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The perils of traveling while sick

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
updated 7:40 AM EST, Tue January 10, 2012
Many people travel while sick, spreading germs wherever they go.
Many people travel while sick, spreading germs wherever they go.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The cost of rescheduling travel means that people fly sick
  • Don't travel if you're contagious
  • Consider travel insurance in case of illness

(CNN) -- Pat Conroy is a road warrior, rarely getting sick as he travels three to five days per week for his job as head of Deloitte's consumer products division. He works out regularly when on the road and tries to eat right.

It doesn't always work. Six months ago, Conroy got the flu before a six-day business trip that saw him fly from Indianapolis to New York City to Orlando to Denver and back to Indianapolis. He didn't cancel his trip because of commitments to clients and meetings that couldn't be rescheduled or missed.

"I try to make sure people don't feel uncomfortable around me when I'm sick," said Conroy, who says he rarely suffers symptoms severe enough to make him stay home. "As long as I'm getting enough sleep, as long as I exercise, it tends to reduce the symptoms. I don't pass up an opportunity to wash my hands. I tell people I'm suffering from a cold."

The increasingly high cost of rescheduling travel has persuaded many people to fly sick. Sometimes, the cost is the possibility of lost business. Other times, it's the friendship that could be lost if you don't attend the once-in-a-lifetime wedding. Sometimes, the trip itself isn't important, but hotels and airlines have made it prohibitively expensive to cancel and rebook your trip. So people fly sick and hope for a healthy trip.

Don't fly

If you have a fever, you're coughing and sneezing, and you think you're contagious, you probably are contagious and shouldn't travel, said Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, an expert travel health consultant for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention′s Travelers Health Branch, and an Emory University professor of medicine and infectious diseases. You will suffer, your illness may last longer, and you'll spread your disease to the people around you. (The CDC offers these travel tips.)

"It's probably not the nicest thing to do to fly while sick," said Kozarsky, noting that people seem more educated these days about how disease spreads. "Now if somebody is sick [at work], everyone looks at them and says go home. They've been frightened enough by influenza outbreaks. People understand that these diseases are contagious."

But I never get sick!

What if you don't usually get sick but you get knocked out by the local flu epidemic? Call the airline to negotiate. Plead your case and promise a doctor's note (if you can). American Airlines usually charges a change fee of $150, but a spokesman says the airline will listen to requests for "accommodation." And if the telephone representative won't budge, consider saying a polite "thank you," calling back and trying for someone else.

If you get sick a lot

Perhaps you're constantly sick or have an underlying medical condition or have a child who might need you to stay home. Consider paying the extra expense of refundable tickets or trip cancellation insurance. Many airlines charge $150 just to change a domestic ticket -- plus the additional cost of a more expensive ticket. Hotels may require you forfeit the cost of one night's stay. Or consider Southwest Airlines, which doesn't charge cancellation or change fees. "When our customers are unable to make a flight, they are able to use the full value of any nonrefundable monies toward their future travel (within one year of the date of original purchase)," Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said. You will pay the fare difference, if one exists.

Wipe up around you

Sick or not, consider going the extra mile and carrying wipes to wipe down the trays, toilet seats and sink knobs. About 15% of people were observed not washing their hands in public bathrooms in a recent study. And you know an airline's tray tables don't get cleaned after every flight -- and some people use them as diaper changing tables. "I wash my hands continually -- every chance I get," said Kathy Hall-Zientek, the travel services manager for Moog, an East Aurora, New York-based aerospace manufacturer. "I do not open doors with my hands unless I don't have a choice. I wipe down the phone and TV changer in the room."

If you get sick on vacation

If you get sick at a hotel while on vacation within the United States, call the front desk for help. Hotel staffers usually have a list of urgent care clinics for minor problems and doctor and hospital referrals for more serious issues. (Urgent care clinics often have shorter wait times than emergency rooms.) If they don't, your insurance company can usually direct you to a participating doctor who accepts your insurance. In larger cities, a university-affiliated medical center or hospital might be your best bet.

Getting sick abroad

Before you leave the country, call your insurance company to confirm the extent of your medical benefits. You may not be covered abroad. A severe illness or accident could bankrupt you, so look into purchasing additional coverage. If you get sick and need transportation back to the United States or another country with adequate medical facilities, your insurance may not cover the costs. And depending on the country, doctors or hospitals may require payment at the time of service.

Use a travel agent

Whether you buy travel insurance or not, your travel agent can become your point person to make calls and reschedule bookings if you get sick in this country or abroad. (Ask the agent what he or she will do if you get sick and if the agency charges a change fee.) "If you don't have insurance and need to cancel before you go, the travel agent is the one that calls to rebook flights and hotels versus doing all of the legwork yourself," said Marrilee Foukal McLean, a travel agent with Alabama World Travel. "If you don't have insurance and need to fly back home, the travel agent is the one that is on the phone with the airline for hours, rebooking your flights and working as an advocate for you."

Invest in travel insurance

There are three types of travel insurance. Travel cancellation insurance will allow you to cancel your trip in advance in the event of certain covered medical conditions. For foreign travel, supplemental health insurance will help pay medical costs overseas, and medical evacuation insurance will help transport you to appropriate medical treatment. Talk to a travel agent or your business travel department about what's covered, and read the fine print to ensure you're properly covered. "If you have travel insurance, all you have to do is get a form signed by your doctor stating that you were or are ill," McLean said. "You would submit it, and you would be reimbursed the nonrefundable deposits or prepayments for your trip."

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