Does the Zika virus, or terrorism threats, make you afraid to travel — and is that fear misplaced?
Which sounds like the most dangerous way to spend your next vacation?
1. Going to Brazil, epicenter of the Zika virus, for the Olympics.
2. Visiting Istanbul, where eight German tourists died in a terrorist attack earlier this year.
3. Taking a road trip through Thailand.
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4. Staying home to work on a long-put-off home-improvement project.
It’s tricky, but it’s not a trick question: There is no wrong answer. The way that you measure risk is based on complex factors, including personal ones. Mosquitoes may love you, terrorism may have touched you directly, your husband may be a terrible driver, and that project may include asbestos removal.
The number of Americans making such calculations is growing: We’re traveling abroad more often and to more places, perhaps because our globalized world — Starbucks in 65 countries! — seems smaller and safer. Until it isn’t. The Zika virus is spreading through the Americas not long after chikungunya infected thousands of American travelers there and Ebola ravaged West Africa. It’s not just disease: Recent terrorist attacks targeting tourists (Tunisia, Egypt, Istanbul) and tourist areas (Paris) have also made such decisions more wrenching.
“There’s a lot going on in the world,” said Daniel Durazo, director of communications at Allianz Global Assistance USA, which sells travel insurance. “There’s a lot of noise out there about the dangers of traveling.”
Yet we’re generally terrible at adjusting the volume.
“How scared or not you are is an emotion, not a statistic,” said David Ropeik, a risk consultant and the author of “How Risky Is It, Really?” As fans of haunted houses will attest, risk and being scared are two different things. But Ropeik’s point is that in the battle between your gut and your brain, your gut will win. One way to make sensible choices as a traveler is to nudge your gut toward rationality by feeding it accurate information, which is easier said than done.
Zika and terrorism are the latest high-decibel threats. But there are also some deafening silences. For example, you hear very little about the leading cause of nonnatural deaths among Americans abroad: motor vehicle accidents.
According to the latest figures available from the State Department, 223 Americans died abroad in car, bus or motorcycle accidents between July 2014 and June 2015. Other causes of death (homicide, suicide and drowning) also far outweigh terrorism. Sixteen Americans died of “terrorist action” in that period, all but four in places you already know not to go: Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Even staying in the United States doesn’t always protect you. Repeated studies showed that after the Sept. 11 attacks, many Americans opted out of flying and drove instead, resulting in at least hundreds of additional road deaths. In hindsight, it would have been better to fly. But at that time, no one could say for sure if more airplanes would be hijacked, and fear was running high. “Not knowing is vulnerability and powerlessness and that raises precaution instinctively,” Ropeik said.
A similar sort of uncertainty is playing out now with the Zika virus, helped out by dramatic reports. Some people I know have even conflated the virus’ potential danger to pregnant women with the relatively mild illness it causes in the overwhelming majority of those who suffer symptoms at all.
The antidote is good information. Travelers should seek out information specifically for them like the website of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which cautions pregnant women against traveling but restricts its warnings to most others to preventing mosquito bites, rather than changing travel plans.
If you decide to stay home, keep in mind that carries its own risks.
“We are more scared of the unfamiliar than the familiar,” Ropeik said.
Yet we run long- and short-term risks every day: eating fast food, walking under a crane and crossing busy streets, for example.
Guidebook guru Arthur Frommer has another to add: “I have recently been struck by the fact that you encounter greater danger in the U.S. from gun violence than the popular destinations to which people travel.”
He noted that Tim Fischer, a former deputy prime minister of Australia, recently suggested that his country issue a travel warning about the widespread prevalence of guns in the United States.
Some Americans would argue that the U.S. is in fact safer because of the wide presence of guns.
Instead of holding off on a trip — or becoming a hermit — the best way to stay safe is to reduce risk as you go. That may be by using insect repellent at the Olympics, taking public transport in New Zealand, and spending less time in big European cities and more in small towns.
Another way to ease risk is to mitigate the impact of potential crises by, say, buying medical evacuation insurance. Keeping a list ofhospitals and emergency numbers at the ready helps as well. Allianz’s free TravelSmart app puts that information in your phone, though in developing countries I would check JustLanded.com for the number of a private ambulance service as well.
The final thing you have to fear is fear itself. If after careful deliberation you’ve decided that the risks are slim, but you’re still terrified, then consider staying put. Not because of the risk to your health, but the certainty that you’ll be too nervous to appreciate your travels.