By Don Vaughan

Americans love to travel. Whether it's a weekend trip to visit family or a monthlong world tour, we're on the move more than ever before. But not everyone considers safety when planning a trip. 

“The biggest mistake travelers make is ignorance,” says Kathy Buckmaster, RN, a travel nurse specialist with Passport Health in Raleigh, N.C. “You need to take the time to become educated regarding your destination because what you don't know can hurt you.” 

When traveling abroad, your first consideration should be the need for vaccinations, because many nations experience outbreaks not commonly seen in the U.S. As part of its online safe travel program, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a comprehensive list of international destinations that includes required vaccinations and other information. 

Your travel professional also should be able to tell you what vaccinations are required for your destination, adds Darcy Grimes, manager of Travel Marketing and Training with AAA in Charlotte, N.C. Another great resource is the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs

When planning your trip, it is helpful to know your vaccination history and whether you are in need of boosters, adds Buckmaster. Your primary health care provider might have this information, and servicemembers should consult their military vaccine record, if available. 

An additional especially useful resource is the Bureau of Consular Affairs' Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip free of charge with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. That way, the embassy can assist you more efficiently should you lose your passport, fall ill, or encounter other problems during your trip. 

Additional considerations when planning your trip include: 

  • Make sure your passport is up-to-date. If you need to renew it, give yourself at least two months, just to be safe. Keep in mind that many nations require your passport be active at least six months after your travel dates. When sightseeing, carry with you at all times a copy of your passport and driver's license.
  • Notify your bank and credit card companies about your travel plans to prevent unnecessary holds on your accounts and help keep your accounts safe.
  • Consult your health care provider regarding any health issues that might impact your trip and what you can do to alleviate potential problems. Common difficulties include mobility issues, chronic illnesses, and the need for oxygen - all of which might require special arrangements in advance.
  • Make sure you have a sufficient supply of prescription medications. Keep them in their original containers, and place them in your carry-on bag - not your checked luggage. It's also a good idea to bring a photocopy of your prescriptions with you, along with a list of the brand and generic names of your medications.
  • Familiarize yourself with the climate of all of your destinations and how it might affect you. For example, sensitivity to hot or cold conditions could have a serious impact on your travel enjoyment.

Supplemental travel insurance is strongly recommended when traveling abroad, says Sharon Brangman, M.D., past president of the American Geriatric Society and professor of medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. “Older travelers should be aware that Medicare does not cover you outside the U.S.” Brangman explains. “If you get sick and don't have supplementary insurance, a lot of your care costs will be out of pocket, and that can be very expensive.”

Travel itself also can impact your health and safety, experts note. For example, traveling in cramped quarters for an extended period of time might place you at risk of deep vein thrombosis, which is a blood clot in the legs that can travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body. To reduce your risk, Brangman suggests getting up and stretching your legs every hour or two, if you can do so safely. Pressure stockings, which aid circulation, are another effective option.

Usually less serious but still troublesome is illness contracted from your fellow travelers, such as a cold or flu. “You should assume that everything you touch on a plane is contaminated with something,” warns Buckmaster. “To avoid illness, wash your hands often, use antiseptic gel, and never touch a bathroom door handle with your bare hands.”

Lastly, take steps to ensure your safety over the course of your trip. For example: 

  • Pack as lightly as you can so your suitcases are easy to transport.
  • Leave valuables such as expensive jewelry at home to avoid theft.
  • Bring a miniature flashlight so you can safely move about your hotel room at night. This is especially important for older travelers, who are at greater risk of falls, notes Brangman.
  • Familiarize yourself with your hotel's evacuation routes, in case of emergency.
  • Sightsee with a group for safety, and walk away from strangers who approach you. If you feel unsafe for any reason, seek shelter in a nearby store or government building and contact the local police.