The Cost of Getting Sick on Vacation
I just catch everything, it seems.
I tend to see vacation as stepping out of reality — I have a different outlook on everything. I don’t ask myself “What can I do right now to most thoroughly enjoy myself?” during my normal routine; rarely is that the priority. Instead, that’s the question for vacation. Which makes it exceptionally disheartening when I get sick on vacation, as I have done twice in a row.
Last year’s vacation was a 38-hour road trip over ten days, seeing most of New England in the process. This year’s vacation was a two-country tour of Germany and Iceland. I was incredibly glad to have both opportunities, and I have mostly positive memories of each of them—except for the parts I spent in pain, sneezing, or vomiting. That meant I saw each vacation as a set of two costs: the cost of going on vacation, and the cost of losing part of that vacation to illness.
I know it’s a huge luxury to be able to use time and money to go on vacation. I know that there are people dealing with chronic illness and acute illness, and I completely get that my problems here are pretty mundane — but that’s part of why I think the costs are so interesting. They can, and do, happen to most of us: mild illness is a pretty common occurrence, and it doesn’t go away just because we go on vacation.
If you get sick during your normal work week, your costs might look like this:
Cost of treatment + lost wages/income and/or loss of vacation/personal days + unquantifiable level of misery = cost of illness.
On vacation, ostensibly, some of these costs go away. You’re already away from work, so you’ve already decided to use vacation days or forego wages. But here are some additional costs of being sick while traveling:
Cost of treatment + cost of convalescence in a non-familiar place + loss of vacation relaxation + loss of any companion’s vacation relaxation + loss of pre-paid experiences that must be subsumed in convalescence = cost of illness on vacation.
With that in mind, here are my illness costs over my past two vacations:
My first illness was a bad case of cold/flu/something. If I’d been home I would have gone to a general practice doctor or, more likely, just toughed it out and taken some sick time from work. Since my husband and I were vacationing on the Maine coast, I toughed it out for three days and then went to a clinic in a chain pharmacy. We were about to make a two-day drive home, and I knew the trip would be super unpleasant while sick, so I spent $99 with insurance on a five-minute consultation that ended with a prescription. I am extremely grateful that I got seen and treated so quickly, even though it was another two days before I really felt recovered (both of which I spent in the car, making soft unhappy sounds while my husband drove).
In Germany, my illness was (near as I can figure) food poisoning or a 24-hour stomach virus. After an entire night of no sleep and digestive distress, I was too dehydrated to walk more than a few steps, so my husband found me a nearby urgent care facility. I received an IV infusion of anti-nausea meds and water so that I could break the cycle of vomiting and dehydration; I also got prescriptions for three different pills to help me with my continued recovery. My husband went to pay the bill with every intention to shell out hundreds; they charged him €62 (less than $70). The meds added an additional 20 bucks.
These costs illustrate how much good insurance and/or single-payer healthcare can grease the gears of a medical system — in both cases, it was way more fuss to find the appropriate medical care location than it was to get the actual treatment, and the costs were minimal. I know I got lucky.
During the road trip in Maine, I convalesced in the car. When we were in Germany, though, I wasn’t able to continue with our plan to take a day trip to Austria. I was grateful we had gotten a separate room in our hostel rather than staying in the large bunk room (the separate room cost an extra $35 per night, and was worth every penny), and I was grateful that my husband, who doesn’t know any German and had been out of his home country for 48 hours at that point, was willing to go grocery shopping. He came back with pretzels, juice, and a ton of water that turned out to be sparkling water; the total cost was less than $10, but finding things was certainly more of an ordeal than it would have been in our hometown.
Loss of relaxation:
If you spend your one annual vacation sick, you aren’t likely to come back to work refreshed. In my case, I was far more exhausted after the road trip (partially because it was a road trip, and partially because I was so ill for so much of the trip) than I was going into the vacation.
Loss of companion’s relaxation:
Few people go on vacation just to give care to someone else; in both of our recent trips, my husband was forced to forego things he wanted to do even though he himself wasn’t actually sick. I felt pretty terrible that my getting sick (even if it wasn’t my “fault”) made his experience worse, too.
Loss of pre-planned activities:
In Germany, we missed a day trip to Austria so I could spend 24 hours sleeping. (I have never been to Austria and, thanks to my digestive system and its valiant effort to get rid of a virus, I might never see Austria!) We hadn’t bought the train tickets in advance, so it wasn’t a super-consequential loss — way more glad to be alive — but missing experiences can be a major concern if you’ve paid a lot of money for them. In some ways, the plane tickets, the more-expensive food, and the lodging are all part of the lost money; it’s as if the “enjoyable” part of our trip was only seven or eight days long, even though we paid for ten days. That cost, in the case of our trip to Germany, was something like $200 dollars a day.
Here’s the positive side of getting sick on vacation: I was so grateful to be well for the rest of the Europe trip that I was way happier with small things (a delicious breakfast!) than I think I would have been otherwise. There was a child-like fascination with being out of bed that I couldn’t have manufactured, no matter how focused I was on having an enjoyable vacation. There’s also a sort of bonding that happens between people who travel together while one of them is sick: it proves trust in a way that things other than adversity cannot.
In the end, I feel like my costs for illness on vacation simply scratch the surface of all the way-worse—and way-more-costly—things that could happen. If I got both recovery time and gratitude at the price of a few days of my vacation, I am okay with that.
Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She blogs about family recipes, among other things, at Recipe in a Bottle.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.
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