A Little Confession… Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely

Alone is a beautiful thing; it’s when I process my thoughts, absorb new travel experiences, find unexpected friendships, and detox from being “on” with other people. Lonely is not so beautiful a thing, though if I’m honest, the lonely, soul-searching lessons I learned over the past four and a half years were as instructive as any. For all that I love time alone, and I do, I have felt  sharp moments of pain staring at myself in a mirror in a random foreign country, questioning my decision to travel solo so long and so often. In tackling this subject, a subject readers email me about on a weekly basis, I aim for honest and not an upbeat “you should totally go travel solo!” I hope I always hit honesty in my writing, but sometimes I shy from the weighty subjects because there is a delicate balance between validating that I too share a fear and noting how and why I overcame the need to let that fear lull me back into conformity.

traveling alone at loch ness scottland
Solo in solitude as the only person taking in the bright sunshine on the shore of Loch Ness in Scotland.

Many parts of solo travel have made me a stronger person, but I respect that there are nuances to each of us — what makes solo travel so right for one person can become a negative for someone else. And so in framing this discussion, as we look at the nuances of being alone and tips at the end for fighting lonely, let’s to look to the English language first.

We have two words in English to describe the feeling of being alone: loneliness and solitude.

Each word centers on the principle concept of having no company, yet they exists on opposing sides of a single spectrum of the human experience. One day the very circumstances that trigger solitude turn into an inward bout of its darker counterpoint, loneliness.

Counselors and therapists, or even advice from a trusted best friend, gift us with a chance to reframe a situation. They help us take an overwhelming moment in life and reframe how we perceive it. Though it’s harder to do alone, it’s a muscle I still work at; every day of my life I try to train myself to find a new perspective on an old pattern, feeling, or negative situation. Most negative feelings and behaviors in the human experience have a counter-positive like this, a word we use to express the other side to that very same situation.

When does assertive cross into argumentative?

Or vivacious into loud?

When does the welcome respite of solitude shift into loneliness?

In recognizing that one day I revel in solitude while the next wallow in loneliness, I give my brain a perspective it can latch onto for this yo-yo of emotions cropping up every so often. And in looking at the many times I have rejoiced in my ability as a solo traveler to read a book for hours at a park, or to pace myself through a museum, I recognize that loneliness is an impermanent state and one I just have to ride out until it slides back down the scale into solitude.

On Sharing Travel with Others

into the wild
The iconic image of McCandless, at his Alaskan campsite.

In a divergent train of thought, let’s move back into my personal experiences with loneliness on the road.  The book (and film) Into the Wild is a wonderful, heartbreaking, and lovely read. The book bears into this discussion because I often think about a sentiment Christopher McCandless wrote before he died. McCandless marked this passage in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago:

“And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness … and this was most vexing of all.” 

In the margins of this book, he scrawled, “Happiness only real when shared.”

There’s no way of knowing how close he was to death at that point, but he was isolated and alone in the Alaskan wilderness for months when he read this book. I can only speculate from my own experiences about what he was feeling to prompt writing such a statement, but it feels like loneliness from where I sit.

Sometimes when I hit the road I think about that conclusion McCandless came to before his death and I assess if I feel any of that creeping into me. Will I regret not seeing my family for the next six months? Invariably the answer is no, and that is partly because I am rarely actually alone on the road. I meet travelers, I pass time with them, and I meet locals in each new place and pass time with them too. In leaving solo, I am not truly alone, and I think that’s the key under it all. With communication at hand and hostels filled with other backpackers I have experiences to pull me from any bouts of homesickness.

I’ve been nostalgic for home, but less often than I feared before leaving. And less often than I think most readers who email also fear. The fear of having no one to talk to never manifested for me on the road, or at least not for very long. I’ve had clashes with culture shock that left me overwhelmed for a couple of hours, perhaps a day or two of generally feeling down, but that’s contrasted with more than four years of most days being new, fresh, exciting, or at least interesting (because I won’t claim laundry days are either fresh or exciting, but hunting down the laundry, negotiating for a rate, etc — it’s interesting!).

On Personality Types

Any conceptions you hold about an ideal personality type for travel is wrong. There is no ideal, there is merely how you take your approach to the world and mesh it with travel. Extroverts may not worry so much about the lonely aspect of travel because they’re confident in their ability to make friends. But introverts who have emailed me see some travel bloggers sharing photos of raucous groups celebrating on beach bars in Thai islands and wonder if they’re destined to sit alone, holed up in a hostel crying in their tea. Neither type is better suited for travel, nor is either type excluded from loneliness because loneliness is not about just being alone, it’s about the emotional place you’re in at that moment.

Tophu nway, Shan soup.
Some people fear eating solo; when your food looks this good you get over that fear pretty fast. And with the market culture in Asia, mealtimes buzz and hum with interesting activity.

I am, at my core, a bit of a loner. I am super sociable too, that’s for sure. And I smile a lot, which gets mistaken for being an extrovert (I end nearly every tweet with a smiley face, I know it’s obnoxious but I can’t help it).  But in reality, large groups overwhelm me and I can ramp up into manic.

If you want to talk Myers & Briggs types, I’m an INTJ, and the analysis is pretty solid. I will note too (being prone to meticulous logic) that it doesn’t say anywhere in there that I make the “perfect” solo traveler. It’s just me, and I bring all that with me as I navigate new countries and find new friendships. For there are many new friendships even for introverts.

Rather than personality types, I really think it comes down to curiosity. Leave to travel with curiosity and you’ll find the new people and experiences that light you up inside and battle away any notions of loneliness.

On Sickness and Loneliness

I move back to the quote from Into the Wild. McCandless looked at the end of his life fast approaching and he was sick, isolated, and sad; I felt so deeply for him as I read that part of the book. Those three feelings form the darkest combination of loneliness I know. And if that trio met often in my life I would seriously consider traveling less.

I have classified myself as “seriously sick” only a few times since traveling (and once in high school). The worst occurred in 2009 while I backpacked in a remote area of Laos. In that moment, I faced a loneliness I had never known because I honestly questioned if I would live through the night. It’s still one of my darkest moments in all of my travels.

How close I was to dying that night is something I’ll never know for certain, but I was weak, exhausted down to my soul, and sick enough to scribble some last thoughts for my family. Thinking back on that night spent alone on the cold-tile of the bathroom floor, after six days of self-medicating my worsening sickness in a remote area of Laos, makes me tear up. I was at a low point in my life, and if that doesn’t make someone contemplate the choices that put them in the middle of Laos without access to a phone capable of calling for a medevac, then I don’t know what else would (and I would have accepted medevac without hesitation).

Laos Countryside
A beautiful but remote area of Laos far from the Thai border and thus far from medical care.

There is no happy conclusion to this section on loneliness, it’s the only one I can’t explain away and tell you gets better. I can only say the moments are rare, and the circumstances of being in such a remote area while getting such a serious illness are not common. I recognize that it’s not common even though it happened to me.

Last month I looked at the fear of rape as the most salient point in the solo female travel argument, and I noted that I had no antidote for it — I strive to lessen the chance of that happening, but other than that I continue on with my life. I feel that way with sickness and dark loneliness. I don’t take my life lightly, and the Laos experience gave me a deep appreciation for the technology allowing me to touch base with friends and family. Which I do, often. And then I release the rest to chance.

On Missing Family and Friends

Beautiful Tuscan Landscape
My only friend to join me on my RTW, Jenn and I backpacked through Italy and Croatia for a month!

A reader once emailed me intimating that perhaps I don’t have people back home who I miss, going so far as to ask if I love my family (I chose not take offence, it’s a fair question). I miss people and moments every single day I am on the road. I missed several “big moments”  in the lives of my friends and family as a trade-off to this journey; my four closest friends each had a baby in 2011. I missed each birth. I Skyped them from the road, my voice cracking from my spotty wi-fi cutting in and out; I shouted my congrats and sent all my love propelling across the oceans toward them.

And I continued traveling. Despite “missing” these people and moments, I am certain this is still the right time and right choice for my life.

8 Tips for Travelers Fighting Lonely

If your time on the road is tending toward the darker end of the spectrum, to fight the lonely I offer up these ideas:

  • Call home. Call your parents or best friends using either Skype or Google Voice; if they’re savvy you can even video-chat or FaceTime with them. Those friendly voices are often the best cure when I’m feeling blue, and I’ll even indulge and spend several hours just catching up with people so I erase the feeling that I’m missing out on the lives of people I love and care about.
  • Volunteer. Selfless-service is a great way to recalibrate your sense of gratitude and happiness. As an added bonus, it often allows you to interact with other great people who will also help pull you from your funk. (::cough, cough:: I wrote a book on international volunteering should you be so inclined).
  • Find other travelers. Though I have always found showing up in a new place provided enough new people for me, my level of interaction would be downright anti-social for others. If you love the experience of meeting new people, organizing trekking partners, and finding travel buddies, there are numerous forums to get you there. I have used Couchsurfing in the past with success, I got great advice from the indie travelers in BootsnAll’s forums before my RTW trip, and the Thorntree from Lonely Planet is a good starting place if only for the sheer size of their user base. And for a ton of other options, this site shares the a list of travel forums.
  • Stick with travelers you like. In the early days, it was hard for me to honor my inner lemming and take others up on their offers to tag along. Sure a day trip is fair game, but to up and join a formed group of other travelers … surely they’re jesting and don’t want me to say yes?” Yes, they do or they wouldn’t offer. I have met amazing people by pairing up and agreeing to take off my solo-travel mantle for days and weeks a time; trips that beat away any fingers loneliness that were creeping in and formed lifelong friendships.
  • Indulge in the mindless. Partake in your couch-worthy activity of choice and refuse to feel guilty. That may mean spending a few hours catching up on Nashville (I’m guilty of streaming this show), or with a good book, or surfing the internet. As long as you enjoy it, it’s fair-game.
  • Splurge. Give yourself a break in whatever way you like to splurge. Book a nicer guesthouse for a few nights (this can combine nicely with TV time if you choose well), get a massage, treat yourself to a tasty food that makes you feel good. Sometimes lonely creeps up when other things about travel combine and compound over time.
  • Remember, this too shall pass. Loneliness is impermanent, and riding out an evening or two of feeling low happens to me on the road, but also at home. Part of being human is recognizing that  to have our highs, we must accept there will be days comparatively lower. But if it’s more than loneliness and has moved into lingering depression, seek help.
  • Check in with yourself. Listen to your intuition and know that maybe you should go home. While some solo travelers are comfortable with a year away, others with three months. Honor who you are and what you need. In that moment in Laos, I thought with ever fiber of my being that I would never see my family again. When I came out on the other side of my illness, I looked closely at my travels and realized I needed to stay aware of at what point I may reach a similar moment and stare at regret instead of intense sadness. The dynamics of my current travel style — half a year on the road, then a few months at home — were born from that moment in Laos. During that first year of travel, I realized that after being away from home for more than six months I entered a time when I would regret not seeing family and friends if something serious happened to either them or to me.
sunset mexico
A young Mexican boy fishes on a quiet beach in the last light of day.

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

A Little Planning… Vaccinating for World Travel

vaccinations for world travel

After hatching a slightly crazy plan to travel with my 11-year-old niece for seven months across Southeast Asia, there was a lot I’ve had to get in order as her primary guardian in this endeavor. Top on the list was tackling our homeschooling travel plan. Then I had flights, accommodation, soothing the fears of a tween … oh yeah, and handling her travel vaccines!

In just three short weeks, instead of lunch at our kitchen table back home in Florida, my niece would sit down to a plate of rice and flavorful veggies while no doubt discussing the many differences she sees between Thailand and Florida. But before that happened, we had a few last vaccines for world travel to track down and administer. I was responsible for many of her childhood vaccines, and I had already done my own travel vaccinations before my round the world trip, so I knew what we were facing: Some travel vaccines are a breeze to secure, while others are pricey so some travel clinics wait days or weeks for several travelers to need it—then they open a vial and administer the vaccine all at one. Plus! Since I had received many of my vaccines four years earlier, I was surprised to learn several of my vaccinations had already run out and I would need boosters. That meant we started this process early, and you should, too.

Here’s everything I know about vaccinations for world travel after going through it a fair few times with myself, as well as in preparation for various international trips with my two nieces and two nephews.

What Vaccinations Do You Need for World Travel?

Child Travel Vaccinations

Although this question is best answered by your nearest travel clinic, you should also read on to have an idea of how many you might need. Also, the Center for Disease Control is the best source on the internet for the vaccination-inclined researching recommended shots. As you dive in, you’ll see that some shots require staggered administration—start the vaccination process at least six to eight weeks before you leave.

These are the shots I have right now—some are standard childhood ones, the vaccines usually reserved for world travelers are marked with an asterisk*:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Meningitis
  • MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)
  • Polio
  • Tetanus/Diphtheria (Td)* (get a booster before you leave)
  • Typhoid*
  • Yellow Fever* (a proof-required vaccine for several countries)

I do not have these vaccines, but some other travelers do, depending on the regions they’re visiting:

  • Japanese Encephalitis
  • Rabies
  • Cholera
  • Chicken pox booster if you’ve never had it/only had the vaccine

Quick Tip: Find Out If Your Travel Vaccines Have Expired or Lost Efficacy
If you are a frequent world traveler, keep in mind that many travel vaccines do not last for a lifetime. Instead, they require boosters every five to ten years. I had to track down a travel clinic in South Africa before beginning my six months in Africa because it was only an off-hand conversation with another traveler that reminded me my typhoid vaccines began to lose efficacy within five years (for the typhoid shot versus oral pill, decline in immunization starts at 1.5 years and within three years it’s only 50% as effective!). Use the CDC’s guidelines to determine if you require a booster for your travel vaccines to provide full protection (then ask at a travel clinic to be doubly sure!).

World Travel Vaccinations for Kids

Homeschool travel aquarium
Ana on a homeschool field trip to the Florida Aquarium before we left to travel.

My niece dreaded her travel vaccinations and begged me to put them off as long as possible. But, it had to happen—I wasn’t comfortable leaving the United States without all of her vaccines and immunizations up-to-date. Now that we’re a part of the homeschooling community, vaccines are a controversial issue (and man, there is heated debate about vaccinating kids for travel). Suffice to say that, although I understand both sides, she’s 11 years old and we chose to vaccinate—I believe her body and mind can handle vaccines far better than the alternative … which would be coming down with typhoid fever, meningitis, hepatitis, etc.

We used information on Center for Disease Control’s website to determine the shots necessary for Asia (they have every possible country listed!) and perused the CDC’s child vaccination pages specifically. Armed with a list of possibilities and her shot records, we went to the local health department because her pediatrician did not carry some of the more exotic vaccines (namely, typhoid). She now has these four vaccines (all of which I also have):

  1. Hepatitis A
  2. Typhoid (the shot, not oral)
  3. Tetanus booster
  4. Meningitis
  5. Chickenpox booster

We used the traditional U.S. schedule throughout her childhood for her vaccinations, so the tetanus and chicken pox were boosters on top of her previous vaccines. Hep A, meningitis, and typhoid were specifically for our Asia travels. The only common travel shot she doesn’t have at this point is Yellow Fever since we are not traveling to Africa or South America.

For comparison, right before I left on my solo round the world travels back in 2008 I received: Hepatitis A, oral typhoid, yellow fever, and a tetanus booster. My public university required meningitis, so I had received that just a few years before I left.

The only two “Asia” vaccines neither of us have are rabies and Japanese encephalitis—they are not recommended for our trip due to our planned country list (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar).

Quick Tip: A Note on Vaccinating for Chicken Pox

We are in a transition period in the world where you are either old enough to have contracted chickenpox as a child (my four brothers and I had an epic chickenpox party), or you instead received the vaccine in childhood. If you received the vaccine and you have never received a booster, talk to your doctor or travel clinic about your situation to determine if you should. My niece’s doctor absolutely recommended that all teens receive a booster, and they administered hers a couple years ahead of schedule because of our planned travels (and because of the danger of contracting it after childhood).

How Much Do Travel Vaccines Cost?

Travel vaccination costs can stack up if you use a travel clinic in the United States—especially if you are vaccinating a whole family of soon-to-be world travelers. Consider that a travel blogging family managed to save about $1,000 by getting their shots at the beginning of their round the world trip at a reputable travel clinic in Thailand: Cut the Cost of Travel Vaccinations.

Many health insurance companies cover the basic travel vaccines, but it may cost several hundred dollars for rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, or some of the more obscure vaccines. Visit your local travel clinic for their recommended vaccination list, then you can price out by seeing which ones your doctor can administer for low-cost or free (the Heps and the boosters of childhood vaccines), and which require the specialization of a travel clinic (Yellow Fever, typhoid, and others).

Additional Travel Vaccination and Health Resources

Government Resources and Vaccination Research

Staying Healthy While Traveling

  • Vaccines protect you from the biggies, but you should have a solid strategy in place to stay healthy on the road from diarrheal illnesses.
  • Things like the Zika virus are not something you can vaccinate against, but is something many travelers should maintain an awareness of (particularly women considering getting pregnant). Be sure to talk to your travel clinic doctors about any health concerns particularly to the country or region you’re visiting.
  • The reason it’s so important you check knowledgeable sources is because there are sometimes small loopholes for something specific to your trip that others may not have written about for their own trip. For example, in order to secure a long-term visa for Spain, I had to have a tuberculosis skin test and show those results. It’s not a vaccine, but it’s in the realm and it was only through asking the right questions I knew to have this as a part of my yearlong visa application.


With our travel vaccinations handled, we are just three weeks away from our big Southeast Asian backpacking adventure! We’ve settled into a homeschool groove and we are ready to take her sixth-grade course-load on the road. Her virtual school teachers are enthusiastically on board with our plan, so it’s happening.

I admit that things like figuring out our travel vaccines was the easy part. The homeschooling part of our world travels daunts me—I know she will naturally absorb so much information once we are traveling and seeing new places, but I want to cover her academics as well.

It’s seems a bit unreal to me that we announced our travel plans more than five weeks ago—time is slippery, elusive, and now down to the wire! Through it all though, I’m fairly grateful that the panic attacks and overwhelming uncertainty that accompanied my first long-term trip three years ago are no longer present. I often email soon-to-be round the world travelers this calming advice about pre-trip jitters:

Whatever you forget, you can buy on the road. If it’s left unfinished, you’ll find the way to either finish it or work around it. Once you get on the airplane instincts kick in, the adventures begin, and whatever you’re stressed about planning-wise will eventually work out because it has to work out.

Now I’m forced to take my own advice! If there’s a travel vaccine we forget, we can receive it in Thailand. If we’re missing a school book, we will make do or have it shipped to us! Because one way or another, we are boarding that flight in three weeks and heading to Thailand!

A Little Celebration… A Little Adrift’s State of the Blog Address!

Two years ago today I posted one of the first posts here on A Little Adrift: A Little Inspiriation…My Ah-Hah Moment. It took every ounce of willpower in my being to link to that post without editing and changing it first (ok, I admit that I edited out a part that sounded incredibly snotty and hoity-toity in retrospect), but the rest is the same.

The site was a newbie back then and marked my first entry into the world of blogging; I had no clue what I was doing! There were no photos on the post and my brain was scattered because it was just 36 days before I left on my RTW backpacking trip…and at that time there were still only a handful of other travel blogs offering up tips (Uncornered Market and The Lost Girls are two I used that are still active now).

It was ugly back then too!

Old ALA header
My very first (obviously) self designed header

But in the past two years this whole travel blogging “thing” has transformed into more than I ever expected. I found a community along the way and a better purpose to the posts. Just my dad and a few Florida friends followed the journey in the early days through Australia and now I am continually wowed that other people care enough to comment, tweet, stumble, email, and read along.

Circular Quay in Sydney Harbor
Day One of my RTW Trip: Sydney's Circular Quay

A humble thanks friends :-)

I truly appreciate your support.

So I pondered hard – what type of post is in order as I round the corner on my terrible twos? And concluded a “State of the Blog” address! Then I mentioned it to Jodi and realized she already did this same concept for her trip’s two year anniversary too (likely my subconscious inspiration); I liked her format and re-did my suckier structure but must give credit to her cleverness – hugs of thanks.

A Little Adrift’s State of the Blog Address

Environment:

I’m in the US right now and will be for the next couple of months at least – quite the change from Bali, where I had planned to live this fall! I’m spending my days in constant transit so my home is the buses, trains, planes and cars that take me on the Geeks Without Bounds hacker and maker space US tour. In between, I’m free-loading back in Florida…I’m just not ready to commit to an apartment in the states.

Economy:

The job front goes well enough for me; internet work is steady but often boring…I’m in a transition phase in my life right now and that includes my work. This post-travel travel transition has me really confused and I’m working with GWOBorg throughout the fall…there are opportunities abounding but I’m floundering in a post-travel transition confusion.

Healthcare:

Random illnesses and injuries in the past eight months have passed and I’m healthier than I have been in ages!

Agriculture and Food:

I dabbled in the world of fish earlier in the month – still fully vegetarian though. The fish phase lasted just one night. I desperately miss Asia for its constant access to affordable and plentiful fruit. Bali is a haven for the vegetarian and I ate so well there – tempeh and tofu are local foods, not just there for the tourists.

nasi campur
Nasi Campur – Traditional Balinese food

Allies:

The travel community is larger than I ever could have imagined two years ago and I am amazed by how much it is a part of my life right now. TBEX in June connected a lot of the dots and I was able to put in-person personalities to the names – a lot more fun than just guessing based on 140-character tweets! A Little Adrift is on Facebook and the community and interactions are growing there in addition to the blog – I love that people who might never comment on the site are using Facebook to chat and make our community just that much more connected.

Domestic Affairs:

Personal: Once I got back from my “official RTW” (that ended last September) my life sort of lost direction a little – that fact was reflected in the blog. I was working on some internet projects through the winter with Andy and the blog chugged along until I made it to Central America.

I thought everything personally, travely and bloggy would just slip back into place once I was back on the road again but that didn’t happen thanks to a series of family issues throughout the spring and summer, health problems and well, life. It seemed like I was paying off a massive karmic debt to the universe for about eight months there and it made me constantly on edge and wondering what crap was going to rain down on me next and from what direction.

Wandering the Parks in Ambleside

Now, a lot of that…angst?!…has passed (thankfully!), but there’s still this pressing question…“ok, now what?” I’ve been pouring my heart out to Jodi (Legal Nomads) this past week in NYC since she’s facing some similar transition questions.

We didn’t figured out any answers but it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of since she’s in the same boat: post-travel but still not ready to stop traveling. It’s funny, sometimes I feel like my name choice for the site is a blessing and a curse – love the whimsy of the name but it’s unsettling to always be so intangibly adrift!

Bali decoration

Blog: I have some goals for the site right now, things it’s lacking at the moment and room for improvements!

The concrete plans:

  • Take better photos. I bought a new camera (Lumix GF1) and have no clue how to use it but I feel like this is an area where there’s a decent room for improvement on the site, so I’ll learn! (And my Orlando friend Abe is coming to the rescue and teaching me some tips for the awesome price of a lunch and a beer!).
  • Don’t post crap. So many other blogs are able to pump out a lot of great weekly content and I get behind on that, get depressed and post thus sporadically…or shove a post up just for the sake of new content. Now I’ve got an editorial calendar (again) and I can make no promises for what you think is crap, but whatever I post I’ll make sure I don’t think is crap. :-)
  • Stick with personal. My inbox has been flooded with advertising inquiries and sponsored guest post offers. And there’s been a raging debate in my head for months about how to handle it. I decided that it makes more sense, with my site’s goals in mind, to stick with personal posts and affiliate content I personally use and recommend. Guest posts from other bloggers, like real people, is still quite welcome!

Foreign Affairs:

I have no earthly idea when I’ll leave again or where – new ideas crop up almost daily now. I’m not done with the traveling but I am done with the constant movement stage of my travels. I see myself settling down within a year somewhere in the world…maybe. There was a thought of heading back to SEA for the holidays. Now perhaps Syria (so random…ask Earl). Pondering India. Also promised Japan in the Spring to Florida friends.

So. Many. Choices.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the blog; anything you’d like to see improved in the coming year?! Please share candidly and honestly! And again, truly thanks so much for all of your support :-)

A Little Oops…My Top Six “Oh, Crap” Travel Moments

Countries are built to make their own citizens more comfortable – there’s a quote somewhere out there about that and it so clearly rings true over and over again whether I’m home or on the road. One of the common refrains from foreign backpackers I meet is a critical eye toward the huge food portion size in the US – it’s a cultural thing and is expected and accepted by the masses of Americans, we’re simply used to it and a big dinner fits into how we structure our work days (but I do think there’s room for change for the record).

Abroad though, there are a host of situations that were just not built for me…whether it’s issues because of my stature, pale skin, delicate stomach, or hygiene habits, there are some countries where the “oops” moments just pile up. In other countries  there’s a heaping mountain of oops’ until I am able to override my instinctive responses and habits and adapt to the new environment.

My Travel  “Oops” Moments

Look Right
Perhaps Sydney was tired of scraping American tourists off the road?

I’m looking at myself mirror, pondering the day while brushing my teeth and realize that the water noisily swishing around in my mouth is from the tap…in a country where tap water is a poor choice.
This whole blog post was born out of this moment. I spent the summer months back home in the US and out of travel mode, so when I landed in Bali I spent the whole two weeks fighting the long-held instinctive habit of washing my mouth out with tap water after brushing my teeth (six times I did it!) – I came back stateside with a stomach bug…the water? Perhaps.

Following instinct I glance left first when stepping off of the curb and now there’s a wildly honking bus tunneling into my field of vision.
Traffic direction is one of those issues that I’ve given up on completely and it keeps me totally confused half of the time because it varies from country to country. From the time I was a child I was taught that you look “left, right, left” frequently shortened to just a glance to the left before stepping off the curb! My solution now is to stand on the curb rubber-necking it half a dozen times in each direction…I look a little silly but no more getting brushed by an oncoming motorcycle! (Side note, way back in the beginning during the Oz leg of my trip my directional challenges meant a sidewalk collision with a cute guy, so it can have benefits!)

Indian Women
The door frame looked just like that window!

A tenth of a second before my head ploughs into the five foot high door frame a fleetingly fast realization pops into my head…I forgot to duck.
There was a four foot wide, five foot high arched doorway at the palace in Udaipur, India that nearly gave me a concussion because I stood up to soon and there were decorative little “v” shapes pointing downward from the frame. I cried. And I’m still surprised that there wasn’t blood involved.

Toilet paper? I know I have it here somewhere…
I get sick on the road and having TP is essential to a Westerner like me who is used to it (I realize that they have buckets, bidets, and other/better methods but I still haven’t figured that all out…)

It’s two days into a new country and I suddenly realize that the 10,000 currency notes and 100,000 notes look incredibly similar…and somehow I’ve already blown through that $100 I withdrew…
The US has some of the plainest looking money in the world – besides the few splashes of violet now on many of our bills our money is green, that’s it. So it’s fun to have purple, green, blue and pink money to differentiate the bills in other countries. The problem? When you have as many as seven or eight zeros following the numbers, and they’re a similar color, well it’s difficult to keep it all straight when you first land in a new country!

Colorful foreign money
Rupiah, Kip and Taiwanese Dollars

I realize that my watch is on the wrong time-zone and my bus left an hour ago, not two hours later.
Time zones – fun times. For the first week in Nepal I was consistently 15 minutes late to all of my language classes (as a part of my volunteer program) because Nepal is 15 minutes different than India! Another fun time – I booked a plane ticket for the wrong day because I was doing the date math in my head…but the date on my watch was still in another time zone :(

Have a great “Oh, Crap” travel moment? Please, please, please share…funny moment recounts hugely encouraged :-)


A Little Advice…Regain Your Sanity When Things Go Wrong on the Road

Basket of fruits from Guatemala
Basket of Street Fruit

These past four months in Central America have been four of the hardest “travel” months of my life. I’ve been on the road for just under 18 months at this point and Central America has thoroughly exhausted me and essentially kicked my traveling ass.

I didn’t make a secret of that fact two weeks ago when I was frustrated beyond belief, sad, overwhelmed and just bone-tired of it all. It seemed like the Universe was conspiring against me, the gods of travel were just telling me to go home.

Matching Cheesy Grins from my niece and nephew
How Could I Not Miss these Matching Cheesy Grins from my niece and nephew?!

And then you all offered up advice. Heaps of advice. And it made the entire situation more consumable – I wasn’t the only one.

So in honor of that feeling that hits all long-term travelers, I’d like to share some of the best tips that helped me get out of my funk, or at least regain some humor about the trying things that happen on the road.

Travel Advice for Weary Travelers

  • Eat Your Fruits and Veggies: “It’s really important to be sure you’re still eating healthy foods that give you energy, because a lack of certain nutrients (such as B vitamins) can effect both our mood (mind) and stamina (body)…” —Trisha from Travel Writer’s Exchange
  • Assess Your Current Country & Consider Moving On: “Although  we loved Guatemala, I have to say that traveling there was emotionally difficult at times. Each time we would tell people our plans, the response would be “peligroso” and we’d have to figure out whether we would be faced with armed robbery or just standard pickpocketing. It also seemed like a national pastime for people (locals and expats) is to tell you the latest busjacking or kidnapping incidence in the country.” —Audrey from Uncornered Market
  • Pick a Place and Stay There: “Every time I feel similarly to how you’re feeling, I’ve realized that the constant movement from place to place was the culprit. And so I would just stop or I would move to some ideal place for 3 or more months in order to regroup” —Wandering Earl
  • Avoid Guilt, It Happens to Everyone:We found India to be difficult and we had quite a hard time with travel fatigue. To top it off we felt guilty having travel fatigue. It eventually went away after we decided to relax on the beach in Sri Lanka for 10 days.” —Deb from The Planet D
  • Chat with Family, Unplug, Meditate, & Exercise: “Problems don’t go away on the road, they are amplified in many ways so  eat well & take it easy. Skype friends & chat, unplug other wise. When you get shaken & feel more vulnerable, you need to fill up your cup, so you can enjoy the travel. Daily meditation and time in nature also helps us a lot & we are lucky to be surrounded by good hugabuddies. ;)” —Jeannie from Soul Travelers 3
  • It’s All Impermanent, It Will Get Better at Some Point: “I’ll chalk it up to my 10 days in Vipassana Meditation, but the Buddhist notion of impermanence applies here as well. It seems so bad at the time, but it’s a fleeting moment, circumstances are going to change.” —Me, this one’s what I kept telling myself.  :-)

A big thank you to all of the comments and support when I was feeling blue – there were a lot of other great tips within the comments of the travel fatigue piece, so check them out as well if you’re looking for a way to come back to level after experiencing travel fatigue!

A Little Issue…Am I Allergic to Belize?

You know how that phrase “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry?”

Yeah, that about sums up most of my time in Belize and my major plans for the country.

I have read absolutely fabulous things about the diving in Belize. The Blue Hole has been on my bucket list for quite some time and the country boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world – sounded great!

Selling Street Food
A colorful street corner and bicycle filled with fruit and veggies to deliver and sell around the town.

But then a series of events forced me to completely abandon these plans and eventually just bail from the country altogether.

First off, to warm up and get right out there I signed up for some local dives on my first day on Ambergris Caye. These dives go about 5-10 minutes off of the shore to the edge of the reef and are relatively cheap.

They’re also under-whelming to a huge degree.

I wasn’t too impressed actually and to further compound it, our dive instructor was NOT NICE – which is such a marked contrast to the vast majority of the friendly Belizeans I have met recently.

Well, with these two dives under my belt I decided to hang a bit before signing up for the Blue Hole dive.

Sunsrise in Corozal, Belize
Sunsrise in Corozal, Belize

Ah well, not the best idea because two days later I had a serious allergic reaction to something (absolutely no clue what) that I then battled for days – apparently I was still in contact/consuming it despite going on a strict diet of only very “safe” foods. I was forced to the emergency clinic for a shot to stop my throat from closing any further and to deal with the hives.

Fast forward three days and the throat problems and hives are still there – not going anywhere. I couldn’t dive with the throat issues and I pondered that I am just allergic to something basic in my current environment…ie. Caue Caulker, Belize.

So I’ve left.

It’s moments like that this that I am both sad and grateful that I travel solo. It would have been nice to have someone else with me when I passed out in the clinic (they couldn’t find my vein yet they tried…and tried…and tried…) and battled staying awake (I was on a LOT of Benadryl) …but now, I’m also able to just move on without forcing someone else to miss out on something. And had I intensely planned out my travels I would not be able just pick up and move on. But I can. I have no desire to stay in Belize right now, but you know, I’ll likely be back for the Blue Hole…just not now.

So, hello Guatemala, here I come!

A Little Review… World Nomads Travel Insurance vs IMG for World Travelers

world nomads review

When you’re planning for world travel, you have a dizzying number of options to review when it comes to picking the right travel insurance. After ten years on the road, I’ve narrowed it down to two companies—World Nomads and IMG—that work for any type of trip. I use both companies and I switch which travel insurance I use depending on my destination, my fellow travelers, and the coverage I need.

So, this piece closely reviews the two travel insurance companies I truly believe work best for almost any type of trip you might have planned.

My overall conclusion is that World Nomads is the best travel insurance for backpackers, long-term travelers, and those on adventurous trips. My research was thorough, and I found negative and positive reviews for every company in existence. It’s clear that the while every single travel insurance company has some negative reviews, there are many success stories for World Nomads and its support staff. Plus, I’ve used this company and paid for policies for more than 10 years and I still love their coverage.

That said, different trips call for different travel needs! IMG travel insurance is a great option for families, low-key trips, and those on shorter/U.S. based trips.

It’s disingenuous for travel insurance reviews to assume one company fits all travelers and all trips—I’ve yet to find one that does it all well enough to work in every instance, so this piece covers not only what both IMG and World Nomads offer, but when each company is the best fit your planned trip. And since there are sneaky loopholes every insurance company has in place, I share firsthand advice on what you will need to successfully make a claim if something happens while you’re traveling.

Below I’ll review why I bought a World Nomads policy for most of my travels, but also why I’ve used IMG Patriot for some trips as well. I’ll explain which type of trip worked for the two different travel insurance companies (hint, it’s when I traveled with my nieces and nephews). I’ll also help you decide if World Nomads is worth it. I think it is. In fact, I think travel insurance provides essential protection. Let’s take a deeper dive.

UPDATE: This post was last updated in May 2019 to reflect experiences from recent travels. The short of it: World Nomads is still my go-to and I paid for plans on my trips to Kyrgyzstan and Russia in 2018, and I used IMG for a short trip back to the States in April 2019, even though I have an expat policy to cover me in my home-base of Barcelona, Spain. ~Shannon

World Nomads Review: Why  This Travel Insurance Works for Backpackers

When I first left on my round the world trip, I was unsure of any companies and had to look for outside verification from others to know what’s best. World Nomads has a lot of credibility in the market. It’s top-rated by several huge brands and it’s an inclusive travel insurance, meaning it covers a broad range of people (up to 70), and activities. For this reason, major tour and travel companies use World Nomads as their default travel insurance. Ten years ago, I was a backpacker(and it’s the top rated for that type of travel), but over the years I realized it worked for anything I needed. Here’s why I picked World Nomads after reviewing what it offered and comparing it to other options:

  1. It’s the travel insurance recommended by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and Rough Guides—three names you can trust in travel. If Lonely Planet says it’s great for backpackers, then it’s a fair bet you should start your research looking at what a World Nomads policy offers.
  2. World Nomads is actually a brand that secures the policy for you—that’s how it can insure people from 150 countries.
  3. It truly had the best coverage for 90% of my 10+ years of travel. During that time, I switched to IMG only when traveling on four separate long-term trips with my nieces and nephews—that’s when I needed a good family plan instead and less adventure coverage. For anything else I threw its way—booking while already traveling, adventure sports, more than six months on the road—it bested the competitors.
  4. The company has a great social giving component, and a socially conscious company that still has majorly competitive prices is a total win in my book.

And really, I cannot stress enough that World Nomads is among the most affordable companies for what you get in return. You have a nice balance of deductibles meets coverage meets activities. Backpackers and long-term travelers need the flexibility and security of knowing they won’t go bankrupt if something happens to them while traveling. It’s why I can unequivocally say that World Nomads is best for most backpackers and long-term travelers.

In addition to buying a policy online, you can extend your insurance policy indefinitely or even buy one when you’re already traveling, and World Nomads slick interface makes it easy to take care of business and get back to traveling.

World Nomads Travel Insurance Review: What's Covered and What's Not Covered By World Nomads
Jumping from a boat in Australia during prime jellyfish season? Seemed like a good idea at the time!

What’s Covered by World Nomads Insurance? (And What’s Not)

The coverage on your policy is the most important part—so this is where it’s vital you really take time to understand exactly what buying travel insurance can get you on a trip. It’s everyday protection for you, for your luggage, and also in the event of BIG issues with a capital B (think catastrophic weather event, injury, etc).

World Nomads policies provide levels of coverage for five key areas:

  1. overseas medical care
  2. medical evacuation (Medevac)
  3. baggage claims
  4. theft on some belongings and electronics (read the policy details!)
  5. trip cancellation coverage

There’s more (like it covers repatriation of remains . . . which is not fun to think about, but necessary), but that’s the core of what any basic travel insurance covers. The extent of coverage then comes into play—you should not sign up for a policy that skimps in any of these areas.

But there are some areas where it really depends on your trip if you need a travel insurance that has detailed out a certain type of coverage, and other things where it just makes all the difference in the world for convenience. Let’s dive in.

Wait, Can I Do That?! World Nomads Adventure Activity Coverage

Before I left on my world travels, I made a list of all of the crazy and wild adventure activities that I wanted to participate in while traveling—then I used the site’s A-Z List of Adventure Activities to find out if they were covered in a World Nomads policy. Each and every activity I hoped to experience was on the list of what’s covered.

While not all of your activities may be covered—there are some things general travel insurance will just not cover—the complete list is comprehensive, online, and broken down by country. This is an important step! I really wanted to know that rock-climbing in Laos was covered just as fully as snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef.

On my yearlong trip, I was very active and adventurous, and it was dead-simple to verify on World Nomads checklist if an activity was covered (note: It’s online and easy to check before you do the activity; that’s imperative. You don’t want to be waiting for an email from your insurance company while the boat leaves on your planned scuba diving adventure).

When you’re researching various travel insurance policies, not all of companies offer adventure sports riders (and even basic outdoor travel activities may fall under that!). Be positive that you’re selecting one that covers everything you have planned. Note that IMG does not inherently cover adventure sports, but has an optional rider you can add to some policies—when I traveled with my young nieces and nephews we didn’t need the rider, however, because of the fairly low-key trips we had planned.

What Is Covered by World Nomads Travel Insurance
The full list varies by country, but here’s the starting point on what Is covered by World Nomads travel insurance. It’s a remarkable amount of activities covered—far more than many companies!

Making Travel Insurance Claims Online

Most insurance companies now allow you to file your claims online. A seamless system is a huge must for long-term travelers especially because you can’t wait until the end of your trip to sort it all out—you’re going to have to file your insurance claim on the road.

For both World Nomads and IMG, you can process all of your claims online, and there are no caps on the length of time you can be insured. This is not the case with all travel insurance policies. Some max out at three months and a few still don’t have an entirely online claims process.

I’ve managed smallish claims, under $500, and it’s gone smoothly. I have more personal claims experience with IMG, because last summer I had to visit an ER twice while I was living in Spain. Now, this was an annual expat policy versus straight up travel insurance, so I was covered for $0-deductible health coverage by my policy. I had to pay out of pocket for the ER visits (about 350 euros each), and it took about three months once I submitted my documents for them to deposit money straight into my account. A non-American friend also used IMG for U.S. coverage and ended up needing very significant medical insurance coverage—in that case, since it wasn’t an emergency, IMG talked with the hospital to organize pre-approval and to authorize payments so the out of pocket was low compared to the $20K+ bills that could have stacked up.

For both companies, if it’s medical and you have time you’re supposed to contact them and let it go through their authorized providers—that speeds up the process. Either way, I found the online claims process pretty easy and both companies have 24 hour helplines for immediate assistance, as well as helplines for figuring out the sometimes bureaucratic process of filing a travel insurance claim.

Both companies have, hands down, made the made my life easier as a digital nomad living on the road for 10 years. World Nomads is the best insurance for long-term travelers. It’s during my solo international travelers that I’ve used World Nomads to the best success, and IMG is what I look to for U.S. travels and family trips.


Why You MUST Read Your Policy!

You can find terrible reviews online for all insurance companies. There are some circumstances where the traveler just didn’t fit within the policy wording and they weren’t covered. That’s so tough. It is very, very important that you read the requirements for making a claim if something goes wrong on your trip.

When reviewing any travel insurance policies, here are key cautions and warnings to heed.:

  • Document all of your valuables. If you want to make a claim, you’ll need to prove you bought it (receipts) and that it was there with you (take a photo of all valuables before you leave, and that it was stolen (a police report). Each step here is so, so important. Many negative reviews I read online are people who didn’t have a copy of the police report, or couldn’t generate ownership proof. Read your policy and understand exactly what they require to make a claim.
  • Document your illness. Call your insurance company as soon as you are ill; they will help you find the best providers in the region—plus it states in your policy that you have to do that, so when buying a policy, you agree to allow them to help you choose a provider and be involved in the process. If you don’t they might not cover it. Also, keep your paperwork! There will be a lot of back and fourths as you make the claim and the more information you have the better.
  • Follow the law. One sticky situation for backpackers is the rampant use of motorbikes in Asia. If you are not licensed to drive the vehicle in your own country, then you are not covered in an accident. This is a huge loophole. And it sucks. But double check things like this before you assume that if you’re in an accident on a windy Thai road that you’ll be covered if something serious happens. (See note below for more information).
  • Read your policy. Seriously. It’s dry and boring. It will take at least an hour. But read it, highlight areas you didn’t know and really understand what they are covering and what they are not. And if you’re unsure, email or call them! They answer questions before, during, and after you’re their client.
  • Understand what’s not covered. From pre-existing conditions to extreme sports, there are a few things you’re just not guaranteed in a general travel policy. But, every travel insurance company is different. The high-end Select plan from TravelEx covers pre-existing conditions, so if that’s a huge factor for you, then the significantly higher cost might be worth it. But if you’re a backpacker planning a one-year trip that will include adventure sports, then you should instead look for policies from World Nomads that are designed to meet that need. Understand the target market of your future insurance company to understand if they are providing the breadth of coverage generally needed by someone of your age, health, and style of travel.

motorbike riding World Nomads Travel Insurance Review
Three to a bike in Thailand? I actually don’t know if we would have been covered if we had gotten in an accident…

WARNING: Travel Insurance Coverage When Riding a Motorbike

In addition to the small comment above about insurance coverage for licensed motorcycle drivers only, an ALA reader left this note in the comments, and it nicely explains why it’s so important to:

1. know exactly what your insurance covers.
2. take steps to ensure you meet the requirements for insurance claims reimbursements (have receipts, police reports, etc.).

From Matt of Great Distances: “For anyone who’s curious about motorbiking, the rule is this: If you’re going to pilot a motorbike in Asia (or really anywhere in the world), you need a motorcycle license in your home country as well as an international driver’s license with motorcycle certification (this requires a prior motorcycle license, at least in the U.S.). Without these things, your travel insurance will NOT cover you whatsoever should you get in a wreck or injure yourself or others while on a motorbike. And people wreck and hurt themselves ALL the time, especially when they haven’t had proper safety training and find themselves wearing clothing that provides no projection from motorbike mishaps.”

World Nomads Insurance

Need other options? Consider IMG Patriot Travel Insurance.

What is the Best Travel Insurance? Why, How to Pick, and Personal Advice

In October 2011, I left the U.S. with my 11-year old niece and we traveled together throughout Asia. Traveling with her left me with a unique challenge for travel insurance. I wanted a lot of protections if something happened to me and she needed to a new guardian flown overseas, so I went to the researching drawing board. I settled on a family plan at IMG Patriot that had great rates, coverage that worked for both of us, and I generally liked the online system. With my niece in tow, I knew I wouldn’t do some of the more adventurous activities, so I didn’t mind switching from World Nomads to IMG. Also, some IMG plans include free coverage for kids—that makes a big money difference on a long-term trip! However, when I returned to my solo travels, I went back to World Nomads. If you’re in the UK or Europe, my friends wrote a good insurance guide here that has other options solely for Brits and Europeans.

Other thoughts for while you’re researching travel insurance companies:

  • Don’t buy “travel protection,” this term is a sneaky way for unlicensed companies to offer travel insurance—it’s likely not valid, so move along.
  • Only buy from your travel agent if he/she is low-pressure and offers you several choices. If it’s a high-pressure situation they are likely receiving hefty commissions to sell you what could be an inferior product.
  • Take your time, research, read the policies, and ask every question you want answered before you buy.
  • For Americans, ask if the insurance is primary or secondary insurance. And verify if the insurance requires that you hold primary. Primary usually refers to medical and homeowners insurance and some travel policies only allow you to purchase secondary insurance if you have a primary policy. For those who don’t carry health insurance, this would present a problem. Secondary means that you must file an insurance claim with your primary policy first. But some travel insurance policies will allow you to purchase them without having a primary policy in place. World Nomads will cover you on the road without requiring you to file first with your health insurance company back home. If you need to maintain U.S. coverage to meet the requirements of the ACA (ObamaCare), then you either must keep your policy back home and buy a travel policy, or you can look at some of the more expensive plans that offer primary care coverage in the U.S., and will meet the requirements of the ACA. I bought an expat plan for 2018 with IMG Global because I secured a European residency visa—I will need this expat travel coverage, but it won’t cover me in the U.S., so I need to either keep my U.S. health insurance, or buy a separate plan when I return home.
  • If you’re backpacking and will be gone for a long time, World Nomads is a good option to thoroughly cover all of the possible adventure activities (expat policies like IMG Global aren’t meant for incredibly adventurous vacations).
  • If you are volunteering abroad, this post outlines the specific aspects you should consider when buying volunteer travel insurance.
  • I also carry separate gear insurance to protect my laptop, smartphone, and gear. I use Clements, and go into that a bit more on the long-term travel resources planning page. The Clements policies last a year and they are very affordable—worth securing if you have a camera, smartphone, and laptop on your trip!

With my nephews traveling in 2015, and then while hiking the Camino in Spain in July 2017 with another niece, I bought IMG Patriot policies to cover our short-ish trips (one was three weeks and the other was six weeks). While I looked into other options once again, when I needed a family plan with some coverage of adventure activities (unfortunately not scuba), I went with IMG again. After dropping my niece stateside in summer 2017, however, I booked a World Nomads travel insurance policy to cover me for epic trekking through the Tian Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan. After more than ten years on the road, I moved to Europe in early 2018, at which point my more tame expat policy is serving me in good stead, but I still use World Nomads when I leave Europe for adventurous trips. :)

Check World Nomads plans and prices to see if it’s a good fit for your travel situation.

 


Disclosure:  While all of the information in this post is correct to my knowledge, I encourage you to do your own research and verify all aspects of your travel insurance. I cannot be held responsible for your use of any of the information provided. 

*Please note that I make a small commission—at no additional cost to you—on purchases you make through a select few product links. This keeps A Little Adrift an ad-free community and never affects my recommendations.

A Little Review… The SteriPen vs LifeStraw for Water Purification While You Travel

Review Steripen AdventurerWhile it’s no secret that I support traveling lightly and packing only what’s necessary, the definition of necessary is subjective. And it’s also a tough call about recommending how travelers should stay healthy on the road. I’ve written about how sick I’ve gotten over the years. I almost died in Laos from contaminated fresh vegetables. Staying healthy while traveling
is a tricky subject and one that a lot of travelers assume that they can handle without much planning.

Carrying a SteriPen (or more recently a water purification device like the LifeStraw) is a good fallback for those on long-term trips. Many backpackers travel overland through remote areas. It’s in the most remote parts of my yearlong round the world trip that I needed my SteriPen to save my hide (that and my travel insurance, because it surely saved my life, too). There are moments when I had no choice but to drink local water—with the SteriPen I could ensure that I wouldn’t get a parasite when that need arose.

Now, I didn’t have a SteriPen or a LifeStraw when I first packed for my round the world trip. But, my cousin brought a SteriPen for us to use throughout India and Nepal, and it came in handy. We used it the vast majority of the time on water from the tap in India, and neither of us got sick from the water—though we had some issues with traveler’s diarrhea, it wasn’t from drinking water.

Of note is that many serious water purification options aim for survival situations and disaster preparedness, and those cost a lot. For long-term travelers, this review aims to assess which are a good fit for trips that might include a range of situations where you need purification as an option, but you’re likely not relying on either device for a years-long water solution.

Review: What is a SteriPen?

Review of how SteriPen Adventurer performs in waterA SteriPen is small pen-like electronic device that emits an ultraviolet light and purifies either half a liter or one full liter of water at a time. The device operates on batteries and works with clear water by killing the DNA of harmful microbes and bacteria.

A light wand sticks out of one end of the device—you submerge that end into the water and then push the button either once or twice to purify a full liter of water or a half-liter. The light turns on and stays on while you agitate the water with the light wand until the dose is complete.

Once the water is safe to drink, about one minute later, the light turns off and flashes green. If it flashes red, you have to repeat the dose because something went wrong. For example, if you accidentally lift the wand out of the water during a treatment a sensor will flag it that the water was not properly treated and flash red. The UV light destroys the DNA of any microbes and bacteria in the water. UV light is safely used in bottling plants all over the world, so this little light just brings it to the consumer level. Although UV light is bad for a person’s skin and such, when used within the water, it’s safe.

Things I liked about my SteriPen:

  • Eco-friendly: We really limited our use of plastic water bottles all throughout India and Nepal.
  • Light and small. All we carried for it to work was a one-liter water bottle (I use a single-wall stainless steel Nalgene) so we could sumberge our small SteriPen Adventurer.
  • Effective: It worked. We stopped using it at one point in India because there were floaty things in the water—but everywhere else, it worked and we didn’t get sick for the whole first month we traveled (and when we did get sick it was due to poor food choices!).
  • Versatile: It went on my Annapurna trek. Porters have to carry the bottled water you drink on Himalayan treks, and it’s pricey. We carried our Nalgene bottles and used the SteriPen the whole way and didn’t have to purchase water once.
  • Easier: I never had to backpack around with several liters of water strapped to my bag. And if we ran out of water at night, no worries about brushing our teeth with tap water, we just purified some more.

Drawbacks:

  • Expensive: Some might consider the price tag steep for something that you might only use a dozen times on your trip. If that’s a concern, or if you’re solo, consider something like the LifeStraw. It works well for a single person and will give you the same level of safety. My cousin and I shared our SteriPen, so the price savings from not buying bottled water made it cost-effective and it was easy to share.
  • Batteries: The SteriPen Adventurer takes Lithium CR123 Batteries. My cousin brought two sets of spare batteries from the United States. The US batteries were the only ones that worked. I’m not sure why, but we bought two other sets of backups in India from different locations and neither set worked. We were fortunate that the batteries we had from the States lasted just long enough to get us through our Annapurna trek; the charge on the Indian batteries was just not strong enough.
  • Floaties: In order to remove particles, you would have to actually use one of the company’s other devices, as this doesn’t remove particulate matter from water.

Review: How Does a LifeStraw Work?

LifeStraw ReviewThis device is a straw that you use to suck water through the filter and into your mouth. You can submerge the straw into any water source—a water bottle or a river—and the straw cleans the water as it passes through the hollow-fiber membrane. The company also sells a LifeStraw Go water bottle and filter combination, but I find that impractical for travelers. Then you are using your filter 100% of the time, even if you head to Europe or some such.

The LifeStraw comes off as more of an emergency backup option for hikers than something that travelers would want to use daily for the four months that I used my SteriPen in India and Nepal. It will work in a hairy situation, but it’s not necessarily the best option if you want regularly filtered purified water.

Benefits of the LifeStraw:

  • Longevity: The microbiological filter provides 4,000 liters of safe drinking water, meaning it will easily last your entire trip, and you don’t have to worry about finding batteries, like with the SteriPen.
  • Light and small. Just like with the SteriPen, all you need to carry is a water bottle (I use a single-wall stainless steel Nalgene). Although the marketing materials show people drinking directly from a river, you probably won’t be using it that way, so plan on carrying a water bottle.
  • Effective: This device eliminates the most serious water-bourne illnesses, including those that travelers most frequently encounter on the road, including bacteria and parasites—these are the most common causes of travelers’ sickness.\
  • Price: At just US $20, the straw is an easy option for those unsure they need water filtration but want a backup. It was developed for use by people in developing countries, which is part of why the price-point is so low.

Drawbacks:

  • Limited uses: This is a straw that purifies as you suck water into your mouth, meaning you can’t share water with another person and you can’t use it for cooking, or to drink tea or something else provided to you by a local. The SteriPen, on the other hand, can purify anything that’s clear and it’s clean inside of the bottle and can be used for anything you might need.
  • Viruses: There are a few things not eliminated by the straw, including chemicals and viruses. Meaning it’s effective on river water and such, but might still leave a few things in your water if you’re using on water from taps in developing countries. It’s very effective, just not 100% effective, which could really matter to some people. Should You Buy a Water Purification Device?

It depends. If you’re traveling extensively and for quite some time through the developing world: YES. These devices lower a traveler’s eco-footprint, saves money in the long term, and will save you from tricky situations with water that just seems suspicious.

  • The SteriPen is not something many travelers will no use every day of a trip, but when you do, you’ll be glad it’s in your bag. But, if you’re backpacking around the world just once and only in these developing regions for a limited time the SteriPen is likely an unnecessary extravagance.
  • No matter the length of your trip, I recommend world travelers at least pack an affordable alternative like the LifeStraw. You need a solid fall-back if you’re stuck without clean water.

After my cousin left my trip, I headed to Europe and did not need a SteriPen. I have one now, however, and I brought it on my travels through Africa. Again, although I didn’t use it all of the time, I was happy to have it when I was stuck in a circumstance where I needed to drink something made with local water.

Both of these are cool little devices that 100 percent lives up to the promise of making unsafe water clean. They effectively sterilize water from taps and rivers—any clear water you can put in your bottle can be effectively sterilizes. Between the SteriPen it’s affordable alternative, the LifeStraw, you should have something in your bag that is small and handy.

Quick Tips: Stay Healthy While You Travel

  • How to Shit Around the World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Traveling: What happens when you travel in developing countries, for long periods of time, without a SteriPen? This book offers a frank and unapologetic discussion of everything from diarrhea to parasites, and other gastrointestinal nastiness. It doesn’t shy away from any topic that may impact your health—it should be a mandatory primer guide for all travelers.
  • How to Stay Healthy on the Road: A full rundown of the illnesses I’ve survived over the past decade on the road, as well as my hard-learned advice for staying healthy while traveling.
  • Oral Rehydration Salts: Besides travel insurance and ensuring I had clean water, ORS are essential in every travel kit and I think any traveler takes great risk if they travel to remote places without these—death from diarrheal illnesses is often due to dehydration, not the parasite itself.
  • SteriPen Adventurer Opti Personal: The SteriPen Adventurer works best for long-term travels, or those spending a lot of time in the outdoors on treks, camping, etc.
  • LifeStraw Personal Water Filter: Portable and effective, this straw can be used from a RTW trip to a camping trip — and everything in between.
  • Best Travel Insurance Options: The short of it is that World Nomads and IMG are my two favorite companies that I’ve used for every one of my trips this past decade.