Solo travel can be one of the worst times to get sick. The combination of being alone and away from home can make even a common cold particularly difficult. although you might be inclined to push on through your travels, it’s best to stop and rest for a few days if possible. The following are a few tips I’ve learned on the road for coping with the common cold or stomach upset while traveling alone internationally.
1. Pay attention to early warning signs
While it’s true illness sometimes comes on fast, often there’s a day or two of early signs and warning symptoms. Pay attention to those early symptoms and start giving yourself good care in advance. This might mean altering your travel plans to get more sleep, taking preventative medication, or acquiring medications to treat symptoms while you still feel well enough to navigate an international pharmacy.
2. Let someone know
If you can, create a contact point locally. Let your hostel staff or Air BnB host know you are not feeling well. Hostel or hotel staff may be able to provide extra sanitation in common areas in response, and help you manage your symptoms with less risk to others. Most importantly, informing your host ensures someone is aware you are unwell and will check on you if you don’t bounce back quickly.
3. Be Prepared
While this might not be helpful for you once you’re already sick on your solo travel trip,part of preparing for independent travel is being prepared for contingencies- like common illnesses. Even in my one-bag travel, I make space for a week’s worth of cold-calm, my homeopathic go-to.
Depending on where you travel, you may also want to keep an antibiotic in your travel kit. Many doctors will prescribe a wide-spectrum antibiotic before international travel (typically provided to treat the bacterial infections that usually cause traveler’s diarrhea- however these antibiotics can also treat other infections and can be helpful to have on hand) Never use antibiotics off label, however, most medical clinics now have an online messaging system which means you can message your doctor from anywhere in the world with questions about medication use.
In Praise of the Bandana
The lowly bandana- viewed purely as a fashion item by most of us- is a useful travel supply- especially in the event of illness. I carry a bandana in my backpack for various uses (as a washcloth, headband, food-wrap, handkerchief, etc) but I’ve never been more grateful to have a bandana handy than when I caught a bad cold in rural Patagonia.
In Airbnb’s and hostels, kleenexes are often non-existent, and in some regions, toilet paper can be a guarded commodity. So instead of sneezing into 1-ply shards of toilet paper, a bandana functions as an ultra-soft alternative that is easy to wash, disinfect, and dry. Clean bandanas can also work as a face mask to minimize spreading germs or a cold compress. Bandanas run about $1 each on Amazon.
4. Quarantine yourself
Even though you are solo traveling, you may have many opportunities to infect other individuals- especially in communal living situations like hostels. My best advice is that when you feel a cold coming on, leave a hostel. Though it may not be money you intended to spend, it’s money well spent to protect others, have a quiet place to recover, a comfortable bed, and a private bathroom.
5. Stock up on food, if possible
Solo travel usually means eating out a lot, but when you’re sick, suffering through a meal while exposing others to your illness is a bleak prospect. Instead, make a grocery trip before you feel too sick. If you have a kitchen, you can easily make a simple soup that will feed you through the duration of your cold. If you don’t have access to a kitchen, consider using the local food delivery services to have meals brought to you.
6. Take advantage of natural remedies
Plenty of folk-remedies are validated by research. Stock up on herbal teas, honey, and lemons to have on hand as you weather out your cold.
7. Take Symptoms Seriously
You’ll be tempted to ignore symptoms or jump back into travel quickly, to take advantage of your precious time adventuring, but take time to be mindful of your body and people you might get sick. If your symptoms worsen, ask your host or another traveler who is familiar with the country to help you find and use medical services. Most of all rest, recuperate, and return to your adventures when your body is ready.
Final Thoughts: Reflecting on 2020
All of us learned a lot about how to not pass a contagion during 2020. As I update this list in 2021, I’m reflecting on the experience of missing solo travel this year. Instead of traveling, I found myself – like many of you – isolated at home. Although I certainly will return to solo travel, perhaps it will never quite be the same. The slight cold I got in Patagonia in my 2018 visit was merely an annoyance, but now, if I experienced the same symptoms on a solo trip I would be panicked and concerned about how to quarantine myself in a foreign country. Thankfully, 2020 also gave us more resources and more information to protect ourselves and prevent spreading illness to other people. Certainly, for the foreseeable future, all of us will be traveling with face masks, which can hopefully help prevent the number of airborne illnesses spread in hotels in hostels between travelers.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com