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Tony Wheeler: Just feel the fear and do it anyway

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In the second of our two-part series, Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler explains how to reduce travel risks.

Your children are now travelling the world. What worries you about their journeys?

Inexperience. You think back to all the stupid things you did (and usually got away with) and think, hey, they're going to do that.

Is travel insurance essential, or merely a comfort?

Travel insurance is an absolute necessity, but for one thing only: medical emergencies. You can always buy another camera, replace the lost suitcase, or even pay for another ticket. When you have a car accident in the US and find out that those stories about American medical bills are really true, or you're on the bus that runs off the road in India and need to be flown home sprawled across four seats with a doctor by your side, you want that serious disaster coverage. Otherwise most things are, comparatively speaking, just minor stuff.

Do you rate official advice?

Official advice is definitely worth paying close attention to, but it has to be carefully interpreted. Government advice is always going to be exceptionally cautious - no government wants its citizens claiming they were led astray by the advice. Also, official advice is likely to involve all sorts of political factors - for example, if the Government doesn't get along with the country in question, the report is far less likely to be even-handed.

How valuable is the travellers' grapevine?

Invaluable, because it's absolutely current and it's much less likely to be biased than a government warning. It's not something that's been trickled back to an embassy, reported back to head office, collated with a dozen other streams of information, put into politically correct terms and finally posted. Travellers' grapevine stuff is what the news is as of today.

What are the most popular misconceptions about danger zones?

There's often a big gap between feelings about a country and feelings about individuals. The US and Britain would certainly not be popular in Iraq, but I'd bet individual American or British visitors, if there were any, would probably get a cordial and interested reception.

In the past two years I've been to Cambodia, Cuba, Syria, Lebanon and Burma, all countries that feature on people's danger list. But when you get there you discover that, as a visitor, the reality is very different. Not that you'd want to be in opposition to the Government in any of them, and I did see gunfire after a nightclub dispute in Beirut.

Are any travellers' urban myths worth heeding?

On the old "where there's smoke there's fire" rule, tales and myths often have some sort of basis in reality, even if it's tenuous. So you get weird and wonderful tales about air safety incidents on shonky airlines that are often unbelievably far-fetched, but let's face it, if something is going to happen it's more likely to be on a second-rate carrier.

How do you stay safe in big, strange cities?

Take local advice, but treat it with a little natural scepticism. Reputations persist, so the "unsafe" area of the city may well be the area that was unsafe back when your local expert was young and impressionable. She hasn't updated her feelings about the place, although you, as a newcomer, can instantly see that her report is out of date. So heed local experts but also go with your own instincts and feelings. No matter what you're told, assess the situation from your own viewpoint, and don't leave good sense behind. If you wouldn't go down a dark alley in your hometown then don't do it in a new city.

Do you feel most concerned in the air or on the ground?

If God intended us to fly we'd have our wings before we got to heaven - but that's my heart doing the thinking for me. I know the reality is it's more dangerous down here than up there. There are lots of times when you get on the plane and think, "Well that's the tough part over". And usually it is.

Have you ever seen air-rage?

No, although I'm not surprised that it happens.

What is the most important advice you would give to someone going on a trip around the world?

Use the means of accessing information and communicating that we have available to us. Check the current news on the travellers' grapevine and on government advisories.

Use e-mail and cheap international phone services to stay in touch and to reassure your loved ones. There are probably lots of people right now who should have phoned home to worried friends or family to say, "I went through New York a month ago. I've been lazing on the beach in Mexico or walking in the woods in Canada. Sorry I didn't call earlier to say I was okay."

Are your plans going to change?

No, I'm going trekking in Nepal this month. My wife Maureen went to Italy with a group of women friends, every single one of them an American, less than a week after the attacks. They were determined not to be pushed around.

I think travellers are a resilient bunch.

- INDEPENDENT

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