When Fear Pervades Travel, What Do You Do?

Gare de Lyon Paris France

Ed. Note: I hesitated to publish this editorial piece that I wrote following the tragedy in Paris on 13 November 2015.  Today’s terror attack in Brussels changed my mind.  Update: July 14, 2016 –  Nice, France.

Coping with fear and travel.

I wrote this article while aboard the Queen Mary 2, on a gray mid-December transatlantic crossing. Outside, 25 to 30-foot waves forced this massive ocean liner to rise, fall, shudder and rise again.  The shrill whistle of hurricane force winds slipped through the tight seal of my balcony door nearly the entire 7-day voyage.

A handful of people I know would be mortified to have made that crossing. But after the first day, I was okay with it.  I was in the company of passengers who book Queen Mary 2 winter crossings every year.  No fear…they love the majesty and volatility of the ocean, in any weather. It helped to put me at ease, kind of like when people are on a rough airplane ride and closely monitor the flight attendants’ faces.

Fear exists in our minds in all imaginary shapes and sizes.  Now it’s permeated into travel. With a Worldwide Global Travel Alert issued in November following the attacks in Paris, it’s difficult not to consider the consequences of sallying forth. Do you put your suitcases back into the closet and postpone your trip to Europe or elsewhere? I don’t think so.

I was in Strasbourg on a Rhine river cruise when the tragic events played out in Paris. Security was tightened aboard the AmaCerto rivership. Long lines for border checks spanned the Bridge of Europe connecting Kehl, Germany and Strasbourg, France. News reports went into overdrive to stoke fears that none of us onboard wanted to acknowledge.

Irrational Fear

Irrational fear affects me every time I plan a trip. I haven’t been on a plane in over 20 years. I’ve had to learn how to travel the world without flying. While colleagues fly back and forth to Europe with the simplicity of a trip to their corner grocery store, I have to plan a lengthy transatlantic voyage.

Fear overwhelmed me last November. My two-month Europe trip was supposed to include a Viking River cruise on the Elbe River and another cruise from Prague to Paris along the Rhine and Mosel rivers.  Two nights in Paris would conclude the Mosel cruise.  I panicked.

With only three week’s notice, I canceled both highly anticipated river cruise itineraries.

I caved in to television news fear-mongering. Calls and texts from home bluntly stated, “Get out of Europe”. The sight of heavily-armed military presence in Europe’s touristic areas, busy train stations and magnificent Christmas markets suddenly became the new normal in every city I visited. I allowed fear to dominate every corner I turned.

It’s much easier to pull in our own reins, avoid travel and stay home. Or in my case, the comfort of eliminating that which played most fearfully on my mind.

Based solely on fear, I made my decision. No Elbe, no Paris, no Eurostar to England. Instead, I stayed with the same river ship, cruising up and down and back up the Rhine and experienced dozens of festive Christmas markets.

My actions gave in to a cacophony of fear-voices that echoed in my head. I missed out on two weeks of new river cruise territory plus two nights in Prague and two nights in Paris. I chose to do what was in my comfort zone. At the time, it seemed right.

In retrospect, it was a knee-jerk reaction. It would have been a wonderful adventure. But I didn’t know. I did what I felt was the right thing to do. It’s easy to say now, a month later that I should not have cancelled. Had I looked at this with logic rather than fear, I would have stuck with my original plans.

Does age play an influence? Nearly everyone I asked who was under or in their 40s said, “Go. Show your defiance.” Everyone I asked over 55 said, “Come home,” “Be safe” or “Be careful.” I was even “scolded” by a 40-something industry colleague when I posted a photo of armed guards at a French Christmas market. Maybe as we age, we inherently become more cautious. Time becomes more precious.

Fear can overwhelm and debilitate. A little bit of caution makes you aware of your surroundings, alert in new cities and wary of sketchy situations. We shouldn’t confuse the two. I wasn’t being cautious; I was consumed with fear.

Even though I found excellent alternatives for three weeks, I missed out on new and exciting adventures. To complete my trip to Europe with two days and nights in Paris would have been spectacular.

Travel is a privilege and for some, a necessity. Fear must be put into perspective. Listen to your inner thoughts but don’t let them rule your life. Stay in your comfort zone yet step over any self-imposed, irrational boundaries. If you cancel travel plans that after-the-fact proved safe, you may realize how crippling fear can be if we allow it to become our personal new normal. Try to not let fear run your life.

Be safe.  Be careful. Be observant.  But don’t be paralyzed by the possibility of getting in harm’s way.   That said, I’ll still go to Europe every chance I get.  But I won’t fly there.


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2 thoughts on “When Fear Pervades Travel, What Do You Do?”

  • Thanks for your comment, John. I’d be on the next ship over if I could get away right now! It’s always interesting to learn what people across the pond think of how it is over here. I have a couple of European friends who refuse to come to America because of the guns here. It’s all in how we view the situation. In retrospect, I was foolish to cancel and reconstruct my plans. Luckily, it all worked out fine but I did miss out on a couple of great itineraries. Hope to see you and Sheila soon.

  • What does a Worldwide Global Travel Alert mean for the people who actually live in Paris, or Istanbul, or Brussels? Are they supposed to remain in their homes as a result of an occasional act of terrorism? If we stop travelling because of these random attacks, then the terrorists have won, and they will have achieved economic disruption on a massive scale rather than a few unfortunate deaths. I am reminded of the time that violence flared in Mexico, caused by drug gangs in conflict. Thousands of Americans cancelled their cruises as a result, seemingly unaware that more people were shot each day in Los Angeles and other American cities than were falling victim to the Mexico violence. Sherry, I know you and I respect you, and I admire the way in which you have found ways to travel to Europe despite your fear of flying. But as a travel writer, you should feel compelled to dispel fears of travel rather than helping to create fear. I live in Europe. Like you, I was in France at the time of the Paris shootings. I was flying back from Amsterdam yesterday within hours of the Brussels bombings. I lived through the IRA bombings in London and other UK cities in the 1970s (from which you can safely deduce that I am over 55) and I have never been deterred from travelling because of fear of a terrorist event. I would happily visit Istanbul tomorrow, or travel by Eurostar train to Brussels or Paris, knowing that the chances that I might get caught up in a shooting or a bombing are less likely than of becoming the victim of a gunman in America wielding a legally-held weapon. Come back to Europe. Soon. You’ll be safer here than in a country that is faced with the possibility of President Donald Trump.

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