I’m lucky enough to be a very healthy person. I very rarely get sick. Of course, sod’s law dictates that when I do, it tends to be fairly dramatically, and always, always when I’m on my travels. I spent the first day of my long-awaited solo backpacking trip to Asia and Australia in hospital in Tokyo with a virus that had spread into my eye (the first occasion in my adult life that I had attended an Accident and Emergency department as a patient). A few weeks later, I managed to get fierce food poisoning in El Nido which left me with agonising stomach cramps for the remainder of my time in the Philippines.
All was then well until two and a half years later, when I started feeling a bit wobbly after snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, my final activity in Australia. I put it down to too much sun, sea water and excitement, but the next day, my penultimate day in the country, I woke up with a full-blown stuffy cold. With my visa about to expire, I had no choice but to continue with my plans to fly down to Brisbane and then on to Auckland, New Zealand, which obviously didn’t do anything to help with my lurgy (this particular incident is in fact the inspiration for this post; as I was trying to decide what to write about Auckland, I realised I’d spent most of my time there being too ill to do much!). I soon recovered and had a fantastic three weeks in New Zealand – but then, on the morning that I was starting my 36-hour journey on three flights home to the UK, I awoke with a recurrence of aforementioned cold, the end result being that my ears were so messed up by the air travel that I couldn’t hear properly for the best part of a month after arriving home (job interviews during that time were fun!).
Just to reiterate my point further, the only time that I’ve had to take a sick day from work during the past couple of years was because of the flu that I managed to catch from someone in my hostel during a three-day mini-trip to Dublin this past winter. By now, I’m fairly well-versed in surviving injuries and illnesses as a solo traveller, so here are a few of my top tips.
Buy travel insurance. I cannot stress this enough. It amazes me the number of people who choose to take the risk and travel without. I have never had to use mine – the cost of my two appointments and medication in Tokyo came to only a little more than the excess that I would have had to pay to claim – but at an anxious time I at least didn’t have to worry about how I was going to pay for a big hospital bill should I have had to be admitted. You just have no idea what might happen to you, and if you become unwell or incapacitated enough that you need to be medically evacuated back to your home country, the costs can be mindblowing (how many GoFundMe pages have you seen from people in this kind of situation?). I know that when you are booking a trip it can sometimes feel like the various costs are really adding up, but this is one that you really shouldn’t skip. Additionally, make sure that you’re aware of exactly what your insurance policy does and doesn’t cover (did you know, for example, that most policies won’t cover you for driving a scooter if you don’t have a motorcycle licence?).
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. As solo travellers, we’re pretty independent folk, and sometimes the idea of asking for help can be daunting or something we just don’t want to do – we don’t want to inconvenience anyone, right? But sometimes you do need help, and most people are kind and willing to offer it. In Tokyo I had no choice but to ask my hostel staff where I should go with my eye and how to get there – I didn’t have a clue about which hospitals would see tourists. They not only sent me off with directions to the international hospital, but looked out for me for the rest of my stay, asking how I was feeling, and forcing green tea on me every time I walked past the reception desk! On the second leg of my journey home from New Zealand, when I was feeling really rough and just wanted to be able to lie down properly, I told the cabin crew that I was feeling poorly and asked if there were any empty rows anywhere where I could stretch out. There wasn’t, but on my next flight, the 14-hour beast from Singapore to Heathrow, it turned out that I had a whole row to myself; it could have been just luck of course, but the plane was still pretty full, and so I wonder if that arrangement was made for me by the airline staff. It’s OK to admit that you need a hand sometimes!
Get your food and drink right. There’s plenty of advice drifting around the internet on preventative measures when it comes to food and drink hygiene – don’t drink the tap water unless the locals do (well, that’s my rule – others prefer to stick to bottled water everywhere, just in case), avoid ice in drinks, only eat fruit and vegetables which you peel before consuming – but just as at home, it’s important to be getting the right nutrients when you’re trying to recover from illness. As tempting as it is to just grab the nearest thing available when you’re feeling drained, make sure you’re getting some fruit or greens, and be careful not to pick anything that might irritate your stomach further if that’s where your sickness is (I find bananas are a good choice, whatever the lurgy). Try to eat and drink healthily once you’re feeling better too – don’t get straight back on the beers once you can keep them down again! – to ensure you make a full recovery. The biggest thing to remember here is to drink water; whatever brand of illness you have, you won’t get better until you’re hydrated properly. Even if you’re stuck in bed, keep sipping regularly. It honestly makes a huge difference.
Splurge if you need to. I didn’t really want to spend $80 on a private room at the Brisbane City YHA on my final night in Australia, when I could get a comfortable bed in a clean and spacious dorm there for $26. But I knew that with my lurgy, it was the sensible thing to do; I could try to get a good night’s rest in my own space before flying on to New Zealand, in the hope of feeling better sooner. I’m all about the budget travel, but some things are more important than money, whether that’s spending more on accommodation where you can get some privacy, or going to eat at an over-priced Western style restaurant for some familiar food when you’re recovering from a bad stomach.
Change your plans if you need to. Your health (and that of anyone else whom you might affect) is more important than sticking to your itinerary. While sometimes you might not have a choice – in Australia, my visa was about to expire so I had no option but to get on the flight to New Zealand – at other times, you may need to slow down and spend more time than you had planned to in one place, in order to recover before moving on (this is why I ended up spending twelve days in El Nido, where there really isn’t much to do except the one-day boat tours – the food poisoning really knocked me out of action for a while). While it would be much more galling on a shorter trip to lose time to illness, if you’ve got more than just a sniffle, it’s really not worth putting yourself through a long journey, or an activity that you’re too ill to enjoy or participate in properly – plus, it’s not very fair on the other people whom you might pass your lurgy onto.
Rest up! This one sounds obvious, but it’s very tempting to start trying to function at full speed again as soon as you’re starting to feel better, which puts you at risk of a delayed recovery or a relapse. In Tokyo, I made myself build up slowly to my usual level of activity – just one activity every day, for a couple of days, until I definitely felt strong enough to manage a whole day out and about. As frustrating as it might feel, if you don’t take it easy at first you’re more likely to end up losing more time to illness and rehabilitation.
I don’t always follow my own advice – in New Zealand, once I was feeling a bit better I proceeded to tear around the country trying to see as much as possible in three weeks, eating way too much Whittaker’s chocolate and drinking way too much local wine, which probably explains why I became ill again at the end of my time there! – but these are all tried-and-tested tips which have worked for me at various points in my travels. As scary as it can be sometimes, it’s not the end of the world if you get sick on a solo trip; stay safe, get healthy, know when to seek help, and everything else can wait.