Oct. 4, 2010 -- With a very serious, but also very vague, travel warning issued for Europe, American tourists are wondering if they should still hop across the ocean or cancel their European vacation plans.
Those in the travel industry say the chances that you specifically will be attacked are minimal. But at least one security expert asked: Why take the risk?
"Travelers should read the alert carefully and understand it fully. The alert does not encourage citizens to cancel trips; rather, it recommends they be extra vigilant during their travels," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at Travelocity. "Call volumes at our call centers remain normal and there's been no report of increased cancellations. However, we'll be monitoring this very closely to see if that changes."
"I don't think anyone should cancel a trip," added George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com "The chances of something happening to a particular individual are very, very slim."
But Isaac Yeffet, a former head of security for the Israeli airline El Al who now runs his own firm, Yeffet Security Consultants, said that this is a credible threat and that travelers should take note of how seriously authorities are taking it.
"If you ignore it, you put yourself, your family and whoever is with you in jeopardy," Yeffet said. "If it was up to me to tell my friend or family, I would say this is not the right time to go."
Dan Nainan and his girlfriend have tickets to go to Europe at the end of the month.
"We are a little bit concerned, to say the least, and we're discussing whether or not to go forward," Nainan said. "I'm gung ho about going, because the chances of something happening to any one person are infinitesimal -- in fact, I feel that we're more in danger driving to the airport -- but she's worried about what's going on with the terrorist alert."
Bob Diener, co-founder of the U.S. and European hotel booking site getaroom.com, said he is seeing some travelers postpone or reschedule parts of their trips, but not cancel plans outright.
He sees some economic damage to the still-struggling tourism industry -- and said it's a good time to snap up some deals -- but predicted the impact will be short-term.
"We're probably talking in the millions of dollars. I just can't give you an exact number," Diener said.
European Travel Threat
"If people have the option and haven't booked yet, they might feel safer choosing an alternate destination that doesn't have an alert. It's really a personal choice," said Anne Banas, executive editor of travel website SmarterTravel. "The alert hasn't listed specific cities in the countries mentioned, so it's hard to know if any are more of a threat than others."
Cancellations right now are going to be costly. Airlines are not waiving fees for people who want to change itineraries. And most travel insurance policies only kick in if an actual attack has already occurred.
For instance, American Express Travel uses Global Travel Shield insurance when booking trips for its clients. That policy, like most others, only kicks in if there is "a terrorist incident in your destination city occurring within 30 days prior to your scheduled arrival."
So if you choose to go, what precautions should you take?
Be Cautious on Public Transit: Rush hour on the trains might not be the best time to travel. If you can afford it, take taxis or private transport.
"Don't go where there is a lot of public. Don't be in the middle," Yeffet warns. "Don't be in the buses. Don' be in the trains. Don't be in an area that people know tourists go there."
Avoid Crowds: You can't avoid crowds when seeing the big sights of Europe. But think twice when you go to a site. Try not to cluster with other tourists.
Stay Safe in Europe
Don't Wear Sneakers: This may seem a bit odd, but Diener points out that Europeans almost never wear sneakers outside of athletic activity. You don't want to stand out as a tourist, so don't lace up the sneakers.
Pick Your Hotel Wisely: Some big-name hotels are naturally targets more than some other places to sleep.
"Clearly, terrorists like to target highly visible large luxury hotels and public transit," Hobica said. "One could play it safe by staying in smaller boutique hotels or B&Bs, or hotels that aren't highly visible or famous."
That said, the larger hotels do offer larger security forces. Weigh your options.
Also, request a room on a low floor (but not the first floor) for an easier escape in case of fire or attack.
Register With the Embassy: "I'm headed to Germany later this week for a conference, and I plan to keep my plans but stay informed by registering with the U.S. State Department and local embassies, which can then better contact you in case of an emergency or send you any updates via e-mail," Banas said.
Have Emergency Numbers: Keep international roaming active on your cell phone and pre-program emergency numbers such as local consulates and travel providers.
The Folks Back Home: Leave detailed information about your whereabouts with people back home and plan to check in often.