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Originally published Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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How to stay safe and sane on vacation

Here's the basic rule for healthful travel: Never forget to wash your hands. Wash them real well. Health experts say you should lather up...

Tribune Media Services

Here's the basic rule for healthful travel: Never forget to wash your hands.

Wash them real well. Health experts say you should lather up with a generous squirt of antibacterial soap, warm water and sing "Happy Birthday" all the way through — twice — to nuke the germs. Got that? Happy Birthday. (See www.cdc.gov/cleanhands/ for the details.)

While we're at it, here are some other things you should heed when you're traveling, courtesy of this column's readers and the lessons current events have taught us:

Don't order tea or coffee on a flight. The water airlines use comes from municipal water stored in the aircraft's water tank, according to my colleague, flight attendant James Wysong. A test by the Environmental Protection Agency several years ago found dangerous levels of bacteria on about 15 percent of planes (www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn8187). Better stick to bottled drinks.

Never eat what the natives don't. Unless you're Andrew Zimmern, the Travel Channel host who is on a quest to find the world's most bizarre foods, this is a rule you'll probably thank me for following. Stay away from fried fire beetles when you're in Thailand (a man died several years ago after he consumed the poisonous insects). Ditto for blowfish. A woman in Mito, Japan, died recently after the local fish market forgot to remove the poison. Why take your chances?

Keep moving in economy class. "The lack of leg room will bring your knees into your face — or the face of the person in front who leans his seat all the way back," says Irvine, Calif.-based travel agent Tommie Imbernino. That can be hazardous to your health. Cramped seats raise your risk of developing a potentially fatal blood clot. A British parliamentary committee recently called for the minimum space between seats to be increased by at least two inches for health reasons. If you're stuck in a small seat, don't forget to get up and stretch. Your life could depend on it.

Get some sleep. That's not always an easy thing to do when you're jet lagged or excited about your vacation. But lack of sleep is thought to make you more susceptible to illness — not to mention a little loco. In one study of 350 soldiers who were deprived of sleep for 4 ½ days, more than two-thirds complained of auditory and visual hallucinations, and seven men had to be removed from the study because of bizarre psychotic behaviors, according to the British Medical Association.

Sleep deprivation may be the best explanation for what Fadhel al-Maliki, an Iraqi national living in the U.S., did last year when he inserted (kiddies, cover your eyes, please) a magnet in his rectum before boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. Officials discovered the (no peeking, kids) butt magnet, but after a thorough investigation, determined there was "never a threat."

Shun the hotel bedspread. The thing that most people forget about their hotel is that someone slept in the bed before they did. And hotel beds — from the roadside motel to the five-star resort — can be a real germ confab. Bedbugs, cockroaches, infectious diseases — they've got it all. Bedspreads are a likely hideout, but so is the TV remote control and the phone. Esther Perica, a retired librarian in Arlington Heights, Ill., takes it a step further. "I never sleep on the phone side of the bed," she says. "That's the most used spot of the bed."

Don't wait to call for help. "If there is a disturbance outside your room, call 911 right away," says Jim Daniel, a salesman based in Stockton, Calif. "The hotel staff wants to hush it up with as little fuss as possible, but you need to assure your own safety and that of other travelers. The local police will do that. Waiting for hotel security to do anything is usually a wasted effort." He's right. I've lost count of the number of times I've spoken with hotel guests who have had a crime dismissed or covered up by hotel "security" — and I use that term loosely — while they were on vacation.

Be sensible. Staying healthy while you're traveling really boils down to one thing: Use your common sense. If you don't have any — and really, there's no shame in that — you might consider staying home, or traveling with someone who does.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. His Travel Troubleshooter column runs occasionally in Sunday's NWTraveler and weekly online at seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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