Is Europe Safe to Visit This Summer?

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Strong dollar v. euro: check. No Zika mosquitoes: check. Tons of history and great food: check. Unpredictable terrorism: check.

Western Europe is in the crosshairs this week after Tuesday’s twin attacks at Brussels airport and subway system that killed more than 30 people and injured more than 100. Now, many Americans are asking whether it’s safe to visit Belgium or any other part of Europe for their annual summer vacation. The State Department issued a travel alert on Tuesday for travel throughout the European continent.

“Terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation,” the warning stated.

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State officials said U.S. citizens should “exercise vigilance” in public places or using mass transportation, avoid crowded places, exercise caution during religious holidays and at large festivals or events.

So should we book that trip to Florence or Barcelona when the kids are out of school? Safety is a personal decision, but there are some common sense tips if you do decide to travel, according to Jennifer Michel, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, which represents 8,500 agents worldwide.

“We when the bombings happened in Paris last year, we were amazed at how few Americans canceled their travel plans,” Michel said. About one-third canceled or delayed their plans, most of them for trips within a few days of the terrorist incident. Some people have shifted o places like the Caribbean or Mexico, Michel said, where terrorism is less of a threat. Michel also offered these tips:

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-Get travel insurance. It allows you to get a refund for your trip in case of a terrorism incident, part of the “force majeure” clause.

-Be aware of your surroundings. Read local newspapers or television to see what’s happening.

-Know the way to the local airport or train station in case you have to leave town quickly.

-Play it low-key at crowded places. “Don’t flash out loud that you are an American,” Michel said.

– Sign up for the State Departments “smart traveler enrollment program” (STEP) https://step.state.gov/step/ which emails or texts travel information and warnings from the local U.S. embassy.

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As for the actual risk of becoming a terrorist victim, it’s pretty close to zero. Boston-area risk consultant David Ropeik says it’s not the statistics, but how we feel about risk that determines our decision-making.

“No matter how you do the math, the risk is infinitesimal,” said Ropeik, author of  “How Risky Is It Really?: Why The Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts”   http://www.amazon.com/How-Risky-Really-Fears-Always/dp/0071629696 “But that doesn’t matter, what matters is how the risk feels, and at the moment it feels a lot scarier than infinitesimal.”

Ropeik notes that terrorism scares us because of its randomness and inability in predicting how to avoid it.

“Uncertainty means we don’t know what we need to know to protect ourselves,” Ropeik said. “That’s powerlessness, and it makes the risk scarier.”

The recent attacks in Europe hit home more than similar bombings in the Middle East, Africa or South Asia because of the United States close cultural and historic ties to Europe. Intense media coverage has acted as a magnifier, making the risk of terrorism seem greater than it may really be, according to Ropeik.

In fact, Ropeik says our brains are hard-wired to disregard logic when assessing risk. We tend to make decisions based on emotional responses, responses that helped our evolutionary ancestors make quick decisions rather than undertake thoughtful deliberations about whether a snake or lion was dangerous.

“We overdo the feeling of how can I stay safe,” Ropeik said. “We respond with feelings regardless of what the numbers tell us.”

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