- Before you go
- What travel health items to take
- Staying healthy while you travel
- Existing medical conditions
- General travel safety
- Travel safety - theft
- Travel safety - sex
- Travel safety - drugs
- Travel safety - scams and corruption
Travel advice for women
Staying healthy while you travel is usually just a matter of being sensible and following a few precautions. The right preparation means it's unlikely you'll get more than a cold or a dodgy tummy.
Before you go
Check your guidebook, relevant websites, or with your travel/volunteering organisation about malaria prevention and vaccinations. Be aware that in some countries a yellow fever certificate is required before you can enter. If you need vaccinations or malaria prevention medication, visit a travel health nurse who can advise you on all aspects of travel safety. Make sure you get comprehensive travel insurance too.
What travel health items to take
Most travellers take some basic first aid items - plasters, antiseptic, painkillers. If you're going somewhere remote, you might want to take a medical kit which includes sterile dental equipment or needles. If you're prone to certain conditions, you might take some medication as a precaution - eg sore throat sweets, antacids, steroid cream, seasickness pills, anti-diarrhea medication.
Some travellers get antibiotics (on prescription from their GP) as a precaution against upset stomachs and other infections.
Most medication is fine for travelling across borders, but if you plan to take anything unusual, check with the embassy of your destination country first.
Staying healthy while you travel
An upset stomach is unavoidable in some places, but you can minimise the risk. Avoid tap water and ice - choose bottled water instead. Be careful of salads and other food that may have been rinsed in tap water. Ensure all meat and fish are cooked thoroughly - you may choose to avoid shellfish entirely.
Air conditioning and aircraft can be drying and make you more susceptible to colds. Drink plenty of water, and opt for fans instead of air conditioning where you can.
Pay attention to advice (both local advice and advice from the Foreign Office) regarding where to go and what to do. Obviously some accidents are unavoidable but staying away from danger areas will minimise your risk. Likewise, if you're at the beach, make sure you stay within your depth and near a lifeguard (if there is one). Cover cuts when swimming.
Animals (both domestic and wild) are best avoided if you want to be on the safe side - rabies jabs will only give you so much protection.
Existing medical conditions
If you have something like diabetes or epilepsy, check with your charity or support group for travel advice, particularly carrying and storing your medication. If you have any medical condition, you must tell your insurance company - they could refuse a claim if you hide anything.
You must also check that your condition won't prevent you from doing the activities that you are planning. Check with your adventure travel group, your volunteering organisation or other career break company.
If you are disabled, you may find it useful to get advice from a disability travel service before you start planning your trip. Some places are almost impossible to negotiate with a wheelchair, or difficult for those with sensory disabilities - although there are many places in the world which are accessible. If you are going somewhere remote (particularly in the developing world), be prepared for attention if you have an obvious disability.
Finally, bear in mind that some conditions or disabilities can make you better suited to some experiences, particularly volunteer work with people with similar disabilities. Also, variable medical conditions (eg depression) can actually sometimes improve while travelling.
Thousands of career breakers and gap year travellers go around the world every year and very few of these get into kind of serious trouble. Here are some basic precautions to keep you safe on your career break.
General travel safety
The general travel safety advice is - if you wouldn't do it at home, don't do it while you're travelling. There's safety in numbers too, so if you're travelling alone, find some other lone travellers to accompany you if you're going somewhere remote. Get safety advice from your travel guide book, relevant websites, the Foreign Office, locals and fellow travellers. There's no need to be over-cautious - keep an open mind and trust your intuition. It's usually right!
Travel safety - theft
Most thefts from travellers are non-violent, such as pickpocketing and thefts from hotel or hostel rooms. Some places, such as parts of South America, have a high rate of muggings though. Keep your money in separate places (some hidden in your backpack, some in a wallet, some in a moneybelt). Lock your backpack wherever possible, and use a bicycle chain to secure it (eg on a train luggage rack). If threatened with violence, give it up. Your life is not worth more than your money.
Travel safety - sex
Women travellers may feel uncomfortable or scared by unwanted attention. A headscarf, modest attire (long sleeves and trousers) and a wedding ring are all very effective deterrents, as is the company of a fellow traveller or a husband who is 'meeting me around the corner in a few minutes'. Also remember that your safety is more important than being polite.
Many male travellers are tempted by the sex industry abroad when they would not touch it at home. If you pay for sex, the best that happens is knowing you're contributing to a huge social problem. The worst that could happen is getting robbed, beaten up, put in prison and/or contracting a life-threatening disease (AIDS or hepatitis).
Travel safety - drugs
The risks of taking drugs abroad, even cannabis, can be much greater than here. If you get caught, you risk life imprisonment or even execution. Some travellers bribe their way out of arrest, but this is not guaranteed and can be immensely costly.
Keep a close eye on your bag when crossing borders (by land, sea or air) to avoid becoming an unwitting mule. Use a padlock to secure it.
Travel safety - scams and corruption
Face the fact that you may well get scammed out of a small amount of money by people who are poorer than you. It happens to most travellers and often simply takes the form of charging you a higher price than locals get. Another common scam is to find yourself taken to a shop where the pressure to buy is very high and the goods are often not what they are claimed to be. If you can't avoid it, smile politely, say no thank you and clear off as quick as you can.
Opinions vary about how to react to corrupt officials. Bear in mind that some rely on bribes to send their kids to school because they don't earn much and it doesn't feel wrong to them. Do what you feel is right and avoid antagonising people - be polite and agreeable. Sometimes wide-eyed innocence and/or genuine confusion can get you out of paying a bribe - there will be easier targets than you around the next corner.
Travel advice for women
Travel health and safety is a bit more complicated for women than for men. But there are advantages too - it's easier for a woman on her own to make friends, and people tend to look out for you.
If you're going to a developing country, take your towel, tampons and/or menstrual cup with you. They can be hard to find in many places, and can also be expensive.
Compact tampons take up the least space and are most resistant to squashing - however, the plastic applicator is not as environmentally-friendly as a cardboard one. Make sure you dispose of all sanitary products carefully - wrapped and binned is usually safer than flushing.
If you're using a reusable menstrual cup (which takes up loads less space in your luggage), you will need adequate washing facilities. Sinks are not hard to come by in most places but privacy can be an issue in shared facilities (eg hostel bathrooms with communal sinks). Reusable sanitary towels are fine if you're doing your own laundry (preferably in a machine) but you may not wish to give them to a laundry service (and they may not accept them).
If you want to skip periods while travelling, talk to your GP about the contraceptive pill and other hormone treatments which can enable you to control your cycle. Heed the doctor's advice - there is a limit to how many periods you can skip.
Whatever you choose, your comfort, privacy and cleanliness are of paramount importance. Do what is right and comfortable for you.
If you are on the contraceptive pill, taking it at the same time can be difficult if you're travelling through several time zones. The best way around this is to start taking it one hour earlier or later before you start travelling, and do the same in your destination, until you arrive at a convenient time.
Holiday tummy can affect how your pill is absorbed. If you have diarrhea or vomit within a few hours of taking your pill, it may not have been absorbed and you'll need to take extra precautions. Check the leaflet that comes in the box for advice (there's advice online if you've lost the leaflet).
If you think there's a possibility of holiday romance, pack your own condoms. They may not be easy to find abroad, and the standard may not be as high as British kite-marked ones. It goes without saying that you need a condom if you're planning to have sex with a new partner. Be aware that in some countries (like Laos), it's illegal for a foreigner to have sex with a local, and in others, you are not allowed to have sex unless you're married. Ages of consent vary too.
Female health issues
If you have ever suffered from thrush or cystitis, pack some treatments for these. Conditions like these can sometimes appear more often when you're travelling (eg if you don't drink enough water, if you're in a hot climate) and you can't always find treatments for such things locally.
Some woman pack antibiotics as a precaution against stomach upsets or other infections - your doctor can give you a prescription for these. Be aware that these can interfere with the pill, and also give you thrush.
Thousands of women travel alone every year and most remain safe. Your most likely scenario is being a victim of a pickpocket - unpleasant but thankfully not violent.
The best advice to remain safe while travelling is to not do things which you wouldn't do at home. These include walking down dark alleys by yourself, going off with a man you don't know, and getting more drunk than you're normally comfortable with.
When you're going out on your own, tell people where you're going (eg other travellers in your hostel or the hostel manager). Keep in regular contact with the folks back home and let them know your itinerary, especially if it changes. If you feel unwell, let the people around you know - they will usually keep an eye on you.
Lone women travellers benefit from locals and other travellers looking out for them. If you ever need help, don't be afraid to ask for it, and pay attention to safety advice - if that's from your guidebook, websites, blogs, locals or other travellers.
Don't forget that you're a safety net for other women travellers too - so offer help when it's needed.
Travel vaccinations are essential when you're going to certain parts of the world.
Where do I go to get travel vaccinations?
Your travel vaccinations will usually be given by a nurse rather than a doctor. To find a travel health nurse, you can either search for a nearby travel health clinic in the Yellow Pages, or you can see if your local GP has a travel health nurse (many do). Your nurse will also talk you through other travel health issues, including malaria prevention.
What travel vaccinations do I need?
This depends mainly on where you're going. Once you've finalised your route, take the list of countries to the travel health nurse and s/he will talk you through the various vaccinations that are recommended. It's your choice whether you have them or not - some vaccinations are only considered necessary if you're staying somewhere for an extended period of time, or if you are doing particular work (like medical work).
Some vaccinations are given in a course (eg rabies and hepatitis). Having only one out of 3 jabs in a course will give you some protection, but obviously not as much as the full course.
Some countries will require you to have a certificate of yellow fever vaccination before they let you in.
Finally, do remember to tell your travel nurse of any medication you're on, or any illness or condition (including pregnancy).
How much will my travel vaccinations cost?
You will have to pay for most of your vaccinations. A few (like a tetanus booster if you're due one) are available on the NHS. Your nurse should tell you how much the whole course is before you start. You may also have to pay an administration or consultation fee (£15 to £30).
Each dose is £50 to £100.
When should I get my travel vaccinations?
You should start getting your vaccinations at least 3 months before you travel. This is because ones that are given in a course (eg hepatitis B) take 3 months for the whole course to be given - you have to wait a minimum period between jabs.
If you're going at the last minute, don't worry too much, as even one jab will give more protection than none.
How effective are travel vaccinations?
Your jabs will not give you 100% protection against illness. Sometimes they will not prevent you getting an illness but minimise the effects. Travel vaccinations are certainly worth getting, but they do not make you invincible! Pay attention to your travel nurse when s/he gives you general travel health advice. Taking sensible precautions while you're travelling will help make sure you get nothing worse than a tummy bug.
Malaria is a serious, potentially fatal, disease that you can catch from mosquito bites. There are different strains of malaria, and different strains affect different areas. If you're going to a part of the world where malaria is present, you will need protection.
There are two ways to protect yourself against malaria - medication and mosquito avoidance.
Malaria prevention - drugs
There are 6 main types of malaria drug. Some are only suitable to be taken for a short period of time (a month or less). Your travel nurse will help you choose one that is suitable for the area you are going to.
You will need a prescription for anti-malarials.
Anti-malarials do not give 100% protection against malaria. Be aware of the symptoms and get yourself to a doctor if you think you may have developed malaria. It is treatable.
Malaria prevention - mosquito avoidance
Avoiding mosquito bites is an essential part of malaria prevention.
Take plenty of mosquito repellent with you - many travellers recommend 100% DEET for effectiveness. Apply this on all exposed skin and reapply throughout the day.
Get a decent mosquito net - some are impregnated with mosquito-repellant. Pop-up ones are useful if you're camping. If you get a second-hand one, sew up any holes.
Mosquitoes are most active in the evening. When the sun goes down, cover as much skin as possible. Light-coloured clothes are less attractive to mosquitoes than dark. You might find that eating certain foods makes you less tasty to a mosquito, but this can be a matter of trial and error.