Maxime Du Camp once said of Gustave Flaubert that his preferred form of travel was to lie on a divan and have the scenery carried past him. I completely respect that. After my latest trip, I’ve promised myself I’ll no longer travel to places where I can’t brush my teeth with water from the bathroom faucet. And I’m certainly not visiting places where there aren’t bathroom faucets. As for places without bathrooms—well those have been off the list for years.
In my relative youth, I wrote travel articles for magazines. Since then I’ve logged considerable miles of overseas travel for both business and adventure. I’ve had good trips and bad trips and very bad trips. So what I know about traveling safely and comfortably, I’ve learned the hard way. And I was gratified on a recent trip to Africa to see that some of those lessons are finally paying off.
So, for what it’s worth, I’ve decided to pass some of this knowledge along—with the caveat that this is what works for me. I don’t know what’ll work for you. But take a look. Who knows, maybe you’ll find an idea that saves you considerable expense and aggravation the next time you find yourself in a third-world customs shed at two in the morning after a twelve hour flight.
- I’m fortunate in that there’s an excellent travel clinic associated with my HMO. It’s good to visit early, because some vaccinations have a lead time before becoming effective. Also, and this I learned the hard way, you should test anti-malarial medications before you leave. On my most recent trip, I had an allergic reaction to Malarone while in Malawi (no fun!) and had to spend a morning in an African clinic trying to get an alternative.
- I always carry Benadryl because I sometimes have histamine reactions to medications (see above point).
- I keep prescriptions in the original plastic pharmacy bottles. While it’s true the bottles take up unnecessary space in my carry-on luggage, they look far less suspicious to a customs officer than a half-full baggie of assorted pills. I keep over-the-counter drugs in their original packaging for the same reason.
- I keep a record of my medications and dosage in a place separate from the medications themselves, in case the medications go missing.
- I read somewhere that fifty percent of travelers suffer from traveler’s diarrhea. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never been one of the lucky half who don’t. I carry Imodium, always. And in a shirt pocket where I can get at it. (My favorite form, which I found at a Boots Pharmacy in London, dissolve almost immediately in your mouth.) If I’m going somewhere really icky, I bring along Ciprofloxacin, which is available by prescription.
- I’m always very, very careful that water I drink or food I put in my mouth is safe. In places where the water is questionable, I particularly avoid salads. Who knows who washed the lettuce and in what. I follow the old adage: cook it, peel it, or forget it. And I carry antiseptic wipes to clean my hands before I eat.
- I always carry travel health insurance, including emergency evacuation coverage. If you can’t afford the health insurance, you can’t afford the trip. It’s as simple as that.
Financial Considerations while Abroad
- ATM machines have greatly simplified the process of obtaining local currency. I usually visit a Bureau du Change in the airport to get some walking around money (if I can’t immediately find an ATM in the arrivals hall), but after that I rely on ATMs. Even in the developing world, ATM machines are common in urban areas. A number of websites list their locations and identify which cards they accept. You usually incur lower fees by using a debit card than you do taking an advance against a credit card.
- While visiting England a couple of years ago I tried to use my credit card in a restaurant and the charges were denied—apparently, I found out later, because the expense occurred outside my usual geographic spending area. Fortunately, I had enough British currency in my pocket to pay for the meal. Now, before I leave on a trip, I make a point of phoning the 1-800 number on the back of my credit cards and advising the company of my itinerary. I do the same for debit cards. One word of warning: some credit card companies ask for a telephone number so they can call you back within 24 hours to confirm. That means it’s a good idea to advise them at least two days before you go, so you’re available to take the call. If you have a credit card with a low credit limit, you can always make a pre-payment to ensure you don’t max-out while travelling.
- I used to rely heavily on Traveler’s checks when abroad, but with the availability of ATMs, they’re now largely unnecessary. Still, I carry at least a thousand dollars in Traveler’s checks as back up. (I carry them in their own wallet separate from my credit cards, so if I lose one, I still have the other.) When I get home, I simply cash them back in. I consider the modest fees I incur as an investment in peace of mind.
Next time: Part 2: What to Carry on the Plane, What to Pack, and Ways to Make the Most of Your Travel Experience.
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