Recently I watched a TV show featuring Rick Steves, the famous travel host who specializes in European travel. The co-host for the evening asked him a question that’s on a lot of minds these days. With the constant headlines about Syrian refugees and terrorist attacks, is it safe to travel to Europe?
Steves’ answer was quick, and definitive: yes. In fact, he said , he employs dozens of travel guides around Europe. And at a recent meeting, he asked them what problems they had encountered due to the refugee crisis. The answer might surprise you: not one guide had anything to report.
The answer didn’t surprise me. Over the past few years, I’ve been to major cities across Europe, from Paris to Prague, Munich to Vienna, Zagreb to Bruges. And only once have I encountered any real impediment to my travels. Looking to head south from Budapest to Croatia, I found that the train no longer crossed the border, ostensibly to slow the flow of refugees. I took a bus, and had a pleasant trip.
Are there places that are affected by refugees? I’m sure there are. But I’m also pretty sure these tend to be places most tourists never venture. I have yet to hear of refugee camps being set up outside tourist attractions. And walking the streets of these cities, I have never come across refugee tents, or displaced people sleeping in doorways. There are street people, of course — but frankly, I see more of those in my native city, Toronto.
What about terrorist attacks? Some have occurred, for sure: attacks in Paris and Brussels have rocked those cities. But as with most kinds of man-made disasters, these incidents tend to happen in a small area – the size of a football field, or less. The rest of the city doesn’t even realize anything happened until they hear it on the news.
That means you have to be pretty unlucky to be in the exact spot where an attack occurs, and even unluckier to become an actual victim. In truth, you’re far more likely to be hit by a bus crossing the street. So look both ways before you step off the curb.
And yet, a lot of people are afraid to go to Europe these days. My go-to travel agent, Roberta Westwood, reports that again this year, travel companies are offering discounts and other incentives to fill up their European tours and cruises. Paris hotels are going for their lowest prices in years.
Why? Well, news travels fast. And it often seems to grow exponentially in people’s imaginations. I call it the news effect: people see something happening in a foreign city, and they automatically assume it’s happening across the entire country. There was a problem in Paris last week, so the whole of France must be in flames.
In fact, that’s almost never true. In most cases, the country is pretty much as safe as it was yesterday, or last year.
To be sure, there are countries I wouldn’t care to visit these days. That includes places where a war is raging, like Syria or Iraq (though even in those countries, there are probably areas that are quite safe). I might also give Turkey a pass, as some cruise companies have done, because of continuing attacks in the heavily touristed areas of Istanbul.
But pass up a trip to Europe? No way. I’m headed back there in May to take my third Viking river cruise, and I’m looking forward to it. I’ll walk the streets of medieval cities, tour castles and palaces, and dine in restaurants that have been around since the time of Mozart and Goethe. And I doubt I’ll be thinking of the refugee crisis, or even get a glimpse of it.
That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the refugees. I’m happy my country, Canada, stepped up to take in a large number of people fleeing the violence in their country. But there’s little I can do about it personally, except pay my taxes so the government can make the effort. And that’s not what holiday travel is about.
If you’re still hesitant about visiting Europe, my advice is to take a tour, like the one featured on this page. Tour companies know the lay of the land; they know where to go and where not to. And they’re very safety-conscious, so they’re not going to take you anywhere you’ll be in danger.
So, is it safe to travel to Europe? My answer, like Rick Steves’, is yes. Is it 100 percent safe? No, but then, neither is your own city. Crimes and disasters happen all over the world, harming the unlucky few. But I’m going back to Europe with no qualms. And if I encounter a little more security than I’m used to, it’s a small price to pay for a great experience.