By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/13/2009 5:38:05 PM ET 2009-05-13T21:38:05

When Robin McMullin heard about the swine flu outbreak in Mexico, her heart sank. She had planned to celebrate her graduation from nursing school with a trip to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun.

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“When we called our online travel agency to cancel, they told us we’d lose almost half what we paid for the trip,” she says. “The news told everyone to cancel their travel to Mexico but our agent won’t let us. Why?”

Ah, the news. Did we really say that?

True, the State Department recommended Americans “avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico” because of H1N1. Vice President Joe Biden’s comment about staying off planes and avoiding enclosed spaces didn’t help, either. And yeah, the media coverage was a little over-the-top. But I don’t recall anyone telling travelers to cancel all of their upcoming Mexico vacations in such an open-ended way.

Fact is, H1N1 peaked in Mexico shortly after I heard from McMullin. Some regions even took the extraordinary step of claiming they were disease-free. For example, the Los Cabos Convention & Visitors Bureau and the state of Baja California Sur issued a statement that they’re “pleased to announce that the region has remained free of contamination.”

So maybe Swine flu was nothing more than mass hysteria. I probably could have guessed that at the start of this whole episode, since at least three H1N1 symptoms — pain, dizziness and confusion — are experienced every day by many of my journalism colleagues as they do their darnedest to bring you all the news that’s fit to print. I’m actually feeling a little light-headed as I write this.

McMullin, who lives in Cedar City, Utah, decided her flu fears were unjustified, and kept her reservation. “We are going to risk it and take medications in case we need them if we come down with the flu,” she told me before leaving.

But all of this begs a more general question: If we aren’t afraid of H1N1, then what should we be afraid of when we travel? And are the phobias justified?

Fear of flying
Hands down, this is the most common travel-related anxiety. Even though the odds of being killed in a plane crash are said to be 1 in 11 million, air travelers are made to feel they could be unlucky number 11 million every time their plane encounters unexpected turbulence. “While fear of flying makes some sense, because you’re out of control while you are soaring thousands of feet in the air, you are much safer in a plane that you are a car, or even walking,” says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, who is the author of the upcoming book “The Happiness Prescription.”

Bottom line: You’re likelier to drown in your bathtub. Worry about something else.

Fear of being away
That’s the second-biggest phobia that travelers suffer from, according to Bryan Toder, a hypnotherapist based in Lafayette Hill, Pa. “It’s the fear of being away from home. Being away from kids, pets, the job, creates lots of stress,” he says. Full disclosure: I’m afflicted by this particular anxiety. The uncertainty of being on the road keeps me home more than your average travel writer. Which is probably a good thing. Can you imagine what my columns would look like if I traveled all the time?

Bottom line: This one’s legit. Maybe we could all use a little hypnotherapy to get over it.

Fear of illness
Swine flu is just one of many infectious diseases that can sicken travelers. Our friends at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a more comprehensive list. It’s nothing to sneeze at, especially for travelers like Pablo Solomon, a Lampasas, Texas-based artist, and a confessed “germaphobe.” “We carry hand wipes and wash our hands and walk out of restaurants that look less than clean,” he told me. “After years of finally getting where we were beginning to actually enjoy travel and not worry so much about germs, this swine flu attack occurs. Sort of like the buildup for Jaws 2: Just when you thought it was safe …”

Bottom line: Swine flu fears may be overblown, but some of these other infectious diseases are no joke. Better get all your shots.

Fear of a bad flight
Beverly Hills, Calif.-based psychiatrist Carole Lieberman describes this as more of an annoyance than a phobia, but who’s counting? “I'm annoyed that traveling has become such a hassle,” she says. “Being jostled through the security lines, poor quality food, delayed flights, dark and dingy terminals, and overcrowded airplanes.” If you suffer from the same phobia — uh, I mean, annoyance — you’re in good company. The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group for the travel industry, last year released a survey that found travelers avoided an estimated 41 million trips over the past 12 months at a cost of more than $26 billion to the U.S. economy.

Bottom line: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Fear of losing your luggage
According to the latest numbers released by the Transportation Department, there’s a 1 in 285 chance of your luggage getting lost. Not all airlines are equal. Some, like AirTran, track their bags using new scanning technology, dropping the average closer to 1 in 500. Others, like regional carriers American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast and SkyWest, run at twice the industry average. “A lot of my clients travel for business and pleasure, and overwhelmingly their greatest rational fear is lost luggage,” says New York psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert “Many of them have experienced this and as a result the fear is grounded in reality and based on the stress of dealing with recovering the luggage.”

Bottom line: If you’re flying on a regional carrier, you might want to pack light.

How to get over these anxieties? My vote is for avoidance, but you already know that. Apparently, I’m wrong.

“Yes, avoidance reduces anxiety,” says Tracey Marks, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist. “But it reinforces the fear. Eventually, the avoidance makes the feared situation become a bigger monster that takes on a life of its own.”

In other words, get out and travel.  It may be the best cure for your travel phobia.

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