Ask a Points Nerd: Whom Can We Trust About Travel Safety?

With a lot of conflicting guidance, it's best to trust the experts who err on the side of caution.

Sam KemmisMay 14, 2020

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Last week, several fellow travel rewards experts weighed in on the question of travel safety: When will it be safe to travel? By what means? To what destinations?

With so much conflicting information and advice circulating not only in the travel world but also in the news generally, the question on many people’s minds (including mine) is not so much "What should we do?" but "Whom can we trust?"

It seems like everyone is suddenly a self-professed epidemiological expert, from travel writers to your Aunt Mary. Yet there is likely an inverse relationship between how confident someone is in their expertise and how close to correct they actually are.

That is, you should trust only those willing to tell you they don’t know.

Epistemic humility FTW

If you had asked me when I started writing about points and miles whether I would ever use the term "epistemic humility" in an article on the subject, I probably would have said "bless you." But then there’s a lot about the current reality that wouldn’t have made sense a few months ago.

"Epistemic humility" just means recognizing how little you or anybody else understands. It’s what’s derived from Plato’s account of Socrates in the saying, "I know that I know nothing" — and it’s the antithesis of whatever Twitter embodies.

(At least, I think that’s what it means.)

For example, let’s take a seemingly straightforward question: Will it be safe to travel by the holidays?

Your Aunt Mary may have her own clear-cut, yes-or-no answer to this question, but what about people with some actual expertise — like scientists? A major study in April’s issue of the journal Science developed several possible models for the future of the pandemic that vary significantly depending on many unknown variables. Some have huge peaks in late 2020, others don’t.

If you asked the authors of this paper whether it would be safe to travel over the holidays, they would likely respond with a resounding, "It depends." In other words, they would demonstrate epistemic humility.

Play it safe

But my job is to give advice, and so far in this piece I’m doing a lousy job at it. You just want to know whether to book a trip home to Dayton for Thanksgiving, not whether truth exists.

Here’s my hard-nosed practical advice for planning travel: Play it safe. Trust those experts who recommend erring on the side of caution. That doesn’t mean buying into fearmongering. It means acknowledging the stakes on one hand (health) versus the benefits on the other (enjoying your dad’s famous Thanksgiving gravy).

For example, airlines are telling us that their planes are now safer to fly thanks to improved sanitation techniques. But how can any of us confirm or deny this claim? The travel industry has a financial interest in your return to the skies — so you should wait until this purported safety can be confirmed by some individual or institution without bias.

How long will it take to get definitive information? I sure don’t know. But playing it safe in the meantime seems wise.

The bottom line

Is this frustrating? Absolutely. We are all craving certainty right now, and it’s far more comforting to think, "It’s safe to travel again," than it is to wallow in confusion. But whether we like it or not, we’re all confused right now. Better to accept it and take some comfort in our shared head-scratching than take the hubristic path of Aunt Mary.

Feeling overwhelmed about how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to [email protected]

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