Travel Fever (the Bad Kind): What to Do When You Get Sick On Vacation


Sara after her Costa Rica health scare (Photo: Sara Stewart)

Just keep all your bodily fluids inside until this SUV gets to the emergency room, I tell myself while being bumped and jostled down a barely paved road in Costa Rica. Curled into a clammy, shivering ball, I thought about how differently my day had begun.

A few hours earlier, I’d been happily sprawled poolside at my eco-resort, a wild and verdant retreat. As I sat up to apply more SPF, something had twisted in my stomach. Hmmm…


Sara’s vacation started with this view. It ended with a view from a hospital bed (Photo: Sara Stewart)

Reaching my ocean-view suite, I collapsed on the balcony’s couch, freezing despite the 95-degree heat. An employee came to the door bearing beach towels; his face fell at the sight of me. “I … might have the flu?” I managed. He sent for the hotel’s doctor. “103 temperature,” she told me. “Your eyes are sunken. This looks like dengue fever.”

Related: What If… You Get Injured While Traveling

Yikes. Mosquito-borne illness. That didn’t sound good. Nor did her decision to send me to the emergency room. At a Costa Rica hospital. Would I end up in a puddle of vomit on a cot in a filthy hallway? Didn’t people die of dengue fever? I was all alone, too weak to argue.

When we finally reached the regional hospital, it turned out to be, to my great surprise, pristine and highly efficient. Nurses gently escorted me to bed and found an English-speaking doctor. The next day, full of IV fluid and medications and with a vague diagnosis of gastroenteritis —whatever, at least it wasn’t dengue fever! — I no longer felt like the living dead.


The surprisingly chipper ER in Costa Rica (Photo: Sara Stewart)

I also observed some unfamiliar sights and sounds. Staffers, while busy, seemed … could it be … happy? There was a lot of easy laughter. People smiled and chatted. It was a far cry from our own stressed-out emergency rooms in the U.S. My “foreign hospital” notions needed updating.

Being wheeled through the airport the next morning, I faced a challenging journey home, but less so thanks to the impeccable care I received. Sometimes the most nightmarish travel scenarios can be cultural eye-openers.

Besides a new plan to have all my future health emergencies in Costa Rica, here’s what I learned from my international medical scare:

Don’t suck it up

Sure, you’re the world’s most fearless and independent traveler. That’s irrelevant when you’re almost passing out with a high fever. I shudder to think how much worse my day could have gotten had that resort staffer not come by.


If you feel something, say something — even when you’re on vacation (Photo: Thinkstock)

Have pals on call

Make sure somebody back home knows your itinerary and will be reachable. Two of my best friends immediately jumped into action upon hearing I was hospitalized; they rebooked my flights and got word to people who needed to know.

Related: The Worst Decisions Travelers Make on Vacation

Get a phrasebook

Don’t know “explosive diarrhea” in the language of your destination? There are easy ways to have emergency terms at hand; mine was an app, Lonely Planet’s Fast Talk.


Phrase apps like Lonely Planet’s Fast Talk can help you seek help (Photo: Lonely Planet)

Be a squeaky wheel

My airline, which rhymes with Schamerican, charged an exorbitant fee for a return flight switch. I wrote them asking if they’d have preferred me to board the original flight in my internally liquefied condition and how it might have gone over with the other passengers. I got a refund. You can too. Speaking of refunds …

Keep on top of your insurance

Be prepared for your health insurance provider to come up with oh so many hoops for you to jump through in order to be reimbursed. I’m still duking it out with my company (Hi, Aetna!), though the hospital confirmed at the time that the treatment was covered. My costs were much less than they’d have been here, but they were still significant, and I WILL HAVE PAYBACK (Literally).

WATCH: Tips for Buying Medical Insurance For Travel

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