Risks of travel: The complete guide

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The Independent Travel

Thirty years ago, Tony Wheeler set off, with his wife Maureen, across Asia on the cheap - a journey that was ultimately to change the way that millions experience travel. They founded the guidebook publisher Lonely Planet in response to all the "How did you do it?" questions they were asked. Tony has been travelling and writing ever since, and is better qualified than anyone to reflect on the perceptions and realities of travel risks in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington

I'm as nervous a traveller as anybody else. When the taxi driver is a madman and the vehicle looks like it would disintegrate if it collided with a pigeon, I get white knuckles. When we hit turbulence and the airline is second rate (or even worse) I tighten my safety belt and try not to think about how much the wings are flexing.

In fact my worst travel fears are often really mundane, I hate the thought of falling ill by myself in some miserable Third World hotel. I got seriously lost once in a very rugged and overgrown little patch of Pacific Island jungle and even though I knew I was only a couple of hundred yards, at the very most, from the trail I'd wandered off I couldn't help thinking that if I fell now and broke a leg I wouldn't be found for a month. Which would have been ridiculous when I had my car keys in my pocket and, once I'd found the path, the car would only be 15 minutes walk away.

The reality is that I know my most dangerous travel activity is when I decide to ride my bike to work rather than drive.

Where and when have you felt least safe?

Of course you know you are at risk in badly driven, overloaded, ancient buses or on worn-out railway lines with barred window carriages but the places I've felt least safe have probably not been that bad at all. One of the gloomiest, greyest, least pleasant cities I've been to recently was Guatemala's capital. Guatemala City does not have the best reputation, but arriving there at night certainly didn't help.

When I left my hotel to find a meal it felt positively spooky. The streets were practically deserted and I found myself scurrying between any brightly lit area or place where a few people could be seen. Next morning those same empty streets were crowded, bustling and felt utterly different. Any place which is normally crowded but at certain periods completely empty inevitably feels risky. City centre areas in the US are often that way, as are places with curfews or in political turmoil. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable in Tehran just before the Shah fell.

Where would you not go at present?

Places where the regular rules have been cast aside – southern Sudan, much of Algeria, and various parts of Africa. Countries where you know your nationality is not flavour of the month – the West Bank if you're an Israeli, West Timor if you're Australian, Pakistan if you're American.

Would you ever go back to Afghanistan?

I would love to go back to Afghanistan. I would love even more for Afghanistan to be a place you could go back to. I recommend anybody contemplating joining the "whack the Afghans" movement to read Jason Elliot's luminous, heartbreaking book An Unexpected Light and then think again.

Could you see people giving up travelling because they are worried about the dangers?

There will certainly be some people who will cancel travel plans but I suspect more people will rearrange things rather than simply stay at home.

What precautions do you take?

The usual ones. Nothing that hasn't been covered a hundred times in all the basic travel advice. I'm a naturally wary and distrustful person. I always look the other way in one-way streets just in case somebody didn't see the sign (or chose to ignore it), and both ways before I cross the road in case there's some visitor who has just jumped in his rent-a-car and forgotten which side of the road people drive on here. Despite my natural curiosity I'm a believer in the "get away from the danger" or "don't hang around to gawk" rule. The one occasion I've been reasonably near to a bomb going off, in Belfast, people were running past me, towards the scene, instead of away from it.

Are there airlines that you avoid?

There are plenty of airlines I think twice about flying with. Fortunately, there are often alternatives these days. A couple of years ago in India I flew Delhi-Lucknow in a tatty old Indian Airlines 737 which seemed to underline the airline's bad reputation. And back in a glossy, well-kept 737 from one of the country's new independent airlines. A few months ago I flew Santiago de Cuba-Havana in a noisy old Antonov which periodically shook and vibrated enough to shake your teeth loose. On the latter flight there was no alternative.

Your children are now travelling the world. What worries you about their journeys?

Inexperience. You think back to all the stupid things you did (and usually got away with) and think, hey, they're going to do a lot of them as well.

Will 'Lonely Planet' be strengthening its warnings?

Underlining them, perhaps – and changing the places the warnings apply to. Our website, www.lonelyplanet.com, is a useful place to check out changes.

Is travel insurance an essential, or does it give you a sense of false security?

Travel insurance is an absolute necessity, but for one thing only – real emergencies. You can always buy another camera, replace the lost suitcase, even pay for another airline ticket. When you have a car accident in the US and find out first hand that those stories about American medical bills are really true, or you're on the bus which runs off the road in India and need to be flown home sprawled across four seats with a doctor by your side, you want that serious disaster coverage. Otherwise it's, comparatively speaking, just minor stuff.

Official advice – how do you rate it?

I think official advice is definitely worth paying close attention to but, like anything that comes from a government, it has to be carefully interpreted. Let's face it, for all the US travel advisories, the least safe place to be last week was New York City. Government advice is always going to be exceptionally cautious – no government wants its citizens to be claiming they were led astray by the advice. Also, official advice is likely to involve all sorts of political factors – if the government doesn't get along with the country in question the report is far less likely to be even-handed.

How valuable is the travellers' grapevine?

Invaluable, because it's absolutely current and it's much less likely to be biased than a government warning. It's not something that's been trickled back to an embassy, reported back to head office, collated with a dozen other streams of information, put into politically correct terms and finally posted. Travellers' grapevine stuff is what the news is as of today.

What are the most popular misconceptions about danger zones?

I think there's often a big gap between feelings about a country and feelings about individuals. With their air strikes and their enforcement of an embargo, the US and Britain would certainly not be popular in Iraq, but I'd bet individual American or British visitors – if there were any – would probably get a cordial and interested reception.

In the past two years I've been to Cambodia, Cuba, Syria, Lebanon and Burma, all countries which in some way or other feature on people's danger list, but when you get there you discover that as a visitor the reality is very different. Not that you'd want to be in opposition to the government in any of them – and I did see gunfire after a nightclub dispute in Beirut.

Are any travellers' urban myths worth heeding?

On the old "where there's smoke there's fire" rule, tales and myths often have some sort of basis in reality, it's just that it's often a very tenuous connection. So you get weird and wonderful tales about air safety incidents on shonky airlines which are often unbelievably far-fetched, but let's face it, if something is going to happen it's more likely to be on a second-rate carrier.

How do you stay safe in big, strange cities?

Take local advice but then treat it with a little natural scepticism. Reputations persist, so the "unsafe" area of the city may well be the area that was unsafe back when your local expert was young and impressionable. She hasn't updated her feelings about the place although you, as a newcomer, can instantly see that her report is out of date. So heed the local experts but also go with your own instincts and feelings. No matter what you're told, assess the situation from your own viewpoint. Don't leave good sense behind when you're in new territory either. If you wouldn't go down that dark alley in your hometown then don't do it in a new city.

Do you feel most concerned in the air or on the ground?

If God intended us to fly we'd have our wings before we got to heaven – but that's my heart doing the thinking for me. I know the reality is it's more dangerous down here than up there. There are lots of times when you get on the plane and think, "well that's the tough part over". And usually it is.

Have you ever witnessed air-rage?

No, although I'm not surprised that it happens.

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to someone going on a trip around the world?

Use the means of accessing information and communicating that we have available to us. Check the current news on the travellers' grapevine and on government advisories.

Use e-mail facilities and cheap international phone services to stay in touch, and to reassure your loved ones. There are probably lots of people right now who should have phoned home to worried friends or family to say, "I went through New York a month ago. I've been lazing on the beach in Mexico or walking in the woods in Canada. Sorry I didn't call earlier to say I was OK."

Are your travel plans going to change?

No, I'm going trekking in Nepal in October. My wife Maureen went off to Italy with a group of women friends, every single one of them an American, less than a week after the attacks. They were determined not to be pushed around. Despite these harrowing events, I think travellers are a resilient bunch.