No, Americans shouldn’t fear traveling abroad

As summer travel season begins, friends and relatives have asked me if it’s safe to travel outside the U.S.

I understand their fears. The news is filled with scary stories, like a tourist bus being bombed near Egypt’s pyramids, people being knifed at a bus stop in Japan and continuing coverage of the two Boeing 737 Max air crashes, both of which happened overseas.

As a macroeconomist I travel frequently to understand global trends. I crunched the numbers on U.S. fatalities abroad, and what I found might surprise you.

Americans abroad

In 2018, over 56 million U.S. citizens got on board a plane for a trip to an international destination.

The average person leaving the U.S. by air spends slightly more than 17 nights outside the U.S., based on 2016 data. Multiplying trips by time means almost 3 million citizens are taking a trip abroad on any given day.

Yet these figures underestimate how many Americans actually travel abroad, since some people leave the U.S. on boat trips or even drive to Canada or Mexico. It also doesn’t include the number of U.S. citizens who permanently live abroad.

All this tourism is a vital part of many countries’ economies. U.S. travelers spent US$256 billion in 2018. If Americans or other international travelers stop hopping on a plane because they believe traveling to a specific country or region has become unsafe, this could have devastating effects on economies that depend on foreign tourism, such as Egypt and Sri Lanka.

Recent high-profile plane crashes have some worried the skies are no longer safe. Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Safety first

So is there reason to worry?

In October 2002, the State Department started tracking the number of U.S. citizens who die in a foreign country from non-natural causes, which excludes deaths from illness and things like heart attacks. The data include the date of death, where the death occurred and the cause.

I found the numbers shockingly low.

In 2018, just 724 Americans died from unnatural causes while abroad, the fewest since 2006 and down from a peak of 1,065 in 2010. I was expecting much larger numbers, more like the over 15,000 murders that happen in the U.S. every year.

And this doesn’t actually show the full extent of the decline because the number of U.S. overseas travelers has surged in the same period. From 2010 to 2018, the number of citizens flying to international destinations increased by 50%.

More travelers combined with fewer deaths mean it is actually getting safer to travel abroad.