?  No, then maybe do not cancel your travel plans because of terrorism.

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.

Chart from Rolling Stone

Concerns Based in Reality

Do Not Cancel Your Travel Plans Because of Terrorism - Figure Out What Feels Right

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.

If it feels right to you do not cancel your travel plans.

Live Your Life

Live Your Life - Do Not Cancel Your Travel Plans Because of Terrorism

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 would never 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 your 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


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Do NOT Cancel Your Travel Plans Because of Terrorism

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41 thoughts on “Do NOT Cancel Your Travel Plans Because of Terrorism”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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)!

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