Travel safety tips: by air, land, and sea

Last updated: June 2010

Illustration: Steve Adams

You've been looking forward to this vacation all year. Here are ways to have fun, stay healthy, and be safe, no matter where you're going or how you're going to get there.

Remember that heat-related illnesses can strike even when the weather is not hot. Even when temperatures are not extremely high, humidity, sun exposure, exercise, and inadequate water intake can each increase the risk and help trigger heat exhaustion. For example, if the humidity is 80 percent and you're out in direct sunlight, 85° F (29° C) feels like nearly 110° F (43° C) . Exercising or drinking too little water can turn up the heat even further.

To stay safe: Acclimate to warmer temperatures before summer sightseeing or outdoor exercise by getting out for at least 30 minutes a day for two weeks or more. When it's very hot or humid, limit your activities, seek shade, drink plenty of fluids, and consider staying indoors.

Air travel

Watch your back. Today's air travelers often carry and hoist their own luggage to avoid paying baggage fees and the hassle of waiting at baggage claim. But they run the risk of sprains, pulls, and other injuries if they don't lift correctly: As you lift heavy objects, try to hold them close to your chest; bend your knees, not your back; and reposition your entire body, rather than twisting or reaching as you lift. Split heavy loads into smaller ones and get help if an object is too heavy or awkward for you to lift by yourself.

Move around. Airlines try to fill airplanes to the max, and passengers can wind up sitting in tight, cramped quarters for long periods of time. That can aggravate sore muscles and joints and also cause blood clots in the legs, which can put passengers at risk for a life-threatening lung embolism. To reduce that risk, try walking the airplane's aisles about once an hour and frequently flex your ankles and knees when you're in your seat. Hydration is also important, so drink plenty of water but avoid alcoholic beverages before, during, and just after flights.

Land travel

Mind your diet. What you eat or drink after you arrive at your destination can make or break your vacation. Diarrhea, the most common illness among travelers, strikes from 30 to 70 percent of visitors to underdeveloped countries. In those areas, avoid unpasteurized dairy products, tap water, ice cubes made with tap water, and raw produce unless you peel it. Choose foods that are served steaming hot. If you're at a sunny destination, it's a good idea to avoid eating food that has been reheated or left standing without refrigeration.

Be safe in the sun.
Avoid sitting out too long under the sun's potent rays. And when you're out there, shield your eyes with sunglasses, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and protect your skin by using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. For the best coverage, apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go out in the sun and reapply it every 2 hours and after you've been swimming or sweating heavily. Getting burned can ruin your fun and also place you at increased risk for developing skin cancer. If you do get a sunburn, a topical pain reliever containing benzocaine, benzyl alcohol, dibucaine, or pramoxine (Caladryl Clear, Dermoplast, Lanacane, and generic versions) can help ease the pain. Applying aloe vera gel can also help relieve some of the discomfort of a sunburn.

Sea travel

Tread tides carefully. When you're at the shore, be alert to any warnings about rough tides. Don't ever swim alone and swim only when there is a lifeguard present. Watch for danger signs that might indicate fierce waves and dangerous riptides, including waves that are choppy, foamy, or filled with seaweed or debris and are also moving in a channel away from shore. And if you're caught in a riptide, be sure to swim parallel to the shore. Once you've broken free of the current, turn and swim toward shore.

Avoid seasickness. If a cruise is in your plans, be prepared for motion sickness, even if you don't normally experience it. To get some relief, try closing your eyes or gazing at a faraway, stationary object. Reading might exacerbate your sea sickness, so avoid it and use a headrest when seated to minimize head movement. If you feel you need more air in your cabin, open vents or windows to increase the airflow. And to feel better overall, move to the boat's center, where the waves might not feel as rocky.

Wash up. Perhaps the most notorious hazards on board cruise ships are infectious diseases, respiratory illnesses in particular. If there's an outbreak, don't shake hands, and wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer, such as Germ-X or Purell, that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

Do not leave home without these

Risk What to pack
Traveler's diarrhea To prevent: bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol and generic); to treat: loperamide (Imodium A-D and generic)
Motion sickness Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine and generic); prescription scopolamine skin patch (Transderm Scop)
Bites and stings Insect repellent (30% DEET); antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy and generic); hydrocortisone cream (such as Cortizone and generic)
Contagious illnesses Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol; prescription ciprofloxacin (Cipro and generic)
Sunburn Water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or more for prevention; aloe vera to treat
Accidents and other injuries A first-aid kit that includes alcohol wipes, bandages, tweezers, moleskin for blisters, water-purification tablets, a pain reliever, and a topical antibiotic (such as Bacitracin ointment and generic)

All drugs are over the counter unless otherwise specified.

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