By Rick Steves


Regardless of September 11, terrorism in Europe is on the decline. Statistically, Europe is the safest it's been in decades and -- even so -- security has never been tighter.

But political unrest is still a part of Europe. For decades, countries from Britain to Italy have been dealing with serious internal discord, from separatists to religious extremists. An awareness of current social and political problems is as important to smart travel as a listing of top sights. As some popular destinations are entertaining tourists with "sound and light" shows in the old town, they're quelling angry demonstrations in the new.

Travel broadens our perspective, enabling us to rise above the 6PM entertainment we call news -- and see things as a citizen of our world. By plugging directly into the present and getting the European take on things, a traveler gets beyond traditional sightseeing and learns "today's history."

There are many peoples fighting the same thrilling battles for political rights we Americans won 200 years ago. And, while your globe may paint Greece orange and Bulgaria green, racial, religious, and linguistic groups rarely color within the lines.

Understand a country's linguistic divisions. It's next to impossible to keep everyone happy in a multi-lingual country. Switzerland has four languages, but Deutsch ist uber alles. In Belgium, tensions persist between the Dutch- and French-speaking halves. Like many French Canadians, Europe's linguistic underdogs will tell you their language receives equal treatment only on cornflakes boxes, and many are working toward rectification.

Look beyond the pretty pictures in your tourist brochures for background on how your destination's demographic makeup may be causing problems today or tomorrow. If you're planning a trip to Ireland, for example, start clipping newspaper articles and surfing the web a few months in advance to gather political news on what's happening (information you'll seldom find in guidebooks).

With this foundation and awareness, you can get the most out of the nearly unavoidable opportunities to talk with involved locals about complex current situations. At any pub in the Emerald Isle, you'll get an earful of someone's passionate feelings about its "troubles." In Russia and Eastern Europe, whenever you want some political or economic gossip, sit alone in a cafe. After a few minutes and some eye contact, you'll have company and a fascinating chat. Young, well-dressed people are most likely to speak (and want to speak) English. Universities can be the perfect place to solve the world's problems with a liberal, open-minded foreigner over a cafeteria lunch.

But be prepared for a challenge when the topic shifts to America: While most Americans believe we came to Kuwait's rescue in the name of democracy, most Europeans smell oil. Like it or not, people around the world look at "capitalist Americans" as the kingpins of a global and ruthless game of Monopoly.


Since September 11th, some Americans heading for Europe are more nervous about travel. But when considering terrorism and travel, one thing is indisputable: 12 million Americans enjoyed Europe in 2001 and not one was attacked by a terrorist.

Terrorism is nothing new for Americans heading for Europe. In the seventies, we worried about Italy's Red Brigades, Basque separatists, and the Irish Republican Army. In the nineties, we feared widespread retaliation for American bombs being dropped on Baghdad. Now we're dealing with threats to Americans by Muslim extremists. Terrorism has long been a part of every traveler's pre-trip reality check. Here are some thoughts on understanding terrorism, keeping the risk in perspective, and traveling safely.

Don't plan your trip thinking you can slip over there and back while there's a lull in the action. There's always been terrorism, and there always will be terrorism. It's in your interest, psychologically, to plan your trip assuming there will be a terrorist event sometime between now and your departure date -- most likely in the city into which you're flying. Because, sure enough, as soon as you buy your plane ticket to London, some IRA splinter group's going to blow up another pub, CNN will broadcast it worldwide, and your loved ones will leap into action (as if they've already had a meeting) trying to get you to cancel your trip.

Terrorism is tailor-made for TV -- quick, emotional, and gruesome. Consider the emotional style in which terrorism is covered and how expertly terrorists are milking that, even providing TV news broadcasts with video footage. It's quaint to think that our news media is not motivated fundamentally by ratings and selling advertising. Terrorism sells ads big time. TV news -- with the least sophisticated and most lucrative audience -- is worst.

Many people skip Northern Ireland because of "the troubles," skirt Turkey because of its Kurdish problems, avoid Morocco because it's Muslim, and refuse to fly after seeing passenger jets crash into skyscrapers on TV. This is like avoiding a particular mall in the U.S. because it was the scene of a murder last month.


Your loved ones' hearts are in the right place. But their minds aren't. Your trip's too important for sensationalism and hysteria to get in the way. Consider the real risk of terrorism, evaluate it, and then make the choice: you can travel in a way that minimizes that risk or settle for a lifetime of National Geographic specials.

Analyze the risk in a cold, logical, statistical way. Why are most student tours of Europe canceled at the first hint of a terrorist event when 1,000 children die each year in swimming pool accidents? No one ever thinks about giving up swimming. Enjoying life (whether at home or while traveling), we take many risks that dwarf the risk of terrorism.

In spite of September 11, the fact remains (according to the U.S. State Department) that of the 200 million overseas trips made by Americans in the last 10 years, fewer than 100 Americans were killed by terrorists. In the last two years, Europe has had the largest decline in international terrorist incidents of any region in the world.

If you want to worry about something, worry about this: Each year over 10,000 Americans are shot to death in the U.S. by handguns (compared to less than 100 in Britain, France, or Germany). Europeans laugh out loud when they read of Americans staying home so they won't be murdered. Statistically, even in the worst times of terrorism, you're safer in Europe than you are staying home.

Many are also nervous about flying. But in the U.S. alone, more than 60,000 planes take off and land safely every day. And nobody celebrates! There's a one-in-12-million chance that boarding an airplane will result in death. I take the risk and travel. 

Finally, the most effective way for you to fight terrorism is to travel a lot, learn about the world, come home and help our country fit better into this ever-smaller planet.

According to U.S. government statistics, here are your odds of being

 Killed by a terrorist overseas:  1 in 2,200,000
 Killed by lightning:  1 in 600,000
 Killed by a fire:  1 in 70,000
 Killed by a gun in the US:  
1 in 18,000