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Protect Your Health on Your Next Vacation

What to know about prescriptions, travel insurance, medical emergencies and more

First-aid kit designed as a suitcase with passports, plane tickets and clothes inside, stethoscope and globe isolated on white

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En español | Between airplane germs and unfamiliar foods, not to mention being miles away from your usual doctors and medical facilities, it's all too easy for a dream vacation to turn into a health nightmare. Fortunately, a little preparation goes a long way when it comes to staying well far from home. Here's some advice from the experts:

Before you go:

  • Carry your prescriptions in their original bottles, with your name and your doctor's name visible, says William Spangler, an emergency medicine physician and AIG Travel's global medical director. And bring more than you think you need so you'll have enough in case your return trip is delayed. (The same rule applies to any over-the-counter meds you take regularly.)
  • If you're traveling abroad, the U.S. State Department recommends noting the generic names of your medications, which may be more recognizable at a foreign pharmacy.
  • Research any applicable drug laws in your destination, especially if you'll be traveling with more highly regulated medications such as prescription painkillers or sleeping pills. Some medicines, even over-the-counter ones, may be prohibited altogether, while others may require a doctor's note or other documentation.
  • Pack your medication and any other essential medical items in your carry-on: If your checked baggage gets lost, you won't have to worry about tracking down replacements. 
  • If you've recently had any medical procedures, or have a chronic condition like heart or lung disease, meet with your doctor a few weeks before your trip to devise a plan for any accommodations you might need. Travelers headed somewhere requiring vaccinations or other health precautions should also consult their doctors.
  • Find out what your health insurance will and will not cover away from home. Medicare, for instance, does not provide coverage overseas except in a few rare circumstances, while differences in the way payment is handled abroad mean that even if you have a private plan with travel coverage, you may still be expected to pay your bill in full before submitting a claim for reimbursement.
  • Consider travel medical insurance. It can help cover costs upfront, recommend providers and arrange for other services, like a different airline ticket home or a medical escort for your flight. Spangler recommends looking for a policy that offers at least $10,000 in hospitalization coverage and $50,000 for medical evacuation, which can routinely reach six-figure sums.   
  • Sign up for the State Department's Safe Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It's free and easy to navigate, and allows you to receive safety alerts and security updates for the country (or countries) you're visiting, and may be able to help your friends and family locate you in case of emergency. 
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While you're there:

  • Avoid an overzealous itinerary. Packing too much activity into a trip is a pitfall that Spangler suggests some older travelers avoid (think: attempting an expert-level hike if you've just had knee-replacement surgery).
  • Use common sense about hygiene: Wash your hands regularly, and be mindful of common illness culprits like street food and tap water.

In case of emergency:

  • Consider reaching out to the U.S. embassy or consulate in your destination country. It can recommend English-speaking doctors and, if needed, notify your friends and family at home.
  • Take advantage of your hotel’s concierge service; a concierge may be able to steer you toward tourist-friendly providers — or at the very least help you get a cab or car to your appointment. 

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