To Travel or Not to Travel? (When a family member is sick)

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Has this ever happened to you… are super excited about a trip you have been anticipating for weeks/months/years, and as it gets to be a day or two before departure, you start to get sick.  You hope that with a good night’s sleep you will wake up feeling fine, but you don’t.  You get sicker.  You are now less than 24 hours to departure and you aren’t sure whether or not you should even attempt to go on the trip due to your illness.

Or, if you are a parent, has your child ever gotten sick right before you were supposed to head out on a family vacation?  I have lived through both scenarios, and they both stink.  Unfortunately, with Little C in daycare, she brings home many nasty little viruses to share with us on a regular basis.  That isn’t the sort of sharing we encourage!!

For me, it’s a much easier call if it is my daughter that is sick, than if it is me.  Obviously, she comes first and I always want her to be as comfortable as possible – especially if she is sick.  But me, I’m a “grown-up”, and it is much harder for me to assess whether or not my illness should cause the cancellation of a trip.  As I write this, I am lying in bed sick trying to decide whether or not to head out on an over-night work trip four hours away (more on the outcome of that “trip” in a minute), so it is a topic hot on my mind!

Clearly, there are times that you or a family member are so sick that there is no choice to make, traveling is not an option.  But, there are times where it is in that “grey area” where you feel completely lousy, but you could probably physically force yourself to go.  There are several things to consider when deciding whether or not to let an illness of someone in the family cause the cancellation of the trip.

1.  How serious is the illness? 

Is it something like a “common cold” that is unpleasant, but manageable?   Or, is it something more serious that would make travel virtually impossible and horribly unpleasant?  Also consider whether over-the-counter or prescription medications could help make the symptoms more manageable.

2.  Is the illness getting better or worse? 

If the illness is still getting worse, it is impossible to know how bad it may be, whereas if it seems to be getting better, then hopefully you know the worst has passed.  A note of caution here, if the symptoms are being masked by medication (i.e., to keep the fever down) it may be hard to know if it is getting better or worse, so use caution when making this assessment if medication is being used.

3.  Is the person likely contagious? 

You may need a doctor’s opinion on this one, but if the person is contagious, not only are you potentially putting other travelers at risk, but additional family members may be just hours or days from coming down with the same illness.  You could end up with a family of five all sick with the stomach flu while on “vacation”.  Yikes.

4.  Does the ill family member still want to  go on the trip? 

A person’s will and determination can go far here.  If the ill family member still really wants to go on the trip, they will be much more likely to make it through than if they no longer wish to go.  If it is the latter case, it may be like pulling teeth every step of the way.  I remember in high school being super sick when it was time to go on a spring break ski trip, but I wanted to go so badly that I found a way to make it work.

5.  What will happen if you get to your destination and the person is still sick?

Will you be able to seek medical care?  Will the rest of the family members be able to continue on with their planned activities without the ill traveler?  Remember, if it is a child that is sick it is likely that a parent will have to stay back at the hotel with them.  If it is a parent that is sick, the other will have the sole responsibility of managing the activities and children.  Think about whether or not that is feasible in your specific situation.

6.  Is the trip refundable? 

If you can get a refund for the majority of the expenses of the trip, it may make it easier to decide to postpone or cancel the trip.  We typically book hotels that let us cancel up until the afternoon/evening of arrival, just in case.  Since having Little C, I rarely will book the non-refundable rate, even though it is often a bit cheaper.  It just is not worth the risk for us right now.  We have, however, used non-refundable Hotwire once or twice when the price difference was significant, and I will talk about that more in a minute.  Airline tickets are a bit trickier, as most affordable fares are not refundable or changeable without very significant penalties.  $150 per ticket charge for changes is normal for many airlines, and refunds are often out of the question.

A couple of years ago, I had a severe 911-style reaction to an allergy shot just three hours before The Man and I were set to get on a plane.  He came home to fire trucks and ambulances in the front of the house, and I looked like Will Smith in Hitch.  Even though the worst was over by the time he got home, we were both so shaken up by the ordeal that we postponed the trip.  Plus, I looked and felt like Hell run over!  Luckily, we were booked on Southwest Airlines, so we were able to just use the flight credit towards purchasing tickets on a future flight without any penalty.  This is a huge benefit of Southwest over other airlines, and is worth taking into consideration when selecting your airline.

Reward tickets, especially for elite flyers, sometimes have more flexible cancellation/change policies than purchased tickets.  Check your airline of choice carefully though as some, like Delta, have very recently cracked down on changing reward tickets at the last minute (Thanks View from the Wing).

Another option to consider is a “same day change”, if it is offered on your airline.  On Continental, you are able to change your flight for $75 (free for Gold and Platinum elite flyers) to a flight that departs within 24 hours of your originally scheduled flight.  If you think an extra 12-24 hours will do the trick, this may be a good option to utilize.  It’s not cheap, but it might be the least painful option available.

7.   Do you have travel insurance/trip protection?

I never thought twice about trip protection or travel insurance before I had a baby, but now I at least consider it when making non-refundable travel reservations.  Whenever you checkout with many airlines, or Hotwire, or related websites you will often noticed that you are offered some sort of travel protection or trip insurance for your purchase.  The price can vary greatly, often depending on the cost of your reservation.  Amex offers flat-rate plans available if you enroll in their Travel Assure program and charge the trip on your card.   Here are some terms and conditions from Access America, one of the issuers of travel insurance, about what types of medical issues would be covered in the event you had to cancel your trip before departure.


Injury, illness or medical condition

You or a traveling companion are seriously ill or injured.

Specific requirement

The injury, illness or medical condition must be disabling enough to make a reasonable person delay, cancel or interrupt their trip.

· A doctor must examine you or a traveling companion and advise you or a traveling companion to cancel or interrupt your trip before you cancel or interrupt it. If that isn’t possible, a doctor must

examine you within 72 hours of your cancellation or interruption.  A family member who isn’t traveling with you is seriously ill or injured.

Specific requirement

· The injury, illness or medical condition must be considered life threatening, require hospitalization, or he or she must require your care. 


Naturally, the illness must be serious enough for a doctor to advise you to cancel your trip.  You can’t just write yourself a “sick note” and say you need to sit out of gym class.  🙂  I have purchased this type of protection for my family when booking non-refundable Hotwire hotel rooms before.  A little bit of money invested up front really reduced my stress about having made a “non-refundable” reservation.

I’m sure that there are more things to take into account when deciding to travel if a family member is sick, but those are the top 7 that come to my mind.  Even with the nasty illness I was dealing with when I wrote most of this post yesterday, I decided to peel myself out of bed and attempt to make the four hour journey for a one night stay in a hotel, followed by an all day meeting the next day, and a return four-hour journey home.  What was I thinking?  My real error came in not following item #2 listed above.  I amended it after my failure.  I thought I was feeling better, but when the medication started to wear off some I was actually much, much sicker.  I had made it one hour down the road when I realized that I was seeing black spots on the road and needed to abort my trip.  I’ll spare you the details, but it was miserable.  Now I have to deal with the rental car/gas costs with my company.  Luckily, even though it was 5:30PM, I was still able to cancel my hotel for the night with no penalty.

Now back to laying on the couch while I slip Mickey Mouse 20 bucks to keep Little C happy while mommy is sick.

What have you done in situations where you or a family member is sick when it is time to travel?  Do you ever purchase trip protection?  Have you ever had to use it?

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  1. 2 years in a row my son has come down with strep throat a few days before our vacation over Thanksgiving. Once was a Disneyland/Legoland trip. Then last year was a cruise! We had travel insurance so I was wondering if we had to use it. I took him into the doctor and she said since he would be ok to fly since he would no longer be contagious once he took the meds for a few days. So we went. He felt tired on the flight…thank goodness we flew in the day before…but then the day we sailed he was back to normal.

    We have another Disney vacation..then cruise..planned for this Thanksgiving. Hopefully since he got his tonsils out we won’t have that problem this year!

    • Wow, sounds like your family is quite familiar with this problem! It is amazing how common it is for these little guys to get sick sometimes (at least around my house)!

  2. Our little girl got sick when we went on our trip to Arizona last Fall. She got sick 1/2 way through the trip and we had to get back for work so we had to fight through it and she was not contagious at that point, but threw up on mommy while standing in line to board the plane home. We have our trip to Hawaii planned in November and trip insurance might be a good idea…although a pure cancellation of the trip would be awful since we are meeting up with others and sharing a 3 bedroom condo. Any recommendations? Via credit card or other avenues?

    • Your throw-up at the airport experience sounds like it belongs in one of those “You know you are a parent when……….” lists! As far as your trip this year, I would check with whoever you booked the flights and condo with first and see if you can add trip protection. If that doesn’t work, this site lists different vendors of trip protection that you can purchase from directly. Since you are sharing the condo (and costs) that would make it super tricky in your case if for some reason you couldn’t go. You can always just cross your fingers and make everyone wear surgical masks for a week before the trip. 😉

      • Yep, I think we are kind of stuck with hoping for the best. She isn’t exposed to daycare, which is good and bad. Good in that it keeps her away from the bugs. Bad in that when she is exposed to the airport/plane then I think she is more susceptible to the airborne craziness. Lucky for us, she is flying with her grandma there and back, and we are meeting up with her aunt for the 10 days we are there.

  3. Ugh. We just dealt with this. My wife got violently ill mid-week before we were supposed to go on vacation. We went to the emergency room and they told us it was food poisoning. She was mostly better the next day so we wrote it off.

    On the drive down to the beach our son started throwing up. Our son seemed fine, no fever, not fussy. We thought maybe he was car sick. He threw up a couple more times, but never seemed in any discomfort. However, we now weren’t so sure that my wife had food poisoning.

    To make matters worse, we were meeting three other families and all staying together in a large house. We weren’t sure what to do. Should we turn around and drive home? Was it rude to bring him on the trip like this? I know if he had gotten sick before we left, I probably would have kept him home. But I didn’t know what to do having driven most of the way down there.

    We did talk to one of the other families and they encouraged us not to cancel. By the time we got to the beach, our son seemed fine. The whole sickness episode lasted about 8 hours. We were hoping he was just a little car sick. It was our first time driving more than 2 hours with him.

    Not so lucky. Every kid in the house got sick. It also moved through all of the adults but me and one other father. Tensions were high because we brought this with us.

    Thankfully, for each person that got sick, it lasted no more than 12 hours. So if a kid got sick in the evening, they were fine by morning. And worst case, if they got sick in the morning, they only missed out on one day at the beach.

    In hindsight, I still wouldn’t have canceled our trip, but I would have checked into a hotel for the first night or two to let our son’s illness run its course. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me at the time. I was thinking of it as an all or nothing decision, either go on the vacation or go home.

    Sorry for the long post. Hopefully that simple solution of just getting another place for a couple days will help someone else if they’re faced with a similar situation. We’re very conscientious about not sending our son to daycare when he’s sick, or keeping him home from Gymboree classes or whatever. But being halfway to our destination, I just didn’t know what the right move was.

    • Scott C, oh my goodness! Your story highlights how complicated this issue can be when you are dealing with families, or in your case, multiple families. Sometimes there is just no “right” answer. I’m glad that the illness was a quick one. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

  4. Be it travelling sick or with a sick member can be disaster. No matter whatever be the plans and excitement, health comes first and travelling sick is never advised by doctors.
    When you are at your own home town, you are always secured as you know everything about the place in terms of doctors etc. Imagine what will be the sick person’s state if he or she travels to a new place and does not recover or rather improve and to make matters worse, the language barrier. To summarize, a total mess.
    My opinion is not to travel sick.

  5. My fiance and I booked weeks in advance for a vacation, two days before the vacation his mom is admitted to hospital for depression. I’m confused, I wanna go but I don’t want him to feel like I’m not supportive enough and he’s more confused than I am, he’s scared to go see her, I suggested we vacate closer to the mom and he said no but you can see that it frustrates him…what do I do?

    • I’m afraid only you and him can decide what to do with this one. I think just calming talking through options and expectations is all you can do. So sorry and best wishes for her recovery!

  6. Hello –

    We are scheduled to go to the Caribbean tomorrow and the kids are staying with my parents. We have travel insurance. Our 17 year old has come down with the flu. Has 103 fever and my parents are 86.

    Do I leave them and go (my mom is insisting) or do I see if the insurance covers this and change the dates? Will I even enjoy myself??!

    • Oh gosh. No right answer here. At 17 I might if he/she is stable and doctor is easy to get to. If they were younger maybe not. Could be good practice for college. Either way, with a doctors note I bet it’s covered. Call your insurance to be sure though.

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