As I gear up for traveling to Africa twice this year (spoiler alert: next up is Ethiopia), I'm going through the prep I've come to associate with a "big" trip (i.e., three or more weeks outside Europe or North America).
I'm never much concerned about planning a detailed itinerary when I travel, but I do cover my bases when it comes to health and safety. Being one of those annoying people who Google diagnoses everything (often the worst-case scenario) helps to drive this diligence. Weird new bump? Stage IV cancer. Forgetfulness? Early-onset Alzheimer's, clearly. Fatigue, headache, and sore muscles after a trek in the jungle? Japanese encephalitis, yay!
Of course, there is never a 100% guarantee you’ll be safe anywhere―not in your own home, backyard, or abroad. Anywhere you travel can swiftly and unpredictably deliver nasty circumstances beyond your control, but that same logic goes for opting to stay in familiar territory. Freak accidents happen at home all the time (your toaster is not as innocent as you think), so don't be naive just because you're in your PJs watching Netflix instead of wandering around the remote wilderness halfway across the world.
In order to maximize your chances of avoiding the proverbial shit sandwich (or getting stuck between a rock and a hard place, if you will―hopefully not literally) or being prepared when shit actually does hit the fan, make sure you’re armed with some knowledge, preventative meds/vaccines, cultural sensitivity, and all-around sensibility. Good talk.
Buy Travel Insurance
This might (and should) be common sense, but people skip out on travel insurance all the time. Not having a comprehensive plan for the entire duration of your trip can quickly leave you "up shit creek without a paddle" (to quote my Aussie friend) and having to resort to crowdfunding or your rich friends and relatives you pay your exorbitant medical bills.
At the very least, you need medical insurance while abroad. This will cover emergency care in hospitals and clinics, ambulance transportation, and other essential treatments (including prescription medication). It's also wise to have coverage that will fly you home (emergency evacuation) if needed. Usually, even the most basic plans offer coverage up to an absurdly high amount (at least a few million dollars). Given this generous safety net for a mere fraction of the cost, it seems pretty senseless to go uninsured.
Some travel insurance providers (like World Nomads) factor into the cost of the plan the country you're visiting and the types of activities you'll do there. If these activities are considered to be on the riskier side, coverage will be more expensive. Some "extreme" activities aren't covered at all or require specialized insurance providers: skydiving, bull riding, bungee jumping, trekking over 6000 meters, combat sports, cave diving, etc. So if you're a hardcore adrenaline junkie, good luck finding an insurance provider.
My own insurance plan (with TMG Travel, a German company) is very flexible. My plan is automatically renewed yearly, so I don't have to think about it, and it covers any number of trips to any country for a maximum stay of 45 days. Included in the plan is baggage insurance (lost or stolen), trip cancellation, and trip interruption.
Report incidents as soon as possible to your travel insurance provider by calling their 24-hour emergency number. There is most likely a deadline associated with receiving reimbursement. Make sure you're aware of how long you can wait to both report and submit a claim, or else you risk rejection of the claim. Save all documentation related to the incident: receipts, invoices, prescriptions, etc.
Bottom Line: Front the cash for a travel insurance plan that meets all your anticipated needs. This will give you peace of mind during your travels and potentially save you thousands of dollars.
Monitor Travel Advisories
Check your government's website (and read the world news) to see if anything sketchy is going down in the country you're traveling to (in terms of which areas have had recent hostile activity, including terrorism, civil unrest, banditry, disease outbreaks, kidnappings, etc.). Alerts are updated regularly and countries are usually ranked with a number or color code to indicate the current perceived level of danger (red being the most dangerous).
This being said, you might find out upon arriving in a country that the situation in certain areas is not quite as bad as you were led to believe by the media or your concerned friends and family. Use your own judgement.
Apparently, Canada has a strict no-ransom policy, so if I’m ever kidnapped, my only hope is crowdfunding or some rich philanthropist.
Certain border regions in Africa and Asia are notoriously volatile because of longstanding territorial disputes and are always under strong travel advisory (e.g., Thailand/Cambodia, India/Pakistan, etc.). So if you're doing a "visa run" by land (i.e., crossing a border into a neighboring country for the sole purpose of extending your visa on re-entry), or traveling overland as part of a multi-country trip, keep this in mind.
Bottom Line: Be aware of hotspots for crime and violence, even if you choose to ignore the advisories.
Register with Your Home Country's Embassy
This tip applies not only to higher-risk countries but anywhere abroad for any length of time. Different countries have different names for the registration program in place (in my case, it's Canadians Abroad and for the US it's STEP). The service is free, and it only takes a few minutes to sign up.
In doing so, your government will notify you via the contact information you provide with instructions in case of either an emergency in the country you’re visiting (e.g., natural disaster or civil unrest) or a personal emergency at home. For example, I was in Thailand during the military coup in 2014. It was hard not to notice in this case (a nationwide curfew was implemented and TV broadcasting was suspended), but you get the picture.
Know the location and contact info of your country’s embassy in the place you're visiting. This is important in the case of a lost or stolen passport or if you find yourself in another spontaneous predicament (as the victim of a crime or if you urgently require financial support). On this note, always keep extra copies (a hard copy and electronic copy) of your documents (passport, credit card, boarding passes/booking reservation for flights, etc.) with you and with someone back home who you can easily reach.
Bottom Line: The embassy is your friend.
Get to Know Your Destination Before You Visit
For me, this mainly means investing in a good, up-to-date travel guide.
Yes, you can technically read everything you need or want to know online, but I'm old-school. I want an all-in-one guide for the country I'm visiting in my hands, especially when I choose to be incommunicado or have no choice in the matter because of no internet access.
Although I've gone with Lonely Planet in the past for my trips to Asia (the bulky India guide is great), Bradt is my bible of choice for Ethiopia, and seems to be the best publisher for Africa guides in general.
As a bonus, travel guides almost always have a "Practical Information" section that covers everything from etiquette, obtaining visas (if necessary), budgeting, how to get around, common scams you might encounter, menu decoders, useful words and phrases in the native language, and information for women travelers.
Know the emergency phone numbers in the country you’re visiting. It's not always 911. For example, the general emergency number is 112 in Germany and 000 in Australia. Sometimes, there are three different numbers for police, fire, and ambulance. Bottom Line: Do your damn research.
Damn good research.
Get Your Vaccinations
As my chosen destinations these days carry more danger when it comes to infectious tropical diseases and other nasty surprises, this precaution is especially important. I always make sure my vaccination record is up to date before I travel, even if the chances are slim that I will actually contract rabies, yellow fever, or the like.
How do you know which vaccinations to get?
Travel clinics specialize in travel medicine (not only vaccinations) and keep up to date on endemics/epidemics, so they are your best source for relevant and accurate travel health information and vaccination advice.
Schedule an appointment with a travel clinic for a consultation around two months beforehand. Note: I have also gone to a general practitioner for this purpose, so if you can't find a travel clinic in your vicinity, a GP should also be informed enough to do it.
Scheduling the consultation far enough in advance is important because some vaccinations require several doses (like rabies, which involves 3–5 immunizations over the course of a month), and it can take up to several weeks for the immune system response to kick in, giving you either long-term or lifetime protection from the disease you've been vaccinated against.
Travel clinicians will also be able to give you tips on the general health precautions you should take, some of which may seem like common sense (e.g., drink only bottled water and stick to cooked food), but can't hurt to hear. Some diseases, like dengue fever, don't yet have effective vaccines, so taking preventative measures (i.e., not getting bitten by mosquitoes) are your best and only bet.
Pack a copy of your vaccination record in case you need to present it to healthcare providers while abroad (and to remind you what you've been immunized against in case you're delirious or can't remember). Also keep in mind that some countries require a yellow fever vaccination certificate upon entry. This is applicable to those traveling directly from a yellow fever zone or have transited more than 12 hours through the airport of a country with yellow fever risk.
Bring a Customized Medical Kit
Beyond the no-brainers (good sunscreen and insect repellent), pack meds and first-aid supplies that might not be readily available in the place you're visiting. If traveling in developing countries outside of major city centers, this is especially important. The list below includes items I like to carry on me for my more adventurous trips, but your kit should be customized based on your own needs.
Heads up: I use the word diarrhea.
Antihistamine for relieving allergic reactions (hives, itchy eyes, sneezing, etc.)
Paracetamol (i.e., acetaminophen) for general pain relief and to reduce fever. In the case of dengue fever, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can increase the risk of bleeding, so only take acetaminophen.
Antibiotic ointment for keeping cuts moist (this promotes healing) and preventing infection
Hydrocortisone cream for mild to moderate allergic skin rashes
Saccharomyces boulardii (a yeast used as a probiotic) to help prevent traveler's diarrhea. I took two capsules each day in India and didn't have a single terrible toilet episode (aside from the terror associated with public squat toilets themselves).
Dimenhydrinate/Gravol for nausea and vomiting. I never get sick to my stomach, so I've never needed it, but if you're prone to motion sickness and nausea, it's a good idea to stash some in your bag.
Generic antibiotic (taken orally, like Ciprofloxacin) for bad cases of diarrhea (frequent, explosive, possibly bloody—you get the picture). Of course, antibiotics only help if the diarrhea is caused by bacteria (and not by viruses or parasites).
Oral rehydration salts for diarrhea-related dehydration
Antibiotic eye drops for eye infections. I'm a bit prone to these because of my exceptionally dry eyes, but it's nevertheless a good med kit addition for anyone traveling to tropical countries. Pink eye always sucks.
Antifungal treatment for yeast infections (important for women). Lactic acid inserts (e.g., Lactofem) are great for warding off yeast infections if you feel one coming on, and Fluconazole should be used as a last resort.
Bandages and sterile gauze for cleaning and dressing wounds
Tweezers for removing debris from wounds, splinters, or ticks
Disinfectant (e.g., alcohol or peroxide as a spray or wipes) for sterilizing tweezers and other tools in your kit
Hand sanitizer for times you don't have access to soap and water
Anti-itch cream for insect bites (e.g., After Bite)
Digital thermometer for gauging fever
Contraceptives (birth control pills, etc.)
My responsible scientist side feels like it's important to mention that overusing antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, i.e., bacteria adapt in some way such that antibiotics become less effective or ineffective. This is a major global health threat, and popping antibiotics like candy doesn't help the situation.
Bottom Line: Make sure you know when and how to use what you bring, and use good judgement regarding antibiotics.
Listen to Your Gut (Not Your Alter Ego)
Yes, this is a bit of a cliché, but using intuition as a guide is legit and can come in handy for quickly assessing strangers or judging whether to walk down that dark alley in an unfamiliar neighborhood at night (generally not advisable).
Speaking of dark alleys, I won't forget the time I walked down a dimly lit, mostly deserted back road at nighttime in Mae Sot (Thailand), towards the lure of a brightly lit temple to snap a few photos. My gut feeling was to skip the detour and return to my room, but my alter ego (which probably has a neck tattoo) had other plans: Ride or die, bitch.
First, a piece of a building (maybe sheet metal?) came crashing down overhead a few meters in front of me.
Alter Ego: Pfft... amateurs. That all you got?
Ignoring the Final-Destination-like cue to flee, I continued on.
Universe: Unleash the hounds.
A small pack of stray dogs then came barreling out of the darkness, barking and snarling furiously at me. Luckily, a stranger noticed the commotion and chased them off, but this close encounter got my blood pumping (and not in a good way). Yes, I got my photo, but it wasn't very good.
It can be tempting to ignore your gut. Thinking, "This is probably a bad idea, but I'm gonna do it anyway!" could lead to an incredibly cool experience, in theory, but the reality is that there's a million temples in Thailand and only one you.
Bottom Line: Heed the warning signs, even if they come from an invisible force within.
Bring a Lucky Charm (Or Sentimental Item)
Yes, I realize good luck charms operate on the placebo effect and as such are not going to prevent bad things from happening, but if it gives you a boost of confidence or comfort you when the going gets rough (especially if you're traveling solo), why not? I've been given a few charms by now, but my favorite is a friendship bracelet made by a wonderful Buddhist woman named Karma, who gave me the gift during my visit to Leh.
Just a little bit of woo-woo to ward off the bad juju.
Assorted charms (including a mini statue of Durga, a badass Hindu warrior goddess who rides a lion)