There’s a secret hidden within many airports. I’m not talking about a luxe lounge, rooftop with a view, or serene yoga room (although those are definitely places worth discovering on a layover). I’m referring to something I didn’t even know existed until a few months ago: airport health clinics.
These inconspicuous facilities tend to operate like urgent care clinics: You can see a doctor or nurse quickly and get out the door in time for your flight. But more importantly, they often have services that address the specific needs of jet-setters, such as tummy troubles, allergic reactions, or (in my case) nonstandard vaccinations.
In August, I needed to get the yellow fever vaccine for an upcoming trip to East Africa, but while in Germany after a series of summer trips, I found myself short on both time and cash to get the shot (it’s not covered by most conventional health insurance in the United States).
So I wondered if there was somewhere I could get it locally (and for less). Lo and behold, Google led me to the clinic at the Frankfurt Airport. It promised “vaccinations just before flying” — no appointment necessary.
I headed to the airport a few hours ahead of my flight to get the shot. It wasn’t easy to find the clinic — I had to study multiple airport maps and navigate strange hallways and stairwells most travelers never see. But once I found it, I saw a travel doctor almost immediately.
I was out the door within an hour, my immune system hard at work learning how to fight the yellow fever virus. And the bill? Just 90 euros — a fraction of the $300+ the vaccination would have cost at my travel clinic in New York City.
Frequent travelers, if you find that your healthcare needs for upcoming trips sneak up on you, an airport health clinic can be your best friend. But even if you’re more organized than I am, these medical facilities offer a ton of services that can help you in a pinch while you’re abroad. Here’s what you should know about airport health clinics.
As a good traveler, you ideally should get a pre-travel consultation with your doctor at least a couple of months before a trip. Some vaccines need to be given in multiple doses with time in between, while others take a few weeks to become active.
But if you don’t have that much notice for an upcoming excursion or this task simply slips your mind (it happens!), many airport health clinics offer pre-travel consultations on the fly.
Now, let me tell you about the life-changing magic of the pre-travel consultation.
It’s a meeting with a nurse practitioner or doctor who specializes in travel medicine and stays completely up to date on disease breakouts around the world — a specialty base of knowledge most family care physicians don’t have time to build.
The provider will look over your itinerary to assess your risks of destination-specific diseases, offer personalized recommendations on vaccines you might need, and administer the shots right then and there. It’s an empowering conversation that gives you confidence and peace of mind before an adventure.
They’ll also offer guidance on what to do if you get sick abroad and write prescriptions for malaria pills, antibiotics, and other medications you’ll hopefully never have to use (but will be glad to have on hand, should the situation call for it).
I know firsthand the pit-in-your-stomach feeling you get when you realize halfway to Estonia that you left your birth control pills at home. It’s on every packing list, and it’s one of the hardest things to replace if you forget to bring it on an international trip. I can’t imagine the stress of forgetting critical medication for a chronic condition.
If this happens to you, swing by the airport health clinic and talk to the doctors about getting a refill. They may be able to write you a prescription that you can fill at either an airport pharmacy or one close to your hotel. Crisis averted.
Treat airport health clinics like last resorts!
These tips are for when you’re really in a pinch! Don’t purposely forgo medications, prescribed or over-the-counter, for the sake of saving space or thinking you can get them abroad.
Want to know why I was really stressed out about getting the yellow fever vaccine? YF-Vax, the only FDA-approved yellow fever vaccination, is completely out of stock because of production delays from the only manufacturer.
The FDA has temporarily approved a similar vaccine, Stamaril, at a limited number of clinics stateside. But the entire situation had me worried about whether I’d be able to get the vaccine at all. Would I have to postpone my gorilla trekking trip?
Luckily for me, the airport health clinic in Frankfurt had plenty of Stamaril available and gave me the shot, along with the necessary certificate of vaccination. If there’s a shortage of any medication or vaccine you need (for travel or just general health), it’s worth seeing if airport clinics in other countries you’re visiting have what you need.
Medical costs can vary significantly across the world. That yellow fever shot was going to run me $240 plus a $65 office-visit fee at my go-to travel clinic in Manhattan. Getting it in Germany instead saved me over $200 — not enough to justify a trip to Europe for the vaccination alone, but a major bonus since I was already there.
In terms of cost, you may fare better or worse going to an airport health clinic for travel medicine than a practice somewhere else.
You first need to consider whether the clinic takes insurance and whether your policy covers the treatment you need (many policies in the United States don’t cover travel vaccines). You also need to look into what the clinic actually charges.
Navigating healthcare costs is rarely a transparent process, but calling both your insurance company and the clinic can give you a clearer idea of what to expect — and hopefully save you a few hundred bucks in out-of-pocket costs.
When sickness strikes, the only thing most of us want is to get home and crawl into our own bed. Unfortunately for ill travelers, the airlines have another thing in mind: keeping you wherever you are until there’s no risk of you infecting the other passengers.
No doubt it’s an important policy for public health, but for the sick traveler, it can lead to costly flight change fees and other expenses (like extra nights at the hotel).
If you’re feeling under the weather before a flight, let the healthcare providers at the airport clinic determine if it’s safe for you to fly. They can provide the documentation you’ll need to get reimbursed by your travel insurance company for costs you incur in dealing with the illness.
That doctor’s note can also go a long way toward getting the airlines to waive rebooking fees for your flight.
No one expects to slam their finger in a cab door before checking in for a flight or trip down the stairs while heading to security, but it happens. Fortunately, airport health clinics can get you patched up and on your way before departure.
However, don’t dismiss these facilities as solely places to go in an emergency. Airport health clinics actually provide other types of care you might need.
Travelers can get their feet checked by a podiatrist at the Vancouver Airport Medical Clinic, have an X-ray taken at the SFO Medical Clinic, book physical therapy at Calgary International Airport, and see a dentist at Narita International Airport (because no one should have to endure a long-haul flight from Japan with a toothache). You can even get cosmetic procedures at the Munich Airport.
While many of these clinics are open to walk-ins, some require appointments for non-urgent issues. Check the website of the airport you’re flying to or from to see what the deal is.
Will a trip to the airport clinic be the highlight of your itinerary? Probably not. But having the option of a convenient and affordable healthcare facility that’s got your back while you’re jetting around the world? That’s a secret worth sharing.
Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Follow her journeys and musings on Instagram.