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What is Too Sick to Travel? Or: “How to Decide if I Should Fly to Peru Tonight???”

A sunrise view from my classroom: Stormy skies to fly, or clear to fly?

A sunrise view from my classroom: Stormy skies, or clear to fly?

“No offense, but you sound awful,” confessed my friend.

“I think I’ll be better by tomorrow to make the flight to Peru and Machu Picchu!” I squeaked.

I called my doctor with that theory later that day, and she responded bluntly: “No you won’t.”

Welcome to the worst cold and flu season in decades: awash with fevers, aches, chills. I’m sure my February plans to hike Machu Picchu weren’t the only travel dreams slapped by these symptoms, but the uncertainty of whether or not I could go sure took over my life for the past three days.

Here’s the full story of what happened with this trip, expanding on the question so many of us have asked lately: “Am I too sick to travel?”

Me, leaping around Turkey a few years ago. Thankful for healthy travels I've had!

Me, leaping around Turkey a few years ago. Thankful for healthy travels I’ve had!

This Peru trip was to be my first time traveling with G Adventures, the ethical tour company with which my fabulous former student, Stephane, just traveled to Costa Rica in December. (Note: Some links here are affiliates that give a small commission, should you purchase something, at no extra cost to you.)

Steph had a phenomenal experience, and I was psyched to try out the company for myself… and see Machu Picchu at last! (I lived in Peru for a time while I was teaching there, but never made it to the famed peak.)

I was also excited about the three day hike through those green Incan mountains, even if my 7th grade students were horrified at the prospect that I’d have no WiFi.

“Who will keep your Snapchat streaks going?!” they screamed.

I responded, “What’s a Snapchat streak?” and the kids were even more horrified.

Our guy asks: "Are you cool to travel, or need to stay put?"

Our guy asks: “Are you cool to travel, or need to stay put?”

Over the course of February, I began borrowing and buying the gear I’d need for the trek: extra camera batteries for the days without electricity, hiking boots, headlamp… all that outdoorsy stuff. I already know the gear a gal needs to do regular travel — aka, a suitcase full of my beloved cute, wrinkle-free dresses — but this trekking stuff is new territory. (Do I still have secret schemes to hike a little in a dress? Maybe.)

Punched by high prices in stores for hiking gear, I turned to social media, pleading for anyone around Boston to lend or rent equipment. Friends, family, and neighbors responded wondrously, and by early February, I had all the hiking items I needed. Thank you, village!

Then… despite all this meticulous planning and preparation for the takeoff to Peru on Friday, the following series of events occurred.

My preferred method of packing: All dresses, all patterns.

My preferred method of packing: All dresses, all patterns. Maybe not what’s needed for a hike…

The Previous Week, Through Monday: 

Repeated exposure to flu and other viruses from all sides. Keep in mind that I teach 140 middle-schoolers a day, and frankly, there is not enough hand sanitizer in the world to keep us 7th grade teachers clean. I tried, though — I really tried!

Tuesday Evening:

“I feel kind of funny.”

Wednesday at Work: 

Woozy. Hot and dizzy. At lunch break, I walk into my colleague’s room, curl into a ball, and fall asleep at a desk.

“Yeah,” he said later, “I suppose that was a red flag that you were sick.”

I suppose.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC which we were luckily healthy enough to visit a few months ago.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC, which we were luckily healthy enough to visit this year.

Wednesday Evening: 

Fever. Shivering. Trouble walking due to aches.

“Um, I’m not sure I can do a 3-day hike like this. But what if I feel better tomorrow?”

Due to the fever, I call in sick for teaching Thursday.

Thursday: 

I sleep 7:30pm to 10:30am — 15 hours. Wake to… fever and dizziness still there. Argh. But maybe I’ll feel better in time for the flight Friday night? Maybe sleeping in a tent in rural mountaintop Peru would heal me? Um, maybe?

I fall back asleep 1pm-4pm. No appetite.

Wake at 5pm to help do dinner and bed for kids (obsessively washing hands to try to keep kiddos from getting sick). Daughter demands to be carried up the stairs “like a burrito”, which is a dangerous proposition, given that I can barely get my own self up the stairs.

Pass out by 8pm. Might I feel better in the morning?

Snuggling with my girl during a sick day she had last week.

Snuggling with my girl during a sick day she had last week.

12:30am Friday Morning:

I randomly wake up and take my temperature. The fever is gone! The doctor said if I have 24 hours of no fever, I can work or travel… ergo, since my flight is at midnight, I can travel if I keep this fever off until then! Yesss!

I am also ravenously hungry. I leap downstairs to scarf food, then am so excited, I thrash about in bed (sorry, sleeping husband) until sunrise, dreaming of Machu Picchu.

8am Friday:

I’m halfway through packing, when the room starts spinning again. I look down at the neat piles of fast-wicking shirts and feel hot. Can I really do a red-eye flight, then three day hike, then 3 flights home, feeling like this? Can I risk getting others sick during my travels, on top of ailing, myself?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have trusted my midnight judgment.

I blow my nose. Then blow it again. No appetite. Coughs and shivers… Fever’s back.

11am Friday: 

“Nope. I can’t do this trek. I couldn’t even teach today — why did I think I could do an intensive trip while feeling like this???”

I know travels will blossom again! Can't win 'em all.

I know travels will blossom again! Can’t win ’em all.

And so, with a mere 12 hours before the flight was to depart, and with my backpack half-packed, I finally realized that flu season had won this round. No Machu Picchu for me in February.

There will be logistical and financial pieces to work out to reschedule, but so it is. Health is paramount, and no one wants to be on a mountain with a fever, nor sharing a tent with a coughing gal. Moreover, we know well that this is a small problem in a world of much bigger issues.

I’m clear now that this is the right decision (there are several other factors I can’t even get into here that really make it the wise thing to do), but the back and forth was see-saw fast for days, and I thank all the people who supported the process. The plan is to reschedule the G Adventures trip to Peru for April, so let’s put healthy, happy travel vibes into the universe!

This is the first time in 36 years that I have EVER had to cancel a big trip for sickness, and I am supremely thankful for those years of health, and hope for many more in the future for myself, and for all of humanity, for that matter. I will use this week to recover, spend quality time with family and friends… and unpack the awkwardly half-packed backpack in our bedroom.

We shall fly again, friends! We shall!

We shall fly again, friends! We shall!

After this crazy experience, here’s advice on when sickness clashes with travel:

1. To make travel cancellation decisions far less costly: ALWAYS consider getting moveable or refundable flights and travel insurance that could cover trip changes or cancellation — especially in a period of time like flu season — when the need to move a trip could be a real possibility. Some people I know have liked this travel insurance, so shop around, but… did I take my own advice on this cancellation coverage insurance thing? Um… Sigh. Regardless, if you do need to cancel due to illness, get officially checked by a doctor (even if you feel terrible and don’t want to leave the house) because a record of this examination will be necessary for the physician statement of the insurance claim.

2. Don’t necessarily trust your own brain when it’s sick. As I finally realized, feverish judgment can be downright delusional. If you’re staggering around with a 101-degree fever, proclaiming you can still travel, yet everyone around you has serious concerns… your community could have a point.

3. Be realistic about the bizarre timeline of sickness. It can do things to a body and mind that you’d never expect! Though I’m not a doctor, one lesson I’ve learned from this saga is to adhere well to the rule that there needs to be a full 24 hours without fever before travel (or work, for that matter). This season’s flu has had a particularly sneaky tendency of “going away” for a few hours, only to return again with a vengeance, so don’t be fooled by waking up at midnight without a fever and thinking travel will be no problem… wait a few hours and double check! Meanwhile, the flu vaccine really helps in decreasing the severity and length of the sickness when received early enough, so plan ahead in October to get it.

4. Be aware of the impact of sickness on the people around you. I’m editing this two days after writing it to add this new information: the two key people who were to be our entire childcare plan while I was away in Peru have now… come down with the flu and can barely get out of bed. This means that even if I had felt well enough to go on the trip, my husband would have been singlehandedly watching two kids under 5 years old for 9 days, or been going to wild lengths to find support. Holy moly. The “people around you” advice also pertains to being mindful of getting others on the plane or trip itself sick, if trying to globe-trot ill.

Ultimately, I think each person knows deep down, where the line is for being “too sick to travel.” If you’re reading this and are stuck in a similar quandary, yourself, first please consult your doctor. On top of that, it might be best to err on the side of caution and rest up. As my friend’s mother says, “Mistakes can cost time, money, or life,” and, though it’s never enjoyable to lose time or money, they are certainly the preferable option.

Now that this cancellation has happened, it makes me very curious about other people’s experiences. What have YOUR experiences with sickness and travel cancellations been? What has been your line that, once crossed, made you cancel a trip? Have you ever gone on a trip while sick? How did it go?

Do share!

What is too sick to travel? Where is the line to cancel a trip? In this flu season, so many have had to decide: stay home from a trip because of illness, or hope to get better in the nick of time? Here's one story of what to keep in mind.

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Lorena

Thursday 26th of November 2020

Hi there! I really enjoyed reading your story, you have such a beautiful way of writing it down! I am sorry you had to cancel and it was the best decision you could have made, but I am wondering now (and it's because it's the first article I found on your blog so far), have you made to Machu Picchu in back April? I sure hope you did and you got to enjoy it while feeling better! My husband and I lived for one year in Peru and our for our honeymoon we made the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu for 5 days. It was a hard trek and our guides advised us before doing the trek to take care of what we eat and try not to get sick. It was a great advice as altitude sickness did happen and I can't even imagine what it would have been if we would have had any other symptoms than the altitude sickness!

Lillie Marshall

Saturday 28th of November 2020

Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting comment! In fact I ended up not going to Machu Picchu at all, and am just fine with it. I need to follow where the universe is guiding me, and clearly Peru is not in the cards for right now, though I know people have wonderful experiences there -- you included!

Harmony, Momma To Go

Wednesday 28th of February 2018

I hope you are feeling better and this does sound truly horrible. Not to be all "me too" but last August, we did a cali road trip SF -> San Diego... although we got stuck in LA. After a long day at Disney, I came down with the spins, real bad. They thought I had vertigo but I had something worse. We were holed up in Anaheim for four extra days. Missed our flights, had to reschedule out of LA, my kids missed the first two days of school, it was a nightmare. Luckily we have some high-end travel credit cards and were able to get refunds for I think everything we missed (I was hopsitalized and had all the paper work for that). I know for me, I will consider travel insurance for the next big trip. Hope you are doing better and can reschedule. Dont think machu pichu is going anyywhere!

Lillie

Wednesday 28th of February 2018

Whooooaaa -- what a story!!! Thank you for sharing, and for pointing out that a lot of fancy credit cards have trip insurance built in. So glad you got the refunds and that you're feeling better!

Aiden

Wednesday 28th of February 2018

It is a shame you were not able to go over February vacation but at least you are able to go in April. I bet that will be fun to go hiking in Peru and you will just have to wait but it will definitely be worth the wait. So have fun on your next trip!

Anna

Wednesday 28th of February 2018

Dang. I'm so sorry that you had to miss out on your big trip! I would also be super upset if I were sick and had to miss something like that. I'm glad you're better now! I really learned a lot about sick travel tips! I hope to use them in my future of traveling!

Christopher

Tuesday 20th of February 2018

Well Lillie I hope you’re feeling better now. :) Never-mind your 7th grade students, I’d be horrified at the prospect of no WiFi... lol this is a fun post, really like it and I say this awkwardly, but I actually like your dress patterns -- they are great choices. I do remember getting sick or feeling it in my throat on the way to the airport and on the plane. By the time I arrived in Belgrade, Serbia I had strep throat. Nothing a little antibiotics couldn’t knock out. Well that and a tea towel around my forehead that was soaked in Rakija!!! I love my Serb friends. ;)

Lillie

Tuesday 20th of February 2018

Thanks, Christopher!

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