Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Debunking Travel Fears, Part One

The Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia (photo by Simone Cannon)

On October 3rd, 2010, the US State Department issued a travel alert to Americans traveling to Europe, the place that most Americans think of as the last safe place to travel outside of North America. To be clear, the State Department didn't advise U.S. citizens to avoid Europe, only that travelers should remain alert and "take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling". The State Department, although well-intentioned, tends to err on the side of caution, as it has the vested interests of U.S. citizens at heart. The problem is that this warning just adds to the mountain of inflated fears that many Americans have about international travel in general. When I'm in the United States, I avoid watching television at all costs, especially alarmist, sensationalist networks such as Fox: it is just too damn scary. If I believed everything I watched on TV, I would never leave the house. On top of the fear of physical danger, many Americans are hesitant to travel overseas because they think that it is too expensive, that they will have trouble communicating with locals or that passports and visas are difficult to obtain. Traveling is an amazing opportunity, not only as a chance to see fantastic things in the world that you can't even begin to imagine, but also to experience other cultures and to understand how the United States fits into the global community. This is it, folks, you have one life and one chance to use it well. In the spirit of inspiring potential travelers and as my personal mission to "bust myths", here are the top objections to traveling, debunked:

Salar de Uyuni (salt flats), Bolivia (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Myth #1: Danger Lurks Everywhere

The world is not danger-free, but neither is it filled with terrorists hiding behind every corner lying in wait to toss an anthrax filled grenade at some hapless traveler. The world is much safer than most people believe. Obviously, travelers need to exercise the usual cautions: not taking expensive looking jewelry, luggage or clothes, avoiding flashing cash or credit cards, staying in well-lit populated places, especially at night, and being generally aware of one's surroundings, but not to the point of paranoia. The vast majority of people in the world are just like Americans in the sense that they have everyday, uneventful lives: they go to work, they raise their families, they worry about paying bills and they are kind-hearted. In all the years that I've been traveling, much of it alone, I have never felt in danger or threatened, not once. In fact, quite the contrary; I have generally felt overwhelmed at the incredible kindness and generosity of locals who, when you think about it, don't know me from Adam. Over and over and over again, local people have helped me find my way, bought me gifts, invited me into their homes or to family celebrations, taken me for coffee and snacks and just been generally helpful, welcoming and friendly.

Wenceslas Square, Prague, Czech Republic (photo by Simone Cannon)
Myth #2: Terrorism is the Biggest Threat to Travelers

Not even close. According to the Bureau of Transportation, the odds of being a victim of a terrorist attack while flying, for example, are 1 in 10,408,947 (the odds of being killed by lightning are 1 in 500,000). From October 1999 to September 2009, there were 99,320,309 commercial flights. Out of those flights, there were only 4 successful terrorist attacks, or 1 attack for every 11.5 billion miles, the equivalent of traveling around the equator 1,459,664 times or traveling to the moon and back 24,218 times. In more technical terms, ain't gonna happen. A traveler is much more likely to be a victim of a scam or a non-violent crime such as pickpocketing. The best way to avoid robbery is to stay alert and not let yourself get distracted by thieves who often work in teams, creating diversions such as throwing drinks on a victim's jacket so that their partner can lift your wallet. Although traumatic and decidedly inconvenient, these petty crimes are rarely life threatening. Never carry valuables in your purse or backpack and carry a color photocopy of your passport instead of the actual document when not crossing borders. I once let myself be distracted by a team of thieves in an Internet cafe in La Paz, Bolivia (a woman asked for my help with her email at the next terminal; I'm a sucker for that), and had my backpack lifted, but luckily, all I had inside was a small amount of cash, a t-shirt, some sunscreen and a lip balm.

Colorful thermal springs, Rotorua, New Zealand (photo by Simone Cannon)

Myth #3: Traveling Internationally is Too Expensive 
The most expensive places in the world to travel are Western Europe, Japan and North America. If you can afford to travel within the U.S., you can probably afford to travel in most places in the world. The vast majority of countries, depending on the current US dollar exchange rate, are a very good deal and some, especially developing countries, are shockingly cheap. Eastern Europe still has many wonderful, affordable destinations. Although popular cities such as Prague, Budapest and Bucharest are now almost as expensive as Western Europe, the countryside of these countries is still affordable and is filled with picturesque villages, medieval castles, forests, lakes and mountains. Croatia, Estonia and Montenegro still offer excellent deals. Except for Japan, bargains also abound in Asia: India, Thailand, Cambodia, MalaysiaLaos and China all offer meals, lodging and transportation for a minuscule fraction of prices in North America. In Cambodia two years ago, I paid $11/night for a brand new hotel room with private bath and $3 for a delicious three course meal. In South America, countries such as Argentina, Colombia and Bolivia offer unforgettable travel experiences for relatively little money. A four-day excursion to the amazing Bolivian salt flats in Uyuni, for example, including guide, 4x4 transportation, luggage handling, lodging and all meals, can cost between $60 and $90/per person. That's not the price per day, that's for all four days, all-inclusive. Bali, Indonesia is generally inexpensive for tourists, especially the less visited interior areas such as the artist's colony of Ubud, recently popularized by the book and film, Eat Pray Love. Even in expensive countries, it's possible to live on the relative cheap by staying in alternate lodging such as homestays or hostels eating your main meal at lunch or buying food at supermarkets and eating al fresco and by buying transportation passes ahead of time.

Flooded rice terraces, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia (photo by Simone Cannon)

Next week: more travel fears debunked

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