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Is it Safe to Travel to Europe

Revised July 27, 2011

Security was tight along the race route in Paris for the last day of the Tour de France on Sunday, reflecting the concern about terrorist attacks that might come from foreign or homegrown sources. Events in Oslo remind us that irrational behavior can happen anywhere and has no single source. The strong show of force in Paris demonstrated the planning and determination of the French government to keep the race participants and fans safe. Governments throughout Europe are aware that small groups can execute tragic acts of terrorism; the horror of Oslo says that even lone maniacs can cause unbelievable carnarge; governments are using their police powers as effectively as possible. Clearly, no amount of intelligence will make us safe from those who insanely act on hate-filled beliefs.

That said, it is important to understand that you are not at any greater risk of random violence while you are in Europe than you are at home and to also know that there are things you can do to reduce your risks when traveling. It begins by getting updates on the countries you are visiting; paying attention to political and economic unrest. (For information on current events in Greece, please go to the page on Greece.")    

An April 2011 report to the EU Parliament described an increase in the number of terrorist attacks and a new connection between terrorist groups and organized crime. As I look at the information supplied to the EU leaders, it was reassuring because it truly suggests that the European authorities are doing a better job identifying terrorists and preventing major attacks. While identifying new terrorist cells in Africa, the report to the EU Parliament did not take into account the changing relationship between Islamic nations and Europe as old leaders are driven from office; few have enough information to assess the impact of those changes.

The United States Department of State provides tourists with the best possible advice on changing threat levels. Keep in mind that the threat levels in Europe are similar to the threat levels we hear in the United States; that while there is an ongoing concern about terrorist activity, unless specific information is released about specific targets, you are probably as safe traveling in Europe as you are in the popular cities of the United States. That said, you should pay attention to the warnings from the State Department and while you are in Europe, check their website to confirm that they have not identified the city you are in as a high risk location.

While the increase of violence targeted toward French citizens in Niger points toward a broadening of Al Qaeda targets to include France in addition to the US and Great Britain, as someone who loves France and believes Paris is one of the greatest cities on the planet, I would encourage you to go to France, even though there is a small risk of harm if you do travel there. During the 2007 riots, as the threat levels were rising in news reports on American television networks, filling the need for a story in the non-stop news cycle we track, friends who were barging along the Seine knew nothing of any danger, because it wasn't a significant concern in France. So I urge you to include Paris if your vacation plans, especially if you think it is unlikely you will get back to Europe in the next 10 years; just be certain to read the US State Department travel warnings each morning before you start your travels through the city. To the extent there is a risk, I regretfully believe it is probably greater in the tourist sections of Paris, and probably greatest near the Eiffel Tower because it is such a dramatic symbol of both Paris and France. If your planning a visit to the small towns of France, I'd consider the risk to be very minimal.

It is hard to know how to interpret the news of the arrest of five terrorist suspects on November 9, 2010, by French police. It is a sign of vigilance that the arrests occurred before any terrorist act. The question is whether this action makes a significant dent in the organization's activities. I do give great credit to the diligence of French law enforcement and trust they are doing all that is possible to thwart an attack. If you had tickets to Paris now, I would go, knowing that the US Department of State has not issued warnings to stay at home; but I would check the website daily and pay attention to my surroundings. During periods of high danger, I would use bus transportation and walk rather than use the subway. I would look for increased uniformed police officers near the Eiffel Tower, and expect that undercover agents were there as well, and would go to the top of tower if I saw adequate police coverage near the base.

After reports that terrorists shipped bombs to Chicago synagogues from Yemen in toner cartridges, the threat seems more credible but points to the fact that as random terrorist acts are directed toward us at home, we are as vulnerable here as we would be in Europe. This story would also suggest, because the packages were sent via cargo planes, that it has become more difficult to get bombs aboard passenger planes either because of increased security or difficulty recruiting bombers.

If you are in France, it is more likely that your travel will be disrupted by a strike than a terrorist attack. But even these civil actions tend to have limited affect on your travels. Our one experience with a strike kept us from visiting the Conciergerie in Paris, though the rest of our day continued as planned. Absent some great misfortune or poor judgment, you are not likely to be injured during these political actions but strikes can disrupt rail service, so do pay attention to local news about political disputes and try to plan your touring in ways that work with labor stoppages, which are usually only a day or two and come with advance warning. If necessary, you can deal with a rail strike by renting a car.

Safety on Public Carriers

To ensure your safety, the best advice I can give you is to take political risks into consideration as you make your plans. With the repeated issues of terrorism in Britain, you might want to pay a bit more for your airline tickets to fly on non-US, non-British carriers, or to avoid travel through the congested, uncomfortable Heathrow hub. There is little you can do to protect yourself from shipments like the printer cartridge bombs mailed from Yemen as most commercial carriers transport air freight. It is likely, however, that these attempts have increased vigilance at the major shipping companies and airlines.

You may also want to get to your hotel by limousine (hired van or car) rather than by train or subway. The area of greatest unrest during the French riots was between Paris and the Charles de Gaulle airport. If you travel by limousine you will be less vulnerable than someone carrying luggage through a train station.

While it is wise to use good judgment as you move through any place in Europe, the nature of the disorder needs to be put in perspective. As I mentioned in the section on personal safety, pickpocketing is a common crime in France, Italy, and the tourist cities of eastern Europe. Assault and robbery are not common in those places, and, tragically, you are safer traveling through Europe than you are in California, New York, or Florida.

The bombings in London and Madrid highlight that train and subway stations are likely terrorist targets when there are threats. But it is important to understand the level of the threat you face and how to make decisions that insure your personal safety. When possible, listen to local news reports, and if you know the threat level is elevated, keep a watchful eye as you sightsee; don't be paranoid, just notice the behavior of crowds, follow instructions from police, and use common sense when traveling by foot.

As I encourage you to make a thoughtful, rather than fearful decision about the dangers from Al Queda in Europe, I do not mean to minimize the tragic losses suffered in Madrid or London, or to discount the horrific events of September 11th, but to put them in perspective. For the family and friends of the victims, the statistical risk the victims faced are meaningless: their family members have died or have suffered lingering does not matter that less than 1 person in 951 million died in terrorist attacks outside the Middle East in 2003. The victims, unfortunately, were the ones in 951 million.

But the experience of travel is so valuable, and at this time, the risk is still so extremely low that the tragedies in New York, Madrid or London should not keep you home.

By way of comparison, 33,808 Americans died in motor-vehicle accidents in 2009, making your odds of getting in an automobile accident 1 in 6000 or roughly 1000 times greater than your risk of being attacked by a terrorist abroad. Still we drive to work and to play and never let the risk alter our plans.

If you are extremely concerned about the risk of terrorism, you can find travel insurance policies that will allow you to get the cost of your tickets back should a terrorist event occur near your destination shortly before your departure or should an act of terrorism force you to return home early. Again, you want to be sure you have found a policy before you purchase your airline tickets.

Body Scans

Just 6 years ago, Time Magazine reported that a full body scan exposed a person to 100 times the amount of radiation you received when you got a mammogram, forthat the machine that checked your entire body for tumors gave you an amount of radiation equal to what you would have been exposed to if you had been a 1.5 miles away from the spot where the Hiroshima atomic bomb exploded; it continued that if you received one scan a year for 30 years your risk of radiation induced cancer increased to 1 in 50. That information is enough to suggest that if you fly frequently, you may want to minimize the number of scans you receive.

But first you should know that the scanners used to detect tumors need a higher level of radiation to penetrate tissue while searching for tumors. Only some of hte machines used for scanning use x-rays and then only at the levels needed to see through your clothing. There are two different types of body scanning machines used at the U.S. airports: the millimeter wave machines which produce a black and white three-dimensional image of your undressed body using electromagnetic waves and the "backscatter" machines that use x-rays to create a less clear image of your naked body. You can identify the machine that uses x-rays because it is housed in a blue booth.

The government equates the x-ray dose you are exposed to when scanned to the amount of radiation you encounter during two to three minutes at high altitude. Arizona State Professor Peter Rez says the amount is closer to ten minutes of exposure. Again, that points toward advising the frequent flyer to avoid an additional scan. A report for the University of California worries that while the radiation of the back scatter machine doesn't increase risks of internal cancers the radiation does reach the skin and increases the risk of skin cancer, so it might be wise for travelers who have been treated for skin cancer or precancerous lesions to avoid the back scatter machines, keeping in mind that strong sunscreen and regular visits to the dermatologist are the best protection you can have against melanoma and other skin cancers.

While the pictures seen by the scanners may not be flattering, the TSA assures passengers that the images are not saved. My personal decision to use the scanners will be guided by how often I expect to fly, which type of machine is available at my airport, and my medical history. When traveling with friends who have had skin cancers removed, I will urge them to skip the machine and patiently wait as they go through the hands-on process.

Flight Safety

Just over 1100 people died on commercial flights in 2009, but there was not a single incident on flights between North America and Europe. A review of airline accidents suggests two things: pilots and crews are getting better at saving passengers in crashes, and most incidents happen in countries using older equipment. You can reduce the risks you face by reviewing the safety records of the airlines you choose to fly. Before you pay for the ticket, find out what type of plane the company uses to cross the Atlantic and what the company's safety record has been. Do you really want to risk your safety if you are only saving $100?

Even carriers with safe records and planes with few accidents can have one, but the more attention a carrier pays to the issue of passenger safety, the more likely you will have a safe and comfortable flight. In addition to choosing a carrier with a good record, you can take a few additional steps to increase your likelihood to survive a crash.

Simple Steps to Airline Passenger Safety

Eating In Europe

Generally you'll find food in Europe to be of the same or higher standards than you are used to at home. If you visit local farmers' markets in western Europe, you'll find fresh produce and treats that have fewer chemicals than we find in foods on our local grocery store shelves. Most Europeans don't handle produce that they aren't going to buy; at farmers' markets, the merchant will pack it for you; in grocery stores, you'll find gloves that allow you to pick up produce without spreading germs. The biggest cause for concern is from BSE or Mad Cow Disease though current reports from the CDC do not report any lingering affects from the 1990s' outbreak in the United Kingdom that killed 157 people. Again, good sanitary practices, being cautious if you travel to farms and double-checking with official websites about the disease can reduce your exposure. Also, you'll find the drinking water available in France, Germany, Italy and other western European nations to be safe and pure. The European Union monitors the arrival of foods from non-EU sources, sometimes finding that products from less developed nations, including some eastern European countries, have been contaminated. For more information, go to the EU Food Saftey Website.

Crime in Europe

If you stay in the nations the countries that we think of as "Western Europe"--France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries or the countries of Slovenia, Czech Republic or Hungary, you are generally safe from physical crime. In all of these countries, the homicide rate is significantly lower than the U.S. The countries that were part of the Soviet Union are, however, more dangerous with many types of property crimes and higher homicide rates. To put things in perspective, the 2004 UN Survey on Crime trends listed the homicide rates in Latvia and Lithuania as more than double the homicide rate in the US. Those numbers do not point toward many tourists dying on visits to those countries but some travelers to eastern Europe can feel the increased risk to personal safety. If you are considering a trip to eastern Europe, you should know that violence is not generally directed at tourists as it in some of the tourist destinations of Mexico and central America. Visit the United States Department of State to see the warnings for any countries you may visit.

The biggest risk of crime you face in western Europe are property crimes. In many countries, theft is common and conducted by organized groups. This means you must do what you can to protect yourself. A quick check of rental car agreements and the countries they will not let you visit is a good way to see what countries the Europeans consider too dangerous.

Sources of Information about Risks

Recent Posts on Issues of Safety