Travel is an almost absurdly safe activity. Taking the long view, the world is the safest it’s ever been. There’s less war, less violence, wider access to healthcare and clean water, and more interconnectivity than ever. If you’re in a pinch — say you break your legs in a remote part of Nepal — you can call in a helicopter evacuation and get to a hospital. That’s not how it was before. Before, you just died. This is not the impression most of us get when we read about the rest of the world, though. The world seems to be getting darker, more frightening, and infinitely more dangerous. But that’s because humans have a bias towards the dramatic and violent.
It’s the ocean paradox: a lot of people are scared of swimming in the ocean because of sharks. It’s understandable, the thought of a razor-toothed monster lurking beneath you in the briny depths, waiting to rip your legs off and drag you down to drown in agony, is a fairly frightening one. But on average, six people die of shark attacks worldwide each year. 360,000 die globally from drowning. We’re afraid of the wrong things.
For travelers, the things we’re most scared of are terrorist attacks and plane crashes. But these deaths — horrifying and violent though they may be — are not the ways we’re most likely to die while traveling. It’s worth taking a minute to look at the numbers: how do Americans usually die while abroad?
How we die abroad
First, there are relatively few of us who die abroad. Between 2002 and 2015, an average of 827 Americans died of unnatural causes while abroad each year. This may sound like a lot, but 68 million Americans travel abroad each year, and the vast majority of them end up returning home. So it’s still a rare occurrence.
Second, the most common ways of dying change based on the country we’re visiting. In the Bahamas, where we tend to go for their beach vacations, 15 American citizens died in 2017. Of these, 12 people drowned. Vietnam, on the other hand, has notoriously dangerous roads — of the 13 Americans who died there in 2017, all but two were in vehicular accidents.
Third, we tend to die at higher rates in places we go to more. Of the 803 Americans who died abroad in 2017, 247 died in Mexico. This is not necessarily indicative of Mexico being more dangerous — it’s just where we go the most. 35 million Americans went to Mexico in 2016, making up nearly half of the total trips we took abroad. So if anything, there’s a lower death rate there. The best way to judge a place’s safety is not in the total deaths, but rather by the number of deaths per visitors. By this measure, according to a study in Time Magazine, the most dangerous country Americans visit, by a large margin is, surprisingly, Thailand. Americans are more than twice as likely to die there then they are in the next four most dangerous countries (Vietnam, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and Australia). You’ll notice none of those countries are places we typically think of as horribly dangerous.
The State Department stores each American death in a database, noting the date, the city, and the way that the American citizen died, and perusing it will give you a good idea of just how common certain types of deaths are — we almost never die in terrorist attacks abroad. But a lot of us die in car crashes.
1. Traffic accidents
Car accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans abroad, accounting for about one-fifth of the total over time. This is unsurprising, as car accidents regularly kill over 30,000 Americans a year at home. The State Department expands the number out to also include motorcycle accidents, bike accidents, bus accidents, and so on. With all of these included, just under a third of Americans who die outside the country are dying in traffic accidents.
About 18% of Americans who die abroad are murdered, and those who end up getting murdered abroad tend to find themselves caught up in drug violence — Mexico again leads the pack, and again the murders tend to take place in areas where the cartels have a strong presence. The other countries that Americans get murdered in disproportionately high rates (the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Haiti) are places that either already have issues with drug violence, or simply have high murder rates anyway — they usually aren’t targeting Americans specifically. We should note that terrorism deaths are not included in this number.
A lot of Americans kill themselves while abroad. This accounts for roughly 14% of total deaths — most of these suicides occur in Mexico, but there is also a high amount in Germany, Thailand, Korea, and Japan.
Around 1 in 8 deaths abroad is from drowning, and the majority of these are on beaches. These deaths are common anywhere we go that there are beaches, but the country with the highest drowning rates by a good margin is Costa Rica.
5. Other deaths
No other single cause of death takes up much space on the charts. In 2017, only eight people died in terrorist attacks abroad (accounting for 1% of the total deaths). Nine died for “drug-related” reasons — presumably overdoses. Two died in natural disasters, five in plane crashes, and six in maritime accidents. The only other sizable chunk is categorized as “Other accidents,” which takes up nearly 13% of the year’s total — but this encompasses a huge number of things. It could be falls, hiking tragedies, ski accidents, or even snakebites.
We’re scared of the wrong things
It is understandable that some people should feel trepidation with going abroad — the world is a vast and sometimes intimidating place, and it can confront us with dangers that we’ve never had to deal with at home. But the things that send us most into a panic spiral when we look at our trips abroad — plane crashes and terrorism specifically — just aren’t that huge of a risk. The number of Americans who die while traveling abroad is already minuscule, and the ones who die suddenly tend to die of things that may well have killed them at home.
To keep yourself safe while traveling, practice good common sense, and stay abreast of the latest State Department Travel Advisories. But don’t let the fear of the unknown get in the way of living your life. Caution is smart — blind fear is not.