Change Travel To Put Family At Ease?

Filed Under: Travel

I’m in the midst of a US Airways 90,000 mile business class award to North Asia with my friend Andrew B. As you may recall, he’s the Helsinki contest winner thanks to his excellent memes, fellow movie and fetish night goer, etc.

While I’ve already posted about our Ethiopian flight from Beijing to Addis Ababa, I left out the “exciting” decision making we had just before our departure, which Andrew has offered to share his thoughts on below.

I think we’ve established that I’m more mishap-prone than Lucky. He’s told me about a dozen times on this trip how trouble-free his travel usually is. Well, tonight we ended up almost rebooking ourselves… due to potential terrorist activity near our destination.

We were booked on Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa, on their 787.


After a long trip through Beijing’s massive Star Alliance terminal, we arrived at the Air China Business Class Lounge.


While there, we read that a terrorist attack at Entebbe Airport in Uganda was “imminent.” Uganda is separated from Addis by about 750 miles, or about the same distance between New York and Chicago. Now, to be honest, both Lucky and I were confident that we were in no danger (well, unless you count the danger of Lucky getting caught taking clandestine pictures of someone’s unfortunate choice of wardrobe, or lack thereof).

However, as people with concerned family members, we didn’t want to cause anyone unnecessary anxiety. If family back home had heard the words “Ethiopian” and “terrorist attack” in the same sentence (perhaps even if it was something as benign as the airline choosing to temporarily suspend service to Entebbe), that could make my mom, for example, panic.

We decided the odds of that happening were low (my mom is on a cruise right now and should be paying more attention to the ice sculpture buffet than the news), and Lucky called home to make sure his family knew not to worry. So we decided to head to our departure gate and board our flight!

That being said, I realize that threats of imminent terrorist activity are nothing to be taken lightly, and my expectation is that the authorities’ discovery of these apparent plans to do something at Entebbe means that whoever is responsible will decide not to go through with it. For the sake of people in Uganda, let’s hope that’s the case.

I also realized that we were being watched: not literally, but in order to get a Wifi password, you have to scan your passport and receive a unique code, as well as a friendly printout warning you that you’re being watched. Was it the best idea for me, a passenger on a flight to Africa, to be searching terms like “terrorist threat in Entebbe” and “distance from Ethiopia to Uganda” on a network that was much more subject to monitoring than most? Probably not my smartest use of the internet ever (though probably smarter than the time I watched Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on YouTube).

My brief thoughts —

This might all sound crazy, and in retrospect it sounds that way to me as well. But life is short, which to me means two things:

  • Life is too short to be overly cautious and not do things out of fear
  • Life is too fragile to make stupid decisions

The concern here wasn’t actual safety, but rather how our families would feel if something happened, even if it was in Entebbe and not Addis Ababa. I think part of the duty of being a parent is being irrationally concerned for your kids, and I try to respect that.

I guess there were really two options:

  • Take the flight and not tell family about it. The downside is that if they do hear about something happening at an airport in Africa they’d flip, even if it’s a totally different airport than we connected in. And when you’re on a plane for 11 hours without wifi, that’s not really something you want to subject your family to.
  • Take the flight and tell family about what the news was reporting, and explain there’s no risk. With this option I’d be more at ease on one hand, but at the same time I know it would increase their “base” level of concern.

Fortunately everything went as smoothly as we could have hoped for (well, minus the Addis Ababa to Frankfurt flight, which was my worst flight in quite a while… but we’ll get to that later).

What would you have done? Told your family about what’s going on and explain why it’s not a risk, just not say anything, or something else altogether?

  1. Cancelled a trip to Kiev in April…really, really regret it. Barring extreme circumstances, will never cancel a trip based on family angst again.

    Going to Egypt in December. Family not happy. Going anyway.

  2. While traveling last November on my Star award, I had a layover in Bangkok and planned to have a private guide for the day. The protests had just started and their was so much uncertainty from the authorities and locals which caused me pause as a solo female traveling. My local guide canceled our day. While not happy, I trusted her decision. I had a day room booked and made the best of it w/spa time.
    For me, I usually register my plans with the Smart Traveler (State Dept) if I go anywhere of concern for me or my family. I get text/email updates from the embassy when there is activity/warnings locally (I got many updates when in Zimbabwe) -it also gives me a local resource if anything escalates.
    We all have our risk tolerance based on travel experiences and need to trust our instincts.

  3. Maybe to ease your family’s worries you could buy them a map. Ethiopia and Uganda don’t even border each other. The terrorists would have to cross two borders in order to get from Entebbe to Addis Ababa. Cancelling your flight though ADD because of a terrorism warning in EBB would be like cancelling a flight through Heathrow because of a terrorism warning in Madrid.

  4. Since US doesn’t allow voluntary changes after departure, isn’t it really a hypothetical discussion?

    Your options were to continue as ticketed (which is fine since Uganda and Ethiopia are not the same country) or to cancel altogether. That would create a completely new set of issues since, in addition to having to find your own way home, you would now be in China on a transit visa without a departing flight. It would be interesting to see how the Chinese authorities handled that one….

    As for the Great Firewall of China, I wouldn’t worry. The Chinese authorities are primarily concerned about keeping their own citizens from accessing seditious materials like Facebook. They couldn’t care less what happens in Africa so long as it doesn’t affect one of their business ventures there.

  5. btw, I didn’t mean that sarcastically. Most Americans have a pretty poor knowledge of African geography, but if you sent them a picture with the country you’re going to and the country the warning is in – far far away – it should set their mind at ease.

  6. My 2 cents. Major over reaction for a non issue. Live your life wisely. If family concerns are an issue explain it clearly and calmly and carry on.

  7. The aircraft you flew from Addis to Frankfurt (ET-ALO) actually spent the entire previous day sitting on the ground in Entebbe. That’s about the closest link you had to any possibility of things going wrong. 🙂

  8. Great comments so far. I especially appreciated the first comment by Ben. I travel often for work to the Middle East. Frankly I stopped paying attention to the hype of security advisories. I just will not allow terrorist threats to barricade me in my home. I love my work and I love traveling to Jeddah and even Tehran (a highly underated city, as is Amman). And I am certainly not going to exchange a leisure trip to London for the safety of Branson. And my loved ones know this. I have made it clear that, even in this time of daily threats, there are still duties to perform and experiences to enjoy.

    Glad the boys didn’t kowtow to some vague threat.

  9. My parents aren’t travel worrywarts (they rushed to Berlin in 1961, with me in utero, to watch the Wall go up). If they were, I think I’d tell them whatever I needed to tell them in order to get them to relax (including, possibly, a white lie that I’d changed my plans), and then go ahead and travel as planned.

  10. Like Matt said – without trying to sound hostile or sarcastic (seriously), a map/information would probably have been a good idea if you thought they might be concerned at all. Addis Ababa is pretty much in the middle of Ethiopia and nowhere near Entebbe ( which is in central/southern Uganda, and Uganda doesn’t share a border with Ethiopia).

    On second thoughts though, as Ethiopia does share borders with South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia, and Addis Ababa is about as close to southern Yemen as it is to Entebbe, perhaps a map might not have been all that useful if they were stressed out…

    I have actually changed travel plans (a trip to Egypt) not too long ago largely because of family worries so I definitely understand where you’re coming from, but I think in this case a bit of information was probably a more sensible plan than potentially changing your plans!

  11. We went to Sochi even though we heard to be vigilant of possible terrorist activity. I would have still told my family but to also inform them of your arrival in Addis so they know you’re both ok.

  12. Agree with Arcanum. You would both be stuck in China! Your parents would be really upset! You both need to get real!

  13. @ Hong Kong Airline News — That was a lot worse for me of course (this was a non-event), but that also couldn’t have been predicted.

  14. Sounds like there is a teachable moment in there somewhere. Fear and paranoia come from ignorance. Why not try educating your family on concepts such as basic geography and the relative scarcity of terrorist events compared to all the other things that are far more likely to kill us (car crashes, various cancers, diseases of the heart, etc.) I must admit that it’s amazing to me how many Americans openly fear violence abroad while quietly ignoring the shocking number of wild west shootouts here at home. If anyone should be thinking twice about their travel plans maybe it’s the tourists coming to America.

  15. Seriously. What Matt and others have said. What a non-issue, because…

    “If family back home had heard the words “Ethiopian” and “terrorist attack” in the same sentence”

    Except they wouldn’t have. At all. I mean, “We can’t fly to Frankfurt because there was a terrorist attack in Rome!”

  16. No reason to cancel! There is potential danger, in the most general sense of the word, at any destination. What if you canceled that flight and got on another that had problems mid-flight? For a *possible* terrorist threat in another country though? I’d say take the flight, and if your family want to worry they’ll be able to find some cause for concern no matter where you are.

  17. When I went to Afghanistan, I decided to save telling my parents until afterwards when I returned. Save them worrying about it and avoid unnecessary stress.

  18. Daniel, I was the same! For that trip I didn’t even consider telling them I was going until after we got back safe. A few friends knew where I was headed in case I didn’t make it back, but I felt like that one was something not to worry the fam with.

  19. I spent the last three months defying travel warnings and visited Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, Burundi, the DRC, etc. Not only did I not experience any problems, but I actually had a wonderful time.

    Without question, travel warnings and media reports on these “unknown” and “scary” places are so ridiculously over-hyped that it is almost comical. Unfortunately, most people do not have any other sources to rely on, so whatever the US State Department publishes to cover their own liabilities ends up being the primarily if not only source of information.

    @Dax: Exactly. I heard more about mass/random violence in that week since I returned to the US than in the entire three months that I was abroad.

  20. A few points:

    1) Great Firewall: You better believe they are watching. I lived in China for a year and travel there frequently. Many terms are forbidden and will get you the attention of the authorities, especially given the increase in domestic Chinese terrorism.

    2) Travel safety: Some companies do take this very seriously and will cancel trips based on local happenings. I have been to Urumqi, Xinjiang which has seen an incrase in Muslim Extremism. Our company was considering a project in Nigeria (not a good prospect if you are with an oil/gas company – people have been kidnapped).

    It all depends upon where you are going and whether you would make a likely target. I would not be a target in Urumqi since I am not Han Chinese. Conversely, I would be a target working for a large chemical company in Nigeria because I do not look like I belong.

  21. This seems like a pretty big non issue especially since it was a specific threat in a different country.

    A couple months ago I happened to be in Thailand during the coup and stuck around for a couple days but was either down south or up north. My last stop was suppose to be in Bangkok, and ultimately decided that did not make sense. Was very fortunate of UAs more flexible change policy. My fear during the whole ordeal — which really was not very noticeable other than the curfew — was that it could escalate and that eventually things like roads, airports and internet would be cut off. There is a history of protestors taking over airports. Luckily none of those things happened but I did sort of brainstorm other outs with my family in case something had escalated.

  22. “Why not try educating your family on concepts such as basic geography…If anyone should be thinking twice about their travel plans maybe it’s the tourists coming to America.”

    Dax please show me on a world map the country named “America” – I’ve looked and I can’t find it – Maybe you are the one that needs to be educated in basic geography?

  23. Wade says

    July 5, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    “Why not try educating your family on concepts such as basic geography…If anyone should be thinking twice about their travel plans maybe it’s the tourists coming to America.”

    Dax please show me on a world map the country named “America” – I’ve looked and I can’t find it – Maybe you are the one that needs to be educated in basic geography?

    I’m fully aware that there is no such country and that it’s silly and arbitrary to call citizens of the US “Americans” at the exclusion of everyone else. Doesn’t change the fact that this is how we (and a dozen other countries) refer to ourselves. Sorry if that bothers you. There is a difference between politically incorrect speech and genuine ignorance.

  24. Hi Lucky! New subscriber here!
    The African continent is scary to many people so that fear is a legitimate one as one constantly hears about this or that uprising. However, our families will always be worried no matter what we do so I’d say where I was going but not say the extreme details.

    I went to Hong Kong in the 90’s and the day before we flew, a flight from the same airline, crashed in China. I didn’t tell the family, and most likely they wouldn’t have heard anyway, so why worry them. I was on the way to Halong Bay, Vietnam in 2007 during the Typhoon disaster that affected Taiwan, China, and Vietnam. We diverted our travel to Hanoi and that was that. I wrote about it later.

    Nice post Lucky.

  25. @Victoria – Are you actually serious? Fear is legitimate because Africa is “scary”? Some people might be scared of the concept of “Africa” due to lack of knowledge or abundance of bad news stories, but unfamiliarity doesn’t make the fear legitimate or well founded.

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