Vacationers in Texas generally need take no extra health precautions than they would at home. It is worth noting, however, that those hiking in the drier parts of the state, such as in the deserts of West Texas or the mountains of Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains national parks, should carry more water than they think they will need, and drink it.
When heading into the great outdoors, keep in mind that Texas has a large number of poisonous snakes and insects, and you should be very careful where you put your hands and feet. If you're hiking, stick to designated hiking areas, stay on established trails, and carry rain gear. When boating, wear a life jacket.
General Availability of Healthcare -- Unless you're camping out in remote Big Bend and other areas, over-the-counter medicines are widely available, as are generic equivalents of common prescription drugs.
Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT; tel. 716/754-4883, or 416/652-0137 in Canada; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns and for lists of doctors. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. The website www.tripprep.com, sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).
What to Do If You Get Sick away from Home -- Most reliable healthcare plans provide coverage if you get sick away from home. If you get sick in Texas, consider asking your hotel concierge to recommend a local doctor -- even his or her own. You can also try the emergency room at a local hospital; many have walk-in clinics for emergency cases that are not life-threatening.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry them in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise they won't make it through airport security. Visitors from outside the U.S. should carry generic names of prescription drugs. For U.S. travelers, most reliable healthcare plans provide coverage if you get sick away from home. Foreign visitors may have to pay medical costs upfront and be reimbursed later.
Dietary Red Flags -- While Tex-Mex cuisine is generally milder than Mexican cooking, travelers who are unfamiliar with hot chiles and jalapeños or who have weak stomachs or ulcers should proceed with caution when eating Mexican food. Tap water is potable throughout the state, but not to everyone's liking. Texans are big meat eaters in general, but in larger cities, vegetarian-friendly restaurants are widely available.
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- If you venture into the West Texas desert, snakes, spiders, and scorpions could be an issue, so it would be wise to carry appropriate medicines, especially if camping.
Sun/Elements/Extreme Weather Exposure -- Perhaps the biggest health concern in Texas, with its big sky and blistering heat, is sun exposure. Travelers should make every attempt to protect themselves, including headgear, sunscreen, and sufficient hydration.
Most areas of Texas are as safe as any other part of the U.S. However, large cities such as Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio have their share of big-city crime (a few years back, downtown Houston had a particularly dangerous reputation), as do border towns such as El Paso. Drug smuggling is common along the U.S.-Mexico border. To steer clear of stumbling into a drug transaction or police raid, avoid hiking alone in isolated areas along the border and stay in the major tourist areas in border towns.
If you're in doubt about which neighborhoods are safe, don't hesitate to make inquiries with the hotel front desk staff or the local tourist office.
Dealing with Discrimination -- Texas has a lamentable history of race-related incidents, and bigoted and racist opinions are still found in some small towns and among some less cosmopolitan Texans. Regrettably, discrimination is still occasionally directed toward African Americans and Hispanics (and, more recently, people of Middle Eastern descent or appearance), as well as openly gay travelers. However, most travelers of color and ethnicity, and gays and lesbians, will likely encounter few (if any) problems. African-American travelers may want to be cautious, however, when traveling through the small towns of East Texas. Also, around border towns, travelers of Hispanic descent or appearance may find that they are stopped by the border patrol more frequently than non-Hispanics, so be sure to carry a current, government-issued picture ID.
Medical Insurance -- Although it's not required of travelers, health insurance is highly recommended. Most health insurance policies cover you if you get sick away from home -- but check your coverage before you leave.
International visitors to the U.S. should note that unlike many European countries, the United States does not usually offer free or low-cost medical care to its citizens or visitors. Doctors and hospitals are expensive, and in most cases will require advance payment or proof of coverage before they render their services. Good policies will cover the costs of an accident, repatriation, or death. Packages such as Europ Assistance's "Worldwide Healthcare Plan" are sold by European automobile clubs and travel agencies at attractive rates. Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc. (tel. 800/777-8710; www.worldwideassistance.com) is the agent for Europ Assistance in the United States. Though lack of health insurance may prevent you from being admitted to a hospital in nonemergencies, don't worry about being left on a street corner to die: The American way is to fix you now and bill the daylights out of you later.
If you're ever hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, MedjetAssist (tel. 800/527-7478; www.medjetassistance.com) will pick you up and fly you to the hospital of your choice in a medically equipped and staffed aircraft 24 hours day, 7 days a week. Annual memberships are $225 individual, $350 family; you can also purchase short-term memberships.
Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call 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 in the United States.
Travelers from the U.K. should carry their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which replaced the E111 form as proof of entitlement to free/reduced-cost medical treatment abroad (tel. 0845 606 2030; www.ehic.org.uk). Note, however, that the EHIC covers only "necessary medical treatment," and for repatriation costs, lost money, baggage, or cancellation, travel insurance from a reputable company should always be sought (www.travelinsuranceweb.com).
As a safety net, you may want to buy travel medical insurance, particularly if you're traveling to a remote or high-risk area where emergency evacuation might be necessary. If you require additional medical insurance, try MEDEX Assistance (tel. 410/453-6300; www.medexassist.com) or Travel Assistance International (tel. 800/821-2828; www.travelassistance.com; for general information on services, call the company's Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc., at tel. 800/777-8710).
Travel Insurance -- The cost of travel insurance varies widely, depending on the destination, the cost and length of your trip, your age and health, and the type of trip you're taking, but expect to pay between 5% and 8% of the vacation itself. You can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com. Enter your trip cost and dates, your age, and other information, for prices from more than a dozen companies.
U.K. citizens and their families who make more than one trip abroad per year may find an annual travel insurance policy works out cheaper. Check www.moneysupermarket.com, which compares prices across a wide range of providers for single- and multitrip policies.
Most big travel agents offer their own insurance and will probably try to sell you their package when you book a holiday. Think before you sign. Britain's Consumers' Association recommends that you insist on seeing the policy and reading the fine print before buying travel insurance. The Association of British Insurers (tel. 020/7600-3333; www.abi.org.uk) gives advice by phone and publishes Holiday Insurance, a free guide to policy provisions and prices. You might also shop around for better deals: Try Columbus Direct (tel. 0870/033-9988; www.columbusdirect.net).
Trip-Cancellation Insurance -- Trip-cancellation insurance will help retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early, or if your travel supplier goes bankrupt. Trip cancellation traditionally covers such events as sickness, natural disasters, and State Department advisories. The latest news in trip-cancellation insurance is the availability of expanded hurricane coverage and the "any-reason" cancellation coverage -- which costs more but covers cancellations made for any reason. You won't get back 100% of your prepaid trip cost, but you'll be refunded a substantial portion. TravelSafe (tel. 888/885-7233; www.travelsafe.com) offers both types of coverage. Expedia also offers any-reason cancellation coverage for its air-hotel packages. For details, contact one of the following recommended insurers: Access America (tel. 866/807-3982; www.accessamerica.com); Travel Guard International (tel. 800/826-4919; www.travelguard.com); Travel Insured International (tel. 800/243-3174; www.travelinsured.com); and Travelex Insurance Services (tel. 888/457-4602; www.travelex-insurance.com).
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.