Coffee with Sam: Overcoming Travel Anxiety

9/11, for most of us, brings about old emotions, fears, and every single memory of where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news on that day 12 years ago. In addition, for those of us who commute or travel, comes anxiety as we all wonder with unease whether terrorists will try to commemorate this day with another attack. I recently had the opportunity to have a virtual cup of coffee and chat with Rita Anya Nara, author of the book The Anxious Traveler. Rita feels that our worries about another 9/11 attack from the skies are unfounded. In this interview with Rita, we’ll find out what makes he so confident.

Rita Anya Nara, author of The Anxious TravelerSamantha: What made you want to write this book?
Rita: On February 22, 2013, I reached my ultimate travel dream, one I had harbored since I was five years old: I reached the seventh and final continent on earth, Antarctica. I had this emotional moment on the ship deck when I realized how far I’d come from cutting pictures of travel destinations out of National Geographic all weekend, and telling my doctor in 2001 that I’d never be able to go anywhere, ever. And yet here I was, 38 countries, hundreds of challenges, and thousands of breakthroughs later. I had the compelling need to share with others everything I had learned about how to travel successfully despite suffering from chronic anxiety. I didn’t want to write a memoir – I wanted to lay out the dozens of strategies and approaches I’d discovered and observed about how to be a successful traveler, anywhere, with (or without) anyone, despite having an anxiety disorder or problems managing stress. I had a lot of time inside my stateroom when it was too cold to go out on deck, so I started writing the Anxious Traveler.

S: Do you truly feel that 9/11 is the safest day to travel? Or just to fly?
R: I believe it’s the safest day of the year to fly in the U.S.

S: Why do you feel that way?
R: Because of the vigilance of security officials at airports, the degree of attention paid to aircraft safety and air traffic on that day, and the unwavering and absolute determination of thousands of enforcement personnel around the country to avoid a repeat attack. Passengers are also far more vigilant; most everyone is watching someone else. They’re not leaving bags unattended to check their boarding time; they have an eye out for something “off”; and they’re on guard. They’ve learned from 9/11 that tragedies happen when we’re least expecting them.

There are fewer flyers than normal just because of the number of people avoiding the date. Fewer passengers means fewer distractions in airports and on planes, and often, time for more thorough screening checks. Random post-security checks are much more frequent than normal, and by the time you get on the plane, you’ll probably feel incredibly relieved… and safe.

S: What first made you look at it as a safe day?
R: Talking to security officials and airline representatives about what they go through every September to make sure there’s not a repeat attack on 9/11. I could see the stress, confidence, and determination in their faces all at the same time. They were the models of working through fear. If it weren’t for them, airports would be ghost-towns on 9/11. We’d have an annual travel shutdown day instead of an anniversary that commemorates our resilience.

S: Have you gotten hate mail since publishing The Anxious Traveler?
R: I have gotten some snarks from bloggers that “headcases” and “nervous wrecks” should stay home for their own good (and to avoid being a “distraction” to others), but that’s all. The overwhelming feedback I’ve gotten is that the book is very inspiring, and very informative. It’s not my memoir; there’s not much about me beyond the first chapter. It’s a true guidebook to help other anxious travelers plan a trip from A to Z – and then take it, and enjoy it.

As a society, we value overcoming personal obstacles and barriers to reach our full potential; this is a fundamental American belief. It’s certainly something we want to teach our children. Anxiety is something you can confront and manage in order to do what you want to do, and travel is a life-enriching way to overcome your fears in the real world instead of relying on only medication or behavioral therapy. So I believe the message resonates with a great number of people, and in a very positive way.

S: I have been to airports on 9/11- and you are right, it’s nearly impossible to move or fly, and I will never do it again for that reason. Do you recommend traveling on that date?
R: Not if you are on a tight schedule, and not if 9/11 is still very raw for you. I have heard of people losing their composure in airports when trying to travel on that date, and not only do they end up stressing themselves out, but they lose their confidence to travel in the future, and they distract security officials who need to focus 100% on their job. If you lost a loved one on 9/11, or just need to get somewhere in a hurry, then I suggest picking another date.

U.S. travelers should also be aware that security in airports around the world is sometimes not up to American standards. I was traveling through Buenos Aires last March and started to remove my laptop from my bag, take off my shoes, throw out my water bottle, the whole usual airport screening routine. The security official told me to stop doing all this because I was slowing people down behind me. I was like, “What?” I got through the checkpoint with my full bottle of water, and with the other security measures largely ignored. When I questioned the official’s boss, she said this was “everyday procedure.” So, I believe if someone wanted to plan a copycat 9/11 attack in another part of the world, there would be a lot more opportunity than here. 9/11 is largely known in other countries as “the American tragedy;” there’s often an “it can’t happen to us” mentality in other regions of the globe that can be downright dangerous.

S: Well, fair enough, but then again, Buenos Aires is not currently a top target for crazed terrorists, so I guess they feel that they don’t need to be as intense. I would personally be more worried about a terrorist flying IN from a country with lax security. What are your feelings about air travel security measures? Do they help? Go to far? Not far enough?
R: I think they are reactive, not proactive. For example, we were only prohibited from taking onboard bottles of water and larger liquid toiletries after terrorists planned to use vials of liquids to make an onboard weapon; similarly, we were only made to take off our shoes in the security line after the Richard Reid “Shoe Bomber” incident.

With that being said, I think the security screening routine at the airport gets everyone in the right frame of mind to be vigilant. Everyone is getting a good look at everyone else in those security lines. There are a lot of opportunities to note unusual or nervous behavior. Overall, there’s so much hassle and fuss built into air travel nowadays that I firmly believe terrorists are looking at other ways to strike. It’s a lot less trouble for a terrorist to detonate a bomb in a street crowd or in front of a building than to work around the restrictions that have been put on air travel.

S: Do you think air travel is safe since the last air attack?
R: I think it is definitely the safest way to travel. I think it became even safer after the Asiana Airlines tragedy this summer at San Francisco International Airport (which is the airport I fly out of). After that incident, pilot training records were reexamined, safety standards were reviewed, and mechanical checks of many planes were increased (even though the tragedy was due to pilot error). The bottom line is, every time there is a tragedy, we learn from and react to the tragedy, and we become safer.

We can certainly learn something from our children regarding 9/11; of course, they’re not old enough to remember it. They see that security officials are doing their jobs, that the plane and crew are in order, and that we have somewhere we need to be… so let’s go. They remind us that every day is a new day, that we have to keep moving forward, and that we need to stow our bad memories in the overhead compartment.

S: What is your take on the safety on rail and subway travel? There are no little to no security measures- this seems a more likely place to be attacked to me then an airplane.
R:To be honest, the lack of rail and subway security scares the heck out of me! I think it’s only a matter of time before there is a major attack (and possibly a series of attacks) on rail or subway travel in the U.S. I don’t say this to alarm anyone, but to draw attention to the need for more security, and for everyone to be more vigilant.

A lot of people say that it’s nearly impossible to secure U.S. rail and subway travel just because of the sheer number of people and the ease of getting on and off a train. Well, I was traveling in Russia earlier this summer and had to go through a full airport-style security check at all rail stations I passed through in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I was impressed with the system they had worked out to screen that many passengers, without major delays. If the Russians can make rail security efficient and effective, then so can we – and we can do it even better.

S: How often do you travel post-9/11?
R: I take three to four long (2 weeks+) international trips per year, plus a lot of shorter trips.

S: What is your preferred method of travel?
R: I definitely prefer to fly. Once I get to my destination, I prefer to walk, or take a bus rather than take a train. Buses are far smaller terrorist targets than trains (literally and figuratively).

I don’t want to knock trains too much though. There are many beautiful train routes around the world that just aren’t going to attract the attention of terrorists. Taking the Chunnel from London on a major British holiday would make me very nervous; taking a long, winding trip through rural Switzerland would not. Trains are naturally more accessible to families with small children. Taking shorter rides through off-the-beaten-track scenic areas can be a wonderful experience, and security will be the last thing you’re worried about.

S: Why or how do you think your book can help answer some of these and other burning questions, and calm the (aptly named) Anxious Traveler?
R: At the root of almost all anxiety is uncertainty. When we aren’t informed and aren’t prepared, then our stress levels rise through the roof. The Anxious Traveler provides guidance and recommendations on so many dozens of travel scenarios that even people suffering from extreme stress and anxiety (and considerable inexperience) will gain the knowledge they need to feel prepared. When we’re prepared, we feel confident, and when we’re confident, we can take that trip to reconnect with loved ones far away, show our children someplace new and different, or just enjoy ourselves and take the vacation we need and deserve!

Armin Brott

View posts by Armin Brott
Armin Brott is the proud father of three, a former U.S. Marine, a best-selling author, radio host, speaker, and one of the country’s leading experts on fatherhood. He writes frequently about fatherhood, families, and men's health. Read more about Armin or visit his website, You can also connect via social media: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest,  and Linkedin.
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