For some, only superstition appeases the travel gods

Times Staff Writer

Traveling is sometimes like putting yourself in the hands of mischievous gods. When they’re feeling benign, a trip unfolds smoothly. But when the gods are in a mood, you miss connections, your hotel loses your reservations and on the plane you get stuck next to a screaming baby.

To appease the gods, in the past I habitually called my parents from the airport before my plane departed. And I still try to do a small good deed, like yielding to another driver on the way to the airport or giving my seat to a senior on a crowded shuttle, to accumulate good karma before leaving home. No matter how frazzled or rushed I am, I practice this ritual. It doesn’t make sense to court disaster by forgetting to do it.

I’m generally not superstitious, but travel seems to bring it out in me -- and others. Some people wouldn’t dream of hitting the road without their favorite jade amulet or St. Christopher medal. Sharon Wingler, editor of and a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines for more than 30 years, says she often sees passengers touch the outside of the plane as they’re boarding. Since Sept. 11, she and many of her colleagues have begun wearing angel pins on their lapels.

Nancy Kelly, the owner of Kelly Cruises travel agency in Oak Brook, Ill., has a client who refuses to take a cruise during a full moon. To keep bad luck at bay, Holland America ships were built with a coin beneath the mast, as dictated by mariners’ lore.


And then there’s the bugaboo about the number 13, which makes some people avoid flying on Friday the 13th. Marybeth Williams, an agent at Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Laguna Niguel, avoids seat assignments in row 13 when booking airline tickets so she won’t have to make a change if a superstitious client objects. High-rise hotels (and other buildings) often lack a 13th floor, and certain guests prefer not to stay in a room numbered 13, says Kirby Payne, chairman of the American Hotel & Motel Assn. in Washington, D.C. Payne, who is also the president of a hotel management firm and is definitely not superstitious, nonetheless avoids 13 when numbering rooms on a floor to avoid trouble.

Stuart A. Vyse, author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition” (Oxford University Press, 1997), says a fear of 13 stems partly from the biblical Last Supper, celebrated by the 12 Apostles and soon-to-be-crucified Jesus.

A frequent flier who gets anxious in turbulence, Vyse once was unnerved to find himself sitting in row 13 on a rough flight. But he recovered, he says, by drawing on his rational mind, recalling that if the plane crashed, every row would be at risk, not just the 13th.

After all, superstitions are irrational beliefs people like me sometimes follow without really believing. “It’s Pascal’s wager,” Vyse says, referring to an idea set forth by Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and theologian. Pascal decided that if the odds of the existence of God were even, it was worth embracing the idea, given the heavenly rewards promised to believers.


Psychologists like Vyse and Jerilyn Ross, director of the Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders in Washington, D.C., suggest that superstitiousness stems from anxiety caused by the apparent randomness of events, to which travelers, who put themselves in the hands of unpredictable gods every time they leave home, are especially vulnerable.

I rack up good karma before a trip; a colleague clutches her rosary during takeoff and landing. “People use certain familiar, comforting rituals to feel they have control over things,” Ross says.

There’s an important difference between appeasing erratic gods through small acts of superstition and being phobic, which imposes serious limitations on sufferers and needs to be recognized and treated. People with phobias, Ross says, are afraid of panic itself -- for instance, how they’ll feel when the door to the airplane closes. One of her patients recently told her that the thought of panicking on an aircraft was far more frightening than the worry of a terrorist attack.

Travelers traumatized by the events of Sept. 11 also can be helped by some of the measures Ross suggests for people who are phobic about flying. These include getting to the airport early, eating nutritiously, meeting the pilots and flight attendants, and telling airport security about anything that seems suspicious.


But Americans have kept traveling. In an August poll conducted by Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, a Florida-based travel marketing and consulting firm, only 1 in 9 respondents said that fear of more terrorism would change travel plans.

Concerns about safety have intensified, however. This was especially apparent on the anniversary of Sept. 11. On that day I flew from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. It was my way of marking the anniversary and of trying to keep my grip in the face of capricious travel gods and a random universe. But I did a few good deeds beforehand. It’s only rational to hang on to my superstitions.