Drinking water safety: A family travel FAQ

No, you don’t have to buy bottled water

When you travel, drinking water safety is a crucial, daily consideration. Contaminated water can make you or your kids sick. That could mean anything from a few days of canceled plans to a long-lasting infection.

Some travelers handle this simply by buying bottled water, but we find those costs stack up fast. We’d rather have more of our family budget freed up for travel!

Use these parent-tested tips for staying healthy with tap water abroad

Concerns about drinking water safety can be a big question for families who are considering international travel. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to have access to safe drinking water abroad. That can be as simple as traveling in countries with overall safe, clean, sanitary drinking water supplies, such as Japan, France, Singapore, and Canada. It also helps to know a couple of basic ways to make local tap water safe to drink.

We drink the water: Why you should trust our traveling family

From Mexico to Malaysia, Cambodia to Japan, our family of four has been traveling the world full-time since 2022. Water is our primary beverage. We drink minimal bottled water, and instead rely on boiling or water filtering for our safe drinking water in countries where we can’t rely on local water infrastructure. We have remained healthy and safe with our water consumption.

How much water do we really need to drink while traveling, anyway?

Let’s look at drinking water safety this way: The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that

  • Women drink nearly 3 liters of water per day (2.7 liters to be exact, or nearly three-quarters of a gallon)
  • Men drink nearly 4 liters (3.7 liters… or nearly a gallon)
  • And children get unlimited juice on demand (which is why the kids don’t get to write the articles)

Those numbers are for a temperate climate, so in a hot, arid climate, or a subtropical or tropical area, everyone needs to drink more. Traveling in places like Mexico, Cambodia, and Singapore, we drank more water than we need to in Oregon or Japan.

Not all of that fluid intake has to come from water. Lots of non-alcoholic beverages count, such as juice, smoothies, tea, and even coffee. Foods, especially fruits, can be great sources too.

We need a lot of liquid in our lives. It makes that whole living thing possible.

Bottled water is cheap. Why not just buy that?

If you want to buy other beverages, such as juice or tea, those will cost more than bottled water. Bottled water is cheap-ish, and countries such as Thailand keep those costs pretty low. But especially when you have multiple humans in a family, costs for bottled water stack up fast.

We spent a month in the Thai beachside town of Hua Hin. We filtered tap water daily for our supply. The cost? A $30 compact gravity water filter, which we had bought before we started our full-time travels in August 2022. It hasn’t cost us a penny, baht, or peso since.

Across the street from our condo, however, we could have bought large jugs of bottled water. Of course, we then would have been hauling, say, gallon-ish heavy hugs of bottled water up to our place each day, sometimes multiple times a day.

Looking at the price tags, we figured out that if our family of four had been buying water instead of filtering it, we would have spent around an additional US$100 that month. This is way, way more expensive than necessary, especially on a family budget.

Let’s compare that US$100, just for drinking water, to a household water bill. Back home in Oregon, of course, we’d also use water in our home for little things like showering, watering the garden, flushing the toilet, and the kids splashing in the sprinkler on a hot day. During 2022, our highest monthly water bill was US$36.

We occasionally buy bottled water, such as if we need to top up our refillable bottles when we’re out and about during the day. Often our accommodation provides a few bottles daily. We don’t mind using some bottled water, but filtering our own saves us a lot of money that we can instead use for more travel.

How much time do we spend filtering water each day?

Our Sawyer Squeeze travel water filter is really simple for maintaining drinking water safety: Fill a container with tap water (we use a 32-oz. bag with a spout threaded like a typical soda bottle), screw on the filter, turn the works upside-down, and collect the filtered water in your choice of container. We filter as we need to, and it takes a couple of minutes per 24-oz. water bottle.

Our accommodation usually includes a few plastic bottles of water. We’ll use that water, then keep the empties for refilling with filtered water.

The kids often help fill a couple of bottles. Usually, we filter a big batch of water each evening. Anthony often does this and uses the time to pop in his earbuds and catch up on a podcast.

Why do we travel with a portable water filter?

A portable water filter gives us options and peace of mind. We use a Sawyer Squeeze portable travel water filter. It’s compact and lightweight, so it takes up very little room in our luggage.

Since we are traveling in countries that have water infrastructure, we simply need to pour water into our “dirty” bag, attach the filter, turn it all upside-down, and let gravity pull the water through the filter into our clean container.

What does our travel water filter setup look like?

Our water filter setup is a “dirty” bag that has the straight-from-the-tap water. The filter screws onto that (but it can screw onto most standard threaded beverage bottles).

Why use a water filter instead of other purification methods?

From tablets to UV lights, there are lots of ways to purify water and maintain drinking water safety. Here’s why we chose the filter we rely on as a family:

  • Tablets require regular restocking or figuring out the local equivalent, if one is available.
  • Some methods affect the taste of the water.
  • UV lights need batteries, which eventually deplete and need to be re-supplied. UV also only handles pathogens, not physical contaminants.
  • Nothing needs to be replaced. Maintenance for our filter is occasionally running clean water through it in reverse.

We’re also not trekking into the wild, but are traveling throughout cities and towns. Since we have easy access to tap water, our filter helps us maintain a steady supply for the whole family. Plus, we stay in places that have at least a kettle and sometimes a stove, so it’s easy to boil water.

What do we use filtered water for?

We use filtered water for any chilled or room temperature beverage, such as a regular ole glass of water. We also usually brush our teeth with filtered water.

What do we use tap water for?

We use tap water for cooking and for making hot beverages. Water brought to a boil for at least a minute has had microbes killed. Tap water is our go-to for cooking rice, steaming veggies, or making soup. We don’t think twice about using tap water for purposes like these.

Do water filters remove lead or other physical contaminants?

This is going to vary by filter. There can be remote possibilities of lead or other physical contaminants being in pipes and getting transferred to water. How likely that is, is pretty hard to say, and it’s not something we worry about.

Filters typically remove anything up to a certain size (our Sawyer Squeeze is rated to “0.1 micron absolute filtration”). A general rule of thumb is the smaller the size of the filtration components, the more the filter can remove. Manufacturers disclose what their products are supposed to remove, so it’s good to always check through those specs.

Our filter can remove microplastics and other physical matter, but it’s not a heavy hitter for heavy metals (Sawyer has other products that are made for more challenging water supplies). We’ve not had a concern about lead or other contaminants.

Have we gotten sick during our world travels?

Only with the occasional stuffy nose. As of March 2023, or about 7 months of full-time travel in Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, we have had no water-borne illnesses.

You and your kids can access safe drinking water abroad

It can feel scary to trust drinking water abroad. In some countries, such as Japan and Singapore, we have the same confidence as in our tap water at home. Traveling abroad full-time, we have maintained confidence—both in our water filter and in the filtered water we have relied on for hydration day in and day out.

Your family can figure out a good water solution for you and your kids as well. Our Sawyer filter has been compact and reliable, and has helped us save a lot of money that we can instead put toward experiences.

Water is crucial for safety, but you want the peace of mind that comes with knowing your water is safe. And you can have it, no bottled water required.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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