Photo: Costa Concordia wreck

Fear factor: the Costa Concordia earlier this year.

Photograph by Nick Cornish, Alamy

By Christopher Elliott

From the June/July 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

If you’re taking a cruise in the western Mediterranean this summer, you might see the capsized hull of the Costa Concordia near the Italian port of Civi­tavecchia, off Giglio Island. The partially sunken ship will likely dredge up an emotion from deep in the subconscious of many travelers: a primal fear that their own cruise ship will sink (or catch on fire as another Costa vessel did earlier this year), that their hotel will burn to the ground, or—the mother of all travel phobias—that their plane will fall out of the sky, exploding on impact just like in the movies.

Up to 13 percent of people fear flying at some point in their lives, according to psychologist Jonathan Bricker of the University of Washington, though many experts believe the actual number is far higher.

And up to 1 in 10 has a fear of drowning. (Avoid the 3-D version of Titanic if you fall in that category.) “I’m really worried,” said Betty Westbrook, a reader from Allen, Texas, who contacted me after the Costa sinking to see if she could cancel her Caribbean cruise. She told me the news coverage of the accident made her rethink the idea of a vacation at sea. (She eventually went and had a great time.)

It’s enough to make anyone reach for the Xanax. My own personal travel nightmare is getting swept away by a monster wave. Being evacuated from my Hawaii hotel after a tsunami alert last year—a false alarm, fortunately—didn’t help.

But what, really, are the chances any of our hidden nightmares will come true? Here, the actuaries who compile risk tables might work better than anti-anxiety pills. The probability of your next cruise goin’ all Titanic? No reliable numbers exist, so I crunched my own out of the publicly available statistics. Not counting the recent Costa Concordia incident, it’s 1 in 6 million. Death by tsunami? For the average landlocked American with two weeks of beach vacation, it’s highly improbable. Turns out we’re far more likely to be hit by lightning: a probability of 1 in a million annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (although as a Floridian, I have worse odds, says Fred Kilbourne, who, as a matter of fact, is an actuary). As for the odds of dying in a commercial jet crash: around 1 in 11 million.

A word about the numbers quoted here: They range widely, depen­ding on the factors used, but while experts can quibble over the specifics, they agree on one thing: These are highly unlikely events. So if the people who run the life insurance numbers aren’t worried, maybe we shouldn’t be either. Here’s even better news: If your plane does crash in the U.S., there’s a 95.7 percent chance of surviving, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Another common tourist’s fear, dying from a terrorist attack, is similarly improbable. Of course, there again, it depends on how you define “terrorist” and “tourist.” But any way you look at it, there are other things far likelier to kill you. In fact, the attack you should be concerned with is a heart attack, since you’re 23,976 times as likely to expire from heart disease as from an evil-doing extremist.

To paraphrase pop psychologist Wayne Dyer, why worry about the things you can’t control? Instead, worry about the things you can control. Like what? “Traffic accidents,” says Alex Puig, a regional security director at International SOS, a travel assistance company based near Philadelphia. “More than anything else, they represent the main risk—anywhere, but especially in a foreign country.” Indeed, an average of 3,287 people die in a car crash every day around the world, and your odds of perishing in one are a brow-raising 1 in 88.

You can reduce those chances. Puig recommends that if you’re traveling abroad, you leave the driving to someone else unless you know the roads well, which I interpret to mean you were born and raised there. Otherwise, hire a driver or take some other safe and reliable mode of transit (think train, not rickshaw).

Here’s another statistic that travelers so focused on dying in a fiery or other­wise graphic manner, like a shark attack, rarely consider: If you’re visiting a developing country, there’s a 5 to 8 percent chance of requiring medical care. Hospitals can be iffy; you might get taken to a clinic that approaches U.S. standards, or you could have your broken bone set by the local medicine man. Fortunately, you aren’t completely subject to the Fates here either: You can buy travel insurance and a medical evacuation plan, carry a first-aid kit, and of course take common-sense precautions such as not swimming in an area where sharks have been sighted.

Not only are we fretting about the wrong things, but we don’t know when to stop. As this magazine’s reader advocate, I spend a fair amount of time fielding frivolous complaints from travelers who are torqued that their travel agent screwed up the dinner reservations on their cruise or that the pool in their hotel wasn’t open during their stay. People, I sometimes want to say, you didn’t drown and you didn’t pick up a nasty norovirus. Enough already.

So next time you travel, plan for things you can control. And do all your worrying in the cab on your way to the airport, which is arguably the most dangerous part of your trip.

Editor at large Christopher Elliott addresses readers’ travel problems. E-mail your story to celliott@ngs.org.

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