To Fly or Not to Fly - Cheap Flights vs. Safety and Security

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The Mideast is in turmoil; Christchurch, New Zealand has been devastated by an earthquake; and the death toll in the Mexican drug wars continues to rise. What's a traveler to do?

Good question. Especially when some of these places -- I'm thinking of certain Mexican resort areas -- are so cheap. Bargain airfares abound, which might tempt some to travel to destination they'd be better off avoiding.

The first thing you should do (and this is true any time you're heading outside the U.S.), is check the U.S. State Department's website and read up on any travel warnings or alerts issued for your destination. Unfortunately, that doesn't give you the whole story, as we shall see.

So here's some free advice: in honor of this week's celebration of Presidents Day, let me quote a former commander in chief, Ronald Reagan, who used to say, "Trust, but verify." And let's talk about how to do that.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Mexico is a wonderful country, but it has been slapped with a "travel warning" by the State Department. What does this mean?

It's somewhat confusing: the warning notes that "crime and violence are serious problems," and that's true enough in some regions where 35,000 people have died in drug cartel battles over the past four years.

However, many if not most of the dead were reportedly involved in narco-trafficking, and as the warning also states, "Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year."

The Mexican government also works very hard to keep resort areas safe, and most of them are safe. I have friends who say they'd fly to Cabo in a heartbeat. They also say there's no way would they'd drive across the U.S.-Mexican border.

So does the State Department forbid U.S. citizens from traveling to Mexico? No. That kind of reminds me of certain websites where you're asked to check the little box where it says, "I have read and accept these terms" even when you haven't even glanced at the fine print. What do you do? You check the little box. We all do.

I am not picking on Mexico, nor am I picking on any of the other countries that made the list of 32 "travel warning" nations, including Columbia, Israel, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

There are areas of the U.S. can be plenty dangerous too: a recent preliminary report from the FBI shows there were more than 8,000 violent crimes in Detroit in just the first six months of 2010, and that figure jumps to more than 10,000 for Los Angeles.

We also know that crimes can occur on cruise ships, crimes can occur at cathedrals (if you've ever visited Paris, then you've seen those dire warnings about pickpockets and gypsies plastered everywhere outside Notre Dame).

Sometimes news coverage can cloud the security/safety issue; not intentionally, but the very definition of "news" is that which is outside the norm and for the most part, that means bad news. Last year's oil spill had a major effect on some Florida panhandle beaches. Some of them had no issues, but media coverage highlighting the most jaw-dropping examples of oil-soaked birds and blackened surf kept tourists away in droves.

This is where the true value and genius of social networking comes in. You can get boots-on-the-ground, real-time impressions from travelers you know and trust via Twitter and Facebook.

Other sources include "review" sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, as long as you remember the old rule of thumb about tossing out the best and worst reviews to avoid partisan bias about attractions, hotels and such.

So the question remains: to go or no? As always, in the end, the decision is made by you and your common sense. Don't go sightseeing in the worst neighborhoods of America, and don't do it anywhere else.

I'm a little concerned, though, that cheap flights may cloud some otherwise clear heads.

For example, Mexico can be quite cheap compared to a lot of Caribbean destinations. In fact, data shows some Mexican beaches are even cheaper than similar U.S. resorts. And recent reports indicate bookings to Mexico are up dramatically (although to be fair, that's compared to previous years that were marred by outbreaks of H1N1 virus and the continuing drug battles).

Adding to the deal vs. security debate is the recent economic austerity in the U.S., putting deals at more of a premium than ever. In fact, deals are no longer prized for bragging rights; getting a deal is an economic reality for many -- the difference between taking a trip or staying home.

Of course, I cannot tell you to "stay" or "go." What I am saying is my gut tells me that for some travelers, deals sometimes trump security and safety. Don't be blinded by a deal. Do your homework. See what the government has to say. Talk to your fellow adventurers. Trust but verify.

And wherever you go, and that includes your travels in the U.S. -- stay alert. Stay safe.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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