Skip the Buffet and Other Simple Rules for Healthier Travel
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 20% to 50% of travelers — about 10 million people — get traveler's diarrhea every year. No bull. (See also: How to Travel This Holiday Season Without Getting Sick)
It may be impossible to truly eliminate the risk of getting food poisoning, but you can take some precautions to reduce that possibility.
There are some food groups that are especially risky.
Meat and Seafood
Raw meats and seafood may contain viruses, bacteria, or parasites that can make you sick. It's only when they have been handled and cooked properly that they're safe to eat. If you're not sure the local food safety authority properly monitors eateries, eat only hot meats and seafood that are opaque in color.
Fruits and vegetables may come into contact with harmful microorganisms in the soil or water where they grow. They can also become contaminated when they're harvested or stored. When it comes to eating raw produce, choose fruits that you can peel like bananas. Even thin-skinned produce like apples and cucumbers benefit from peeling as many common types of pesticide residues and contaminants can't penetrate the peel barrier (though thicker peels make it even harder for contaminants to penetrate). If you have the time to do some grocery shopping yourself, buy any fruits and vegetables you like, then wash them yourself using clean water.
Restaurants to Avoid
When you're dining out, choose your spots carefully.
It's safer to eat food that is hot and freshly cooked than food that has been sitting around all day like at buffets. Stick with popular eateries that cook their dishes when you order them and serve many people throughout the day.
Look around. Are you the only one about to order? There may be a reason.
Beyond the obvious "you're not in Japan to eat Mexican tacos," local chefs will likely be more familiar with local food than they are with exotic specialities. Meaning eating local can be eating safe.
Before you choose where to eat, ask the locals for recommendations. If you have a travel agent, he could also be a good resource. You can also check out local food blogs or review websites like Yelp.
In many developing countries, tap water is not safe for consumption. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a database of travel destinations that you can check for country-specific information.
If the tap water at your destination is not safe, you have to boil it first before you drink it. If you prefer to drink cool water, you'll have to boil it in advance and place it in the fridge. This means you'll have to plan ahead.
If that sounds like too much work, drink bottled water. It's clean and safe. Just pay attention to the seal; if it has been broken or tampered with, request another bottle. Make sure the bottle hasn't simply been filled with tap water. In some restaurants in India, waiters would bring the bottle to your table and open it in front of you before pouring the contents into your glass.
Avoid ice cubes because they may have been made using dirty water. Instead, ask for bottled drinks that have been chilled inside a fridge.
If you travel a lot, consider buying yourself a portable water purifier, which makes it safe for you to drink tap water anywhere in the world.
One type of water purifier works by filtering out contaminants, letting only clean water through. This filter is available as a stick through which you drink the water. Known as LifeStraw, it can filter up to 1,000 liters of water. It's also available as a water bottle called LifeStraw Go. And best of all: when you buy one LifeStraw, the company provides clean water to one school child in a developing country for a year.
Alternatively, you can also buy a device that works by using ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, viruses and protozoa. It comes in the form of a stick called SteriPEN that you submerge in a glass or water bottle for a few minutes to treat the water.
Another option is to buy water purification tablets that contain iodine. To use, simply dissolve the tablet in water and let it stand for a few minutes before drinking. You can find these tablets at stores that sell camping gear.
Certain places may be unsafe for travel in the event of an illness outbreak. An iOS app called Sickweather keeps track of these outbreaks, so you know which areas to avoid. The app tracks people's updates on social media and keeps a database of Sickweather users' reports. You can view a map of your local area and filter the information so you only see specific symptoms or illnesses.
Stick with pasteurized milk, powdered milk, or canned condensed milk that you buy yourself at the local grocery store. Avoid eating or drinking items that contain milk when you eat outside; the milk may have been sitting around all day out in the sun and may have spoiled. There is also some possibility that it hasn't been pasteurized.
Despite all your precautions, it's possible that you'll still get food poisoning. That's unfortunate, but your life will be a lot easier if you have travel medical insurance. At the very least, you'll be able to get medical treatments if something happens during the trip.
The right travel insurance for you depends many factors, including your destination and length of stay. Consider what exactly you want the insurance to cover. Do you want your insurer to cover the loss of your laptop or just the cost of medical emergencies? Also take into account what you'll be doing during the trip. If you plan to engage in extreme sports, you may need additional protection on top of the standard policy.
How do you avoid food borne illness while traveling? Please share in comments (your advice, not your illness)!