Monday, October 11, 2010

Travel Alerts, and Common Sense

I just returned from a trip to Europe. Nothing extraordinary about that, except that Americans and many others should consider not traveling to Europe, we are told. Why? Terrorist attacks. Sez who? The governments of the United States, United Kingdom and several other nations.

I am not one to minimize the risk of danger in travel. I am not one to maximize it, either. There have been terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years, but as I can report with some authority, the continent is not blowing up left and right just now. I was in Spain, which suffered a horrendous attack several years ago when politicized Islamic fanatics bombed commuter trains in Madrid. The armed Basque separatist group ETA has also launched fatal attacks at various times over the years in Spain. However, people have got to go on about their business, which most Spaniards have done - usually without untoward results. Travelers should do the same.

As it happens, I was in Basque country last week. My surroundings did not look or feel unsafe and I did not feel threatened hop-scotching from Bilbao to San Sebastian and across the border into France. Travel alerts like the well-publicized international heads-up we had last week - which warned of possible attacks in several European countries, in public places, at tourist favorites, on public transport and so on - are so vague as to be meaningless. We were told to be alert. Always good advice in a stressful modern world, but alert to what specific danger? No answer. That rachets up the stress even more, while not telling anyone what do do about stress.

Staying home is not an option - at least not for me, and not often.

Everyone has to assess their own tolerance for risk, to be sure. One way to do that is to check out the U.S. State Department's travel warnings and advisories and then decide how literally and seriously to take them. Another is simply to pay close attention to the news: online, on paper, on TV and radio - and especially to conversations with people who have recently been where you are thinking of going.

Common sense, no? Yes, and more likely to be helpful than well-intentioned but often-useless government proclamations.

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