Travel Safety: How Not To Let Your Fears Take Over

It's good to be well-informed about travel safety. Just be careful not to get spooked... as this can happen all too easily

Is it silly to worry about travel safety? Of course it isn’t. There are real safety aspects surrounding travel that are good to be aware of. But at the same time, it is very important (though also sometimes challenging) to keep a healthy perspective.

Reading travel safety advice is important if you want to be a responsible traveller. It’s particularly important if you are going to more adventurous places, or if you are heading to places that are especially unfamiliar to you. There’s just one problem: it’s very easy for safety information to freak you the hell out.

I know this from experience. Even if I’m fully rationally aware that everything will be fine so long as I take normal reasonable care, just reading one negative story about a certain place can totally dominate my thoughts. You can go very quickly from being reasonable about travel safety to being totally paranoid and afraid.

Assessing travel safety can be very much like trying to self-diagnose a medical issue online (which so often proves to be a bad idea!). Maybe you’ve just had a slight rash but instead of asking your doctor you type the symptoms into Google, and minutes later you’re neck-deep into reading about all sorts of terrifying (but exceptionally rare or completely non-applicable) conditions. Before you know it you’ll have convinced yourself you’re on your deathbed with just days left to live.

Of course, what you really need instead is a doctor to tell you it’s just a mild allergic reaction and that you’re going to be fine. 

A similar scenario often happens with travel safety information: it’s very easy to get wrapped up in only the very worst cases. Even an extraordinarily safe destination like, say, Tokyo can sound terrifying after a quick round of Googling. Did you know the Yakuza sometimes cuts off people’s fingers? Holy crap! Of course, in reality Tokyo has some of the lowest crime statistics in the world, and it’s safe to say no is one going to cut off your finger. But negative stories can be so potent that they’re difficult to shake off.

Time and time again I see travellers fall into the same trap. And I know all about that trap, because I fell into it a few times myself.

It’s unfortunate because it leads some travellers to be completely disproportionate with their safety precautions, even travelling with a nervous sense of paranoia that undermines their whole experience. Others may become so afraid as to never stray off the beaten path, or even cancel their plans entirely because of a few scary stories.

While it is a good idea to be aware of any potential dangers before you go, you should also keep a balanced view. So before you venture into that dark netherworld of travel safety information, it’s helpful to be conscious of a couple of things…

1. Your imagination is a powerful force

If you have never been to a particular country before, you will have almost no frame of reference. It’s like a knowledge vacuum. You can try to fill this vacuum with things you read in travel guides, but without any first-hand experience you are still relying entirely on how you imagine things to be.

When you start reading about travel safety, that information gets sucked into that vacuum pretty hard. Because you do not yet have any idea of just what an average street scene in a country looks like, or how welcoming people are to travelers, or what the security features are at hostels or guesthouses, a few reports of Bad Things can easily dominate your mental image. There is just not much else there yet to balance out the negatives, so the negatives become the main thing you’re thinking about. Keep in mind that just because a place is unfamiliar and you are lacking context, it’s not necessarily more dangerous.

2. Advisories are notoriously negative

You might be aware that your ministry of foreign affairs or state department issues travel advice for many countries. Unfortunately, they are usually extremely negative (even for relatively safe countries), and only some of the information they contain is specific enough to be actionable. As a result, they often become the subject of ridicule among more experienced travellers.

Keep in mind that advisories are not just written for tourists; they are also meant for business travelers, diplomats, NGO workers, and so on, who may face different risks. Also, because governments would very much like to avoid liability, their advisories tend to be extremely alarmist.

3. News tells you only the bad stuff

The news we get at home from faraway places tends to be only the bad news, as “not much happened here, all is fine today” doesn’t make for a juicy story.

Bad Things, of course, happen everywhere. Chances are bad things happen from time to time where you live right now, and through selective reading of your local newspaper you could spook yourself just as easily. But of course you know better, because it’s easier to put things into perspective when you know a place first-hand.

News is also often about individual incidents, not about broader trends or statistics, making it often a poor indicator for travel safety. For example, when I was in a particular town in Mexico, the information I had from guidebooks and local sources told me it was very safe for tourists to visit (as is actually most of Mexico). But leave it to my family to find an old news report from that place with a picture of a decapitated gang member. I had to explain that this was an incident that happened eight years ago inside the criminal underworld, and had nothing to do with me being a tourist there right now. 

4. The internet can be an infinite rabbit hole of negative reinforcement

Finally, if you are an information junkie like me, you will probably recognize this scenario: you go to Wikipedia to quickly look something up, but curiosity gets the better of you and you click on another link… and another link… and another. Before you know it it’s 3 a.m., and that Wikipedia entry on Fermi’s Paradox has somehow led you through 23 other topics on to the National Anthem of Estonia… and you are still reading.

It is easy to become trapped in such an information tunnel when it comes to safety as well, though in that case it can be far worse than just a timesink. What may have started as a sensible general inquiry can quickly devolve into, say, reading a excruciatingly detailed report of some travel blogger getting robbed somewhere 6 years ago, which has no practical benefit to you and will only make you feel bad.

It’s important to be well-informed, but also know when to stop reading. If after an hour you are still digging through Google for stories of just how supposedly terrifying a country is (and you will find them, regardless of the actual safety level of a country), then you have gone too far down the rabbit hole.

That said, safety is still a serious issue. How can you be responsibly informed without freaking yourself out? A couple of tips…

Some travel safety advice

Here’s how to stay both safe and sane:

  • By all means take it all in, but turn the volume knob on that information down from about 10 to about a 4. Read enough to make you avoid that questionable neighborhood, but not so much that you’re travelling with constant cold sweats.
  • Take standard precautions against theft. For example, I wrote before about how to keep your important belongings secure.
  • Trust your instincts. If a place isn’t giving you good vibes, just leave.
  • Ask local sources about safety information as they are by far the most knowledgeable.
  • Don’t be stupid. That sounds silly but that’s what a lot of this comes down to. In 2 years of non-stop backpacking I have heard a handful of ‘bad stories’ from other travellers, but nearly all of them were down to people making very bad decisions when drunk or not listening to local safety advice.
  • Ask someone who has actually been somewhere. This is the travel safety equivalent of ‘asking your doctor’ – someone who actually knows and has first-hand expertise. I love this post by Adventurous Kate titled Always Consider The Source … I recommend reading it. People who haven’t actually been somewhere are in a very poor position to give you advice.

Finally, it’s been said by so many travel bloggers and I will say it too: the world, generally speaking, is not nearly as dangerous or scary as legend would have it. The more you travel the more you not only trust your instincts, but the more you trust the goodwill of the general populace of Earth. Most people are helpful and friendly, and bad apples are very rare. And by taking sensible precautions, you can easily avoid trouble.

Of course, some countries remain legitimately dangerous. I am merely mentioning this as a disclaimer. This post applies to adventurous but mainstream/stable countries such as those I’ve covered in Southeast Asia, Central/South America, or countries in the developed world. But there are still some countries that are firmly in the Bad Idea category. Of course if you were so foolhardly to go to, say, war-torn Somalia, I assume you know what you’re doing and have taken extensive Hostile Environment Awareness training… but then you probably also wouldn’t be looking for tips on a blog about backpacking.

But, if you’re a traveller and planning to go to a reasonably ‘normal’ country, perhaps the best advice is to quickly your research and then just go! Give yourself a few days to get comfortable at your destination, and you’ll probably wonder what the fuss was all about.

Further reading

photo credit: andymag via photopin cc

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