Travel Advice I Frequently Ignore

I keep running into people who have not traveled much and it is disheartening to me sometimes to realize how much bad advice is out there. For the record, here’s what I ignore on a regular basis on the road.

Don’t drink the water. Revised version: don’t gulp down tap water. In Mexico and many other countries, even the locals drink water from a 5-gallon dispenser and virtually all ice, licuados, smoothies, etc. are made from the same. Use a purifier (like a Steripen) for those rare cases where you are without.

If you can’t peel it, don’t eat it. Are you really going to exist on nothing but bananas and oranges for weeks? Life’s too short. People who follow this advice get sick anyway because their body freaks out when they face anything that doesn’t come in a factory-sealed package.

Don’t eat street food. Nearly every great meal I can remember in any country around the world was from a street stall. This is where local people eat every day and if they get sick they’ll stop coming. From Mexico to Vietnam to southern India, street food is the essence of the country. It’s fresh, it’s hot, and it’s made right in front of you. In a restaurant, who knows?

Be extra careful in [insert country here]. After visiting close to 50 countries at this point, I just don’t buy it. The advice is consistent anywhere: unless you’re in a war zone (or maybe in Rome), common sense prevails. Keep your money under your pants, your jewelry at home, and your laptop or other gadgets locked up in your room. Oh, and don’t get wasted on designer drugs at a Full Moon Party in Thailand and then bitch about how someone stole the $200 you had in your back pocket. That’s called being “a mark” and you had it coming.

  1. daveB

    All pretty spòt on. Especially the one about how to not get robbed. Everytime i see a 19 year old kid with more money than sense flashing their ipod around, i kind of sigh, and wonder how long it will be before they have a ´This country is dangerous – they rob you´story

  2. Roberto

    Yeah, most of the travelers I’ve met who have been robbed were walking around with way too much money on them in a place on their body that was way too easy to reach. If they waltzed down the wrong block in their own home town the same thing would happen, but they take fewer precautions on vacation than they would at home.

  3. Prague Hotel Operator - Jan

    I’d add another advice: Don’t look like tourist :) Merge with the crowd and you won’t get robbed.

  4. Carolina

    Oh my God, the tap water issue. We used our Steripen throughout most of our trip, and while we did end up drinking some bottled water, we were able to keep it to a minimum. Then we got to Spain.

    “You can brush your teeth with it, but you shouldn’t drink it.”
    “It’s potable, but it doesn’t taste good.”
    “It’s not advisable.” (Coming from a waiter who was clutching his stomach.)

    It was absurd, especially since 90 percent of our time was spent in northern Spain, which is supposed to have great water. So, basically, in restaurants that refused to serve us “agua del grifo” we stuck to wine and beer (both of which cost the same as bottled water) and just filled up our water bottles in the hotel right from the tap. Never had any problems during the month we were there, contrary to what the Spaniards kept telling us.

  5. Marcus Aurelius

    Street food – depende. A buddy of mine bought some “juice” from a street vendor in the Philippines and got wretchedly sick. He ended up needing some antibiotics. He finally got over it and his wife nearly beat him silly when he was about to buy some more of the stuff. That case excepted, most street food is prepared in eyeshot and is obtained pretty much fresh off of the heat so you are generally safe. I have had various street foods in the UAE and in the Philippines and no problems (the “sickness” I had after that first night in the UAE was due to too much beer and not the schwerma I had, though blaming the schwerma was a better story).

    A lot of what scares people about “street food” is in a lot of the places we travel there is no “health department” so it must be “yucky” and sub-standard.

    Last time in the Philippines I kept to gatorade for the first couple of days but gradually started drinking the water from the water coolers, it was fine. However, during my first trip to the Philippines I had gut problems for a while. LOL, I knew people that wouldn’t drink the tap water here in the US, for fear of it.

    Be careful in any country. Even though Mindanao has a bad reputation for tourism, it is generally safe, the bad spots are well known and fixed. A buddy and mine had no problems in Tanzania but my neighbor who went was mugged. I do recall one guy brushing my backside and it all seemed to me he was hoping to fish a wallet out, no dice for him.

    Can’t peel, don’t eat. Depends again. I stayed on this one in Tanzania and my recollection is I picked up that advice from the Lonely Planet guide.

  6. DML

    I’ve gotten sick from street food. Specifically one time when I ate some som tom (green papaya salad) in Thailand. But the other dozen times I ate it I was fine. Sometimes it is a bit of Russian roulette. (I also got violently ill from a NICE restaurant in katmandu). I love to eat street food and most of the time you will be fine. You can easily get food poisoning from stuff at home as well. If you skip the street food you are missing out on part of the travel experience.

    • Marcus Aurelius

      The worse case of food poisoning I had was from the University cafeteria where I was working in the UAE, a colleague also reported getting ill that day. The first weekend was real rough and then it wasn’t too bad, but never right. I finally saw a doctor and he gave me some anti-biotics that helped me out.

      The street food deal I have heard was don’t be too worried about heated street foods, but cold ones you have much more risk. If the vendor pulls that stick of bbq right off of the grill you can be pretty certain you are fine. I recall reading (again IIRC from a Lonely Planet Guide) that ice cream being pulled form the freezer may have been through a number of freeze/thaw cycle with one thaw getting a little too warm.

      A buddy of mine who is now sailing (working) said he got wretchedly sick from green stuff he had in Pakistan, kinda that if you can’t peel it avoid it type of deal.

  7. tim

    Yeah, I should clarify that by street food I generally mean HOT street food prepared in front of you, not room temperature meat that’s been sitting around all day, with flies circling around (I’m talking to you Philippines!) But walk into most any restaurant in India or Nepal and you’ll find that just because a place looks pretty and has a nice menu doesn’t mean it’s any safer. I’d rather take my chances where I can see the cook at work.

    And really, how many people have never gotten sick from a restaurant in their own city? It just happens sometimes wherever you are.

    Carolina—I hear you on the European tap water issue. It’s a scare/shame tactic to get you to buy the highest-margin food service item on planet: bottled water.

    • Sam Melbourne

      I find there is a correlation worldwide that the more locals are in a restaurant, the better it is. Doesn’t necessarily apply to hygiene and bacteria in the food, but generally if it’s more popular food, it’s for a reason.

  8. jen

    I live in China and eat street food at least three times per week. I have been here for eight months now. I have had trouble with street food, I have had trouble with restaurant food, I have had trouble with airline food, but none bad enough to stop me from eating what is cheap and delicious and none with any frequency. It’s not unusual to have intestinal discomfort when eating cuisines that use staples or spices outside of your normative range. This does not mean you are being poisoned. Grab an antacid or anti-diarrheal and buck it up is my rule. The only time that I had food poisoning bad enough to require medical attention was at an I-Hop where I worked in Michigan. Go figure. Just remember to always carry toilet paper with you, especially in China, as there will rarely be any in the lavatory.

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