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Europe Travel Warning: Now What?

SmarterTravel

The U.S. Government just issued a “Travel Alert” for Americans traveling in Europe. Specifically—if you can call it specific—you’re supposed to “Take every precaution to be aware of [your] surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect [yourself] when traveling.” On hearing this, a friend reasonably asked:

“OK, I’ll take every precaution. Name a few.”

Unfortunately, the government’s warning doesn’t go that far. It’s just “take every precaution.” That sort of advice is about as use useful the other all-purpose travel “tip” you so often see from self-styled experts who don’t really have anything constructive to say: “Plan ahead.” Feh. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}What the Government Said

“The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe. Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks. European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions.”

“Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests. U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services.”

And: “We recommend U.S. citizens register their travel plans with the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy through the State Department’s travel registration website. Travelers may obtain up-to-date information on security conditions by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or on a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444 from elsewhere in the world.”

I’ll give the government that bit about registering—you can do it online at the State Department’s travel registration page. But the rest of the announcement is devoid of any specific suggestions.

What Others Are Saying

Following the Sunday morning announcement, I saw several talking heads handing out suggestions on the several 24-hour news channels. Among them, some make sense:

  • “Stay off of tour buses.” Historically, terrorists in various part of the world have singled out tour buses for attacks, reasoning—correctly—that such an attack could take out lots of foreigners without harming many locals. Fortunately, that’s no great sacrifice: Even without terrorist threats, I think tour buses are a drag.
  • “Don’t wear shorts while sightseeing or shopping.” Apparently, said at least one “expert,” most locals wear shorts only when engaging in some sports activities. That doesn’t track well with what I’ve seen about European young people, but it may be valid for the middle-aged. Ditto, said this expert, wearing athletic shoes except when engaging in athletics.

But others ranged from fatuous to unrealistic. Among those:

  • “Stay off public transportation.” So, if you can’t take tour buses or public transit, just how are you supposed to go anywhere beyond a few blocks from your hotel? If you should avoid railroad stations and airports, how are you supposed to get to Europe in the first place or visit more than one city?
  • “Avoid public places.” That means, I suppose, that if you’re visiting London, you should stay away from Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Street; from St. Peter’s and the Spanish Steps in Rome; the Eiffel Tower in Paris; or the Grand Place in Brussels? You really go to Europe to stay in your hotel room 24/7, don’t you?
  • “Remove airline tags from your baggage.” Profound.

Not a New Risk; Not the Only Risk

If you’ve followed the news over the last decade, you know that random urban terrorism isn’t new to Europe. Terrorists as diverse as the IRA, Basque separatists, and Islamic extremists have all targeted urban areas and often targeted what they think to be foreign visitors. Presumably, our government’s intelligence sources have some real information about a possibly increased threat in the near future, but the overall threat has been there all along—for several decades, in the case of the IRA.

And terrorism isn’t the only risk you face in Europe:

  • Many of the European travel reports you see highlight the steadily increasing activities of pickpockets. Sure, having your money and credit cards ripped off isn’t as dire as being targeted by AK47 fire, but it’s a lot more likely.
  • Also likely, as I’ve noted elsewhere, this fall is likely to see a wide range of civil disturbances throughout Western Europe as local groups protest tax, retirement, and benefits proposals that threaten their welfare states. These strikes and demonstrations, too, are much more likely to impact your trip than terrorism.
  • And the dollar is dropping.

Is There Any Sensible Advice?

In my take, not really. Instead, figure that travel anywhere entails risks, including but not limited to terrorism. Sure, you don’t want to shout “I’m an American” to the world in your behavior, dress, or accessories—after all, some groups in the world hate Americans more than they hate many other nationalities. And obvious Americans may be disproportionately targeted by pickpockets and street muggers. But anywhere you travel you face risks—even in the U.S.

Instead, if you’re considering a trip to Europe—or have even actually booked a trip— my take is that the only sensible approach is to consider all the facts, then make a decision:

  • If you’re really worried about the increased threat, you should decide to not to go or cancel your trip. I can’t imagine anything worse than paying a lot of money to get to Europe, only to be looking over your shoulder and adjusting every daily activity throughout your entire stay because you’re worried about possible threats.
  • If you decide that the risks, whatever they might be, are relatively small, then go ahead with a trip and do what you originally wanted to do.

And if you need to make some arrangements but aren’t yet sure what you really want to do, go ahead with the arrangements—but buy full coverage with “cancel for any reason” travel insurance in case you get cold feet.

Your Turn

Does this new warning affect your travels? Are you cancelling, rebooking, or going ahead with your scheduled trip? Share your thoughts by adding a comment to the discussion below!

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