A trip to Poland poses no unusual health concerns, aside from the bromides of not overindulging in food and, especially, drink, and looking both ways before you cross the streets (especially for trams). Still, there are a few things to keep in mind.
General Availability of Health Care
Polish health care is generally good and of high standard. Hospitals and doctors' offices may look shabby on the outside, but they are acceptably clean and well maintained. Polish dentists have a reputation around Europe for high-quality work and are usually much cheaper than their American or U.K. counterparts. Travelers do not require any specific shots before a trip to Poland, and aside from vaccinations against tick-bite encephalitis if you plan on doing a lot of hiking or sleeping in the open, none are advised.
Poland has relaxed its rules for selling over-the-counter medications, and you can now usually find things like aspirin, cold medicines, cough syrup, and the like at convenience stores and large service stations. Still, it's best to bring along extra aspirin or Tylenol (or whatever you're used to) so as to minimize time looking around if you need to buy some. Pharmacies also sell common over-the-counter remedies, as well as all prescription drugs, but bring along extra doses of prescription medications since the local pharmacist may not recognize your doctor's prescription.
Dietary Red Flags -- Meat is a staple of Polish cooking, and vegetarians will have to pre-plan to avoid seeing it show up on their plate. Even seemingly "safe" options such as pierogi "Ruskie" style (stuffed with potato and cheese) may come covered in bacon drippings.
Bugs & Other Wildlife Concerns -- Mosquitoes are rampant in Poland, particularly in forested areas and near lakes and rivers, and can be a major nuisance. Be sure to pack strong mosquito repellant and some after-bite cream to reduce itching and swelling when you are inevitably bitten. Most pharmacies stock these if you forget to bring them.
Tick-bite encephalitis is also a problem, and you're strongly advised to get vaccinated if you plan on spending a lot of time hiking and/or sleeping in woods and fields. Always check your body thoroughly for ticks at the end of a long day of hiking and be sure to seek medical attention if you're concerned. Poisonous snakes and spiders are rare and not usually a problem.
Respiratory Illnesses -- Polish air quality is improving, though during winter, you may encounter short periods of poor air quality, particularly in the industrial areas around Katowice and Kraków. Residents are usually advised to stay inside on bad air days.
Sun/Elements/Extreme Weather Exposure -- The sun is a constant danger, so be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen. Choose a higher SPF if you plan to spend a day on the beach or skiing in the mountains. Also, don't forget to bring along a hat, sunglasses, a long-sleeved shirt, and good sunscreen on summer mountain hikes, where you may be exposed to the sun for hours at a time.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home
Polish medical care is good; rest assured that if something bad does happen on your vacation, you'll receive adequate care. In an emergency, immediately call tel. 112 (general emergency) or tel. 999 (ambulance). Most operators are trained to understand at least a little bit of English. Slowly try to explain the problem and your location, and an ambulance will come as quickly as possible to take you to the nearest hospital. Be sure to take along your passport, as well as some means of payment (cash or credit card).
Though Poles have universal medical coverage, foreign visitors are obliged to cover the total costs of any medical care they get in Poland. It's worth checking before you arrive whether your health insurance will cover you while you are abroad and, if not, how to supplement your insurance to get international coverage. Usually, you will have to pay any hospital fees out of pocket and then try to reclaim the costs later through your insurance. Retain all of the hospital paperwork, since you can never be sure what the insurance company might ask for.
Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or contact Health Canada (tel. 866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must take home in case they are treated abroad.
Travelers from the U.K. should carry their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which covers emergency treatment.
In addition to the publicly financed health system, Poland has several excellent private medical clinics. These often offer higher standards and more personalized care, though they are usually more expensive. Additionally, they may be familiar with your insurance company and be able to bill directly. In Warsaw, the LIM Medical Center (Al. Jerozolimskie 65/79; tel. 22/458-70-00; www.cmlim.pl) is centrally located in the Marriott complex and staffs a full range of English-speaking doctors and specialists. For other cities, check with your hotel or the local tourist information office.
Poland is a relatively safe country, and travelers should not have any major safety or security concerns. The biggest potential threat is likely to be crime. Petty theft, pick-pocketing, and car break-ins remain a problem. Watch your wallets and purses in crowded areas, particularly areas frequented by tourists. Always park your car in a well-lit area and use hotel or guarded parking lots in urban areas. Never leave valuables in the car or packages in plain view, as this may invite a break-in. Bike theft is rife. Never leave a bike unattended for more than a few minutes (even if it is securely locked) and always store it inside overnight. Hotels will often have a special area for storing bikes; otherwise, simply take it with you to your room.
Though robberies and violent crime are rare, it's best to avoid seedy areas at night (such as Warsaw's Praga neighborhood or parts of Lódz, or around train stations in any city). This is particularly strong advice for single women travelers, though in most other instances, women shouldn't encounter difficulties in Poland.
Polish police and law-enforcement agencies are invariably friendly and helpful to tourists, but they take a dim view toward public drunkenness. If you're out drinking, it's best to keep it down and keep your cool, otherwise you might find yourself spending a night in the drunk tank.
Drugs of any kind, including marijuana, are strictly illegal, and anti-drug laws are rigorously enforced. If you're caught with illegal drugs, you're best advised to contact your local embassy or consulate immediately, though you're unlikely to find much sympathy there or among law-enforcement agencies.
Prostitution is legal, though it's unregulated and potentially high-risk. While you probably won't see prostitutes standing on street corners in big cities, you may occasionally see them along highways, offering their services to passing truckers and other motorists. The "bars" you see along highways are often little more than brothels for truckers. You'll also find plenty of nightclubs, strip joints, escort agencies, and massage parlors around. Many of these are more or less legitimate businesses, but some are fronts for prostitution or organized crime. If you choose to patronize one of these places, minimize your risk by taking only small sums of money with you and leaving your credit cards back at the hotel. Maintain a high state of awareness and be prepared to leave at the slightest sign that something's not right.
While Poland is ethnically and racially homogenous, travelers from other countries and of different races are not likely to encounter overt discrimination. Homosexuality is publicly frowned upon, but openly gay travelers are not likely to experience specific problems. Gay couples are advised to avoid open displays of affection, though it's unlikely anything bad would happen.
Remember to be respectful around churches, particularly during masses. Make sure to wear appropriate dress. The rules aren't too strict on this, but in practice, women should cover their shoulders and avoid too-short skirts; men should wear long pants. Both sexes should wear shoes. Also, be sure to heed any prohibitions against making noise or taking photos, videos, or using flash photography.
Finally, be sure to donate something, however small, at the entrance if the church is not taking an admission fee. Many churches wouldn't be able to survive without visitor donations.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.