4 mins

Saving money on travel health

Staying healthy on your travels can be pricey – but you can cut costs: how to save, and where not to scrimp

Save money without scrimping on your health (Rene Ehrhardt)

Most of us plan a trip before considering any health stuff – yet pills and immunisations can add a significant extra cost. So how can you economise? Which areas are safe to skimp on? And which most definitely are not?

You could reduce expenditure by avoiding certain parts of the tropics, especially the malaria belt. Some destinations require more jabs than others – though of course that can balance out: in many higher-risk destinations, accommodation and other travel costs are cheaper.

Whatever your destination, there’s definitely scope for making savings by researching your health needs well before departure.

What’s free?

Most GP surgeries will immunise NHS patients against hepatitis A and typhoid free of charge – but be aware that they often give travel immunisation low priority, so you may have to wait two or three weeks for your first appointment.

Immunisation with the combined diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis/inactivated polio vaccine is available in GP surgeries but, though it’s free to NHS patients to protect against, say, risk of tetanus through gardening or other stay-at-home activities, a fee should be charged to those wanting the diphtheria element for travel.

Different GP practices are more or less strict in their interpretation of the rules. If your surgery offers a private travel vaccine service, it is worth checking on prices: charges are variable, and not necessarily cheaper than a specialist private travel health clinic. Note, free vaccines are not necessarily the most important; government policies are seldom logical.

Prices for pills

Charging policies within the UK are inconsistent, so check what your GP offers. A few inner London surgeries, for example, issue antimalarial tablets on an NHS prescription – which at £7.20 per prescription is very cheap.

Mostly, though, the ‘big three’ antimalarial tablets (Malarone, Lariam/mefloquine and doxycycline) are only dispensed with a doctor’s private prescription. Some GPs will charge a fee for issuing private prescriptions – a cost additional to the pharmacy charge for the tablets. If your GP proposes charging a fee, it may be cheaper to get your antimalarials from a private travel clinic or from one of an increasing number of travel services run by pharmacists themselves.

If your GP doesn’t charge, you can shop around with your prescription. Prices vary between high street pharmacies, which in turn are undercut by online pharmacies, where Malarone tablets can be as cheap as £2.25 each.

Prescription charges

People who do not usually pay prescription charges still have to pay for their antimalarials in the same way as everyone else. NHS rules also say that regular medications should not be provided for extended overseas trips (more than a couple of months) unless through private prescriptions. This rule applies to the contraceptive pill – normally free – and also to medications (such as insulin and thyroxine) that exempt the patient from prescription charges.

Anyone who takes long-term medication might consider buying supplies overseas – but research your options first. In some destinations there is now a risk of buying counterfeit preparations – with no active ingredients or with inconsistent amounts of active drug. North America, Australasia and the European Union should be safe places to stock up.

If taking prescription medicines, especially painkillers, travel with confirmation that these were prescribed for you. You probably don’t need a formal doctor’s letter (for which there will be a charge); a repeat prescription printout will serve this purpose, and is free.

Generally even if countries are strict about importing addictive medicines (eg codeine) you’ll get less hassle if you have an official document – but check on the rules at the US Department of State site.

Do I need all those jabs?

The best way of ensuring you’re getting the jabs you need – and only those jabs – is to research your requirements before visiting the immunising nurse.

If possible track down a record of what vaccines you’ve already had to avoid unnecessary costly boosters. I keep a spreadsheet on my PC. Checking an expert source before having jabs will help you understand your own risks and allow you to make sensible decisions on how much to spend protecting yourself.

People travelling for more than a month or two in affected regions should probably get cover against rabies. It can be a false economy not to have the jab: a dog bite can mean abandoning the trip altogether.

Exotic remedies

Travel may give you the opportunity for health-shopping – saving money on treatments or health supplements. For example, melatonin is an effective remedy for jetlag and insomnia; in some countries – including the USA – it is still classified as a food supplement, so is much cheaper than in the UK.

One of the best remedies for travel sickness and nausea is ginger; in tropical destinations you can shop for many and delicious forms of this root. Oral rehydration sachets are much cheaper in developing nations than at home – even if the range of flavours available is more limited.

Be careful when buying remedies overseas – check amounts of active ingredients. Be especially careful in South-East and East Asia and the subcontinent, where quality control is patchy.

Medical kits

Many travellers take a purpose-made first aid kit with them, but most bring nearly all of it home unused. The advantage of buying a pre-prepared kit is that it makes you look less like a drug addict than if you throw a handful of hypodermics into the bottom of your bag. However, it’s rare to need needles and suture stuff; generally, if you do need them, you’ll also need a competent medic to administer them – someone who’s also likely to have what is needed or should be in a position to tell you where to get it.

If I was going to take a kit, I’d pack the smallest of the LifeSystems range but I’d also add a few extras, especially dressings. The items that are most needed on any trip will be plasters and antiseptic. Usually, I tend to put together my own little kit – but you need to consider what works for you.

Dr Jane’s minimal first aid kit

• Savlon dry spray antiseptic
• Sticking plasters
• Steristrips
• Pointed tweezers
• A few gauze swabs
• Micropore tape
• Crepe bandage
• Blister dressings
(if planning lots
of walking)
• Soluble paracetamol
• Items you’ve used in the recent past when you’ve been unwell

Dr Jane’s money-saving health tips

When choosing an antimalarial don’t just buy the over-the-counter cheapy – check what is recommended from an expert and consult a clinician about what will suit you.

Don’t economise on travel insurance – be sure any health problems are declared and that you’re covered for all activities and destinations planned.

Do your research – get an idea of what you really need (and what you don’t) before seeing the GP or nurse.

Shop around – buy expensive antimalarials and remedies online (but always use a reputable website).

Check out what remedies you can buy more cheaply en route.

Plan ahead – GP surgeries may not prioritise free travel jabs, so get in early to avoid missing out.

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