10 ways to stay healthy on vacation

How to outsmart germs and more while you're traveling

Published: May 2014

Travelers lay a lot of groundwork for summer vacations by researching locations, airfares, and the best hotel deals. But planning how to stay healthy (and what to do if they happen to get sick) usually isn’t part of their preparation. It should be. “There are several travel-related health concerns to think about no matter where you’re going,” says Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser for Consumer Reports. Follow these strategies to stay well while you’re away from home:

1. Check your insurance coverage

Emergencies such as broken bones or heart attacks are usually covered outside of your network or area, but doctor visits may not be. In foreign countries, you might have no coverage at all. If you have a chronic health condition or you’ll be doing something that could conceivably lead to injury, consider buying travel health insurance. Avoid commission-driven policies sold by tour operators, cruise-line representatives, and travel agents. Instead, check out an online broker, such as InsureMyTrip, that sells coverage from multiple companies.

2. Download your health records

If your doctor has a patient portal, you can access portions of your medical record, such as medications, allergies, and other vital pieces of information. Download it to a thumb drive and take it with you to give doctors instant access in case of an emergency.

3. Find where to get medical help

Knowing the quality of health care you’ll have access to is especially important if you have a chronic condition, are traveling outside of the U.S., or will be taking a cruise. “Contrary to popular belief, cruise ships are not floating hospitals,” Avitzur says. According to international maritime law, they aren’t even required to have a doctor onboard; a crew member with medical training is sufficient. Basic treatment such as stitches or IV fluids may be available, but for anything serious, you probably will have to disembark at the next port of call.

4. Stash medicines in your carry-on

Even if you don’t have to take a dose during your flight, it’s best to have medications with you instead of in your checked bags, in case the luggage is lost. Be sure to pack enough of any prescription medication to last the entire trip, plus a little extra.

5. Baby your back

Lugging a heavy suitcase onto a plane to avoid paying baggage fees may cost you in another way. When people hoist their suitcase into the overhead bin, they often swing it too fast and away from their body, says Raj Rao, M.D., a professor of orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The farther the suitcase is from your body, the greater the toll on your back as you lift it. When you stow the bag, hold it as close to your body as possible, bend at your hips and knees, then carefully raise it without twisting.

6. Don't sit still

Photo: Digital Vision.

Sitting for long periods on a plane or in a car without moving raises the risk of developing a pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening blood clot in your lungs. The clot usually forms in a vein in your leg, and may break off and travel through your bloodstream. Warning signs include pain and/or swelling in one calf.  A similar risk has been found with traveling by car, bus, or train. If you can’t get up from your seat, flex and extend your feet (like you’re pushing the gas pedal of a car) at least once per hour. When driving, stop the car every 2 hours or so to take a walk or to stretch.

7. Outsmart germs

Photo: AlexRaths

From norovirus to colds and flu, certain infections spread easily where large numbers of people congregate—planes, hotels, cruise ships. Your best defense is to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as often as you can. If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.



8. Drink a lot of water

That sluggish feeling you get while flying may have nothing to do with jet lag. Being dehydrated, even mildly, can cause fatigue. The air in planes is very low in humidity. That can lower fluid levels in the body and dry out your eyes, skin, mouth, and nasal passages. Not only is that uncomfortable, but a dry nose is the perfect incubator for a cold virus.

9. Watch what you eat and drink

Enjoy the local cuisine, but don’t overdo it. Studies have identified that the highest likelihood of sudden cardiac death occurs on holidays associated with overindulgence, such as Thanksgiving. Triglycerides—a type of fat that becomes elevated in your blood after a large meal—can cause coronary artery inflammation, a common prelude to a heart attack, Avitzur says. Eating your way through Italy, for example, could create the same conditions in your body.

10. Prevent traveler's diarrhea

Sticking to bottled water and hot, freshly prepared foods is your best defense. But bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol and generic) has a mild antibacterial effect, and taking it may cut your odds of getting diarrhea in half. Take two tablets four times per day throughout your trip. Cut back if you become constipated, and stop taking it if you experience ringing in your ears. It contains salicylate, an ingredient in aspirin, so check with your doctor if you have ulcers or other medical conditions.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the June 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.  

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters!
Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Health News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more