What You Need to Know Before You Volunteer Your Skills Abroad: Managing Your Health Abroad #TravelSmartGiveResponsibly

Petra Barbu

Petra is a content marketer passionate about social enterprise, impact investing, and microfinance.

Before you travel internationally to volunteer your skills, there are a few things you need to know. You can’t have a fulfilling trip without good health, and being in a foreign country can definitely put pressure on your mental and physical wellbeing. In this next post in our #TravelSmartGiveResponsibly Mini-series, we’ll help you think through what it takes to stay healthy while volunteering overseas.

Finding health care internationally, preparing for your trip, and staying safe while abroad can all be difficult to navigate. Below, a few simple steps to make sure you’re healthy so you can make the most impact possible.

1. Be informed

Arriving in a new country can expose you to foreign pathogens, and though this isn’t something to panic about, it is good to be informed about what to expect so you won’t be blindsided. Before you leave, do some research with the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers. You can find information based on country, or also search by health risk if you have specific medical concerns and are trying to narrow down a volunteering destination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also a great resource to learn more about specific vaccines and medications you might need to bring with you.

Chart a plan of action with your doctor before you leave.
Chart a plan of action with your doctor before you leave.

2. See a doctor before you leave

Before you leave you should also make sure to make an appointment with your healthcare provider. If you have any health concerns, you should make sure to address these before leaving. Your provider can also inform you if you need to be aware of any complications related to your travels, and you can pick up any vaccines or medication you might need before your trip. Every country is different, but you can usually find the consult you need by calling your primary care provider or looking for a local travel clinc.


3. Confirm your international health insurance

To find a local doctor or hospital abroad, you can reach out to your country’s embassy or consulate, or contact your healthcare provider. Make sure to ask your provider if your policy will cover you if you are sick or injured, cover your pre-existing conditions, and if you will have to pay health expenses out-of-pocket and then file a reimbursement.

If they don’t, you should definitely invest in travel health insurance in order to avoid exorbitant costs if anything happens. There are three general types of travel health insurance. The most commonly purchased is single trip travel, which covers you for up to 6 months. If you will be traveling repeatedly, it might make sense to invest in multi-trip travel, and if you’ll be traveling for an extended period of time, long-term major medical is renewed on a monthly basis and can help you save money. The cost of your health insurance will depend on the length of your trip, your age, and the amount of medical coverage you want to invest in.

To search for a health insurance provider, you can use resources like the Travel Insurance Review or SquareMouth, which allows you to filter by the length of your trip, location, and what kind of coverage you’re looking for.

4. Come prepared

You should arrive prepared with any medication and insurance documents you might need. Make sure to pack any insurance claim forms you might need, your insurance ID card and documentation, and the phone numbers of your provider. If you have any medication with you, it could be helpful to have a note written in English and the host nation’s language in case you encounter any problem with medication at customs. Bringing first aid items could also be extremely helpful in case you have any minor accidents – a kit like this is usually a good idea.

If you have any food allergies or limitations, make sure to plan ahead. Make a nutrition plan for your trip, and don’t be afraid to be too high maintenance; your health is the most important thing. Call ahead to your hotel or housing accommodations and ask about food options in the area. It might be helpful to bring a food sensitivity card for the countries you’re traveling to make sure your nutrition needs are clearly communicated in case of a language barrier. If it seems as though it might be challenging or risky to rely on local food, pack snacks and your own food in a carry-on bag. Selecting accommodations with a kitchen is an also an option if you are highly sensitive and prefer to prepare your own food.

Lastly, do research on what you should do in case of an emergency. This resource on international travel doctors is useful, and the provide lists of doctors and clinics that can care for travelers:


5. Be health conscious

Finally, when you do arrive abroad, be conscious about your health because the best defense is a good offense. Much of this is common sense: use sunscreen, be careful with foreign food and water, and follow local laws and customs. You should also be sure to never wait if you don’t feel well.

Popular Science explains why it’s easy to get sick while traveling, and what you can do about it.

Famous travel blogger Nomadic Matt shares 10 health tips for travelers.

For fun, SmartTravel shares the 18 things you can do that will definitely get you sick.

Some health issues, like malaria and dehydration, can hit you quickly, so if you have any concerns you should make sure to address them as soon as possible. If you do end up in a situation requiring any healthcare, it’s OK to ask detailed questions about your provider: Are they certified, how will billing work, will they accept your travel insurance, can they prepare a full report with line-item receipt, etc.

Most importantly, listen to your body and take rests when you need it.
Most importantly, listen to your body and take rests when you need it.

6. Plan for the worst, hope for the best

We hope nothing should happen to you while traveling, but there is always risk. When we send people Experteering, our planning guide asks people to plan ahead and document what will happen in case of an emergency, in case of sickness, in case of food poisoning, and in case of bodily harm or injury (like a broken bone). While these aren’t fun things to think of, knowing what you will do in the case anything should happen will help you be prepared to have a fast recovery and get back to enjoying your trip.

Your health and safety is the number one thing to care for when you travel, but it should never prevent you from volunteering abroad. You first need to be informed about your own health as well as the risks and preparations you need for your host country. Seeing a doctor before you go is essential to make sure you don’t have any health concerns before you leave, and you can receive any medication or vaccines you might need. Health insurance is also essential. You should check with your current health provider to see if they will cover all necessary conditions in foreign countries, and if not, you should definitely invest in travel health insurance. Come prepared to your host country with any insurance documents and medication you might need, as well as info on the local medical system. Finally, you need to stay alert and take responsibility for your own health and ensure that you are health conscious throughout your trip.

If you’re preparing to travel abroad, check out the other articles in this #TravelSmartGiveResponsibly series to learn about how to secure funding for your trip, find affordable health care, learn the language, and more!

To learn more about signing up for a membership with MovingWorlds and finding an incredible international organization to volunteer your skills with, click here.