Note: I am not a health professional, doctor or family planning nurse, but this is a collection of real advice and information which you can find on various websites and from doctors and nurses themselves. I am simply bringing it out into a place where it’s easy to find and talk about openly.
Traveling is something that should free us from the negative aspects of our lives; our fears, our insecurities, our worries and anxieties. But we have to accept that traveling brings new risks that simply don’t exist in our lives at home and increases other risks that usually seem minor and easy to handle. The most important of these risks is health.
While almost everyone is pretty quick to buy travel insurance with emergency medical coverage, the subject of sexual health often falls below the radar, as something that we can just ‘sort out along the way.’
How do you know you’ll be able to find your usual type of contraception on the other side of the world? Are you traveling through an area with an elevated risk of sexual diseases? Do you know much about sexual health, or do you only think you know? If you became pregnant by accident in a foreign country, with no support network, what would you do?
These are all important questions that need to be asked if you’re serious about taking care of your health while you travel.
I grew up in a Filipino culture and a nation where most are Roman Catholics, so talking about sex was frowned upon, even safe sex. Then I lived in the Middle East for 4 years, in Muslim countries where pre-marital sex could see you apprehended or deported, so little talk of safe sex there either! (Read Kach's story here: Choose your career or go travel? Why not both?)
Traveling is different. You’ll meet a lot of different people on the road, the reality is hook ups are normal and no one will be judging you – you might not ever see these people again. If you’re solo backpacking, you might have different sexual partners so you have to really protect yourself unless you decide to stay away from these types of activities all together. (READ: 5 tips in planning your first solo trip)
So here are some stories and safe sex options and tips I can share from my travel experience and those of female travelers I’ve met on the road.
1. Always bring condoms
I shouldn’t have to repeat this over and over again, you must always bring your own condom, especially if you’re a girl. Why? Always assume that a stranger who you meet while traveling wants to hook up with you for sex and only sex.
Don’t think someone will fall in love with you after 5 minutes of kissing and two minutes of talking. Most probably, you’ll meet these kind of guys in a bar and most probably he’ll be intoxicated.
I have this story of 3 Canadian guys we’ve met in Hanoi, Vietnam. They were on a gap year – 3 handsome 19 year old guys traveling around Southeast Asia and counting the girls they hooked up with. I went on a same Castaway Island tour with them in Ha Long Bay, the infamous party tour for young backpackers – I think I was too old to be in that group. (READ: 9 types of trips you must take in your 20s)
These 3 guys was starting to flirt with 3 girls and they agreed to hook up but the problem was they didn’t have CONDOMS. They were asking around and since it was an island, there was no way to buy them from the store.
I always have condoms in my bag and I also gave them to my younger siblings. I’m not pushing them into casual sex but whatever happens, you should always be safe and protected. Any sex should be safe sex. (READ: [Dash of SAS] Let’s have a condom talk)
So, I traded my condoms for drinks while on the island. They were happy and had safe sex while I was happy and able to save money on drinks!
2. Track your monthly period (Natural Method)
Whether you have the same partner for years or just a random partner, you should always know when your period is due. However, this will not protect you from any Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infections – it’s more about knowing your own body and personal care than about safe sex, but it’s still very important.
If you normally have regular cycle, then that would be easy, just always mark your calendar with the start and end date of your monthly period. There are also some women who have an irregular period, please go to your doctor, check your menstrual cycle, understand your body signs and always note them down. There are also some available mobile apps that is currently available that will help you track your periods and make some notes about it.
In my case, it’s so hard to change being a planner, I always have a notebook and monthly planner with me – plans, money, to do list and of course my monthly period tracker. My fiance Jonathan Howe already knows when I’m going to have my period, he’s aware of the mood swings if nothing else!
(Editor's note: Kach and Jonathan met on their travels and are now engaged! Both write for Rappler. Check out their love story here: We were strangers, friends, a couple traveling the world – and now we're engaged)
3. Contraceptive implants
If you don’t want to worry about getting pregnant and still keep an active sex life while traveling, you could also get an annual implant from your doctor. This is a small plastic rod (size of a hair pin) that will be inserted in your arm. The implants are progesterone only hormones, so it may affect your period. As a side effect, you may have mood swings, weight gain and other symptoms that you can will have with a contraceptive pills.
Implants are great when you travel a lot, as you won’t need to keep on taking pills everyday and without a risk of forgetting one and increase the chances of you getting pregnant. The contraceptive implants would normally last for about two to three years before you need to have it remove again under local anesthetic.
Implants will not protect you from any Sexually Transmitted Diseases or Infections.
4. Contraceptive pills
We all know this! These are your tiny magic tablets that you have to take everyday to prevent you from getting pregnant. Contraceptive pills can be a hassle when you are traveling, as you have to remember to take it everyday at the same time. So if you are a bit forgetful of things, you might need to reconsider this one.
These set of tablets only comes in 31 pcs. (good for 1 month), so you need to keep on buying it from your nearest pharmacy wherever you might end up in your trip. So if you end up on an island and run out of your pills supply you need to have some alternative arrangements to protect yourself.
REMEMBER: Pills won't protect you from any Sexually Transmitted Diseases or Infections.
5. Intrauterine System (IUS or IUD)
This is a tiny T-shaped device that needs to be inserted in your uterus, so you will have to go to your doctor to actually have this done. This is ideal for travelers, as this is a plain and easy device and method to use to stop you getting pregnant while you are on the move.
You can have this in copper or plastic, depends on your preference and this can protect you from getting pregnant from 3 to 5 years. You just have to be careful as sometimes IUS can sometimes cause irregular bleeding and infections or possibility of being displaced.
REMEMBER: IUDs would not protect you from any Sexually Transmitted Diseases or Infections.
6. Hormonal Injections
Clearly what it says on the tin, this is hormones in an injection! You have to have this done every few months, from 8 weeks to 12 weeks. This is commonly called in the Philippines as “injectable.”
If you are traveling around, you might need to keep having this done with the doctors in the city or town you might end up in. You also need to remember when you are due for another injection, so I hope you plan ahead before heading somewhere isolated or rural and far from any health services.
REMEMBER: Hormone injections will not protect you from any sexually transmitted diseases or Infections.
7. Emergency Pills or The Morning-After Pill
Okay! so you had a one-night stand without protection.
This can be your-life saver from unplanned pregnancy. This super pill is called in many names, “the day-after pill” or “morning after contraception.” The pill can be take within 72 hours or 120 hours after your had your unprotected sex but this is most effective with the 12 hours period after the unprotected sex.
You can get this in the pharmacy, however availability of this pill may not be available in some places. If you are traveling, this can be a quick fix but not a long-term solution to prevent you from getting pregnant.
8. Contraceptive Cap
This device is re-usable and this comes in different sizes. This form of contraception is a DIY, you have to put in 3 hours before you have sex, with the right amount of spermicide.
Ideal when travelling because you can re-use it and you only have to use it when you want or planing to have sex. You don’t need to worry of running out of stocks or need to catch certain plan or scheduled trip to the doctor. However, this can cause certain disadvantages too, cause of infections or makes you feel uncomfortable.
REMEMBER: A contraceptive cap will not protect your from any sexually transmitted diseases or infections.
Always think about your back-up plan
So, what would you do if you got pregnant? What would you do if you acquired a sexual transmitted disease? I’m not trying to scare you, but always think about what will happen next.
Whatever you doing in your life, there’s always an after effect – good or bad. What would you do if this worst case scenario happened after a drunken night or even after being with your partner for years? Are you ready?
Jonathan and I have been together for over 2 years and of course being a couple, it’s part of the relationship. We’ve already talked about having children in the future, but not now as we have a lot of plans for just the two of us. (READ: How traveling as a couple changes your relationship forever)
Now that Jonathan and I are in a long-term relationship and we both know 100% that neither of us is sleeping with anyone else, we now only use the birth control. This is possible because we’re in a stable relationship and we always talk openly with each other about our health.
We always talk about each other's needs and health, we try to compromise and are always conscious with all of our actions as it might affect our future.
So before you do anything or make any decisions, please remember to always be AWARE, practice safe sex and please always look after yourself because no one else can help you with your own health but you.
More tips for women travelers:
It's all about you in the end, and what you're comfortable with. I personally believe that condoms are still one of the best ways to protect yourself, but remember that they are not 100% effective (it says so on the box), so while I was traveling, I had a two-part plan – I always made sure I had condoms with me, from a trusted source, in case I should need them. And I chose to take the pill as a birth control method as well.
Hooking up while traveling is surprisingly common but please stay protected and practice safe sex! – Rappler.com