12/18/2012 07:21 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

How to Stay Safe and Healthy While Traveling Abroad

By Myles Druckman, M.D.; senior vice president for medical services, International SOS

It's the holiday season. You're on a business trip, but it's still supposed to be fun. You're traveling to India -- somewhere you've always wanted to see. Unfortunately, you've picked up a stomach bug and don't feel well. You're having trouble locating someone at your hotel who speaks English. You're worried that the issue might get worse if you don't see a physician or get medication. You wonder how this might have been prevented.

It's not a great situation. But not an uncommon one, either.

With millions of international travelers taking to roads, rails, and skies this holiday season, many will face problems similar to this one. Others will be more mundane -- like lost or misplaced luggage, travel delays or a lost passport. But the fact is, travel during the holiday season is crowded and hectic, and it can be dangerous if you're not careful. For that reason, sticking to some general rules of thumb can ensure you have a much smoother, happier experience.

So keep these tips in mind:

Always be prepared
It's hard to overstate the importance of advance planning before leaving home. People typically spend more time researching restaurants or events than investigating medical and security threats. Know your schedule, have access to good maps, learn a few phrases in the local language and research any issues in advance. Also, be sure to follow the news for the area in which you are traveling. It's a good way to stay on top of local issues that may come up.

Communication is vital
Can you make international calls from your mobile phone? Will your charger work where you're going? What about contacting your global travel assistance provider? These are critical points to address before leaving home. Check to be sure you can make international calls, get a charger that will work in your destination and pre-program essential contact information so you're not scrambling to find the right number or email address during a tough situation.

Finally, make sure your friends and family know where you're going and how to reach you once you arrive there. It's also a good idea to leave copies of travel documents -- like your passport and itinerary -- with friends or family. Lastly, it's a good idea to securely store copies of important papers electronically and e-mail them to yourself for easy retrieval.

Your health comes first
An unexpected stay in a hospital can ruin a long-planned trip. Likewise, navigating an unfamiliar health-care system can be unsettling. Before you leave home, make sure you know how your personal health could be affected by your destination. For example, travelers to high-risk countries are six times more likely to be hospitalized than in less risky destinations, according to research in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Therefore, it's good to ask questions like, "Is the water safe to drink?" If it's not, try bottled water. Be sure to bring more prescription drugs than you'd normally need and always place them in your carry-on and in their original container. Eat as healthy as you can, and remember that flying can dehydrate you -- so always drink plenty of water. Finally, consider that infections spread easily in much of the world and new strains constantly surface (as evidenced by this year's discovery of a new SARS-like virus). Wash your hands frequently and practice safe personal hygiene.

Look out for potential trouble spots
This starts before you even leave home. Demonstrations that have flared in many countries recently may look like history in the making, but these should be avoided. Foreigners can be easy targets, so learn about common scams in the locations where you'll visit. Investigate the routes you'll take from the airport or train station to the hotel. And remember that security is ultimately your responsibility.

Road safety is a lifesaver
The threat of terrorism and natural disasters is far exceeded by traffic accidents -- in which an estimated 25,000 international travelers are killed each year. In fact, vehicle crashes are the number-one hazard for travelers --and the main reason International SOS receive calls for evacuation. In many parts of the world, driving is chaotic, streets are crowded and roads under-maintained. Unless you're familiar with local road conditions, don't drive on your own. Look for a trusted driver, always wear your seatbelt and speak up if you feel unsafe. According to the CDC, injuries cause 10 times more tourist deaths each year than diseases.

Do you have the coverage you need?
Does your medical insurance provider in the U.S. cover your medical expenses in a foreign country? Typically, consumers are told to pay the bills, save their receipts and they'll probably get reimbursed. However, in many countries outside the U.S., payment is expected up-front before treatment -- and often only local currency is accepted. Savvy travelers enroll with a medical and security assistance provider that can tell them where to find quality medical care, whether for routine advice or in an emergency, guarantee payment for medical expenses and, if necessary, a medical evacuation.

With a little foresight, and by following these simple guidelines, you'll be better able to stay safe and healthy, no matter your destination this busy holiday season -- whether you're in India or somewhere much closer to home.

Myles Druckman, M.D., is senior vice president of medical services for International SOS, the world's leading international healthcare, medical assistance and security services company. For more information on risks associated with traveling, visit the International SOS website or the International SOS blog, Dialogues on Duty of Care.