What do you do when you get sick abroad?

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In our years of travel, we’ve rarely found ourselves pulling up Google searching for local hospitals. But getting sick while traveling does happen, and I can think of two seriously frightening experiences we’ve had getting sick abroad.

Getting Sick Abroad

The first time we found ourselves Googling for emergency rooms was during my first pregnancy.

Even though we were only in Canada, the approach to healthcare was vastly different—ahem, cheaper—than in America. Because we knew the reason I was sick, we tried to find an OB/GYN to book an appointment. We quickly learned that since we were American, we had to go to a public clinic. Specialty doctors require a referral and as Americans, that was out of reach.

We found a clinic on Google Maps, showed up and got added to an hours-long waiting list, and saw a doctor. Actually, for the second doctor visit I needed, I was pretty severely ill. I must’ve looked like death because I’ve never been whisked back to a room so quickly!

Our health insurance actually covered these visits even though we were abroad. Plus, because it was Canada, my prescription cost about $80 for a three-month supply. (Later I refilled that prescription in the States…it cost $400 for a two-week supply and I’m still bitter about it.)

There’s something about getting sick in Canada that isn’t too intimidating. We were even in Vancouver—a quick drive back to the States if we needed to be.

But what about when you’re sick in a much less familiar country?

Andorra—the tiny European country no one’s heard of

Tucked between Spain and France is the tiny mountain country of Andorra. It takes about an hour to drive across the entire country and it’s known for skiing. (If you’re thinking of getting sick somewhere, a ski area is a great place to be. There is always going to be a hospital nearby!)

It was in Andorra that things started getting bad for Heath and me…

Heath shares all the gory details in the video above, but I found myself searching for hospitals nearby at 1:00 AM.

Being in Andorra was actually extremely lucky! Because of the size of the country, we decided to visit and camp in the capital city of Andorra la Vella. Our campsite was a five-minute drive from the hospital. Doable even when sick.

Even better for us, everyone we met in Andorra spoke Spanish and French. Our French was limited to your basic travel phrases, but Heath knows Spanish well enough to converse. If we had gotten sick one day earlier, we would’ve been camped in the middle of the Pyrenees mountains at least an hour from a hospital and in a French-speaking country. I’m not sure what we would’ve done!

Now you never really know when you’re going to get sick, but if you’re starting to feel like you might be sick, avoid going into rural or remote areas. 

Finding Hospitals and Doctors Abroad

We always use Google Maps when looking for emergency rooms and hospitals. Even when the hospital names are in different languages, Google can still track them down if you search the word hospital.

For doctors or specialists, we use Air Doctor. I have the free app downloaded on my phone for use anywhere we are. When our son had a nasty fall and we were worried he might have a concussion, we started searching for pediatric doctors near us.

You just need to type your location (or turn on location services) and then type your need.

Our friend Peter actually used Air Doctor to find a dentist in Paris when he lost a crown during dinner.

Non-Urgent Care Options

When Eli fell and we worried he hit his head too hard, we were split on what to do. It was 7:00 PM on a Saturday night. No doctor’s office was open, meaning we would have to go to an emergency room. Furthermore, it was past Eli’s bedtime. Taking him to a hospital meant he wouldn’t get much-needed sleep for a few hours and he was already fussy.

We called our doctor back home and talked to the triage nurse. She walked us through concussion protocol, confirmed Eli was fine, and we all slept soundly that night.

Calling your home doctor is always a good option and one we’ve exercised often with our kids. They have all your patient information and are usually quick to answer questions. For non urgent needs or anything that wouldn’t require prescriptions, we like to go this route first.

Emergency Help

In Europe, the emergency number is 112. Knowing the emergency number of the country or region you’re visiting is key. (Having the language of the country you’re in downloaded on your phone in Google Translate will also be essential for emergencies!)

If you do need to go to the hospital, bring your documents and travel insurance with you. I take photos or screenshots of all this information so it is stored on my phone. Then I make a Shared Photostream and share them with my husband. This way all our documents are accessible across all our devices just in case.

Emergency help hopefully isn’t necessary, but is something you should think about when you purchase a holiday SIM for your time abroad. Calling isn’t always included as an option, but might be vital.

Preparing to Travel Abroad

Before we travel to any country, I make sure to learn words like help and memorize the emergency phone number. (In Japan where we head next, it’s 119. 911 backwards!)

But one of the most important things to do is pack your own first aid kit and basic medicine and vitamins. As common as some of those items are in America, finding something simple like vitamin C can be very difficult abroad.

For a complete list of everything we pack when we travel abroad, download our family packing list: