Tips & Resources

The Real Risks of Travel: Coming Home Safe and Sound

By James Daw, Contributing Writer

Even the tamest of vacation activities—a stroll, a ride, or a swim—can lead to injury or death. The risks, however, will be higher in certain places, at certain times of day, and among certain groups. A stroll could prove risky for a solo traveller heading down a dark alley at night. Drowning kills four times more American males than females, more because of the choice of where and when they swim than their preference in swimwear.

Meanwhile, serious falls happen three to four times more often among those past the age of 75. So before you travel, consider who you are, where you are going, the choices you make, and the risks involved. Preparing yourself for the unexpected could help reduce the chances of a fatal injury.

Injuries versus disease

Chronic diseases cause most deaths, and those deaths occur mostly after age 70 in countries with the highest incomes. Yet the importance of safety is no trifling matter. Injuries are the cause of nearly five million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And the number of hospital visits due to injury is many times higher than that. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us on their website: “Tourists are ten times more likely to die as the result of an injury than from an infectious disease [and] injuries cause 23 per cent of tourist deaths compared with only 2 per cent caused by infectious diseases.” Still, vaccination can reduce the risk of serious infection while travelling in another part of the world. Allow a few days to arrange for a medical appointment, and several weeks for the vaccines to take effect.

Don’t delay—you may need a series of injections, and it may be weeks before the vaccines take effect.

Vehicle crashes

Deaths on roads have fallen or stabilized in most developed nations, but continue to soar elsewhere. About half of the near 1.3 million killed on roads each year are pedestrians and cyclists, according to WHO. The poorer the country you visit, the higher your chance of injury or death on the roads. For example, the rate of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents in Mexico, India, China, and Thailand is about twice the rate in Canada, Australia, Spain, and Ireland. The risks are higher the lower the quality of roads, the fewer the road signage, and the more lenient the policing of speed. Other factors include less availability of safety features like seatbelts, child restraints, and sidewalks. So a vacation will be a riskier time to rent a vehicle, learn to ride a moped or scooter, ride without a helmet, or get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol. “From 2007 through 2009, road traffic crashes accounted for 32 per cent of (US) tourist deaths due to injuries, followed by homicide (18 per cent), and drowning (14 per cent),” explains the CDC's website.

When it comes to driving in foreign countries, if you must do it, stick to what you know.


The murder of tourists is more newsworthy than frequent. Just as in Canada, homicide is more common among families or members of gangs than those passing by, minding their own business. But the risk of homicide varies by country, so tourists should beware. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states that the rate of homicide is about three times higher in the United States than in Canada, and eight to 19 times higher in Honduras, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Belize, Jamaica, Guatemala, and El Salvador than it is in the US. For this reason, Canadian and US authorities warn tourists to proceed with utmost caution. For example, Canada’s Department of External Affairs warns those travelling to parts of Nicaragua that there may be a risk of armed robbery (even by taxi drivers), carjacking, sexual assault, and ‘express’ kidnappings (where captives are forced to withdraw and hand over money from automated banking machines). “If attacked, do not resist, as criminals often carry weapons and may become violent,” the government website explains. Tourists are also advised to not drive or walk outside after dark, avoid taxis other than those serving the hotel, and not to use public transportation or to accept offers to share a cab.

If you must venture outside after dark, try to remain in heavily populated tourist areas.

Homicide RatesImage provided by James Daw


Accounting for nearly 400,000 deaths worldwide per year, drowning is most common among children or in countries with low to middle incomes per person, like China or India. Only in Canada and New Zealand do adult males drown at higher rates than unsupervised children younger than five. “Studies suggest that the higher drowning rates among males are due to increased exposure to water and riskier behaviour such as swimming alone, drinking alcohol before swimming alone, and boating,” WHO reported in 2012. While on vacation, make sure to wear a flotation device if you will be riding in small watercrafts, and take the necessary swimming, snorkeling, or underwater diving lessons before tempting fate in an ocean. It’s always a good idea to learn artificial resuscitation before taking a trip near water. Also be aware of certain dangerous swimming conditions, such as river currents and rip currents that can pull you away from shore.

If you are ever caught in a rip current (also known as “rip tide”), swim sideways to get free of the current before attempting to swim to shore.

Other risks

After the top three causes of injury in the world come poisoning, fires, smothering and asphyxiation, choking, animal and venomous bites, hypothermia and hyperthermia, and natural disasters. As for US travellers, the most common causes of death that occur outside of the country after drowning are suicide, aviation (mostly in small planes), drug-related incidents, and terrorism. David A. Sleet and Michael F. Ballesteros, who write on travel health for the CDC, suggest that travellers check hotels in certain foreign countries for smoke alarms, sprinkler systems, and escape routes. They also suggest avoiding rooms higher than the sixth floor to reduce the time it would take to escape a fire, as well as rooms on the first floor, or near a staircase, where there could be a higher risk of forced entry. The CDC notes: “Travellers may even consider carrying and using a door intruder alarm, a smoke alarm, and a rubber doorstop that can be used as a supplemental door lock. If confronted, travelers should give up all valuables and not resist attackers.”

Always have an escape route or an action plan.

Most of us will never encounter a life-threatening situation while travelling, but a tiny minority will. So it is only sensible to make preparations and take precautions. Use common sense when deciding where to go, where to stay, and how to get from place to place safely.

Helpful resources for safe travels:
Government of Canada: Travel Site
Public Health Agency of Canada: Travel Health
Well on Your Way: A Canadian's Guide to Healthy Travel Abroad