If you knew a way to feel safer traveling just by changing your ideas, would you try it?
One of the keys to being less afraid of travel is to feel safer while you travel.
Makes sense, right?
I know so many people are afraid to travel because they’re afraid for their personal safety.
Yet feeling safe is one of those things in the travel world that isn’t ever really discussed. Sure, people give advice on how to stay safe, but what about the misconceptions involving safety?
For example, I was always told traveling in India alone is unsafe. But when I traveled through India alone, I was perfectly fine. When exactly, then, did fiction turn into accepted fact?
See, people will often have ideas about the safety of a city, region, or country. But there’s never really a lot of fact-checking that goes on. This is how myths are spread.
Want to see how you can change your views about safety and travel? Then read on.
What, Then, Affects How You Think About Safety?
Several factors affect how you feel safe while traveling. If you can relate to any of these, you can see how our mind plays tricks on us by convincing us that travel is unsafe. For the most part, these factors are unrelated to the environment around you. In a way, they’re “in our head.”
Let’s take a look at them, one by one. Because unlike your destination, you can train yourself to change some of these instantly or with time.
The Familiarity Principle
The more you’re familiar with a place, the safer you’ll perceive that place.
I love using New York City as an example whenever I talk about safety. It’s a city a lot of people want to visit, but a good portion of folks are afraid of traveling here. Since I live here, too, I can use the familiarity to show my point.
NYC is unique because the whole landscape changes depending on the neighborhood you’re in. I’m not just talking about the “feel” of the neighborhood. I mean, just take a look at this Trulia map outlining the crime rate “hotspots” of NYC. The red areas show the highest crime rates, and the green areas show the lowest:
Now take a look at what Brooklyn looks like:
Trulia doesn’t make up these values. They source the crime rates from two different crime-reporting sites.
Some of the areas visitors and tourists go to are where Trulia depicts high crime rates (parts of Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, the southeastern area by Prospect Park). These are popular neighborhoods. They have higher crime rates, yet they attract a bunch of tourists, day and night.
From my personal experience, and having lived in Brooklyn since I was 3 years old, I “know” the areas that are safer. I know where not to walk alone at night. I know which areas are always alive with music, clubs, and visitors. And I also know which areas are pretty sketch.
If you live somewhere, no matter that area’s crime rate, you’ll perceive that area as safer compared to a visitor or a non-native. This isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. Social psychologists have studied this phenomenon and coined it the “familiarity principle.”
What does the principle say, exactly? The more you’re exposed to something, the better chance you’ll have a preference towards it (where “it” is a person, place, or thing).
Can you relate to that?
See, safety is as much a mental state of mind as it is a quality of a location. If you’ve been somewhere a thousand times (figuratively speaking), you probably think it’s safer than someone who’s never been there before.
How Frequently You Travel
The more you travel, the more likely you are to see your surroundings as safe.
This graph from a report on city safety by Stratos Jets says it all:
The people who traveled 10+ times in the year perceived greater safety compared to those who traveled less or at all. There were 2000 participants in this survey and the question was only about U.S. travel, not international travel.
But I’ve found this holds true whether it’s domestic or international travel.
The differences between the numbers in this screenshot seem small, but I’ve seen this time and time again: people who travel more frequently had more “grit” facing the unknown of travel (another reason to travel more — who doesn’t want to build a little more grit??).
This is why you see seasoned travel bloggers, for example, raving about the benefits of travel and encouraging others to follow suit. If they thought travel was unsafe, they wouldn’t recommend it to others.
Now that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for those of you who are just starting out traveling. Remember, everyone started somewhere!
It’s kind of like riding a bike without the training wheels for the first time. The thought of it sounds scary at first, downright absurd, even. There was probably a time as a kid you didn’t fathom riding your bike without them. But once they came off, they stayed off. You didn’t need them anymore and you were comfortable with just two wheels.
The same goes for traveling. The more you do it, the more you’re comfortable doing it. It’s a virtuous cycle. You just feel at ease heading to the airport. You handle delays, cancellations, and last-minute changes with poise (for the most part 😉 ). You gain knowledge of the system.
The more you do it, the more confident you become in yourself, and the safer you feel.
And that feeling of safety is a good thing.
It doesn’t indicate you have become “immune” or “oblivious” to potential safety risks. If anything, seasoned travelers often say how they’re far more aware of their environment, rather than ignorant of it.
So keep traveling and growing that confidence!
Generally, Closer to Home Feels Safer
If you’re traveling closer to home, the destination usually feels safer.
If I were to draw a map expressing this, with someone who’s from Houston, Texas, it would look something like this:
This is how I used to feel about the areas surrounding me that I always wanted to explore.
It’s a warped way of thinking, right? But it’s not your fault. It’s just how our parents raised us.
Let me explain.
Do you remember our parents telling us not to stray too far from home when we were younger? It’s embedded in us that safety equals home, or whatever location feels like home. My grandmother always used to let me ride my (two-wheeled!) bicycle around the block. She didn’t let me cross the streets for a long time.
So the first time she let me cross the road to East 15th Street, I felt like I was venturing into some unknown, weird territory.
This is what travel to parts unknown feels like. At least, in the beginning.
Our parents’ voices are still with us when we want to travel farther. We’re still listening to them — but we don’t need to (we’re grown-ups, now, right??), and it’s better we don’t in this case!
The good news is that you don’t need to take big leaps to move past safety concerns during travel. Small, effective steps are key in helping you move past any fears.
How Much You Read / Watch / Listen To The News
Sometimes listening to the news a lot keeps us away from traveling. I talked about how and why this happens, and how you can break out of it here.
One of my best friends says she wants to travel to Europe. She tells me her family and friends are warning her against it given the recent terrorist attacks in certain parts.
She resiliently told me: But I still want to go there.
Good for her! That’s exactly what I want to hear.
While those attacks were isolated and targeted in certain areas, it doesn’t mean Europe as a whole is unsafe.
A lot of people rely on the news solely for figuring out the safety of a particular region or area. It’s only natural. But the news is filled with a bunch of stories written by reporters for extra attention, clicks, and shares.
One author even recommended taking as much as a media holiday and staying away from the flashy headlines and the sensationalistic stuff out there.
We need the news to stay updated on the world. I get it. But be mindful of where that news is coming from, and any preconceived judgments coming from the media’s side. Try to stop yourself from generalizing the safety of a certain area based on isolated incidents.
I know some people who believe the whole world is a scary place to live, which is not the case at all.
This is what I call “the world is unsafe” syndrome and the people who believe it has let the media get to their heads.
So if a news story breaks about something “bad” happening abroad, use your best judgment and have a critical eye.
Where You’re From
Where you’re from can affect how safe you feel.
I never even really thought about safety in this way, so when I came across this journal article I kind of had a “duh!” moment.
What is the study saying?
Tourists from the United States, Hong Kong, and Australia:
-perceived more travel risk
-felt less safe
Compared to tourists from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Greece.
I was surprised to see people from the United States felt unsafe traveling. I’ve always thought Americans live in a pretty safe country, and I wonder if negative perceptions of safety abroad contribute to this feeling.
The study even went as far to suggest knowing who felt unsafe was useful knowledge for marketers.
How could marketers put that knowledge into action? By altering their advertising to coax tourists into feeling safer about traveling.
Marketers can suggest images of happy people smiling, enjoying drinks poolside, laughing as their ride from the hotel greets them. Marketers can even use copywriting to give the idea an area is tourist-friendly, welcoming, and eager to receive tourists.
Why am I mentioning this?
Because our perceptions of safety can even be altered by advertising. While encouraging people to travel more is still better than scaring them out of travel, just see how your ideas change based on the advertising you see around you.
Even though you can’t change where you’re from, you can see how your ideas of safety are a cultural thing, too.
How Communicative Staff, Personnel, and Hosts Are
Ever wonder why air crews perform those safety demonstrations in the airplanes before takeoff? Well, they’re legally mandated to.
But those demonstrations have an interesting psychological effect, too: they affect how safe you feel.
When you see people in your environment expressing safety concerns, you feel safer.
This study, for example, found that when a ship played a safety video before it departed, travelers felt safer and developed trust in their crews at the same time.
What about communication you receive from where you’ll be staying?
Some hotels reach out to you beforehand and send you a welcome email. Not only does this way of “e-greeting” boost the potential for a happy customer, it helps you feel safer.
That’s also why meeting friendly people abroad gives you a positive impression of the safety of the location, too.
While you can’t make the staff initiate communication with you, sometimes you can ease your worries by sending an email to any support staff.
And if you’re staying at a vacation rental, feel free to address your concerns with the host. In most cases, hosts are more than happy to respond to your questions.
How Much You’ve Prepped
The more you prepare for your travel, the safer you feel.
Preparation could involve research, packing well in advance, and ensuring you’re accounting for your safety. These are all the ways you prepare yourself for the “unknown.”
Ali, who runs the travel blog, Travel Made Simple, says that people often equate “unknown” with “unsafe.”
I think this is exactly how people feel when they’re trying a new food for the first time. I remember trying dosa for the first time (a savory Indian pancake, made from fermented batter) and kept asking my friends what it would taste like. I even Googled dosas to see what they looked like.
Whether you’re conducting research to eat a foreign food, or to choose the sights you want to see abroad, preparing ourselves is a mental way to stay ready and face the unknown.
I feel a lot better after I do a ton of research where I go. I don’t research out of safety concerns usually, but to get a better idea or “vibe” of a place. The mental prep work helps me adjust to how I’ll feel there and gets me pumped for the adventure.
And if you’re worried about preparing for your own safety, get a copy of my safety checklist here. I’ve covered the basics on what you should do before and during travel to keep yourself safer.
So What’s The Deal? Are Your Perceptions Real?
For the most part, no.
At least, they don’t represent the entire reality.
And that’s good news.
I’ve outlined how our perceptions of safety and travel are fueled by so many factors.
Would you be surprised to know the United States sometimes gets a bad rep from foreigners on issues like gun control?
Caz & Craig from the travel blog, YTravel, said they were worried about increasing violence and gun control in the United States before their road trip there. They previously lived in the United States for four years, too.
I understand why they’re worried because I know how the media makes America out to be. I’d have concerns traveling to America if I wasn’t from there.
Some people go as far as saying to ignore the news entirely.
Another travel blogger, Michael, from Bemused Backpacker, made a whole post about how Israel is not what the news paints it out to be after he visited and experienced it for himself.
He encourages doing your own research, following your gut, and making an informed decision.
And I think that last part is huge – making an informed decision.
You can make informed decisions by seeing what people from different sources are saying. Sometimes listening only to friends and family isn’t the best idea because they tend to get most of their information from the media, too. Check online forums and communities. Listen to what the well-traveled people in your life have to say.
Consider everything you hear.
And always remember safety is a state of mind and, to a large degree, under your control.