What’s worth fretting about and what’s just unnecessary baggage? Here’s how to travel smarter and venture out with confidence

Plane Disasters

THE WORRY In these jittery times, when even toothpaste is suspect, every flight seems to carry the possibility of a hijacking or a bombing—not to mention out-of-control turbulence or an accidental crash.

THE REALITY Planes are still the safest way to get around. With the major exception of the September 11 nightmare, there have been no terrorist-related airplane deaths in this country since 1987. As for accidents, there is less than one fatal crash for every 1 million commercial aviation flights in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics—compared to around 40,000 people killed annually in automobile accidents. And we have had very few hijackings. Randy Spivey, executive director of the Safe Travel Institute in Spokane, Washington, says they are extremely unlikely.

WORD OF ADVICE Whatever happens on a plane, sitting tight is still your best route to safety. Children especially can get bounced around in turbulence. Spring for a seat for a child under two, suggests Lorrie Walker of Safe Kids Worldwide, a group that promotes measures to prevent the injury of children. The FAA has just approved a lightweight harness for tots 22 to 44 pounds (called CARES, it’s available at kidsflysafe.com for $75)—a welcome replace­ment for bulky car seats. Still worried about terrorists?Pick seats away from the aisle, Spivey says—an attacker will be less likely to choose a hostage who’s hard to reach. That said, your best defense against terrorists is simply to be alert to your surroundings—in the airport and on the plane.

Hotel Hell

THE WORRY Fires. Shady caregivers and kids’ club counselors. Dangerous furniture. Although hotels have introduced a raft of child-friendly amenities to lure families, some parents see potential perils lurking everywhere.

THE REALITY Thanks to flame-retardant materials and stricter safety measures, fires at hotels and motels have dramatically declined over the past two decades, according to the National Fire Protection Association. There were 12,500 fires and 80 fire-related deaths in U.S. hotels and motels in 1980; by 2002, the number of blazes had dropped 67 percent and deaths decreased by 80 percent. Before signing on child-care personnel, major hotel chains screen candidates rigorously; at Marriott’s properties, staff must pass background, drug, and criminal-history checks—and, of course, have experience working with kids. As for fiendish furniture, many hotels now offer childproofing services as part of an effort to attract parents with toddlers: the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, for example, will plug unused electrical sockets and place protective rubber bumpers on tub faucets and coffee-table corners.

WORD OF ADVICE If you’re concerned about fire, ask the desk clerk at check-in about sprinkler systems and alarms. You can also book a room on a low floor—the first to the seventh stories are generally easier for firefighters to reach. If you want to hire a hotel baby-sitter, request references; talk with other parents at the hotel for the lowdown on the kids’ club. And if you have small children, do your own room check—hazards such as wastebasket-liners need to be nixed.

Catching Something on a Cruise Ship

THE WORRY Ocean liners are veritable petri dishes for bacteria and viruses—everyone’s sure to come down with something.

THE REALITY It’s true: ships are confined environments and therefore subject to outbreaks of disease—remember when passengers and crew on Celebrity Cruises’ Mercury were hit with norovirus on two sailings earlier this year?Even so, getting sick on a cruise is "a relatively rare event," says Tom Skinner, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control. To limit the spread of germs, hand-sanitizer dispensers are posted throughout ships (crew members are required, and passengers "encouraged," to use them before entering a dining room), and if symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea crop up, the staff scrubs everything from the casino chips to the television remote controls.

WORD OF ADVICE Wherever you are, commonsense hygiene is the best way to ward off nasty microbes. Wash your hands often, in hot soapy water, and dry them with disposable towels. No need for extra precautions, such as travel sleeping sacks (known as anti-cootie cocoons) and gadgets that zap toothbrushes with ultraviolet light; Skinner says, "they’re by and large not needed."

Amusement Park Mishaps

THE WORRY Sure, hair-raising 128-mph roller coasters are thrilling, but are they safe?

THE REALITY The likelihood of a freak accident or malfunction is very low, according to injury data reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Safety Council. Each year, visitors go on 1.5 billion amusement park rides at 320 American theme parks. Based on CPSC estimates, between 1997 and 2003 only .000002780952 percent of these resulted in injuries. And the future looks even safer: new-generation rides deploy computer-controlled braking and updated safety technology—such as the yoke-style restraints on the new Timber Tower at Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Also bear in mind that most injuries at amusement parks have nothing to do with the rides—according to Robert Niles, founder of the Web site Theme Park Insider, they’re more along the lines of "stroller collisions on crowded pathways."

WORD OF ADVICE Teach your kids the safety rules: Be extra careful climbing into and out of the cars. Always use seat belts, bars, and shoulder restraints. Keep hands and feet inside the car at all times. Stay seated during the ride and never, ever get out until the ride is over and the car has stopped.

Losing Your Child

THE WORRY In the tumult of travel, someone in your group—especially a small, vulnerable someone—may go astray.

THE REALITY Children do get lost—about 2,000 are reported missing daily in the United States, according to the FBI—but the overwhelming majority are found within a couple of hours. Plus, a host of child-identification products have been introduced in recent years, from Velcro tags (with a place on the inside to write the child’s name and parents’ cell numbers—available at mypreciouskids.com) to GPS-equipped cell phones (which enable parents to keep tabs on their kids’ whereabouts via satellite; check out Disney’s model at disneymobile.com). Or try Tattoos with a Purpose (tattooswithapurpose.com): crucial contact information is affixed with a washcloth, then fades away after about a week. Amusement parks are doing their bit, too: many U.S. parks now supply radio-frequency identification tags, known as RFID’s, which enable parents to track their kids from a kiosk. At Wannado City, a theme park in Sunrise, Florida, the price of admission includes a ­WannaFinder, a plastic locator bracelet (it looks like a kiddie watch) equipped with Wi-Fi, that transmits the wearer’s location to touch screens that parents can check.

WORD OF ADVICE Tried-and-true group-travel tactics are not to be forgotten. Dress your kids in matching clothes so they’re easy to spot. Make them memorize your cell-phone number. Put your hotel’s name, address, and telephone in each child’s pocket. And teach your kids what to do if they do get lost—seek out official personnel rather than searching for you by themselves. Show them what the police look like wherever you are, and point out the uniforms, hats, or name tags of other people in a position to help. But don’t forget: Nothing beats your own watchful gaze.

Ernest Beck, a New York–based freelance writer, is a ­frequent contributor to The New York Times, Worth, and SmallBiz.