It still rankles my mind, sending shivers down my spine, when Lawrence Olivier’s character peppers Dustin Hoffman’s character in Marathon Man with three simple words: Is it Safe? Unsure of the question or its meaning Hoffman, oscillates his reply between maybe, yes and no as the dentist’s drill continues to pound.
Travel experts and the flying public find themselves pondering the same enquiry: Is it safe flying to, from, or even transiting European airports? Let’s set the background. The tragic events last month in Brussels where explosions went off at the airport and in a subway station have decimated Brussels tourism. Hotel stays there have been canceled; the airport is only slowly returning to some type of normalcy. In fact, a dispute between the Belgian government and police unions delayed the partial reopening as the government agreed to the union’s demand for passengers to be checked before they enter the terminal. There was an argument whether the local authority should pay so that passengers are inspected before they physically enter the building.
Passengers flying out of Ben-Gurion Airport have long been accustomed to a vehicle check with a few cursory questions when entering the airport area followed by security personnel eyeballing customers before they enter the airport, complete with a metal detector if they deem your luggage suspicious.
The US State Department is taking no chances.
Its recent warning to Americans of the risks of traveling to Europe through late June is exceedingly severe. The State Department alerts US citizens about potential risks of travel to and throughout Europe following several terrorist attacks. US citizens should exercise vigilance when in public places or using mass transportation; be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid crowded places; and exercise particular caution during religious holidays and at large festivals or events.
This severe warning pretty much discourages travel to all of Europe for the next couple of months.
US and European media are focusing heavily on these attacks, both because they’re incredibly tragic and also because they’re relatable. Other recent terrorist attacks in Turkey have led the Israeli government to issue a similarly worded warning asking Israelis to avoid travel there. The travel warning issued by the National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau asked that Israelis living or visiting Turkey to leave immediately, as concrete threats had been received.
What needs to be taken into account is the difference between visiting a country versus simply transiting its airport.
Let me start by saying that I’m no expert on international security, but rather opining on the safety of traveling in general. Let me break down my answer into two sections: why you shouldn’t change your travel plans, and why you should change your travel plans.
Why you shouldn’t change your travel plans Is there a chance of another attack in Brussels, Paris, Jerusalem or elsewhere? It’s a possibility, absolutely.
There could be another attack tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, or 10 years from now. Is it worth changing your plans and living in fear of the possibility of an attack? Personally, I don’t think so, when you put things into perspective. Residing in Jerusalem, while I don’t minimize the risks of attacks, I cherish each day rather than ruminating on the risks.
The US travel warning is for all of Europe, and Europe has a population of about 750 million people. A terrorist attack happened, which killed at least 34 people. Not to minimize how tragic that is, but more than 10,000 people die each year in the US from car crashes. That’s approximately 30 people per day, which is similar to the death count of the Brussels attacks on a daily basis.
In my opinion, we should all be scared of driving, but it’s something we accept as a risk, and something we don’t put much thought into.
That’s sort of how I view travel. There are always risks when traveling. You could be robbed, you could be murdered, and you could be close to a terrorist attack.
There are always risks just living your life – it’s not limited to when you’re traveling. The difference is that we don’t really think much about the risks of just living our daily lives, since they can’t really be avoided.
Why you should change your travel plans While I won’t be changing my own travel plans or counseling my clients to do so, I also only think you should do what’s within your comfort zone.
Therefore, if: • You’re going to spend your time in major European cities being afraid and avoiding the major landmarks out of fear • Your loved ones back home are absolutely terrified of you traveling to certain places, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons …then I might advise changing your travel itinerary.
Ultimately travel is about enjoying new places, new people, new adventures, and if fear will prevent that, I wouldn’t hesitate to altering plans.
If you’re going to go on your vacation to a major city and be afraid and/or not be able to fully enjoy it, then by all means, switch it around and consider going to smaller cities and/or more rural areas, where the perceived risk is lower.
Bottom line It’s a scary world we live in, though at the same time I’d argue it has always been a scary world. What’s different now is that every event can be broadcast to every part of the world in a matter of minutes. And the coverage events get aren’t based on the impact they have, but rather based on their appeal.
You don’t hear very much about the hundreds of thousands of people per year who die of car accidents or the over 20,000 people per day who die of hunger-related causes. None of which is to minimize the terrible things that happened in Brussels, but rather to put them into perspective and plan accordingly.
Check your travel insurance. If you have travel insurance, which you should have, an airport that is closed usually is grounds for coverage. Some insurance plans have clauses about terrorism, so it will depend on the policy. Even if you’re not covered by insurance, airlines, hotels, and rental car companies will probably do their best to be accommodating.
Nobody wants to harm their own tourism industry in the future. The airlines are going to be as proactive as possible in terms of rerouting you, getting you another ticket. Airlines are not great at saying, “Here’s a full refund,” but usually they’ll give you a voucher or let you rebook. If you’ve booked with a reputable travel consultant, expect them to fight your battles and make the changes on your behalf.
Wait, you did buy travel insurance, didn’t you? It boggles my mind that so many US travelers I encounter never bother to get insurance, as if they have some type of invisible shield to illness, accidents or theft. Insurance is very important; it will cover you if something happens and you need to get to safety and get home.
Make sure your phone works abroad. It’s as easy as just turning your phone back on when you land. If you have an expensive carrier and are a little more cost-conscious, you may want to buy a local SIM card when you arrive. That will change your phone number for the period that card is in your phone, so make sure to immediately let everybody know your new number.
Make sure your loved ones know your plans. Always leave behind a copy of your itinerary, let people know if your plans change, and leave behind either a hard copy or a scan of your passport. If your passport is lost or stolen, it’s a lot easier issue a new one if you have a copy of the original. It will also make it a lot easier if there’s an emergency situation for your relatives to say to the authorities, “Here’s the documentation.”
Be vigilant, not terrified. Travel advisories are exactly that, advising you on the risks of traveling. The US State Department did not tell people not to travel; it was advice to take caution when you’re traveling. It’s something most regular travelers are already doing. My advice is simpler: If you see something, say something! Follow your gut. Travel – at least for vacation – should be about enjoyment and exploration, so if you’re uncomfortable, then it might not be worth it.
Let’s relate to more specific types of questions that many of you have contacted me about, such as: Is flying Turkish Air safe? Should I risk switching planes in Paris? How dangerous is it switching planes in Europe? Please understand that when you book a direct flight that is not nonstop, it usually will require disembarking one aircraft and going through some type of security procedure before boarding a new aircraft for your final destination. There is a fine shade of meaning between the words ‘transfer’ and ‘transit’ in the domain of airports. When you fly, for example, Alitalia from Tel Aviv to New York, you will transfer in Rome.
The transit or layover time is 3 hours and 10 minutes.
When you are in transit you are in a secure area that the general public does not have access to. Nobody from the transiting city can come and meet you unless you leave the airport. Your luggage will be booked through to your final destination and you will not see it. You’ll have the opportunity to visit duty free, get something to eat or enter the airline lounge if you’re eligible or pay for an entrance fee. From a point of security, you are as safe as you can be and far safer than if you had originated your trip in a European city, where security in entering the checkout counters remains spotty at best.
When traveling by plane from an airport in the European Union, you should keep in mind certain security requirements when packing and boarding.
Liquids carried in the aircraft cabin, such as aerosols, drinks, toothpaste, cosmetic creams or gels must be carried in a transparent plastic bag and no container may hold more than 100 ml. The volume restriction does not apply to medicines and baby foods. Dutyfree liquids purchased from any airport or airline may be carried as hand luggage, provided it remains inside the security bag (usually with a red border) Explosive and inflammable substances are of course banned.
At many EU and Turkish airports, passengers may be screened by body scanners, either as the primary method of screening or as an additional method to deal with higher security threats.
Like most travelers, I’ve long ago stopped taking security for granted. Bring it on, is my motto; the more the better. Ask me any question you want, profile me to your heart’s content. There is no shortage of people trying to kill me; I don’t plan to make it easy for them but not will I lock myself into a panic room.
Don’t forget how Marathon Man ends: Dustin Hoffman’s character, Babe, saunters out to Central Park, symbolically walking away in the opposite direction of the park’s joggers.
The writer is CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.
For questions and comments email him at email@example.com