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6 Things Every Traveler Must Know Before Going to Brazil This Summer

You can travel visa-free, but is visiting a Zika-infected country worth the risk?

U.S. News & World Report

6 Things Every Traveler Must Know Before Going to Brazil This Summer

Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

These tips can help you navigate the risks before planning your trip.(Getty Images)

With just a few months left until the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this August, now is the time to decide if you want to squeeze in a last-minute trip to Brazil. But with the rapid spread of the Zika virus prompting a flurry of travel alerts and advisories, including a Level 2 alert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many would-be Olympic-goers are wondering whether making the trip is a sensible decision. And to add fuel to the flames, the Brazilian government is offering a 90-day visa waiver for U.S. visitors from June 1 to Sept. 18 in hopes of giving the country a tourism-fueled financial boost, but there are widespread concerns that the safety of the new infrastructure could be compromised due to the inflated budget for the games. To help you navigate the risks of experiencing the games in Rio this summer, we caught up with seasoned experts to pinpoint the top things every traveler must know before heading to Brazil, along with preventive strategies for ensuring comfort and safety.

Know the Health Risks

While the Zika virus has been described as an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization, it's important to keep in mind that only in rare or extreme cases the virus has been linked to life-threatening symptoms. In fact, it's considered generally safe for the typical traveler to visit Zika-impacted destinations. "Unless you are pregnant or are planning to be pregnant soon, I don't see the Zika virus as a justification to skip travel," says Dean Foster, a cross-cultural travel expert and contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler.

With that said, the CDC recommends certain precautions for women who are pregnant or who are trying to become pregnant and men who are planning to visit Brazil and have a pregnant partner. If you are pregnant, the CDC advises not attending the Olympics, and if you fall under one of later categories, the CDC recommends talking with your health care provider before you go to learn about smart actions you should take, including critical steps to prevent mosquito bites and using condoms or refraining from sexual contact, to avoid transmission of the virus. Of course, contracting the virus does pose a serious threat to pregnant women, as Zika has been tied to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes brain damage, but "we're always hearing the most dangerous tip of the iceberg," Foster says. While it's critical to stay cognizant of challenges and travel with an awareness of current issues, he says visitors shouldn't be deterred from planning a trip.

That said, dengue, another mosquito-borne disease that's prevalent in Brazil and the tropics, can affect anyone, so it's critical to arm yourself and take necessary precautions. Another health risk: the water. Foster cautions against drinking any tap water (or drinks with ice cubes) and recommends you check to make sure that the cap snaps on any bottled beverage to ensure you're consuming pure water. Also, keep in mind that while actions have been taken to reduce the high levels of pollution, bacteria and waterborne viruses in Rio's waters, swimming, bathing and wading in the water remains unsafe.

Protect Yourself

"If you're pregnant, follow the advice of the CDC," says Phil Sylvester, chief content and communications officer and world travel expert at World Nomads. Sylvester emphasizes the importance of discussing your options with your doctor. "Wear long-sleeved clothing, full-length pants or a skirt, put insect repellent on exposed skin (at least 30 percent DEET), and make sure you sleep in mosquito-proofed accommodations," he says, pointing to beds with a mosquito net and protected air-conditioned hotel rooms as safe bets.

"There is no vaccine or immunization at present for Zika, and there may not be for many years," he says, adding, "The only protection is prevention." He stresses the importance of sporting loosefitting attire and insect repellent at all times, and confirming that your bedroom "is sealed and air-conditioned."

Act Soon to Score a Deal and Ensure Availability

"The dollar is strong over the real right now," explains Skift Business editor Grant Martin, highlighting that bargain-hunters who move quickly can secure deeply discounted airfare, making the long trip worthwhile. The reasoning behind the low-cost tickets: high competition among airlines. While major carriers such as JetBlue, Virgin America, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines offer travelers the chance to refund, postpone or change travel plans if they had booked tickets to a Zika-impacted destination (rules vary according to the airline's individual policy), a variety of regional carriers are dropping their rates to entice travelers. Carriers such as LATAM Airlines Group are offering round-trip flights from New York to Rio de Janeiro for under $650, making the journey more affordable for travelers on a budget.

If you haven't already locked in a place to stay, you can still find accommodations, however, the longer you procrastinate, the steeper the nightly rate. Popular Rio neighborhoods, including Copacabana, Barra de Tijuca and Ipanema are expected to see a spike of visitors, cautions Jon Gray, chief revenue officer of HomeAway. According to Gray, "Copacabana has about 700 rentals still available for the month of August," and prices are averaging at a nightly rate of about $393. And Barra de Tijuca and Ipanema have about 600 rentals available, with nightly rates averaging $299 and $413, respectively, Gray says. "Rental rates are inflated for the Olympics, but just like any event or high season, prices tend to rise with increased demand," Gray adds.

And as far as the Olympics are concerned, popular events are already sold out. However, CoSport still shows tickets for games such as golf and basketball, and it's possible that additional tickets will become available through CoSport or other retailers.

Understand the Current Climate, and Calculate the Risks

"Everyone needs to make their own risk assessment," Martin says, noting that he and his travel companions took a statistical approach to evaluating the risk for a spring jaunt to Rio, and after a critical evaluation, traveling to Brazil didn't seem like a much higher risk than visiting a country with an extremely high crime rate. So, it's important to measure potential crime and other dangers, but it's also important to assess your personal risks, such as your health history and whether Zika and dengue pose a serious threat to you.

And as Foster points out, the economic state of Brazil is much like the developing world. Yet, it's stable enough that the International Olympic Committee chose to host the 2016 Games in Rio, signaling the city has a strong infrastructure despite political and economic volatility. "It's really no different from two-thirds of the world," he notes, advising travelers to take advantage of travel with eyes wide open.

Dodge Dangerous Areas, and Seek Out Support From Locals

While Rio is beautiful, exhilarating and affordable, the city does have high levels of street crime, and the Olympics are likely to entice thieves looking for unsuspecting tourists, Sylvester cautions. To maximize safety, he suggests ditching any flashy jewelry, keeping your phone tucked away and investing in an inexpensive camera rather than a DSLR. "Take only as much cash as you need for the day, and consider getting a travel-money card with a limited balance. That way if your card is lost, stolen or skimmed, you won’t lose your life's savings or give the crooks access to your identity," Sylvester says. And if you're planning to visit a crowded area, stay cognizant of your surroundings and your personal belongings, Sylvester says, emphasizing that it's easy to become a target for pickpockets if you're easily distracted.

Foster echoes similar sentiments, noting that Brazil's economics and typography, composed of oceans and mountains, conspire to make Rio a dangerous city. If you've never visited before, you can turn a corner and unexpectedly be in a dangerous area, he adds, noting that it's key to explore with a local and walk with large groups. And after dark, it's important to take extra precautions to avoid putting yourself in a threatening situation. Foster especially cautions against using an ATM at night. And Sylvester suggests using trusted taxis to get around the city. "Take a taxi even for short trips, but never use an unofficial taxi, and be extremely cautious about hailing one on the street. It's best to call a radio taxi (or have the venue you’re at call one for you)," he adds.

Familiarize Yourself With Brazil's Cultural Faux Pas

Travelers should keep in mind that there are many common gestures in the U.S. that take on a different meaning in Brazil. "There are some general hand gestures that really need to be avoided," Foster says, noting that the OK sign (placing your thumb and forefinger together) in Brazil is actually an offensive gesture. Embracing physical contact and acknowledging physical attributes quickly is another common practice among Brazilians, Foster says, emphasizing the importance of not being offended by statements that might be considered politically incorrect in the U.S. For example, it's not uncommon for locals to express curiosity in visitors of different ethnicities or comment on someone's appearance if they meet somebody who is noticeably obese. As Foster puts it, rather than being meant as a demeaning comment or a put-down, it's an endearing way to get to know you.

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