Tap water safety guides the countries our family chooses for world travel
We might travel the world with our two kids, but we are not exactly daredevil parents. Lots of factors influence our travel choices. A major consideration for how we choose which countries to travel to as a family? Whether there’s safe drinking water—or, at the least, a decent tap water supply that we can easily filter for safe consumption.
Safe, potable drinking water is not a given… but it’s also more common than you might think
In the USA, where about 97% of the population has access to clean drinking water, it’s easy to take potable water for granted. Living in Eugene, Oregon, we are accustomed to safe, delicious drinking water. Of course, not everywhere is like that. There are places of extremes for water supply or sanitation, but those situations are beyond the scope of this piece.
When traveling to different countries, figuring out water safety is a big concern for families. We all want ourselves and our kids to stay healthy, and we want to minimize the chance of anyone getting sick.
Fortunately, getting good water is easier than you might think. In countries where the supply might be questionable, there are easy ways to make the water safe.
Why safe tap water and drinking water sources matters
Water is as essential to life, sanitation, and health as it gets. Whether dysentery or cholera, or even polio and hepatitis A, bad water quickly equals bad health. That could be a few days of the runs—but it can also mean death. In 2019 alone, the World Health Organization (WHO) cited diarrhea diseases as causing the deaths of 1.5 million people—the eighth-highest cause of death worldwide.
On a family travel scale, drinking water can be one of the most common ways you or someone in your family gets sick. At the very least, besides canceled plans, you’re looking at a few days of upset bellies, vomiting, and diarrhea. It could also mean trips to the doctor or urgent care. That’s never fun at the best of times, but it’s all the worse when you’re in another country, navigating different languages and medical systems—especially when you’re supposed to be on a family vacation.
Fortunately, it can be pretty easy to do an end-run around the runs and other water safety concerns.
The water system might be clean, but your body may need to adjust to a different place
One quick thing to get out of the way: A place can have safe drinking water development and infrastructure that meets drinking water standards for sanitation. That doesn’t mean the water is sterile. There can still be ambient microbes—not necessarily pathogens, but overall microbial life.
From Singapore to Sweden, the UK to the USA, different countries all have slightly different microbes. When you get to a new country, your body may have some reaction to the water. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sick, and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with the local water. You just might be adapting.
Travel to countries that have safe drinking water
One way to make your family travels safer is to focus on visiting countries known to have safe tap water.
Clean water is also important for overall hydration and health. Our own family currently prioritizes traveling in warm-weather climates, such as Mexico and Southeast Asia. Given the hot temperatures, we always carry our water bottles so we can stay hydrated. Plus, carrying our own water helps us save money, since we’re less reliant on buying beverages.
The areas below typically have safe drinking water. (However, some regions may have water issues, and sometimes current events can cause water safety problems—it’s useful to check news or relevant local public health agencies for any drinking water quality concerns.) Countries in italics are places we’ve either traveled in or plan to travel, in part because we know we can trust the water.
What countries have safe drinking water?
Safe drinking water is available in more countries than you might think. Other countries have a water infrastructure with varying levels of treatment, but you’ll want to do some sort of treating or filtering at the tap.
We prioritize countries in part by water safety. But even when a country doesn’t necessarily have treated, definitely safe drinking water, we’ve found that it’s been easier to manage than we thought.
- United States
- Czech Republic
- San Marino
- United Kingdom
- Vatican City
- Hong Kong
- South Korea
- New Zealand
This isn’t a perfect list, either. For example, we’ve seen Costa Rica and Panama as typically having safe water supplies. We have also traveled to countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, where water quality and treatment can be more mixed. But in six months of full-time traveling with kids, we’ve had zero problems with water.
Mexico was actually the first country that we visited all together as a family. In Oaxaca, we drew on the treated water tank, or garrafon, that was delivered to our apartment whenever we needed a fresh one. We also used our Sawyer filter to treat water for drinking.
Yet when we went to Huatulco, on the Pacific coast, our apartment had no garrafon. Why not? Because this region has more modern water treatment infrastructure, from facilities to pipes. We could drink the water from our tap in La Crucecita with no more concern that we would have with the tap in our own home in Oregon.
Local options for potable water
Having access to safe water is a concern for any person in any country, and different places have their own ways of dealing with this day-to-day basic need.
In Mexico, for example, the most commonplace drinking water is in garrafons. These 5-liter carboys are available all over the place, and go on a stand or dispenser in the kitchen. During our stay in Oaxaca de Juárez, we could message our host when ours needed replacing, and we could swap it out for about 12 pesos, or about US$0.60.
Along with widely available bottled water, Thailand has an immense network of filtered water dispensers. Tied in with the local water system, these dispensers accept varying sizes of containers, and you can fill up for pretty cheap. However, maintenance and access can still be issues—not to mention that it’s a bit of a chore to lug down an empty container and haul a filled one back to where you’re staying.
These are just a couple of options, though. Overall, if you’re staying somewhere that has to work around insufficient water treatment, odds are there’s a way folks have figured out how to make sure they have access to safe water.
A good rule of thumb? If the folks who live there don’t drink tap water, follow their lead.
Know how you’ll treat or access water in other countries
Talking about safe drinking water is tricky. A country overall might not have safe drinking water overall, but it may have some areas where the water is safe. We encountered this in Mexico. Typically, it’s a good idea to avoid drinking tap water in Mexico. However, La Crucecita, Oaxaca, is known for having more modern infrastructure and treatment in its public water systems. We drank the tap water there for a month and had no problems whatsoever.
At the same time, you don’t want to have a false sense of security. When we’ve understood a country to have safe tap water (such as Singapore or Japan), that’s been good enough for us, and we are fine drinking the water from the tap, just like we would at home.
In countries such as Thailand, where reports on water resources and quality are mixed, we err on the side of caution. And in other Asian countries such as Cambodia or Vietnam, we either stuck to bottled water (our accommodation provided a few bottles every day), and used our water filter.
Making water safe to drink for us and our children
Having access to potable water is crucial to keeping us and the kids healthy. Logistically, we don’t want to spend a lot of our time—or budget—dealing with water. In countries such as Thailand, for example, filtered, bottled, safe drinking water is very cheap. The trade-off, however, can be buying lots of plastic bottles (not to mention lugging them around). We try to avoid that.
There are loads of ways to purify water, and we will not get into them all here. Here are the two options we use to make water safe to drink:
Boil and cool
The old standby of bringing water to a rolling boil for one minute kills potential pathogens. If you’re cooling that water and pouring it into a clean storage container, you can be assured that you likely have safe drinking water.
One caveat: Boiling only kills pathogens. If there are concerns about physical contaminants, such as sediments or heavy metals, boiling won’t help you there. You’ll need some sort of filtration system.
We rarely rely on boiling and cooling for our drinking water. As you probably know, we love our hot coffee and hot tea, so we use plenty of boiled water for our hot beverages. When prepping local tap water for our drinking water, though, we rely on a filter.
Filter tap water
Our preference is not to boil, but to filter. We carry a compact Sawyer Products Squeeze Water Filtration System. A simple gravity filter removes pathogens and contaminants, and it gives you clean, ready-to-drink water. For us, the Sawyer has been a clear case of something so easy the kids can do it: Connor regularly filters our drinking water for us all.
The filter is our go-to method for ensuring we have a supply of clean water. Plus, we usually stay in rentals that typically have a fridge. After we filter water, we tuck bottles and bags of water into the fridge. That way, we not only have clean water, we have cold water—even more refreshing!
Use clean water for rinsing and freezing
Besides drinking, you want to use clean water for rinsing produce or making ice too. We use tap water for cooking (such as making rice or soup, or soft-boiling eggs). If we’re boiling water for tea or coffee, we use tap water. But for anything else, we use filtered or bottled water.
Countries work out ways to provide safe water to tourists and residents
When a country has unreliable or questionable tap water, it’s not as if that applies only to tourists. In countries such as Mexico or Thailand, pretty much no one drinks tap water.
In Mexico, as we said, treated water was brought in 5-gallon/20-liter carboys. But in La Crucecita, the tap water was safe to drink where we were staying. In Thailand, the hotels we stayed provided treated bottled drinking water every day. We still filtered some of our own, so we always had a steady supply.
As you plan which countries you’re traveling to, figuring out drinking water and water treatment will be essential. In some countries, such as Japan, it’s typically not going to be a concern. In other countries, you may need to do more homework, be ready to have extra diligence about water, and perhaps travel with different chemical or physical systems to treat water.
How to train yourself and your kids not to ingest local tap water
When you plan to travel to a place where it’s best to avoid ingesting the tap water, you and your kids can train up to getting used to that.
- We started that process by talking about water, how it’s treated, and what can make it unsafe or dangerous to drink.
- From there, we set a basic family understanding that while we traveled, all water going into our bodies, from drinking to brushing teeth, was to be from a treated source. That could be from water we filtered ourselves, or from filtered or bottled water that came with where we were staying.
- When brushing our teeth, we typically use water from our water bottles to rinse, then we spit that water out. Practicing this at home can be a great way to get you and your kids into this awareness mindset.
- We practiced using our water filter at home and while camping. This way, all four of us knew how to use our filter before we ever left home.
You can have safe tap water and keep yourself and your kids safe while traveling the world
As we decide where to travel as a family, we want to have a decent sense of safety and security. We also prioritize things like good wifi and easy visas. A huge factor, though? Safe or easily treatable drinking water.
Dozens of countries have safe drinking water, and that’s a big influence on our choices of where to travel the world as a family. However, a few simple treatment methods can mean you can travel to lots of other places, without having to worry about water safety.
In over six months of full-time travel, none of us have had a problem with water safety. Might we at some point? Sure. But by making good choices about where to travel and being careful about how we approach the local water, we have stayed healthy and safe while having fun. Your family can too.