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That’s sick! 8 ways to avoid the bug

It's virus season. Here are eight things you should never do when you’re traveling, courtesy of readers and the lessons current events have taught us.
Image: Scorpions at Chinese market
A shop assistant helps a consumer select scorpions at Qingping market in Guangzhou, China. Looking to stay healthy during your travels? Christopher Elliott suggests not eating anything the locals don't — and even that can be scary at times.Joe Tan / Reuters file

It’s virus season, and that means you’ll probably be enduring a lot more stories like these:

  • Passengers on a recent 16-day Canary Islands cruise aboard Cunard’s brand new megaship Queen Victoria were infected by a norovirus-type bug whose symptoms included diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. The British press called it the “Curse of Camilla” in honor of the Duchess of Cornwall, who christened the vessel.
  • Health officials recently confirmed 83 cases of a highly contagious stomach virus, also thought to be the norovirus, at Hilton Singer Island Resort in Palm Beach, Fla. There’s no word on the source of the contagion.
  • An Iowa couple has sued Trostel’s Greenbriar Restaurant and Bar in Johnston, Iowa, after county officials determined the man who prepared the salad served at their wedding rehearsal dinner that night had stomach flu. Five members of the wedding party were rushed to the emergency room after dinner. The official cause was determined to be — you guessed it — norovirus.

Ahh, virus season. Never a shortage of gut-wrenching stories with which to shock you, dear readers.

But I don’t bring up these barf-fests in order to embarrass Cunard, Hilton or the owners of the Greenbriar, or to leave you feeling queasy and reluctant to travel anywhere, but to underscore the First “never-ever” of travel: Never forget to wash your hands.

Wash them real good. Health experts say you should lather up with a generous squirt of antibacterial soap, warm water and sing “Happy Birthday” all the way through — twice — to nuke the germs. Got that? Happy Birthday.

While we’re at it, here are eight other things you should never do when you’re traveling, courtesy of this column’s readers and the lessons current events have taught us:

1. Never order tea or coffee on a flight
The water your airline uses comes from municipal water stored in the aircraft’s water tank, according to my colleague, flight attendant James Wysong. A recent test by the Environmental Protection Agency found dangerous levels of bacteria on about 15 percent of planes. Better stick to bottled water.

2. Never eat what the natives don’t
Unless you’re Andrew Zimmern, the Travel Channel host who is on a quest to find the world’s most bizarre foods, this is a rule you’ll probably thank me for following. Stay away from fried fire beetles when you’re in Thailand (a man died several years ago after he consumed the poisonous insects). Ditto for blowfish. A woman in Mito, Japan died recently after the local fish market forgot to remove the poison. Why take your chances?

3. Never dine at a restaurant recommended by someone with fewer teeth than a two-year-old
That’s the advice of Randy McCleary, a project coordinator from Grand Rapids, Mich., which is a no-nonsense way of saying you shouldn’t ask for dining tips from someone you wouldn’t be comfortable sitting next to in a restaurant. They might recommend an establishment that is on the verge of being shut down by the health department.

4. Never fly in economy class
“The lack of leg room will bring your knee into your face — or the face of the person in front who leans his seat all the way back,” says Irvine, Calif.-based travel agent Tommie Imbernino. That can be hazardous to your health. Cramped seats raise your risk of developing a potentially fatal blood clot. A British parliamentary committee recently called for the minimum space between seats to be increased by at least two inches for health reasons. If you’re stuck in a small seat, don’t forget to get up and stretch. Your life could depend on it.

5. Never forget to sleep
That’s an easy thing to do when you’re jet lagged or excited about your vacation. But lack of sleep is thought to make you more susceptible to illness — not to mention a little loco. In one study of 350 soldiers who were deprived of sleep for 4 ½ days, more than two-thirds complained of auditory and visual hallucinations and seven men had to be removed from the study because of bizarre psychotic behaviors, according to the British Medical Association. Sleep deprivation may be the best explanation for what Fadhel al-Maliki, an Iraqi national living in the U.S., did last year when he inserted (kiddies, cover your eyes please) a magnet in his rectum before boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. Officials discovered the (no peeking, kids) butt magnet, but after a thorough investigation, determined there was “never a threat.”

6. Never use the hotel bedspread
The thing that most people forget about their hotel is that someone slept in the bed before they did. And hotel beds — from the roadside motel to the five-star resort — can be a real germ confab. Bedbugs, cockroaches, infectious diseases — they’ve got it all. Bedspreads are a likely hideout, but so is the TV remote control and the phone. Esther Perica, a retired librarian Arlington Heights, Ill., takes it a step further. “I never sleep on the phone side of the bed,” she says. “That’s the most used spot of the bed.”

7. Never assume the weather will be fine (it could be your last mistake)
This can be particularly hazardous to your health in extreme weather, says James Little, a frequent traveler who used to live in a cold climate, and speaks from experience. “In winter, carry enough blankets, sleeping bags or outdoor clothing to survive a traffic jam of long duration, or a fuel outage,” he says. Confession time: I’ve made winter road trips in short sleeves, and this unfortunate couple made their final journey along a snowy road in eastern Utah last year. (“Assume nothing” is also one of the cardinal rules of journalism, and that I happen to be really bad at following — but more on that some other time.)

8. Never wait to call for help.
“If there is a disturbance outside your room, call 911 right away,” says Jim Daniel, a salesman based in Stockton, Calif. “The hotel staff wants to hush it up with as little fuss as possible, but you need to assure your own safety and that of other travelers. The local police will do that. Waiting for hotel security to do anything is usually a wasted effort.” He’s right. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken with hotel guests who have had a crime dismissed or covered up by hotel “security” — and I use that term loosely — while they were on vacation.

Staying healthy while you’re traveling really boils down to one thing: use your common sense. If you don’t have any — and really, there’s no shame in that — you might consider staying home, or traveling with someone who does.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, for daily insights into the world of travel.