by Rick Steves, September 2001
Remember when terrorism was a "European problem?" In the seventies, Americans heading overseas were warned about Italy's Red Brigades, Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Provisional IRA, among the many terrorists that had the nerve to toss bombs in the path of our travel dreams. Ten years ago, travelers in Europe feared widespread retaliation for American bombs being dropped on Baghdad. Today, we've seen what happens when airliners are turned into bombs—over American skies. Over the past three decades, terrorism has become part of every traveler's pre-trip reality-check.
As travelers have faced each new terrorist threat, 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 say, persistently, "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 2200 miles from Istanbul and 3000 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 the next year—no matter what happens in the world—will have perfectly normal trips.
They'll do this by being well-informed, flexible, low-key travelers. Easy Web access makes staying 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? Don't get me wrong, but I think that implies the rest of Italy is safe! (Why would you want to include Burger King, the Hilton, and US 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 make Europe-USA phone calls cheap and easy. Global cell phones are more expensive, but are 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.
Last weekend in Padua, the town where Galileo and Copernicus taught, the square was filled with college students sharing drinks and discussing America's response to "our new reality." As we talked, I kept dipping little strips of bread into a puddle of olive oil on my plate, tiptoe-style. Watching me do this, my new friend said, "You make the scarpetta…little shoes."
My Italian wasn't good enough to tell him my thoughts: Travel is a celebration of life and freedom. Terrorists will not take that away from me. My mission in life is to inspire Americans to travel, one by one—"making the little shoes"—to soak-in the wonders of this continent. New chances to celebrate life and freedom are waiting for us in Dingle, in Bergen, in Sevilla, in Bayeux, in Köln, in Appenzell, in Cappadocia, and in Padua.
Sure, travel has some risks. It's always had them.
But the rewards are priceless.