Where's the Gringo?

American Fear of Traveling Abroad – You’re Not Going to Die!

I consistently get questions, warnings, & advice from all sorts of people about my safety while traveling. At first I thought that this was just a temporary thing.  I thought that after I uploaded a certain amount of Facebook pictures showing that I was perfectly fine, or after returning home safe & sound after so many trips, that the questions about my impending doom would stop.  But boy was I wrong.  After being on the road for a few years, the questions & warnings have not stopped, but maybe even increased.  I have heard the following, or something similar, more times than I can count:

“Isn’t it really dangerous where you are?”

“Do you have kidnapping insurance?”

“Please be careful, it’s not safe over there.”

“We’re praying for you.  Come back to us safely!”

I know that this isn’t just my family & friends who worry like this, because almost every time I see another friend post travel plans on Facebook, the majority of the comments read like the above.

I appreciate the prayers and general concern, I really do (Lord knows they have helped me out!), and it’s always nice to let someone know you care.  Also I want to be clear when I say that the purpose of this article is not to criticize anyone, nor how they express their feelings towards loved ones.  But I do want to use this article to examine some reasons why Americans fear traveling abroad, help show that traveling is not dangerous, & maybe inspire you to go to that one place you have been wondering about.

“They” Say It’s Dangerous

They said not to go there.  They told me that I would get kidnapped.  They have been there, and they don’t recommend that I go.  One thing that I’ve learned from traveling is that NOWHERE is as dangerous as they say it is.

Who is they? The news, the reports, the studies, your parents, just….they. Why do they say that it is dangerous there? Because unfortunately shocking, scary, terrible news is the kind that generates ratings, sells, & spreads. The good stories are made into documentaries or 60-minute specials, the bad ones make the headlines and scare people.

Remember that story about the little Peruvian girl who almost died, but then received a heart transplant at the last second from an American donor? The story with the happy ending where the girl went on to lead a full life, showing the good of humanity as it transcends international borders?  BORING.  A plane crash!  An earthquake that kills 2,000 people!  New ISIS beheading video!   Now THAT’s exciting stuff.

It doesn’t just seem that the overwhelming majority of breaking news stories are negative in nature, but also that many of them are also drastically over-exaggerated.  Remember Natalee Holloway?  It’s terrible was happened to her, & I feel sorry for her family, but how long were news channels running the story of one person’s misfortune in a different country?

Of course, no one’s had time to forget…

ebola jokeThe Ebola garbage was the biggest sensationalist media circus that I’ve seen since Y2K.  Which reminds me, don’t throw those How To: Apocalypse books away just yet, because I did hear that they just found a missing part of the Mayan calendar that said Y2K really comes in 2016, due to a misinterpretation caused by the position of the Heavens Gate comet that was visible at that time, which confused Nostradamus’ prediction.

end of the world meme

The point is that if you really allow what “they” say on the news to define your comfort zone, influence your opinions, & inform you about the rest of the world, you won’t ever travel anywhere, except maybe on a cruise.

But What About Travel Advisories?

The travel advisories issued by the US Department of State.  They exist to warn US citizens of the potential dangers involved when traveling outside of the country.  In theory, they are appreciated, precautionary updates that keep us informed, but they will scare the bejesus out of you if you take them too seriously, and are certainly not immune to the sensationalist generalism that taints most media.

Let’s take where I am right now, Mexico, for example.  Currently Mexico is on the US State Department’s travel warning list, a list of countries which the US government wants you to “consider very carefully whether you should go to this country at all” (it’s right there on the website, read it).  Just think for a moment how ridiculous that statement is.

I’ll rephrase it so maybe you can understand a little better: The US government is suggesting that it’s not smart to step foot, ANYWHERE in Mexico, the 13th largest country in the world, for fear of being put in immediate danger.  I can understand travel warnings for US citizens in countries such as Iraq & Syria due to obvious reasons, but come on man, you’re telling me that I should reconsider going to Cancun this spring break for risk of the Mexican drug cartel snatching me out of Señor Frogs?

There is no denying that Mexico has some problems with organized crime right now, but I think it’s a little unfair to classify an entire country as “dangerous” due to activities that happen in a certain area of that country.  But, let’s play along for a minute.  Take a look at this map, then meet me below for some thoughts:

american fear of traveling

Source: CDC, 2012

Looks like Phoenix, Arizona has about the same gun murder rate as Mexico – where’s the travel warning there?

What did you say?  You’re heading to Miami for some clubbing & fun in the sun on South Beach? Well, I’ve just seen the stats and I have to say, “I want you to consider very carefully whether you should go there at all.”  

And don’t even think about those Mardi Gras plans in New Orleans this year.  Getting those beads on Bourbon Street will be the last thing you do before dying a bloody death.  After all, New Orleans has about the same gun murder rate as Honduras (another country on the travel warning list).  I want you to consider very carefully whether you should go there at all.

Random, mind-blowing side stat: Washington DC has a higher HIV rate than many countries in West Africa.  Do you hear travel advisories about the capital of the United States of America?  Are you scared to go see the Lincoln Memorial for fear of dying of AIDS?  I mean, you could slip on a banana peel & land on a used heroin needle – anything is possible right?

You see where I’m going here?  Why doesn’t the entire United States of America put itself on a travel advisory warning to protect ourselves from each other?  Well, because first off, that’s just silly nonsense, but also because what happens in certain regions of a country isn’t necessarily reflective of others, much less the country as a whole.  

Pro Tip:  Don’t Join the Mexican Drug Cartel

Despite the possibility of having a solid gold AR-15.  Credit: everydaynodaysoff.com

Despite the possibility of having a solid gold AR-15. Credit: everydaynodaysoff.com

Let’s continue with Latin America, considered by the The Wall Street Journal & various other publications as the most dangerous region in the world.

Many parts of Latin America have become violent over the years in large part due to the production & transport of cocaine.  People have been taking on the risks of drug dealing to escape poverty at all costs, and the biggest & baddest have risen to the top.  Most of the murders & violent crimes in Latin America are in some way related to this narcotrafficante (narcotics trafficking) world, as there is a lot of money at stake.  The truth of the matter is if you don’t use drugs, go looking for drugs, consume drugs, or sell drugs, your chances of being in a dangerous situation just dropped massively.

Also, many people are scared of being kidnapped in Mexico or other latino countries.  The overwhelming majority of these kidnappings, once again, do not target foreigners or tourists.  Most of the kidnappings involve rich businessmen, politicians, or people known within the community for having lots of money.  Foreigners & tourists usually are not targeted for kidnappings because:

  • The bad guys do not know if you have a lot of money or not
  • The bad guys know that the money you do have is in foreign accounts, therefore it is harder & more risky to extract
  • Kidnappings usually take time to plan.  Foreigners & tourists normally pass through destinations, and do not give the bad guys enough time to do research on you & study your schedule

I personally have been traveling through Latin America for almost 1 1/2 years now, including more than 5 months in Mexico.  I have been to numerous zones that are considered dangerous, and instead of being kidnapped, robbed, or killed, I have found nothing but smiling faces & open arms.  You know where I have been robbed though?  Charlotte, North Carolina.  The real killer of Americans abroad?  Traffic accidents. 

I know all of this sounds kind of scary, but it’s fine out here, I promise!  Sure innocent foreigners have been in the wrong place at the wrong time (like Natalee Holloway) & have had something bad happen to them, but these incidents are few & far between.  The important thing is that you…

Use Common Sense, Be Smart (Duh)

Bad things can happen anywhere, but if you simply use a little common sense & discretion, and don’t make yourself a target, you should be safe:

  • DON’T wear flashy, gold jewelry.  You’re not Mister T
  • DON’T walk alone at night.  You’re not Batman.
  • DON’T get too drunk.  You aren’t familiar with your surroundings.
  • DON’T buy cocaine.  Avoid dealing with criminals at all costs.
  • DON’T buy prostitutes.  Besides being just wrong & pathetic, sex tourism takes you bad places.
  • DO use your phone & camera discretely, if possible.
  • DO avoid poorer parts of town.  Ask where they are located if you don’t know
  • DON’T carry too much cash, nor flash it.  You don’t need to pull wads out when paying for a $.50 ice cream
  • DO use official taxis, and get hotels/restaurants to call them for you
  • DO read my blog post about being robbed by 8 women in Vietnam for a PRIME example of what not using common sense when traveling looks like

Don’t Be Scared to Travel to New Places!

Safety is always a topic worth discussing and taking seriously, regardless of where one might be. But don’t automatically associate the unknown with danger & a lack of safety.  What is dangerous is to let slanted, overdramatic news specials, skewed statistics, and even US State Department-issued trip advisories formulate your final verdict & deter you from traveling to see a new place for yourself.

And just to end on a final, mind-blowing, “woah, nothing is what it seems” note, next time someone warns you about the dangers of traveling outside of the United States, tell them about the Global Peace Index (GPI).

american fear of traveling

The Global Peace Index is measured using a wide range of indicators to determine & gauge the peacefulness of the countries of the world. It takes into account statistics like crime levels, political instability, number of deaths from internal & external conflicts, & terroristic activities, amongst other things.  Out of 162 countries ranked on the 2014 GPI scale, the United States ranked #101.  That’s correct, the USA is the 101st most peaceful country in the world.  

According to this study endorsed by experts around the world, including the Dalai Lama & former president Jimmy Carter, most of the countries in the world are more peaceful & safe than the USA.  They didn’t tell you that in the news, did they?  Take that, scared Americans!

So what are you waiting for?  Get out there and go traveling!  The world is a lot safer, and people a lot nicer than you think.  When you finally see that for yourself, then you’ll REALLY catch the travel bug.  Then who knows, maybe you won’t be able to stop!

Why do you think many Americans are scared to travel?  If you’re American, what are some fears that you may have?  What have you heard about other countries that makes you reluctant to go? Don’t be ashamed, I was the same way before I started traveling.  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.

11 thoughts on “American Fear of Traveling Abroad – You’re Not Going to Die!

  1. Pingback: 10 Reasons to Teach English in Costa Rica

  2. Wiese

    This has always been an interesting topic to me. Usually someone’s heard a story from someone else, about someone else’s 8th cousin thrice removed who was told about a bad experience in Vietnam by a guy named Ford. You’re right, a lot of it is that so many of the worriers simply haven’t traveled much, and usually watch too much Fox News Travel Edition (I sorta wish that existed, for the laughs). The only time I’ve ever felt at all unsafe traveling was while paying to use a indoor cinder block wall rest area in the middle of the night halfway between Kolkata and Siliguri. You’re right, it’s all about avoiding the areas where you shouldn’t be, avoiding the people with whom you shouldn’t be, and avoiding doing the things you shouldn’t do. Sounds like common sense to me.

    PS: Thanks for including a map that shows my current country of residence as being red and in the Bottom 20%. Now NO ONE will come visit me for fear of death.

    1. fordquarterman Post author

      Common sense common sense. The reason I don’t want to come visit is because I don’t want to have to look at half nude pictures of Vladimir Putin mounting grizzly bears like Aragorn riding into battle in Middle Earth everywhere. lol

  3. Pingback: We're Driving to the End of the World, and You're Invited - Where's the Gringo?

  4. Sylvester


    Staying in an airbnb at your auntie’s airbnb (I think it ‘s your auntie lol). She is the wife of a man named Russell. Anyways, Russell told me about your blog as I too love the travel life and have been living in Medellin, Colombian for almost a year now. Everything yo said was spot on. It’s funny how everyone who told me Colombian was dangerous or that I would get kidnapped had never been there….Like you said, just use common sense when you travel. Either way, great blog posts

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