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On the Road in Retirement

Now that you're retired, you have time to travel. So you choose a destination, develop an itinerary, order the passport, and pack the bags. But wait, you forgot one important detail: your health.

You've got company. Millions of travelers may ponder every aspect of their itinerary, but forget to take health care precautions. Yet this can be a costly and even life-threatening mistake. Whether you plan to see the pyramids in Egypt or visit your cousin Vinny in the Bronx, you need to be sure your health care needs can be met.

This is true whether you are a member of a consumer-directed health plan such as a medical savings account or you have more traditional health insurance.

You don't have to be in perfect health to take a trip. People hike, climb, sail, and ski all over the world with replaced joints, bypassed arteries, and transplanted organs. They do so safely because they prepare before leaving.

Do your homework

Older adults must be realistic about their ability to travel, AARP says. Ask yourself: What do I want to do, and what can I do? Then devise a reasonable plan with your doctor's help.

Do thorough homework well ahead of your trip and discuss any health concerns you have with your health care provider. Research the physical, political, food, and climatic conditions of foreign countries. Surf the Internet. Visit travel agencies, cruise lines, libraries, and bookstores.

If you have diabetes and plan to travel overseas, for example, find out in advance where you can get insulin, what documentation you need to carry insulin syringes, whether you can ensure regular mealtimes, and how you will maintain your insulin levels through changing time zones. Talk with a nutritionist about easy-to-carry snacks in case meals are irregular. Wear a medical identification necklace or bracelet that says you have diabetes.

Remember that high altitudes can cause mountain sickness, that humid climates can interfere with your body's ability to cool itself through perspiration, and that both can alter the effect of medications. While packing, pick clothes (and shoes) that suit the environment, topography, and amount of walking you plan.

It's a good idea to get a checkup before you go even if you're reasonably healthy. Tell your doctor where you plan to vacation, and ask what immunizations you'll need. Have your teeth and eyes checked, too.

Take prescription medicines

Bring enough of your prescription medicine to last the duration of your trip. Carry prescription drugs in their original bottles. You don't want your prescription medication mistaken for contraband drugs. Take copies of your prescriptions. If you can, find someone to translate them into the language of your destination to avoid any misunderstandings.

Insure for the unexpected

Make sure you have insurance to cover a medical emergency. Don't assume your health insurance will cover you overseas. Many nations require up-front cash payment before giving medical care to a foreigner. Also, medical systems vary from country to country, and there is no guarantee you'll receive the same quality of health care dispensed in the United States. Yet it can cost thousands of dollars to be airlifted out of a country and flown back to this nation for treatment.

Well before departure, see if your insurer—including Medicare—will cover medical emergencies overseas. If it does, ask specifically what will and will not be covered. Ask about deductibles, length and extent of coverage, and the documentation you'll need to submit a claim.

If your health insurance won't cover overseas travel, you can buy travel coverage from insurers, travel agencies, or cruise lines. Prices vary, depending on your age and the desired services. Shop around for the plan that's right for you. Consider the availability of medical care in the country you'll be visiting and whether you'll want to be flown home for care.

Lastly, travel professionals suggest you carry the address and phone number of the nearest American consulate. They might be able to help you with a medical emergency, but don't depend on consulate staff to do it all.

Your medical kit

Here are examples of items you may want to pack. You may need more (or less) depending on your health and your travel plans, from motion sickness remedies to insect repellents.

  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen, for pain or fever

  • Diarrhea medication

  • Antacid, an H2 blocker, or a proton pump inhibitor

  • Laxatives for constipation

  • Decongestants for colds

  • Antihistamines for allergy symptoms

  • Antibiotic ointment for minor injuries

  • Adhesive bandage strips

  • Gauze pads, tape, and scissors

  • Sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher)

  • Extra prescription glasses

  • Thermometer

  • Eyewash or eye drops

  • Baggies to make an ice bag for minor injuries

A travel checklist

  • Medical clearance. Get the go-ahead from your doctor, specialist, dentist, and eye practitioner. Take extra glasses, dentures, and other assistive devices.

  • Medical history. Carry a typed one-page sheet describing your medical history, current health problems, medications you're taking, and your doctor's name, address, phone number, fax number, and Internet address.

  • Insurance. Be sure you have insurance to cover a medical emergency. If your health plan doesn't provide adequate protection, purchase a traveler's assistance plan. Consider buying medical evacuation coverage if going overseas.

  • Prescriptions. Take at least enough for the trip's duration. Carry only in prescription bottles, and do not pack in checked luggage. Bring photocopies of prescriptions.

  • Shots. See a doctor at least two months before departure for immunizations.

On the Web

Useful websites for travel information: