A big part of traveling abroad is being open to all of the delicious local dishes, whether they come from a fancy restaurant or a street side stand. What is not so popular is losing valuable vacation days to some sort of nasty stomach bug.
Short of locking yourself in your hotel room and only eating room service, there's no way to completely avoid the risk of food poisoning. However, with a few simple precautions, you can eat your way through almost any city without too much fear of intestinal attack.
Here are some important rules to observe:
You probably wash your hands before eating anyways, but this is even more important to observe abroad, where your hands may be exposed to any number of strange things just by taking the subway or handling money. You may want to carry hand sanitizer with you at all times.
You'll want to zero in on the street cart with the long line or the happily bustling restaurant, and skip anywhere that looks lonely or deserted. This serves two purposes: One, locals don't want to eat places that make them sick either, so a heavily populated restaurant is a good sign the food is safe. Two, more customers means higher turnover, which means that the chef is constantly having to make more fresh food. A freshly made dish is ten times safer than something that has been sitting out for god knows how long.
In countries with second-rate water filtration systems you'll want to stick to bottled water instead of tap. But it doesn't end there. Dirty water can seep into your food in all sorts of ways, but ice is generally the worst culprit, as freezing really does nothing to kill dangerous bacteria. Either have your beverage without ice or check that the ice is made with filtered water.
You can tell a lot about a restaurant or food stall just by looking at it. Does it look clean? Are there flies or bugs around? If you can, sneak a glimpse into the kitchen to check for raw meat sitting out and other obvious no-nos. If it's a food stand, where are they washing their utensils? Don't be afraid to take your business elsewhere.
Cooking food destroys a lot of the evil bacteria that can mess with your system. While a salad may be tempting, in places you are unsure about stick to the cooked food.
Even the most careful traveler can be felled by a seemingly innocuous meal. Load your first aid kit with antibiotics and rehydration salts. Avoid anti-diarrhea medication if possible. The safest course is to let your body flush the toxins out, as unpleasant as that may be. Stay hydrated and eat bland foods for a few days and you should be up and about and ready to start eating again.
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Stephanie Yoder is a girl who can't sit still! Since graduating college in 2007 she has either been traveling or planning to travel. She's lived on four continents and visited everywhere from the Great Wall of China to the Great Barrier Reef. She now writes and travels full time, blogging about her adventures on Why Wait To See The World? (formerly Twenty-Something Travel). Follow Stephanie on Twitter or visit her on Facebook.
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