A Safety Guide for International Travelers

September 3, 2021
COVID-19, Infectious Disease News

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Damanprett Ubhi.

After over a year of on-and-off again travel restrictions, most of the world is welcoming back Americans, and many adventurers are eager to get their passports stamped again. In fact, a McKinsey assessment on the travel industry shows that air travel is closer to pre-pandemic levels and hotel occupancy is up. However, the combination of lagging vaccination rates, spread of the Delta variant, and threat of travel-related diseases does complicate things. ID Care’s Dr. Damanpreet Ubhi simplifies these complex topics in this helpful guide to international travel. It covers popular destinations, COVID-19 rules and requirements, travel tips, and advice on what to do before, during, and after traveling abroad to stay safe and healthy.

Returning to Top International Travel Destinations

As people think about returning to global travel this year, there are many countries that remain on many top destination “wish lists”. They are culturally diverse, offer great site-seeing opportunities, are rich in history, and have great local cuisines – all of which make them appealing.

But many of these destinations are also developing countries that present some hidden risks that travelers may not be aware of. In fact, up to 79% of travelers from developing countries return ill with a travel-related health problem. These countries include Brazil, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam, to name just a few. And South African safaris and Caribbean cruises are also expected to make a strong comeback for travel.

It’s important to remember that each destination and your itinerary can present unique challenges and the potential for contracting a travel-related illness – some of which are preventable with proper planning and vaccines. So, it’s key to think ahead to be prepared.

How Travel Medicine Helps You for Global Travel

Travel medicine is a field of medicine that is dedicated to keeping travelers safe and healthy. An ID Care travel medicine specialist helps prepare you to stay well overseas and minimizes the possibility of illness.

The process begins by creating a personalized travel care plan at your first consultation. Your ID Care specialist reviews your general health and risk factors, reviews relevant vaccines and prescription medications, discusses destination-specific concerns, advises on food and water safety, and provides packing tips for over-the-counter medications – among many other things.

ID Care’s individualized travel care plans are created with every possible risk and preventative measure in mind. This includes pre-travel preparation, measures to take while traveling, and post-travel health care. And it is important to know that international travelers always have access to their ID Care specialist while traveling abroad which is comforting in times of need.

Top Things to Do Before Traveling Internationally

Prepare for a safe, healthy, and enjoyable trip by doing these key things in advance:

  • Visit a Travel Medicine Specialist – the ideal time to book your consultation is 4-6 weeks before traveling, but an ID Care travel medicine specialist can help if your appointment and departure date are closer together.
  • Make Sure Your Passport Is Valid – If your passport expires less than 6 months after your anticipated return date, you should renew it immediately. Some countries don’t accept passports that expire sooner. And currently, it can take 18 weeks or longer to renew a U.S. passport, so plan ahead.
  • Check Visa Requirements – visa policies vary, so contact your host country’s embassy for information on visa requirements based on your destination and duration of stay.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) STEP is a free service to enroll in for your trip that provides important country-specific information from the Embassy about safety conditions and local emergencies at your destination, in real time.
  • Buy Travel Insurance – add a separate policy for travel coverage and a medical evacuation policy in case an emergency medical transfer is necessary.
  • Learn your destination’s COVID-19 protocols and testing locations!

What to Pack When Traveling Internationally

Your exact packing list will vary by destination, but these travel essentials benefit everyone:

  • Valid Passport and Applicable Visas
  • Travel Insurance Paperwork
  • Proof of COVID-19 Vaccination and/or a Recent Negative COVID-19 Test
  • Medications and First Aid Kit – prescriptions and over-the-counter products are essential. A travel medicine specialist will provide destination-specific recommendations. And always carry copies of your prescriptions.
  • Face Masks and Hand Sanitizer – masks are required in airports, on airplanes and on all public transportation; additional mandates vary by destination and activities.
  • Climate-Specific Clothing – including comfortable walking shoes and a rain jacket.
  • Protective Sun Gear – plan on an SPF sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses.
  • Misc. Must-Haves – a day travel bag, universal travel adaptor, headphones, to name a few.

Some more remote destinations have a higher likelihood of water contamination and/or insect-borne illnesses. Travelers heading to these areas should also pack:

  • Yellow Fever Card – a yellow card is an important document that proves you’ve been vaccinated against yellow fever. Your ID Care travel medicine specialist can administer the vaccine and provide a yellow card if your destination requires it.
  • Insect Repellent – to prevent travel-related illnesses caused by tick or insect bites.
  • Water Purification Tablets – to disinfect contaminated drinking water; also bring a reusable water bottle.

What You Need to Know About Travel Vaccines for Global Destinations

Important travel vaccines along with recommended medications vary based on your destination and planned activities. Crucial inoculations for Central and South America or South Africa-bound travelers, like the yellow fever vaccine, are often difficult to access. So, give yourself time to locate a physician – ideally a travel medicine specialist like those at ID Care- who can provide the right travel health guidance and administer these vaccines.

Additionally, health professionals use CDC’s Yellow Book to ensure they have the latest travel health guidelines, pre-travel vaccine recommendations, and destination-specific health advice for popular international destinations. Some of the recommended vaccinations include:

  • Brazil – typhoid, yellow fever, malaria prophylaxis, and possibly rabies
  • Costa Rica – typhoid, yellow fever, and possibly rabies
  • Jamaica – typhoid, and possibly yellow fever and rabies
  • Mexico – malaria prophylaxis, typhoid, and possibly rabies
  • Thailand – typhoid, malaria prophylaxis, Japanese encephalitis
  • Turkey ­– typhoid and possibly rabies
  • Vietnam – typhoid, malaria prophylaxis, Japanese encephalitis
  • South Africa – typhoid, yellow fever, malaria prophylaxis, and possibly rabies
  • Cruises – vary based the ports visited and length of stay in each

Dr. Ubhi adds, “It’s easy to forget about international health risks when you’re on a cruise. However, it’s still important to take precautions, especially when you’re visiting many ports. I often recommend cruise passengers get a typhoid vaccine because big ships often visit areas that may expose travelers to contaminated food or water. So, the risk of contracting an infectious disease increases in these conditions.”

While certain vaccines may be recommended (i.e., CDC Yellow Book), Dr. Ubhi always evaluates each individual travel scenario to determine if every recommended vaccine is required and if other measures should be considered to ensure the traveler’s optimal safety. Dr. Ubhi explains, “We scrutinize the details of your itinerary and ask lots of questions to determine your exact needs versus recommending all travel vaccines,” says Dr. Ubhi. “I think about any relevant scenario and its potential risks. For example, I’ll ask a Brazil-bound traveler if they’ll be around animals to determine if a rabies vaccine is really necessary.”

Additional Vaccines to Consider as You Prepare to Travel

All travelers should get the COVID-19 vaccine and be updated on routine vaccinations for maximum protection. Routine vaccines include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis), chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza (flu). A travel medicine specialist at ID Care will review your current health situation, the status of your routine vaccinations, and then administer what is needed to ensure you are current and protected pre-travel.

More Travel Health Concerns to Consider

But there are also many travel health concerns that aren’t preventable with a vaccine. A very common one is traveler’s diarrhea, which affects up to 70% of travelers. Other health issues stem from tick, insect, and rodent bites. They cause illnesses such as dengue, zika, chagas disease, hantavirus, leishmaniasis, chikungunya, and crimean-congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF). For more on these and other travel-related diseases, refer to the CDC’s Travelers Disease Directory Travel medicine specialists at ID Care can help you avoid or treat all these issues.

International Travel and COVID-19

Knowing destination-specific local COVID-19 testing requirements, rules and regulations, and how vaccines affect where you can and can’t go, is important for international travel. Each country has its own protocols in place, and they often change as the situation evolves. For example, vaccinated travelers heading to Phuket (Thailand) don’t need to quarantine but unvaccinated travelers do. An ID Care travel medicine specialist knows the nuances of each country and makes sure you meet its requirements. Refer to the CDC’s COVID-19 destination guide to learn about transmission rates worldwide.

And it is important to know that currently everyone re-entering the U.S. must provide a negative COVID-19 test. It must be completed within 3 days of your return flight. Many hotels and cruise lines offer on-site testing to fulfill this requirement.

Taking a Cruise During Times of COVID-19

COVID-19 vaccination requirements vary by cruise line and port of departure. Some cruise lines are open to fully vaccinated guests only. Others accept unvaccinated guests but might charge higher rates to cover required frequent on-board COVID-19 testing. All cruisers must present a negative test and pass a wellness check upon arrival. Cruises present a particular risk of easy spread of disease and infection outbreaks as people are in contained areas and close proximity, so taking precautionary measures is vital.

Vaccine Passports for International Travel

While the U.S. doesn’t have an official COVID-19 vaccine passport, other countries have launched one or have plans to do so – but there is still no universal passport for Americans traveling abroad. New Jersey residents can securely access and share proof of vaccination in the U.S. through the New Jersey Department of Health’s Docket app. It’s free for iPhone and Android users.

3 Important Food Safety Tips While Traveling Abroad

Enjoy your meals as you travel and explore new food options, but choose them carefully by following these simple food safety tips:

  • Don’t Eat Raw Foods – including fruits, vegetables, undercooked eggs, and very rare meat.
  • Avoid Tap Water – opt for bottled water instead. Carry water purification tablets as backup.
  • Skip Street Food – look for recommended eateries as you can get sick if a food vendor doesn’t practice good hygiene or if food has been sitting out too long.

What to do If You’re Sick While Traveling

Contact your travel medicine physician if you’re sick overseas. Travel medicine specialists, like those at ID Care, are accessible and can provide guidance over the phone or via email and help direct you on where to go to get local care if needed.

What to Do When You Return Home

All travelers should get a COVID-19 test 3-5 days after returning home. The CDC’s post-international travel guide states vaccinated travelers who test negative do not need to quarantine. Unvaccinated travelers should quarantine for 7 days, regardless of test results.

Even if your COVID-19 test is negative, it’s still possible to get sick from something that is indigenous to the country you visited, as 79% of travelers return ill after visiting a developing country. You should not wait and contact your physician if you don’t feel well. ID Care’s travel medicine specialists are experienced infectious disease doctors. That’s valuable – especially if you return home ill – because their expertise also lies in the origin and treatment of infections (viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic) and travel-related diseases. “It can take up to 4 weeks after traveling for an illness to fully present itself, but symptoms usually appear sooner,” says Dr. Ubhi. “Pay attention to how you feel and look for anything different on your body, like insect bites and bruises. This can be a sign that you may have contracted an infectious disease that must be diagnosed and treated right away.”

In summary, global travel will continue to be a wonderful experience that we all look forward to. It also something we must prepare for, including a travel medicine consultation, to ensure our health and safety in today’s changing world.

How ID Care’s Travel Medicine Specialists Help You

ID Care is New Jersey’s largest travel medicine and infectious disease practice. Its team of travel medicine specialists and 40+ infectious disease doctors offer you decades of experience with every disease, travel-related illness, and health condition. With 10 outpatient locations throughout New Jersey, scheduling a travel medicine consultation is easy. Call 908-281-0221 or visit idcare.com to book your appointment.