Travel Safety: Always Consider the Source

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“You shouldn’t go there. It’s not safe.”

STOP.

As soon as you announce your upcoming travels, no matter to whom, you’ll probably be hit with at least one person saying, “It’s not safe.”

Whether the person is protesting the act of solo female travel — which is ridiculous — or travel to a particular destination, it’s important to evaluate whether or not this concern is warranted.

In short, when people voice concerns about your travels, it’s important to consider the source. Here are some examples of the most common sources that provide inaccurate or incomplete information.

Dubrovnik from Above

The Concerned Loved One

“I don’t want you going to the Balkans. That’s not safe.”

You love your family and friends. You don’t want to upset them, but you want to be clear that the decision is yours. That’s why it’s critical that you walk the line between giving them the benefit of the doubt and taking their advice with a large grain of salt.

It’s possible that when your parents hear about Bosnia or Kosovo, they’ve only thought of those countries in the context of war, violence, or ethnic cleansing, when in reality, the Balkans have been safe for travelers for more than a decade. Likewise, they may lump Jordan in with more troubled countries in the Middle East like Syria, when in reality Jordan is an extremely safe place to travel.

You and I both know that these views are not accurate. And while you should do your loved ones the courtesy of listening to their concerns and discussing how you’ll stay safe, it’s important not to let their opinions overpower you to the point of changing your trip.

When listening to a concerned loved one, here are things to keep in mind:

Does this person travel?

Does this person travel in my style of traveling (i.e. backpacking as opposed to resort travel)?

Has this person been to this destination?

Has this person been to this destination recently (in the past 3-5 years)?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then you’ve most likely got a good source on your hands and should listen closely if he or she voices concerns for your safety.

Consider the source: while your loved ones obviously care about you, they are likely not the most knowledgeable source when it comes to your travel destination.

Boracay

The Scary Government Warning

“U.S. citizens should continue to defer non-essential travel to ________, due to the high threat of kidnapping of international travelers and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there.”

Scary, right? It sounds like something out of Venezuela or Yemen.

But this warning is actually for the Philippines.

The Philippines? How is this incredibly safe country on the State Department’s travel warning list?!

In the United States, a country will appear on the State Department’s travel warning list even if the nation’s troubles are limited to one small region. That’s the case in the Philippines, where the terrorist organizations MILF and MNLF have been known to carry out terrorist activity in the Sulu Archipelago and the south of Mindanao.

That region within the Philippines is small — tiny, in fact. The main island of Luzon is completely normal, as are the Visayas (Boracay included) and Palawan, which are the regions visited by the majority of foreign tourists. Most casual tourists wouldn’t visit the Sulu Archipelago. Mindanao itself is quite large — the second largest island in the Philippines — and some parts, including the region surrounding Cagayan de Oro, are popular with tourists, but the terrorism-affected areas of the south are only a small portion of the island itself.

In other words, read through your government’s travel warnings carefully. While your country could be on the list, your particular destination might not be affected whatsoever.

The problem is that many people take government warnings as gospel — that if a country is on the list, it shouldn’t be visited under any conditions. But that’s not true.

Consider the source: government warnings are meant to be read in depth and problems in one region do not indicate problems in the entire country.

Wat Pho Buddhas

The Sensationalist Media Report

“Another day of violence grips the Thai capital as political protests continue to escalate…”

If a country is engulfed in violence to the point of dominating news coverage in your home country, chances are the troubled country will be covered in a manner that paints a grim image — especially on the 24-hour news channels that are constantly competing to outdo each other.

Thailand is the perfect example of this. Bangkok has been going through protests since November 2013, an echo of the situation three years ago. That said, outside Bangkok, things are 100% normal, and even within Bangkok, the protests can be easily avoided.

That’s not the image painted by the media. From what you see on the news, you’d think the whole city is burning and that people are fleeing in droves, which couldn’t be further of the truth.

Consider the source: the news is not in the business of showing you what it’s like to travel there.

Family on a Motorbike in Kampot

The Faux-It-All

“What if the Khmer Rouge rise again?”

Believe it or not, somebody said those words to me when I planned my first trip to Southeast Asia.

You will always meet people who think they know all there is to know about the world and make wild assumptions without any knowledge or evidence to back them up.

Don’t waste your time and energy arguing with people like this. Smile, nod, thank them for their concern, and save the eye-rolling for when you get home.

Consider the source: this is not a source.

Ladies in Paris

How to Find a Reputable Source

If you’re concerned about upcoming travels, it’s a good idea to find a source — or, ideally, a few sources — that you can trust. That means someone who is familiar with your destination and has traveled there within the past few years.

Talk to a travel blogger. A travel blogger who has recently been to your destination would be happy to give you answers to any specific questions you have. If you don’t know a blogger who has been to that region, ask a travel blogger you know for a recommendation. I’m always happy to refer readers to bloggers who are more experienced in traveling Mexico and India, for example.

Join the local Couchsurfing community. It seems like every major city or country in the world has its own community on Couchsurfing.org, complete with a forum and a calendar of local events, and you can join any of them. In each regional group you’ll find lots of locals and expats happy to answer any questions you might have.

Ask on public forums. While Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree is an enormous travel forum with lots of readers, some newbies are shocked by how harsh some of the members can be. My suggestion? Read the FAQs for each country/region’s forum and search your question before asking it, else you might be met with comments of “You could have found this by doing a search” (so helpful). Alternatively, you can seek out local and expat forums for your destination.

How do you find trustworthy advice for your travels?

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98 thoughts on “Travel Safety: Always Consider the Source”

  1. Wow. So true.

    If I had paid attention to the nay sayers, I would never have had two of my best travel days ever in Guatemala City a couple of months back! And I must admit, I went with a chip on my shoulder due to the warnings too, but the people there won me over.

    And funny you mention the Balkans. I am currently here right now. Its my second time thru and I just love these areas and people. Heading over to Albania next week. I feet quite certain I am not walking into a Liam Nielsen action flick(which is all most Americans know of Albania!)

  2. Fantastic post, and couldn’t agree more.

    Another source that can be tricky is the internet is general. Sometimes you start researching something and just go down this infinite negative tunnel of confirmation bias. It’s kind of like googling for medical stuff … you really just have a flu but before you know it you think you have a terminal disease. It’s important to do a bit of due diligence for a country but as soon as you find yourself almost *seeking out* creepy horror stories it’s time to close google!

  3. You are absolutely right Kate! I belong to Pakistan and I guess it’s a NO-NO for everyone, even I was recently visiting a tripadvisor page about Pakistan and there was a bold red font warning at the top speaking in the words of U.S government. It’s same as if I live in Pakistan and if I never went to Afghanistan and Iraq and I would imagine that every street is full of people with long beards and AK47s, and then when you see photos of Baghdad and Kabul on BBC or elsewhere, you see them in surprise, bazaars full of people? Actual new cars and carpeted roads? Restaurants? I travel a lot and I know how it is. If you Google now for Pakistan tourism, you will see pages full and full of last year killing incident at remote north region. However, this country is still home to 160 million people, who eat, shop, travel and are very normal just like others. In fact many urban areas of Pakistan are completely safe for even solo female travelers. Such a shame that media plays their own game and projects every negative aspect on full scale!

  4. Great job on this–I totally agree! I love this–‘The Faux-It-All.’ It sometimes seems that I get the most advice (and the most negative comments) from non-travelers or those who stay in resorts.

    Whenever I go to Mexico, as a solo female, many people I know get freaked out. I tell them, “It’s a big country…and I know where to go and where not go do–don’t worry.”

  5. Kate, you have some stellar points made on here. Fear is the biggest thing that holds people back, and second is usually the fear from others of fear mongering. When I went to Haiti, people told me I’d lose my head, be shot, or kidnapped. Not once did I feel threatened at all or in danger…and funny enough most of the time I felt safer than most cities in the USA.

    And now Thailand, people were telling me not to go because of the protests, and even though they have escalated in the capital, I haven’t heard a peep about them outside the city…especially in the north.

  6. This is so true- the first time I went to Greece my entire family was concerned and worried it’d be Taken in real life… you definitely need to consider the source!

  7. Great advice Kate! I hope that anyone who has been scared by a well meaning relative reads this to ease their minds. Parents are always the worst for these things, I think. I feel like every time I’m going somewhere far away, my mom suddenly starts seeing loads of terrible news stories about the place!

    1. I’d love to go to Eastern Africa, MT, but I see no reason whatsoever to go to Lagos. But as always — consider the source. Talk to someone who has actually been to those places and travels in your style.

  8. So true! A friend of mine has recently gone to Africa on a camping trip and so many people were telling him to be careful, and that he shouldn’t go out there alone. Some were even trying to give him advice on which places to go and what to see but they hadn’t even been there themselves!

    People will always through their concerns in and it can get really annoying especially like you say, when they don’t know your style of travelling and are use to resorts or listen too much to the media. Great post!

  9. I love it. So true.

    The same goes for some of the other practicalities about travel also, such as getting on an aeroplane. People have already told me I should be careful, because of MH370. (The plane that went missing last week).

    Never mind the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of planes safely take off, fly, and land around the world every day.

  10. Love this! As a solo female traveler from a small town I hear a lot of objections like this, but the world isn’t as scary as some people would believe, so long as you’re street smart. The Middle East is one of my favourite places to travel, I’ve only ever met nice, welcoming people and had great experiences. It’s a shame that some people don’t get to experience it because of worry!

    🙂

  11. The source of that comment is usually my dad. He said it about Colombia and now he’s saying it about the Philippines. I wonder how far I’ll have to travel before he starts to trust my instincts!

  12. Absolutely agree with these points! The media certainly exaggerates and doesn’t share all sides of the story. People have asked me all sorts of incredible questions about living in Costa Rica as if they think I’m on some deserted island in the middle of the ocean or that I’m living in the land with no internet or cell phones. And in the land where everybody has a gun and tries to kill each other. So ridiculous. Talk to someone who’s actually been there first before believing all the hype!

  13. Loved your style of writing Kate… the way you share your perspective is what keeps the magic going… just stumbled on your site today & i must say i m hooked! Looking forward to spending more time here…

  14. When i first mentioned about going to Iran, many people was so afraid that my head will be chopped off. But i sincerely mean it, i think Iran is the world’s most safest place. Definitely i mean it.

  15. Kate,
    My son and daughter in law are getting ready to leave on a year and four month trip across Canada and through Mexico, Central America and South America. They have been kind enough to not roll their eyes at me during my countless exclamations of, “It’s not safe there!!!!” 🙂 They are patient and link me to many blogs and statistics that help ease my mind, but remember, I am a mother. Thank you for your article above. With every blog and article I read I feel a little bit better about their travels. Not completely, mind you, but a little. I’m sure it’ll get better for me. I know this will be an amazing experience for them, and I couldn’t be prouder. But until they are back home and safe, I think there will always be a bit of me that’s worried. Yes, I’ve heard the “I can get run over by a car on my way to the store” comment, but I can’t help what I feel. 🙂
    Thanks again for your blog. It really did help.
    Kate

    1. Kate, this comment means the world to me. Thank you so much for sharing your point of view, and I’m so happy that this piece put you a bit more at ease, if not completely.

      I hope your son and daughter-in-law have an amazing time. Maybe you could even meet them at some point!

  16. It’s funny, I got a reaction when I got back. I told a colleague that I went to Cambodia last summer and he was shocked. I got a “What?! Why?! That’s not safe!” reaction which baffled me. There’s no use in saying anything after… clearly I got back okay. I had a fantastic time.

  17. I agree with most of the statement above. The only consideration that I think is important is whether the person has travelled before. I mean you can’t go straight to some “strange” country in case you haven’t been abroad. My opinion, of course.

  18. Hi Kate.

    I stumbled across your blog not expecting much but as I got reading- especially your ‘About’ section, I found it extremely interesting. I find it fascinating that you get paid to travel and think you are a very lucky but hard-working person to be able to do so!
    I find it very brave that you undertake some of your travels solo as I have never done so and would find it very scary! This blog post was helpful in reminding me that not all the places in the world are unsafe. My younger sister may be travelling to Hong Kong by herself and before reading this post, I was pretty concerned for her. I realize now that I know nothing about Hong Kong and should therefore not prevent her from travelling and getting a great experience out of it.

    Thanks!

    1. That means a lot to me, Jennifer. Having just spent 10 days in Hong Kong, I can assure you that you have nothing to worry about. It’s a very safe place, a very clean place, and a place where you can get around easily using English. I hope your sister has fun!

  19. Siobhan Healy

    It’s such a shame that people are quick to assume a place or activity is dangerous or unsafe for a person based on one sensationalistic media article or their own fears. Some of my greatest travel experiences have come from doing things people warned me against! In 2009 my mum begged me not to go scuba diving in Thailand because of her fear sharks, but I went anyway and had a personal guide bring me up close and personal with endangered species of fish and coral – with no sharks in sight!

  20. Safety is really important when you decide to travel in the place.Since you’ve mentioned about Cagayan de Oro, I cannot guarantee a 100 % safety but like other places, they cannot also guarantee full safety. Cagayan de Oro is a city of Golden Friendship, many foreigners are coming because aside from friendly people living, there are a lot of beautiful places to explore, just be careful of your trip, and always keep your eyes active.a

  21. I also like to use the TripAdvisor forums.

    This article is really on point. I got so many ‘is it safe there questions?’ when I told people I was going to Panama. I always felt safe in Panama and the main area that has a government warning was several hours away from where I went.

  22. Thank you for this. I’m going alone to Romania and everybody seems to be doing their best to put me off. That said, I have no idea what to expect. What do you think of Romania, Kate? What was your experience there? I will be going to Bucharest and some parts of Transylvania.

  23. The first set of questions is so important! I’m currently traveling in Pakistan (after 2 months in Iran… another supposed terrorist haven! *gasp*) and have to deflect commentary and concern from the parents on a regular basis. I use Thorntree, Couchsurfing, and am in contact with people from Instagram and local travel groups, yet my parents still seem to think they’re more qualified than me to determine whether or not it’s safe to travel here.

    I appreciate the eloquence with which you laid this out—sending it along to them in the hopes that your rational words get the point across better than my irritated retorts 😉

  24. Oh my word, this post is SO important and probably applicable to anyone that travels. I don’t think I’ve seen an article quite like this before–I wish I’d seen it when I moved to Colombia a few years ago! Sharing ASAP because this one needs another tour around the internet. 🙂

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