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What Should You Do If You Get Sick While Traveling?

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Getting sick while traveling is an unfortunate occurrence, but it happens. As you all might have read on here before, my appendix ruptured while I was traveling solo in Thailand the summer after my college graduation. It was one of the scariest and most challenging moments of my life, but thanks to the help of good travel insurance and taking the right steps, I was able to get into surgery and recover within a few short weeks.

One of the most terrifying things about that story is that if I hadn’t gotten help when I did, there’s a chance I wouldn’t be here writing this post for you today.

I tell this story not to scare you, but to show you that being responsible for your own health is critical when it comes to traveling abroad. Especially if you’re solo traveling, you’ll need to act quickly if you get sick to make sure you get the right treatment as early as possible.

In this post, I’m going to share with you the steps to take if you get sick abroad to stay safe and get the help you need – whether it’s simple food poisoning or something a lot worse.

Happy as a clam because I know I’m covered by travel insurance!

Don’t Leave Home Without Travel Insurance

I’ve said it approximately 389,438,895 times and I’ll say it again: don’t leave home for a trip abroad without travel insurance. Seriously, if you “can’t afford” to buy basic emergency protection for if you get sick while traveling, then in my opinion, you can’t afford to travel. 

When the Thailand incident happened, insurance covered basically everything. It paid for the 5-hour ambulance ride I had to take from rural Thailand to Chiang Mai. Surgery was covered 100%. When I was in the hospital for 6 days, I got a private room and meals that were completely covered by my insurance. 

My insurance even covered indirect costs, like accommodations during recovery time and reimbursed me for a missed flight. 

I was reimbursed thousands of dollars by my insurance when all was said and done — money that would have come out of my pocket otherwise. Getting sick while traveling always sucks, but when you know someone’s got your back, it makes getting help a LOT easier.

There are tons of travel insurance plans out there, but SafetyWing offers a fantastic, affordable plan that includes robust medical and travel coverage. In most cases, they’ll pay medical expenses, some trip delay/cancellation expenses, and will even assist with flying you home if that’s necessary.

With that said, not every single trip will warrant purchasing travel insurance. I buy travel insurance for every international trip I go on because my home medical insurance isn’t great for covering me when I’m out of the country. However, when I’m in the US, I usually rely on my home medical insurance and credit card benefits.

Altitude might make me sleepy or nauseous, but it’s nothing a little sleep and acclimatization can’t fix!

Assess Your Symptoms

Not every illness requires a trip to the doctor. For example, things like motion sickness, heat or sun exposure, altitude, or unfamiliar food ingredients can cause some queasiness or mild nausea symptoms. 

However, listen very carefully to your body. If you feel like something is off, it’s probably wise to get help as soon as possible to play it safe. 

It might feel natural to hit up Google to self-diagnose your symptoms, but that can be dangerous, especially if you decide to wait too long before getting medical help. 

Trust me, I know this because I, too, went to Google for answers during my appendix fiasco…and that wasted valuable, precious time! Then, one morning, I woke up with pain so bad I couldn’t stand up. That’s when I knew I needed to get help immediately.

The bottom line? Don’t hesitate to get help if you’re feeling really sick while traveling, especially if you’ve been sick for a few days or if your symptoms are worsening quickly. Even if it’s not that serious, a doctor can help you get necessary antibiotics or medication that you need to recover quickly and continue enjoying your trip.

This is the selfie I thought might be my last…

Find a Clinic or Hospital that’s Tourist-Friendly

When you’re sick while traveling, the last thing you want is to be working through language barriers and risking miscommunication.

In a lot of big cities around the world, there are clinics and hospitals that are known for welcoming expats and tourists. Ask your hotel/hostel staff which clinic would be the best to go to, with English-speaking staff and assistance for getting the necessary medical paperwork. 

If you’re not able to find a suitable English-speaking provider where you are, I’d recommend asking your accommodation if there’s anyone they can send to help translate for you. Let them know it’s an emergency and that you require emergency care.

Your insurance may also be able to help you identify an appropriate care provider. SafetyWing, for example, comes with a large network of worldwide medical partners – you can simply do a quick search in the “Find a Hospital” section of the website and see if there are options close to you.

When I was in rural Thailand, I didn’t have any of those conveniences. The owner of my guest house didn’t speak great English (but was the kindest soul ever, bless her), and the tiny clinic that I went to wasn’t able to do any kind of scanning. They asked me if I wanted to go to Chiang Mai’s expat hospital for treatment, to which I immediately replied YES.

In case of emergencies requiring communication across languages, I strongly recommend getting the Google Translate app. You can download specific languages onto your phone and it translates them into the local language/script. I used this all over Central Asia (my Russian isn’t awesome) and it worked like a charm.

New friends that I never would have met had I not asked my friends for help!

Ask Friends and Family for Help

One of the most important things I did during my appendix situation was keeping my family at home updated on my situation. Not only were they able to help coordinate insurance information, but they also provided support in a number of other ways.

After I had surgery, I was still loopy from anesthesia and I posted on my Facebook that I was alone in a hospital in Chiang Mai. I begged my friends to send anyone they knew to come keep me company. Much to my surprise, over 20 people showed up to spend time with me, bring me magazines and board games, and shower me with friendship, love, and food. 

People ranging from missionaries to English teachers to the American vice-consul came to my rescue, offering me anything I needed. Some of those people who showed up are still my closest friends today. It made recovery so much smoother and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t asked for help.

Moreover, my family pooled their resources to fly my aunt over to Thailand from the Philippines. She took care of me after I left the hospital and was staying in a hotel, mostly bed-ridden.

You get the picture. The point is that without the help of family and friends, I would have been a lot more miserable during my recovery. Reach out if you need them – that’s what they’re there for.

Thanks to my insurance and the amazing medical care I received, 3 weeks after my surgery I was back in my happy place – hiking!

It’s Okay To Return Home (And Your Insurer Can Help)

If you’ve been sick while traveling and you don’t feel well enough to continue your trip, it’s totally, 100% fine to choose to return home. Don’t feel like you’re “giving up” or that you’re ruining your trip – your health and well-being always comes first.

Many travel insurance plans, including SafetyWing, will help you organize travel home if your doctor recommends your return.

However, returning home is usually a choice you can make based on how you feel. After I spent two weeks recovering from surgery in Chiang Mai, I ultimately decided I felt well enough to continue traveling. However, because my doctor gave me the option of going home, my insurance was ready to cover my travel expenses back to the USA either way.

Make sure you read the fine print on your insurance policy and choose one that covers “medical repatriation.” This way, if you need to return home after a serious illness or surgery, you can do so knowing your travel insurance has you covered.

The Bottom Line

Only you have the power to take control of the situation when you get sick while traveling. On any trip, make sure you’re protected with reliable travel insurance, have a plan for if things go wrong, and keep your family and friends at home updated on what’s going on. 

If you take the right steps, getting sick while traveling doesn’t have to ruin your trip! For me, having a ruptured appendix didn’t stop me from hiking in Vietnam, ziplining in the Philippines, or running around Singapore. I thank my travel insurance and my willingness to get help immediately for those experiences, and for being here to run Jetfarer today.


This post was created by me and sponsored by SafetyWing, an awesome and affordable travel medical insurance provider. All terrifying appendix stories, awful selfies, and opinions on the necessity of travel insurance are 100% my own.

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Kay is a full-time working professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare vacation day to get outside and explore the world. When she travels, she loves visiting the most iconic and naturally beautiful destinations in the USA and abroad. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, running through a park, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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