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Travel always includes an element of risk, and the biggest risk is to your health. Encountering a new culture exposes you to new experiences and ideas, but also to germs. Lots of germs.

Now, I’m no germophobe, but with the outbreak of new and more concerning viruses and diseases, I find that it is worth it to develop a basic set of “best practices” as a matter of routine. I’ve been traveling for more than 20 years with groups, and have dealt with more health concerns than you can shake a box of echinacea at. I’ll walk you through my preparations and mental process, but I suggest you come up with a “best travel health practices” routine of your own.

Be Informed, Not Hysterical

What we see on the news is often an exaggerated version of the truth. Let’s be honest, panic keeps viewers engaged and advertisers happy. Rather than trust any news outlet, I suggest looking to unbiased sources. Before leaving for any trip, any time, anywhere, it’s always worth a few minutes to check into travel warnings.

The CDC ( notes all health concerns and their levels. Give this list a browse, you might be surprised about places that have warnings.

The World Health Organization issues statements on disease outbreaks and recommendations about travel.

The US State Department provides a list of all travel advisories, be they health or safety related.

If you’re on Twitter, all of these organizations have Twitter accounts and post the most current information there.

Best Practices for Healthy Travel

There are so many small things you can do to reduce your risk of illness when traveling. On the first night of any tour, I review some of these basic steps with my clients. I’ve tracked this stuff over 20 years—if I don’t stress these simple practices, my groups get sick. It’s just that simple. We did the same experiment with my kids’ preschool, and got the same results.

  1. WASH YOUR HANDS. This could actually be numbers 1-1900. And I don’t mean wash your hands with Purell. Wash with soap and water. There is no substitute. Every time you see a sink, wash your hands, use soap, and sing happy birthday to yourself to time it. If you can’t remember easily, just make it a habit to wash before every meal and wash after using the toilet. I kid you not—enforcing this rule has cut illness on my tours more than 70 percent.
  2. Purell is the devil. See rule 1. So many people think they can skip the washing if they just keep glopping on more hand sanitizer. They also think more sanitizer is better. This is not true. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people put a ton of hand sanitizer on, then touch something gross, like the Rome metro, with wet hands. That made the hands dirtier! If you really have no alternative, use a tiny amount and rub it in until your hands are dry. But it really is a last resort.
  3. Don’t touch your face. My aunt gave me this advice when I was a teenager, although she said I would avoid getting wrinkles this way. So much for that idea. But the wisdom here is that touching any mucus type of opening (eyes, nose) is a direct line to sickness. Don’t touch your face. Who knows, maybe it also fights wrinkles.
  4. Drink lots of water, avoid alcohol. I know this is a bummer on vacation, but you must hydrate. Water consumption is critical to good health, and alcohol is the opposite of this.
  5. Get lots of rest. I don’t know about you, but I only get sick when I’m worn down in general. Sleep as much as you can. If you’re jet lagged, just remember that even laying in a bed for 8 hours awake is better than nothing. My trick—I take a Benedryl or two before bed.
  6. Use your Coughing Corner. If you do have to sneeze or cough, minimize the impact of it by covering your mouth with your arm rather than your hand. This way, whatever you touch next won’t have yuck on it. Your travel companions thank you.
  7. Take it easy if you’re feeling weird. It’s ok to take a day off when you’re traveling. I know we all push ourselves to see as much as possible, but you’ll see nothing that you can remember if you’re sick. Mamma Sarah says Go To Bed.
  8. Ask for help. Every country has doctors. And if you’re not feeling good about visiting a foreign doctor, try hitting a pharmacy. You’d be surprised what you can buy at foreign pharmacies. (Almost anything!)

On the Plane

Airplanes are kind of like Petrie dishes in my opinion. Hundreds of people all smooshed together for 10 hours, breathing the same air. But you can minimize exposure with a few little tricks.

  1. Wipe down the surfaces. I bring antibacterial hand wipes and wipe down the tray table, armrests, and even the seats if the upholstery is leather. Who knows if those have EVER been cleaned. Probably not. Takes just a couple of minutes and is worth your time. If you really want to go the extra mile, you can buy airplane seat covers to assure cleanliness. Not a bad idea
  2. Select a good seat. Middle seats are the worst. I like window seats, so I can turn away easily if the person next to me is coughing.
  3. Turn on the air. Air circulation helps a number of ills.
  4. Wear compression socks. This won’t keep you from getting the flu, but it will keep your blood circulating properly, and has shown to help with jet-lag.
  5. Hydrate. Bring a water bottle. Don’t drink soda, juice or alcohol. Just water and lots of it. Also helps with jet-lag.
  6. WASH YOUR HANDS. I am kind of grossed out by airplane bathroom water, so I also wash again as soon as I get off the plane.

What Else Can You Do?

The best thing you can do to avoid being sick while you travel is to be healthy before you set out. Get a check up from your doctor and make sure you have all vaccinations, including the most current flu shot. In the week before your departure, get some reasonable exercise and sleep. Hydrate.
Many travelers like to bring supplements. I cannot vouch for them myself, but I have been known to bring Emergen-C and Airborne vitamins with me. Do these things work? I dunno, but makes me feel like I’m doing something.

Every tour I’ve ever led always has “The Pharmacist” on board. You know, that person that has a drugstore in their suitcase. I don’t think this is necessary, but I do carry a few basics, along with my prescriptions, just in case.

  • Benedryl for allergic reactions and if I can’t sleep
  • Aspirin for pain relief
  • Melatonin for sleep
  • Pepto Bismol tablets, not chewables, for stomach problems
  • AlkaSeltzer Flu tablets just in case
  • Bee Magic skin lotion for burned or cracked skin

The bottom line is, be well but don’t panic during a health crisis. Seek advice and information. Take care of yourself, and if you’re not feeling good, get help and avoid contact with others. You already know all of this. The hard part is to let these things become routine. So here is your homework: wash your hands as soon as you’re done reading this. Drink a glass of water. Go to sleep a couple of minutes early. If you can fold these practices into daily life, you’ll be healthier overall, not just on the road. As one of your travel companions, I thank you for it.

Sarah Murdoch

This post was written by Sarah Murdoch, founder and director of Adventures of Sarah. Sarah has been guiding around the world for 20+ years, after catching the travel bug while studying in Italy in 1995. Between guiding she is also a journalist, travel guidebook writer, occasional architect, and full-time mom to Nicola and Lucca. Click here to find out more about Sarah.


  • Vicki says:

    Excellent advice as always. Thanks. I thought I was the only one wiping down the area around my airplane seat.

  • Sherrie Virdell says:

    Excellent post! Totally relevant in these challenging travel times. Thanks!

  • Amanda V. says:

    Hi Sarah,
    I adore your blog, packing tips and laid back attitude! I do want to help clarify some points about hand hygiene. Yes, the advice to wash with soap/water for at least 20 seconds is excellent. Just keep in mind that it helps by allowing the surfactant properties of the soap to physically remove microbes. Alcohol based sanitizers are germicidal, meaning that the alcohol actually kills germs. They, too, are excellent, not the devil. The best practice includes using the manufacturer recommended amount of product and rubbing until dry. I am a nurse and at the hospital where I work, we have alcohol based rub dispensers and sinks with soap outside every room. There are specific rules of engagement for each one depending on circumstance and type of illness. Alcohol-based rubs are great for times when touching public objects, such as door handles, happens and a sink is not available. You can even use them in tandem…the sanitizer to kill germs and the soap to wash away what is left. I agree that I like soap and water, particularly before meals and after using the restroom! Just don’t discount sanitizers on the go…

  • Bambi Anderson says:

    What did you need to do to get into these countries? Did you quarantine? We’re many places like museums closed?

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