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Back Door Travel with Rick Steves

Safeguarding Travel Dreams

Remember when terrorism was a European problem?" Now we've seen what happens when airliners are turned into bombs over American skies.

As travelers have faced each new terrorist threat abroad, they've asked me the same question: "What steps should American travelers take for safety?" I keep saying it's futile to "do something" to be safe from terrorism-it's so random and localized that it's impossible to anticipate (which is exactly why the bad guys do it that way). Then they persist, "Yes, but what should we do to be safer?"

One thing is clear to me: I always feel safer in Europe than in the USA, and current events-even a war-will do nothing to change that. But there are a few common-sense things that today's travelers can do to cut their risks and enjoy their trips.

First, keep the scary news in perspective. Our planet is still a very big place. Kabul is 2,200 miles from Istanbul and 3,000 miles from Rome. Beyond heightened security at predictable places and a few understandable delays, current events should have little practical effect on travelers. No one will "suddenly get stranded in Europe" (a fear I often hear voiced but cannot, for the life of me, understand). The real effect of war and terror-amplified by the media, to the delight of terrorists everywhere-will be on some people's nerves. Anxiety aside, the overwhelming odds are that Americans traveling to Europe in 2002, no matter what happens in the world, will have perfectly normal trips.

Stay well-informed, flexible, and low-key. Easy web access makes keeping up to date easier than ever while on the road, but learn to be a skeptical information consumer. The State Department website says that "symbols of American capitalism" may be targets of attacks in Italy. Why would you want to include Burger King, the Hilton, and U.S. military bases in your sightseeing anyway? Don't be shy about asking questions. In any city, the folks behind your hotel desk are a great source of local information-they want you to have a safe trip.

Keeping in touch with loved ones at home can help everyone feel more calm and connected. PIN cards (with Personal Identification Numbers) make Europe-to-USA phone calls cheap and easy. Global cell phones are more expensive, but a cool tool for changing tomorrow's hotel reservation in Vienna one minute and getting a call from Grandma in Omaha the next.

Leave your jewelry and designer luggage at home, and pack lighter than ever. Less stuff means less to worry about (and more options) if your plans suddenly change. Carry-on requirements will be unpredictable for the next few months, but it's safe to assume that lightweight will be as important as small size (and hold off buying that Swiss army knife). If you have to check luggage, don't book your connections too tight.

Be patient. Remind yourself that every "inconvenient" security precaution is a sign that lots of people are working hard to ensure your safety. Finally (and happily), the best safeguard against any kind of evil (from terrorism to pickpocketing) is also the most rewarding travel strategy-do your best to melt into Europe.