Article Summary:Advice on how to stay healthy and safe while travelling internationally.
International travel is a fact of life for many professionals and their families in today's world. Whether you are in the midst of packing up the kids to head south on vacation or you are expected at a 4-day conference in China, there are certain considerations when planning the trip. It is quite likely that a trek across deepest Africa or canoeing down the Amazon would raise some concern from the start. However, popular destinations, such as Florida, Mexico and other parts of the Caribbean offering resort packages with seemingly modern facilities demand the same attention. Beneath the surface of the five-star hotels, extensive international menus, hot night clubs and sandy beaches lurk the same health and safety issues that exist across the globe.
The luxury associated with international resorts and modern hotels often masks the true, underlying conditions of the region in which they are situated. For that reason, it is important to remind yourself that you are in a different country; you must become familiar with the area and take the appropriate precautions. Florida experiences an annual hard-hitting hurricane season, Mexico commonly serves up Montazuma's revenge and the Caribbean plays host to a number of rare tropical diseases due to the climate and local wildlife. Even common European destinations are now experiencing new weather phenomena due to climate change. Take the time to read about your destination and its most up-to-date conditions.
Whether you will be on holiday, embarking on an overseas contract, volunteering with an NGO or meeting colleagues at a satellite office, you will encounter different circumstances that your body is not used to dealing with. Cuban citizens, for example, drink the local water straight from the tap with no effects because their bodies have built up a tolerance to local impurities. On the other hand, a Canadian who only drinks Canadian tap water and does not have this tolerance may experience gastrointestinal problems during his/her stay. Protect yourself by considering the following factors that will influence your individual risk:
- Destination (country, city, rural area);
- Existing medical conditions;
- Reason for and style of travel (business, holiday, volunteering with the local population, etc.);
- Age, stature, gender;
- Time of year (high or low season).
Once you have written down the details, plan a visit to your family doctor before leaving to ensure you are in good physical shape to handle the conditions of your trip. It is also a good idea to make an appointment with a travel health professional to assess and understand the potential health risks in the region of your journey. A qualified travel health professional will be able to determine and administer any required or recommended vaccinations and/or medications for your trip as well as provide you with a list of the travel health clinics at your destination. Plan ahead as some vaccinations require multiple shots over a specific period of time to be effective. Failure to provide proof of certain vaccinations can result in refusal of entry to many countries, particularly those where tuberculosis and yellow fever are prominent. Avoid unnecessary delays and expenses by taking your pre-departure health preparation seriously.
Whether you are required to present proof of travel insurance upon arrival at your destination or not, you should research and purchase a comprehensive health insurance package that will cover any medical emergencies when abroad. International medical treatment is expensive and can cost thousands of dollars per day. Do not assume that you are covered by your local insurance provider or your credit card company while you are abroad. Call your local insurance provider to ask about international coverage or speak to your travel agent at the time you book your flight. Travel agents regularly offer international medical, baggage and cancellation insurance at reasonable prices.
The cost of insurance will vary depending on age, nationality, destination, existing conditions, previous travels and the nature of your trip. Be honest when applying for insurance. If you plan to go scuba diving, tell the insurance representative as certain sports and leisure activities are considered higher risk and are therefore not covered by basic policies. Ask about coverage for any existing medical conditions; you do not want to find out when you are sitting in an Australian hospital that your policy will not cover medical visits for complications arising from your diabetes. Finally, tell the provider if you have traveled or lived in countries considered high risk for diseases like tuberculosis as it can also affect the policy you need.
Just as important as how you prepare health-wise, though, is how you conduct yourself after your arrival. Carrying an over-sized camera around your neck in a T-shirt that says `I love Paris' is probably not the best way to assimilate in France. Although you will certainly need to look at a map and want to take photographs, it is important to stay aware of your surroundings. An 18-year-old backpacking through Europe will now have a completely different experience from someone who made the same journey 50 years ago. A recognized travel guide can be an excellent source of information and often provides advice on how your home culture and society will differ from your travel destination. In addition, speak to travel agents, friends, colleagues and the locals at your destination who can also offer a wealth of information that you should consider with an open mind!
Falling ill or having an accident when traveling can be frightening, cut your trip short and, above all else, hold long-term consequences. Take time before you leave home to learn as much about yourself and your destination as possible. To make the most of your time abroad, do your best to research and prepare for your trip to eliminate the unwanted surprises so that you can concentrate on your conference, meeting or the sandy beach outside your hotel. Don't risk being caught overseas without a safety net!
Consider the following tips at different points throughout your trip:
Before You Go
- Purchase a recognized guide book to read about and understand your destination; familiarize yourself with the customs.
- Buy extra medication than what is required for the duration of your trip, in case of emergency or an unexpected extension.
- Keep all medications in their original containers; customs officials will questions pills, powders and other substances in unmarked containers.
- Consider taking a copy of your doctor's prescription to demonstrate that your supervised use of the drug.
- Make an appointment with a travel health professional to assess any potential health risks.
- Ensure all your basic vaccinations are up-to-date (ie. Tetanus and Diphtheria).
- Arrange for any further necessary vaccinations and/or anti-malarial drugs.
- Prepare a basic First Aid Kit.
- Ensure that you have up-to-date medical information on your person at all times (ie. Medic Alert bracelet).
- Take an extra pair of eye glasses along with a copy of your prescription and extra contact lenses and solution, as they may not be available overseas.
- Give friends and family a copy of your itinerary so that they may contact you at any time.
- Purchase a comprehensive travel health insurance package to ensure your medical needs will be covered.
During the Journey
- Drink lots of fluids, preferably water; avoid alcoholic beverages which dehydrate your body.
- Consider your menu; avoid greasy foods and sweets that may cause you to feel bloated.
- Remember to stretch your legs and walk around to avoid cramping and circulatory difficulties.
While You Are There
- "Boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it"; avoid all uncooked foods and salad, and be wary of seafood and rare meats.
- Only eat fruits that you have peeled personally.
- Drink bottled water only; waterborne diseases are common outside of North America.
- Only drink water from a commercially sealed container, which you have opened personally or seen the bottle opened; restaurants will sometimes refill a bottle with tap water.
- Ask for drinks with no ice, ice is made from the local water supply.
- Do not accept drinks from strangers or drink from a glass that has left your possession at any time; be aware of the current date-rape drugs and tactics.
- Avoid unpasteurized dairy products.
- Use a sunscreen with a high SPF, wear hats when outdoors, drink lots of water and avoid long exposure to the sun, particularly during the hours of 10am - 2pm. Remember that the young and the elderly feel the heat far more quickly, so keep them covered up and well hydrated.
- Ensure that all medications and protective lotions have not passed their expiration dates, thus making them ineffective when you need them.
- Use an effective mosquito repellent and wear long-sleeved, light-coloured clothing, particularly at dusk to avoid mosquito-borne infections.
- Swim with your head above water, as pools may not be treated with sufficient levels of chlorine.
- Avoid food from street vendors, who have few if any regulations in how their food is prepared.
- Use a hand sanitizer before eating if you can't find a place to wash your hands.
Keep Yourself Safe
- Make copies of all important documents; keep those copies in a safe place, separate from the originals.
- Use a travel money belt that is concealed by clothing.
- If travelling with others, set-up a known meeting point in a safe area in case someone gets separated from the group.
- Do not carry large amounts of cash; try using traveler's cheques that can be exchanged at most overseas banks.
- Avoid wearing flashy clothes and jewellery; you will bring undue attention to yourself, making you a target for pick-pockets.
- Familiarize yourself with local customs and laws; you are subject to local laws even as a foreigner.
- Do not accept sealed packages on behalf of other people.
- Pack your luggage yourself.
- Speak to locals at your hotel or trusted tour operators to know the unsafe areas.
- Avoid going out alone at night. Pay extra attention if you leave the resort at any time (these resorts are often situated in poor countries where you may become a target).
- Be wary of people who offer unregistered tours and assistance.
- Make sure you rent vehicles from a reputable firm, ensuring that cars are safe, have enough seat-belts and legal car seats for young children.
- Always wear a seat belt.
- Always practice safe sex.
- Keep a list of emergency contact numbers register with the nearest consulate or embassy if necessary.
- Consider putting an ID necklace on small children with their name, hotel and emergency contact in case they stray or get lost.
You want to travel to relax, learn, do effective business or have fun. By preparing before you go, you will be able to deal effectively with any unforeseen circumstances that arise along the way. Remember: better safe than sorry!
Giroux, Eric. Let's Go: Britain and Ireland, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1998.
Laura Wood practices what she preaches with over a decade of international study and work experience. Educated in Canada and at Cambridge University in England, she has lived in France, Germany, South Africa and Belgium where she worked with international mobility programs at the European Commission. Now based in Canada, Laura continues to lecture, write and consult on issues ranging from international education to effective workplace communication through her company Globetrotters Education Consulting Inc. at Globe Trotters Education.ca