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How to Overcome These Eight Common International Travel Anxieties

international traveler looking at a map

Many people (myself included!) are itching to travel again. But it isn’t just the pandemic that prevents people from going abroad. A lot of would-be travelers don’t plan trips abroad for fears unrelated to COVID-19. Here are eight of the most common causes of travel anxiety—and ways you can reduce your fear for each one to take that trip across international borders.


Note: If you’re thinking of traveling abroad in the near future, refer to
CDC guidelines for international travel and make sure you follow all local laws and regulations to keep yourself safe from COVID-19.

 

1. FEAR OF FLYING

Unless you’re going on a cruise or driving to Canada, you almost certainly need to get on a plane to travel internationally. Fear of flying is by far the most common fear associated with travel, affecting as much as 40% of the population. For many people, it is not flying itself that makes them afraid, but rather certain aspects of flying that trigger other underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety, claustrophobia, and PTSD.

In practical terms, if you can identify your trigger(s), you can work to mitigate that aspect of flying to make the airborne journey more bearable. For instance, if airplanes make you feel claustrophobic, you can try sitting on the aisle seat to give yourself a little more breathing room. If you are afraid of heights, avoid window seats or simply close the window blind before takeoff.

It might also help to learning the safety statistics behind flying. If you do the math, the chances of dying in a plane crash are one in 5.58 million. Of course, phobias aren’t necessarily rational, so this might not ease your mind. But they are pretty good odds.

 

2. FEAR OF LANGUAGE BARRIERS

Compared to the rest of the world, the United States is very monolingual—according to the latest Census, English is the only language spoken in 78% of American households. In other words, if you are afraid of traveling to countries where your native tongue isn’t the official language, you will miss out on most of the world.

It can be daunting to go to a place where most people will be speaking a language you don’t understand. But there are a few helpful reminders that it might not be as scary as it seems:

  • As the saying goes, you need to know two languages to succeed: whatever you speak at home, and English. Although there are over 6,000 spoken languages in the world, English is very widespread, with well over a billion speakers worldwide. Chances are that you’ll be able to get by with English, particularly if it’s a common tourist destination.
  • While English will get you quite far, a handful of foreign phrases can go a long way. Find a few common, important words and sentences to learn. It can help you get what you need and can also make natives more willing to help you, even if you ultimately switch to English. It shows that you took the time and care to learn their language.
  • To help jog your memory, carry around a little cheat sheet of these important phrases. You can find these in many guidebooks.
  • Spoken language isn’t the only way of communicating! Hand gestures and pointing get you farther than you might think in communicating across language barriers.

 

3. FEAR OF FOOD POISONING

It usually boils down to this (pun intended): There are some countries where you just shouldn’t drink the tap water. Find out ahead of time if it is safe to drink tap water where you are visiting. If not, bottled water is your best friend (make sure it’s sealed). It is also important to avoid consuming water in less obvious ways: be careful about ice in drinks and be mindful about raw produce, because you can’t be sure of the water that was used. A good rule of thumb for safely eating fresh fruits and vegetables is if it has a rind or peel—think oranges, pineapple, and mango, where the water wouldn’t come in contact with what you’re eating.

As for food itself, there are a few ways you can guard against food-borne illness.

  • Eat the local cuisine: A dish that has been made for generations is likely far better prepared than a restaurant that caters to tourists with pizza and pasta.
  • Research the popular spots: The bevy of reviews can sometimes be hard to sift through to identify what is “popular” or “good.” But with a little bit of research—from multiple sources—you can find reputable spots with food you can trust.
  • Weigh the risks with common sense: Does it look fresh or has it been sitting out for a while, like the last hot dog at the gas station? Should you risk it at the delicious-looking but open-air food cart in the street, or play it safe to increase your chances of getting through your trip? (Maybe save it for the end?) That said, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely—I’ve had some phenomenal street food. Often times you can see the food being prepared in front of you and see if it seems fresh and safe. Careful with the raw produce here!

Even if all the food you eat is fresh and safe, eating unfamiliar foods may give you indigestion. Be prepared with the over-the-counter cure of your choice: Tums, Alka-Seltzer, and fresh ginger can all help alleviate an upset stomach. Many travelers carry activated charcoal pills with them to take if their stomach starts feeling unsettled. It’s supposed to absorb toxins and help with gas/bloating, but talk to your doctor before taking it!

Another good reminder? Indigestion and food poisoning are only temporary and don’t have to ruin your trip. Yes, they can be terrible and keep you from doing things on your trip. But avoiding foods out of an overabundance of caution can take away from your travels, too. Plus, and I hate to say it, you can still get sick with all the precautions in the world! That happened to my wife when we were traveling in India (and we both ate all the same food), but she would still go back and do it all over again.

 

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4. FEAR OF INJURY

For many, traveling introduces the possibility of exciting new experiences that they could not find at home, like mountain climbing, snorkeling, or zip-lining. However, the possibility of danger can throw a wet blanket over these fun plans. You might think: What happens if I get hurt?

Although trekking through a rain forest to see some ruins may be slightly more dangerous than walking down the street in your hometown, it is important to remember that your chances of injury are still very low. Injured tourists are a bad look for any attraction; the managers and guides will do everything in their power to keep you safe.

It also never hurts to have a safety net in case the unlikely occurs. Check to see if your health insurance will cover you while you are traveling abroad. If it doesn’t, consider buying travel insurance (and make sure to research what will be covered). You can get quality health care in most places that you visit. With insurance, you can take a load off your mind knowing you won’t have to pay thousands of dollars should you need medical attention.


5. FEAR OF GETTING LOST

Getting “lost” is actually one of my favorite parts of seeing a new country. Some of my favorite findings and memories abroad come from wandering around with no destination in mind.

That said, it can be intimidating to leave a place that you know like the back of your hand to a city (let alone a country) that you’ve never been to before. And just like in our own cities, there are places that are best to avoid.

Luckily, there are a few ways to avoid getting lost in unfamiliar areas. Guidebooks will often have maps inside that you can carry with you to get your bearings, but this makes you a pretty obvious tourist. Smartphones are a handy solution to getting around without clearly marking you as a foreigner.

My personal favorite is offline Google Maps. There are times when you don’t have access to WiFi, data, or cell service while traveling in a foreign country. In Google Maps, you can select an area and download the map to your phone. As long as you’re within that area, you can look at the map, see where you are, and navigate to where you need to be just like you’re online.


6. FEAR OF GETTING MUGGED

Thieves love tourist attractions: they’re crowds of distracted people who often carry a lot of cash. When you are traveling and visiting popular attractions, it is important to take extra care to avoid pickpockets.

Put as many barriers to entry as you can between would-be thieves and your valuables. In general, keep your items secure and in front of you. If you wear a backpack, wear it backward on your chest (it’s going to be a look, trust me). Bags that go over one shoulder and under the other arm make it difficult for thieves to pull away in one motion. If you must keep your wallet in your pocket, keep it in your front pocket. You might think you’d feel someone take it out of your back pocket, but they’re called pickpockets for a reason and are good at what they do (unfortunately). Although muggings can happen, generally you won’t realize you’re missing anything until you go to use it.

It is also important to understand that there is no one type of pickpocket; you are not safe from thieves just because you’re surrounded by women, the elderly, or even other tourists. Pickpockets have many clever ruses to get at your belongings. Sometimes they’ll disguise themselves as tourists to lull targets into a false sense of security. They’re also known to put up their own warning signs—“Beware of pickpockets!”—for tourists to instinctively pat their pocket or reach for their valuables and therefore signal where it is.

Ultimately, the best barrier between thieves is to leave anything valuable behind. Avoid flashy jewelry, and don’t walk around with too much cash. Most importantly, do NOT carry around your passport. Keep your passport in your hotel or Airbnb, preferably in a secure travel safe.

 

7. FEAR OF NOT HAVING ENOUGH FUN

Although it may seem trivial compared to some of our list, FOMO (fear of missing out) affects a lot of travelers and can put a real damper on a vacation. A vacation requires a lot of sacrifices—not just the monetary cost of travel and hotel stays, but the time taken off work and other responsibilities as well. It can sometimes feel at the end of your trip that your experience wasn’t worth it. (Ever felt like you need a vacation from your vacation?)

The best way to avoid this is to balance between not planning and over-scheduling yourself. Research activities ahead of time and plan out the big-ticket items that you want to hit over the course of your trip. Don’t just stick to sites like TripAdvisor for your research; check out independent blogs and local forums for hot spots that may have escaped mainstream notice.

Once you know what you want to do, purchase tickets or arrange logistics ahead of time. For the very reasons you want to go, many of these places are very popular. You don’t want to wait until the last minute and find out it’s not an option! You’re also more likely to follow through because you’ve made the commitment.

At the same time, leave room for flexibility. Believe it or not, not everything is available to look at and/or buy on the internet. It may be only after you arrive that you discover something that you want to do!

Leaving room for flexibility will also leave room for rest and recuperation; if you schedule every moment of your trip you may end up too tired to truly enjoy your stay. (Ever felt like you needed a vacation after your vacation? I know I have!) This balance of planning and flexibility will keep your trip fun and eventful without wearing you down.


8. FEAR OF SPENDING TOO MUCH MONEY

Traveling can be expensive, and there can be additional unexpected expenses. This fear alone keeps a lot of people from traveling. When you do travel, the last thing you want is to be anxious about how much money you are spending.

Planning your budget is a great way to take this load off your mind. Start by adding up the amount that you are going to spend (i.e., plane tickets, hotel stays, or ticketed events). Add to that a daily allowance that you can afford to spend on food, souvenirs, and spur of the moment activities—this can be very cheap depending on the country you’re visiting. Add 25% to this total to cover any unexpected costs and you will have a realistic budget that you can plan on for your trip.

If the total you come up with is too expensive for you, consider ways that you can cut down on planned costs. There are ways that you can travel on a budget!

 

Whatever your fears of traveling, I strongly encourage you to find an international destination that feels manageable. Once you have that first fun and successful trip under your belt, it will only get easier to plan the next one (and the next one!). At least in this humble traveler’s opinion, there is no better way to try new things and expand your horizons than by visiting a foreign country.

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