Though I would consider myself to be a fairly seasoned traveler, ironically, I am actually horrible at the physical act of traveling. I can’t count the amount of times something goes terribly wrong while I’m abroad and I end up sprawled out on the bathroom floor of a plane with a menacing Australian flight attendant threatening to “divert the aircraft,” or intensifying my Ecuadorian water poisoning by naively continuing to drink from the defective water filter. I thought I was “soooo authentic” when I sat down at a table full of locals in a hole in the wall food stall at a Bolivian market. Of course I accepted all four courses of the two-dollar “Menu del Día,” naturally starting with the lukewarm soup made with local water...you can guess how well that ended. Constant illness seems to be my punishment for the crime of travel addiction. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever stop!
For as often as these horrible things seem to happen to me, shockingly I am never less dramatic about it. I just can’t help myself, I truly think I am going to die every time and my survival instincts take over...I definitely cannot just be “chill” about the whole thing. In the moment, my thought process is typically “survive now, apologize later," and though they probably always hate me, I am so grateful for the friendly strangers who have saved me on several occasions!
If you have ever been sick abroad or fear one of these heinous incidents could happen to you, not to worry, I have already been through it all and can offer some helpful tips! Because I have been disastrously sick so many times in six of the seven world continents, I will highlight the very worst of the worst of my experiences, breaking them down by category and sharing my advice on how to avoid having these things happen to you or what you can do if they should occur.
Dehydration on the Plane
Getting dehydrated on the plane is one of my main and most frequent causes of travel illness. As someone who knows this, I still often forget to properly hydrate before and during the flight and it always comes back to bite me in the worst way.
Let’s start at the very beginning of my travel career when all of this began…little did I know dehydration was to be a permanently recurring issue! I was in college and about to spend the summer in Ecuador volunteering in a little village outside of Quito. I was really excited to get there as I was (and still am) a bit of a “Latinophile." The flight was two parts. The first leg was from my hometown in Detroit to Miami, and then Miami onto Quito. I was all set and ready to go, waved a teary goodbye to my parents, and boarded the plane for my flight to Miami. It was only a few-hour flight and I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. Unfortunately, that naivety was where it all started. The flight took off and about halfway through I started to feel a little bit unwell. I wasn’t exactly sure what was wrong but I knew it wasn’t good...it was horrible, in fact. I had never felt anything quite like it and I didn’t know what I needed. I kept buzzing for the flight attendants telling them that I wasn’t feeling well, so they kept trying to give me ginger ale. I quickly realized it was actually water that I needed, and for whatever reason they wouldn’t give me more than a small cupful, half of it filled with ice.
Now, don’t judge me for the next part, as I said before I really thought I might die there! In an act of desperation, I leaned over to the complete and utter stranger across the aisle from me and frantically asked if I could drink from his permanent, personal water bottle. At this point I was breathing heavily and my eyes were rolling back in my head so he reluctantly handed it to me, a bewildered look on his face over my barbaric faux pas. I quickly drank the entire thing and tossed it back to him. Immediately following, I went on to fill four consecutive paper bags with my vomit before the plane finally landed. It was not one of my proudest moments!
After deplaning I called my mom in a panic, not knowing what to do. I was completely alone and terrified of getting on another plane, no less the following flight to Quito. She told me that I would definitely be boarding my next leg, as the flight was expensive and I was going! She instructed me to purchase Pepto-Bismol to calm my stomach, Dramamine for motion sickness and to help me sleep, two Gatorades, and a big water bottle (my own, this time). She directed me to buy a day pass at one of the airport’s private lounges for around $25 and sleep for a few hours before boarding my next flight. She told me to calm down and start slowly drinking the fluids, and it would all be okay. I followed her directions to a T and I am happy to report that my next flight went off without a hitch. I even met a handsome Ecuadorian man on the plane who didn’t mind that I had just been throwing up for several hours, go figure!
Becoming dehydrated on a plane is no joke. A word to other travelers to avoid making my same mistakes: ALWAYS hydrate as MUCH as you can the entire day and night before a flight. Don't forget to bring a full water bottle on the flight itself to avoid an embarrassing and unpleasant situation!
Food and Water Poisoning
You would think at this point I would be prepared for anything and know how to avoid these types of situations but sometimes they just sneak up on you! Typically for me, it’s doing what I think will help me that actually ends up being the cause of my ailment. Usually when I’m trying to figure out what’s making me sick, the answer is right under my nose hiding in plain sight.
I have had a lot of these types of incidences. The worst include eating infected mangoes to excess in Mexico City thinking my body could use a healthy alternative to never-ending tacos, accidentally drinking the local water in the form of Bolivian soup, and constant underlying nausea associated with drinking from the overused water filter in my Ecuadorian home as I mentioned previously. However, of all my experiences, perhaps the worst and most dramatic of my food poisoning episodes happened on my flight(s) back from Bali.
This was a four-part flight which should have indicated right away that something was bound to go awry. I was traveling alone flying from Bali to Bangkok to New Delhi to Abu Dhabi and then finally back home to Chicago. I was going backwards through a million time zones with a thousand layovers and I was already sick with a cold from Thailand...what could go wrong?!
I was relieved when I made it through my first two flights smoothly and foolishly allowed myself to think that maybe this time everything would be fine! Well. The worst was yet to come. I had, I kid you not, a 45-minute layover in New Delhi, the shortest possible time for me to do anything stupid, and yet, I still managed to squeeze something in! I had always been intrigued by India and was excited to have touched-down in the country, if only for less than an hour. I was hungry so I grabbed an “authentic” Indian snack from one of the airport kiosks before running to the gate to catch my flight. Loving the fact that I was eating true Indian food in India, I boarded the plane with a big smile, ready for a quick flight to Abu Dhabi. It was then when it all started to go wrong.
About mid-way through the flight, I started to feel that familiar gurgling in the pit of my stomach which I had come to know all too well. But this time, it was different. I instinctively grabbed my water bottle and started taking small, slow sips, hoping that this could resolve itself quietly, but after a few minutes I knew that something else was going on entirely. I started to get up to make my way to the bathroom but when I thought I was going to collapse I retreated to my seat. My face was flushed, I was covered in a sheen of cold sweat, and I had no idea what was wrong with me. I buzzed for the flight attendant and tried to explain what was going on before vomiting into a paper bag and blacking out. The attendants began to call out to my fellow passengers asking if there were any doctors on board (the drama!), and when someone finally stepped forward and stuck a spoonful of sugar in my mouth to raise my blood sugar, I opened my eyes. Someone put a cold washcloth on my forehead and they moved me to first class to lie down.
By the end of the flight I was in pretty rough shape. I was a lone female traveler, scared and nauseous in the middle of Abu Dhabi, but I had made it. I spent the next few hours in the airport bathroom, which is where I discovered that the root of my illness was, in fact, that “authentic Indian food” from before. Amazing! By the time I was ready to board my final flight back to Chicago, I was skeptical but prepared and luckily made it back without any further problems. After that, I pledged never to go back to India. Of course, India ended up being my very next international trip a few months later when the horror of my incident had finally faded. Fortunately, I did not get sick at any point during that entire trip, what are the odds!
To avoid food and water poisoning while traveling, my best advice would be to be careful about what you eat, remain hydrated with safe water, and bring Imodium and other medicines from home and have them easily accessible just in case. I always bring my own paper bag on long flights and bus rides because let’s be real, it will most likely end up coming in handy! As always, I urge you to remain calm and try to work through whatever is happening. Oftentimes, food and water poisoning is unavoidable and quite miserable, but remember that it does always eventually pass!
Wearing Your Body Down
Too much partying, not enough sleep, a new destination every day, and constantly eating cheap, greasy foods is bound to exhaust your body to its absolute limits. When I travel alone, I tend to grab the quickest, cheapest option for food which always seems to be a kabob or some combination of bread and cheese in different forms...after your third kabob and twelfth slice of pizza or bagel with cream cheese your stomach isn’t really about it anymore! Not taking proper care of yourself while traveling is any easy way to wear yourself down and let me tell you, your body will not appreciate it!
I have certainly had my fair share of physical wear and tear while traveling and out of necessity have had to discover the best local methods for recovering. When I suffered an intense throat infection in Greece after a week-long music festival in Croatia, I bought cheap local antibiotics (which were effective!) from the corner pharmacy. In Bali, I searched out the local remedy “Jamu Juice” to clear up my stuffy nose, clogged ears, and a throat full of mucus...my roommates in the shared hostel dorm room really loved that! Of my experiences, perhaps my most horrifying encounter happened when I was living in a homestay in Madrid, Spain.
It was a typical case of study abroad overexcitement, I went out every night and woke up early every morning for class. I was exhausted. My body was begging me to stop, but I didn’t. With the classic “you only live once” mentality, I grabbed some cold medicine from the neighborhood pharmacy and then went to enjoy a standard night of Madrid debauchery. I came home relatively early and went to sleep without a problem. I had had a few drinks but really not enough to be drunk, and yet a few hours later I woke up with a start. Something was wrong and I didn’t know what. In a state of delusion, I started running frantically through the halls of my homestay calling out desperately for my elderly host, “Miriam! Miriam!,” before opening the door to her room and collapsing on her bed. She was frightened, obviously, but once she realized it was only me, she guided me back to my room to lay down, made me some tea and I went back to sleep. Oddly enough, I did not get kicked out of the homestay program, but I was thoroughly teased for my performance during the rest of my time in Madrid. Needless to say, I will not be mixing cold medicine with alcohol ever again!
Wearing yourself down while traveling can be a tricky thing to navigate, especially when you want to go everywhere and experience everything. However, in the grand scheme of things, it is always worth it to slow down, take care of yourself, and rest when you need to. If you do end up getting sick abroad, local medicines from the corner pharmacy in your destination are typically cheap and effective, and if you’re sick and alone, trust me, this is your best option. Another option is to ask what the traditional remedies are. Oftentimes the local people have been using natural alternatives like Jamu Juice for generations, and they can really help.
As an avid traveler, I have come to terms with the fact that something will almost always go wrong on my trips and that I will probably get sick, no matter how I try to prepare. It will definitely be dramatic and will likely be embarrassing, but no matter what, the destination, the people I meet there, and the (non-health related) experiences will always be worth it. I have also realized that despite the inevitable difficulties, I love travel. It makes me feel whole, it opens my mind and heart to the world, and I will never stop.
That said, the best advice I can offer to you, a kindred traveler, is that when something does go wrong, try to stay calm. It can be really scary when something goes physically bad abroad, especially if you’re alone and don’t speak the language. The best thing to do is to take a breath, recognize that “this too shall pass,” and try to figure out what you need and the best way to get it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it (but try to be less dramatic about it than I am), and in the end, the worst that typically happens is that you come away with an incredibly embarrassing story to tell after the fact. I hope that you will learn from my mistakes and I wish you good luck and safe travels!
My name is Sophie Mendel, and I’m an American travel writer and editor currently residing in Chicago, Illinois, USA. I have traveled to 42 countries and lived in 5, am fluent in English and Spanish (and always in the process of learning more languages), and love lugging my guitar around the world with me! Follow my travels on Instagram @theunboundedtraveler!