You're Sick but There's a Plane to Catch: What Travelers Should Know

One of my colleagues recently took a trip to Disney World while he was sick.

He shall remain nameless mainly to protect his wife (“I told you to go see a doctor!”).

Should You Tough it Out?

His impulse was understandable: this was the “trip of a lifetime” for his 5 year old. Plus, Mom and Dad dropped a bundle on it. What could Dad have done?

He could have gone to the doctor as noted, but he didn’t. After all, it was just an annoying cough, and my colleague figured cough drops and over-the-counter liquids would do the trick. But it got worse. His cough developed into acute bronchitis and sinusitis.

Sick and Away from Home

He was lucky in one respect: the concierge at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort was able to steer him to a nearby medical clinic (they apparently field such queries routinely, for insect bites, sunburns and more) and the clinic must get a lot of sick tourists, since they provided a free van ride from the hotel. And luckily, our patient was insured.

Being Sick Is Rarely Cheap

Insurance doesn’t cover everything.

Total cost to my colleague: the loss of nearly a day’s vacation, and about $110 in out-of-pocket expenses for the doctor’s visit and an antibiotics prescription – money that could have been spent on a few more Disney tchotchkes.

Time for some advice but remember, we’re not doctors – best to check with your own physician first:

Before You Travel

  • Make the time to seek treatment: That little cold you have could turn into something big – fix it before it gets worse. Or before you give your illness to someone you love.
  • Carry your medical insurance card: You never know when it might come in handy
  • If you’re really sick, don’t get on the plane: If you don’t, it’s possible that choice could be taken away from you.

Remember the H1N1 virus? People were denied boarding last year if they appeared ill with what was then called “swine flu”, and although it’s out of the headlines, this virus is still around and still easy to catch. Gate agents may not differentiate between “regular” flu and H1N1.

If You Must Fly

  • Drink lots of water: Flying is dehydrating, so drink a lot of water; it may not make you “better” but it may prevent you from getting worse.
  • Suppress your symptoms: Do your fellow passengers a favor and suppress that cough (or other symptoms) with over the counter remedies. Consider a mask (although that might frighten as many people as it reassures). Unfortunately, this may not prevent you from spreading germs, so prepare yourself for “most unpopular passenger” status; you’ve earned it.

Rebooking, Cancelations and Refunds

  • Check your airline’s website: If you didn’t purchase the more expensive refundable ticket, you may be out of luck if you want to cancel or reschedule your flight; the “no refunds” policy may prevail, and/or you may have to pay the hefty “change fee” to alter your itinerary.
  • Talk to an airline representative: Don’t give up – United, for example, will waive change or cancellation fees under certain emergency scenarios which can include “serious illness or injury to the customer, a travel companion or an immediate family member”. Speak to an actual human being at your airline, explain your situation, and see if they can help. It may not work, but it’s worth a try.

If You Get Sick (or Sicker) at Destination

  • Check with the locals: If there’s no concierge, ask the hotel clerk for a doctor recommendation
  • Find an “urgent care” clinic: In December of 2007, when another colleague fell ill in Montana while on a promotional tour for FareCompare (anyone out there remember “Grumpy Santa”?), was able to find a medical facility near him just by googling “Billings” and “emergency clinic” and Grumpy was soon feeling somewhat less grumpy (it was a pretty harrowing trip).
  • Take it easy: If the doctor says rest, rest; if the doctor says no alcohol or rich foods, it doesn’t matter that you’re on vacation – follow orders. You don’t want to blow the rest of your trip, do you?

By the way, my Orlando-vacationing colleague took his medicine, recovered in short order, and had a lovely time – a little poorer but somewhat more wiser.

Share Your Story

Ever been sick out of town? So how did you cope? We’d love to hear.


Published: June 10, 2010