How to Ease Travel Anxiety


I have a client—let’s call him Andre—who works hard all year at a demanding job. He could really use a vacation. But every year, he does the same thing. For one week in the middle of July, he goes to the same waterfront hotel about an hour’s drive from his home. He leaves the rest of his vacation time on the table. After many years of doing this, he’s let months and months of vacation time slip away.

Andre would love to travel more—to get away from the New England winter, to visit friends in his home country in Eastern Europe—but his worries won’t let him.

Andre’s predicament is surprisingly common. For him, the primary worry is “What if I get sick?” He justifies going to the hotel because if he were to get sick, his wife could easily drive him home to their local hospital.

You might worry about getting lost, contracting a foreign disease, or falling victim to a bombing or terrorist attack. You might be wary of being in an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar language. Or it might just be a free-floating anxiety that something bad will happen. Frogs, locusts, and boils, anyone?

But no matter what, from leaving your passport in a taxi to leaving your undercooked lunch in a hastily-found restroom, we’ve got you covered like comprehensive trip insurance. Check out these 4 fears and what to do about them.

Fear #1: You’re worried about large-scale tragedy: accidents, terrorists, or other violence.

Plane crashes, public shootings, and trucks plowing into a crowd make worldwide headlines. Why? Not only because they’re tragic, but because of four factors made clear in a 2002 paper that followed the September 11th tragedy.

In the paper, researchers pointed out that in the months after September 11, many people chose to travel by car rather than by air, thus increasing their risk of being in an accident—car accidents are by far more common than air accidents. Then, after the subsequent anthrax attacks, many people took prophylactic antibiotics, thus contributing to the development of treatment-resistant bacteria—again, accelerating future risk. Why did so many of us make irrational decisions that felt safer, but actually weren’t?

The paper points out that we’re much more likely to be irrationally afraid of things that are:

  • Uncontrollable versus controllable
  • Grisly rather than mundane
  • Novel rather than something we’ve lived with for a long time
  • A cause of multiple deaths versus one death at a time

Mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and plane crashes fall into all four of the “irrational” categories: uncontrollable, grisly, novel, and a cause of multiple deaths. This is why these fears are so much more widespread than, say, fear of car accidents or fear of heart disease (which just happens to be the actual leading cause of death).

Here’s the bottom line: these tragedies do happen, but the chances that you’ll be in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time are miniscule. Chalk up your fear to the four reasons and make the rational choice instead.

Fear #2: You’re worried about anti-Americanism or other xenophobia.

It’s not just Americans traveling abroad that make locals roll their eyes—plenty of countries come with their own tourist clichés. No matter where you’re from, instead of worrying about being given a foreign stink-eye, be a positive ambassador from your country. Be an example of a respectful, curious tourist and you’ll not only get a friendly reception, but leave locals rethinking their stereotypes.

Fear #3: You have free-floating anxiety of the unknown.

The great unknowns of traveling breed stress. Each new day brings with it new foods, new streets to navigate, new sights, and new mind-boggling public transportation systems.

To counter all the newness, create your own source of familiarity by sticking with some old routines. Do what you love, just in a new place. Drink a cup of your favorite tea every morning. Write in your trusty journal every evening. Ask at your hotel or hostel for a good running route and pound the pavement in your usual shoes. Even if your circadian rhythms and GI tract are out of their routine, trusted habits can establish a sense of constancy and control amidst the irregularity (pun intended) of travel.

Fear #4: You’re worried because you don’t speak the language.

This is the bane of all perfectionists. You think if you aren’t fluent with a great accent to boot, you’ll be laughed all the way home. Not so. All you have to do is look like you’re trying. Commit a few key phrases to memory: “Where is the bathroom?” “Excuse me.” “Please,” “Thank you.” And of course, “How much is this?”

“I would like” combined with pointing and “please” will get you through any menu, bakery case, or farmer’s market. Throw in the numbers one through ten for addresses, phone numbers, and cost, and you’re golden. In most tourist destinations, you’ll be the hundredth bumbling tourist the waiter, store clerk, or taxi driver has encountered that day anyway. As long as you bumble with a smile, you’re way ahead of the game.

comprehensive tip:

Make a plan, but remember the 80/20 rule.

Anxiety occurs when things are uncertain. And unfortunately, when traveling, many things—from the weather to street closures to your immune system’s robustness are uncertain.

On any trip, something probably will go wrong, whether it’s as minor as a lost in translation order at a restaurant that nets you pasta in squid ink (this happened to me), or as major as getting evacuated from your hotel due to a flood (ditto).

But guess what? You can handle it. If you have a mental merry-go-round of a few big concerns, come up with a plan for each of them. If your luggage got lost, what would you do? If you got lost, what would you do?  For my client Andre, who was worried about getting sick, we talked about what he would do if he got sick in a faraway locale. It seemed simple, but once it dawned on him that most resorts and hotels have a clinic, or that he could simply ask hotel staff to help him get to a local hospital, he felt more at ease.

Now, here’s the catch: by safeguarding against mishaps, you may be able to reduce your anxiety. But anxiety is slippery. Solve one problem, and another “but what if” often pops up.

Enter the 80/20 rule. You can prepare for 80% of mishaps with 20% of the effort. Read travel blogs and reviews to find out where to go, photocopy your passport and credit cards, get trip insurance if it makes you feel better, and don’t get rip-roaring drunk and then wave your money around. Totally reasonable, right?

But then, draw the line. If you find yourself on Google Maps mapping out escape routes from Roman piazzas in case of a terrorist attack, or programming the addresses of Hawaiian hospitals in your phone, you’ve probably gone too far. Ask if you’re preparing for something likely, or if it just feels likely because you’re scared (or because of the four reasons from Fear  #1).

Here’s a good litmus test: would you instruct a friend to do the same thing? In Andre’s case, I asked if he’d advise a friend, “Hey man, make sure you only travel within an hour from home in case you get sick.” Andre actually laughed, and the next time I saw him, he had booked a trip to the Bahamas in February.

To bring it on home (or away from home, as it were), anxiety makes you feel incapable. It tells you the world is dangerous. As a result, it keeps your world small. So instead, do what you want, not what your anxiety wants. The next time you get packing, you’ll be able to send your travel anxiety packing, too.