Should I Cancel My European Vacation?

Even with the threat of terrorism, Europe remains a relatively safe destination

Is it time to cancel European travel plans? Not entirely - but it is time to understand what is at stake.
Oli Scarff/Staff/Getty Images

With the recent attacks on Belgium and France, both the European Union and the United States have remained on high alert for future terrorist attacks. On March 3, the State Department re-issued their worldwide caution for American travelers, warning "…terrorist groups such as ISIL and al-Qa’ida and its affiliates continue to plot near-term attacks in Europe." Across Europe, many nations – including Belgium, France, Germany, and Spain – remain on high threat for terrorist attacks. These fears were realized when three attackers detonated explosives in two high-traffic places in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, on March 22, 2016.

With concerns that another attack is imminent, should international travelers consider cancelling their European holiday? Although terrorist activity is at an all-time high across the European subcontinent, the western nations have an overall lower record of violence than other parts of the world. Before cancelling, travelers should consider all of the factors to make an educated decision about their next trip.

An abridged history of modern terrorism in Europe

Since the September 11 Attacks on the United States, the world has been much more vigilant over treats of terrorism. Although America has been particularly sensitive to terrorist attacks, Europe has also seen their fair share of attacks. According to data collected by The Economist, Europeans have survived 23 terrorist attacks causing two or more deaths between 2001 and January 2015. With the most recent attacks in Belgium, Denmark and France, the number has since moved to 26.

It is important to note not all of the attacks were driven by religious extremism. Including the most recent attacks in France and Belgium, Islamic extremists have only claimed responsibility for 11 attacks, representing less than half of overall violence. Of those, the deadliest attacks were the Madrid train bombing in 2004, the London public transit attacks in 2006, and the recent attacks in France and Belgium. The rest were split between political ideologies, separatist movements, or unidentified reasons.

How does Europe compare to other destinations?

Despite an average of 1.6 attacks per year, the European subcontinent ranks below the world's overall global homicide rate. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Study on Homicide found Europe's overall homicide rate was only 3.0 per 100,000 population. The global average for homicide was 6.2 per 100,000 population, with other destinations ranking much higher in danger. The Americas (including the United States) lead the world with 16.3 homicides per 100,000 population, while Africa had 12.5 homicides per 100,000 population.

As far as person-to-person attacks, European nations also ranked statistically safer. The UNODC defines assault as a "…physical attack against the body of another person resulting in serious bodily injury." In 2013, the United States reported the most assaults in the world, registering over 724,000 assaults – or 226 per 100,000 population. Although both Germany and the United Kingdom both ranked high for overall assaults, their numbers were significantly less than other nations around the world.

Other nations that reported a high number of assaults include Brazil, India, Mexico, and Colombia.

Is it safe to travel to Europe by air and ground?

Although the Belgian terrorists targeted public transportation hubs, including Brussels Airport and a subway station, international common transportation carriers remain an overall safe way to see the world. The last terrorist attack aboard a commercial aircraft took place on October 31, 2015, when an aircraft belonging to Russian airline MetroJet was bombed after leaving Egypt. As a result, many European airlines significantly reduced their schedules traveling to Egyptian airports.

The last attempted bombing of an aircraft traveling from Europe to the United States took place in 2009, when 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a plastic explosive concealed in his underwear. Although subsequent years have discovered an increasing number of weapons trying to pass the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, another attack on a commercial aircraft has not yet occurred.

In regards to ground transportation around the world, safety still remains a primary concern. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the last major incident aboard public transportation facilities prior to the Brussels attacks took place in Madrid, Spain. Over 1,500 people were injured as a result of coordinated bombings.

While the concern of threats to common carriers are real, travelers should recognize that these situations are not a normal part of everyday life. Those who notice a viable threat aboard a public carrier should contact emergency services with their concerns, and prepare a personal safety plan prior to boarding.

What are my options for cancelling a European vacation?

Once a trip is booked, travelers' options for cancelling are limited by a number of factors. However, in the event of a verified incident, there are several ways travelers can change their plans prior to or after departure.

Travelers who purchase a full-fare ticket (sometimes referred to as a "Y Ticket") have the most flexibility when it comes to their travels. Under these fare rules, travelers can often change their itinerary at minimal cost, or even cancel their trip for a refund. However, the down side to full-fare ticketing is the price: A full fare ticket can cost significantly higher than those who purchase a discount economy ticket.

Another option includes purchasing travel insurance ahead of a trip. With a travel insurance policy attached, travelers receive benefits to cancel their trip in the event of an emergency, get reimbursed for incidental costs as a result of trip delay, or protect their luggage aboard a flight. Although many common situations are covered by travel insurance, their triggering definitions can be narrow. In many policies, a travel may only invoke their terrorism clause if the incident is declared an attack by a national authority.

Finally, in the event of a terrorist incident, many airlines can offer travelers the opportunity to cancel or change their plans. Immediately after the Brussels attack, all three major American airlines offered travelers waivers on their flights, giving them more flexibility on continuing their travels or cancelling them entirely. Before relying on this benefit, travelers should check with their airline to learn more about their cancellation policy.

How can I protect my European vacation?

Many experts suggest travelers should consider purchasing travel insurance prior to their vacations, in order to maximize their protections. In many cases, travelers already have some level of travel insurance if they booked their trip on a credit card that provides consumer protections. If they do not, it may be time to consider purchasing a third-party travel insurance plan.

Next, every traveler should consider a personal safety plan prior to departure and while at a destination. A personal safety plan should include creating a travel contingency kit with important documents, signing up for the State Department Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), and saving emergency numbers for the local destination. Travelers should also save the number of their nearest embassy, and be aware of what local consulates can and cannot provide citizens while abroad.

Finally, those who are concerned about their overall safety should consider purchasing a travel insurance policy with Cancel for any Reason early in their trip planning. By adding a Cancel for any Reason policy, travelers can receive a partial refund for their travel expenses if they decide not to go on a trip. For the extra assurance, most travel insurance policy will charge an additional fee to add Cancel for Any Reason and require travelers to purchase their plans within 14 to 21 days of their initial trip deposit.

Although nobody can guarantee security, travelers can take multiple steps to manage their safety abroad. By understanding the current threats in Europe and overall situation as it stands, modern adventurers can make sure they make the best decisions for their trip now and into the future.