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Authored by Katie O’Grady

Who would’ve ever thought that packing a carbon monoxide detector would be an essential and life-saving item in one’s travel-kit arsenal?

We certainly didn’t until tragedy struck and my husband nearly lost his life to carbon monoxide poisoning at a “boutique hotel” in Central Mexico.

After dropping our twins off at their much-anticipated 6th grade camp in a rural community outside of Guadalajara, Frank and I set out to enjoy our weekend together, knowing that our children would be in good hands in the company of their classmates and the Camp La Cañada counselors, including a medic on staff. Never forget a travel carbon monoxide detector. 

But instead of enjoying a romantic weekend of exploring and relaxing together, we spent it fighting for Frank’s life. So I pen an open letter to all travelers.

Travel with a Portable Carbon Monoxide Detector. They Save Lives!

How could such a thing happen?

After nearly three hours of working next to our hotel room window, where just on the other side was a malfunctioning hot water heater, Frank was overcome by severe visual disturbances, headache, confusion, difficulty speaking and weakness. Seriously – buy a travel carbon monoxide detector.

With ghost-white skin and dangerously high blood pressure, he feared he was forever leaving us. Truth be told–shaking down to my bones–I feared our time together in this realm had met its end.

How would I have picked my children up from camp without their daddy? Unthinkable. Carbon monoxide poisoning in hotels. 

Do mistakes and bad things just happen? Absolutely.

But in this case, the hotel management (with the owners out of town) had attached a temporary, yellow-flame spewing water heater to the outside of the room that we were bumped to due to overbooking on a busy, holiday weekend.

Our Family

OGrady's in Mexico

OGrady's in Mexico

Carbon Monoxide Leaks

Carbon monoxide, or CO is a colorless, odorless gas produced by burning material containing carbon. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause brain damage and death. You can’t see it, smell it, or taste it; but carbon monoxide can kill you. So you should have a portable co detector for travel. 

The gas is formed when organic compounds burn. The most common sources are motor vehicle exhaust, smoke from fires, engine fumes, and, where a hotel might be concerned, nonelectric heaters.

Confirmation by the hotel staff that two carbon monoxide leaks had been found in this water heater and all of Frank’s symptoms clearly pointed to CO poisoning. He got carbon monoxide poisoning from a hotel room.

Red Cross, hospital and hyperbaric chamber tests and treatment further confirmed it. It was not an allergic reaction, it was not a heart attack, it was not a stroke. It was carbon monoxide poisoning

Only time away from the source and continuous oxygen therapy including two 80-minute hyperbaric treatment sessions saved his life. Frank is a 25-year veteran retired firefighter. Talk about irony.

A Terrifying Experience

As a result of this terrifying experience, we now ALWAYS travel with carbon monoxide detectors and highly recommend to others that they too acquire several for both home and travel purposes.

Carbon monoxide is silent, odorless and tasteless.

While this was a brutal experience we would never wish on anyone, it is our hope that via the sharing of our story, we will help to inform, empower and protect others. And convince you to have a travel carbon monoxide detector.

In peace, health and gratitude for this one precious life.

Carbon Monoxide in Hotels

Only a handful of countries require carbon monoxide detectors in hotels. Prior to booking your accommodation, inquire as to whether or not high quality CO detectors are installed throughout the building.

Though even if hotels claim to have them installed, in order to save money, they often don’t follow through. You can buy them for as cheap as $16 on Amazon, so we recommend all travelers add this to their list of essentials.

The device is small enough to be conveniently kept in your car, purse, pocket, and especially important, your hotel room, and at the end of the day, you’re buying yourself peace of mind.

CO incidents in hotels are rare but they have killed people. CO is a very real danger. Early symptoms include headache, dizziness and nausea. As carbon monoxide builds up in your blood, symptoms get worse and may include confusion and drowsiness, fast breathing, fast heartbeat, or chest pain, vision problems and/or seizures.

If you have symptoms that you believe could be caused by carbon monoxide poisoning leave the area right away, in this case, your hotel room, and call an ambulance or visit the nearest hospital.

How You Can Protect Yourself

#1 Buy a Portable Carbon Monoxide Detector

Portable Carbon Monoxide Detector

First Alert CO250T Travel CO Alarm with Travel Bag

Portable Carbon Monoxide Detector

Detector Meter & Tester for Monitoring or Analyzing CO

Portable Carbon Monoxide Detector

First Alert CO400 Carbon Monoxide Alarm, Battery Powered

#2 Make SURE You Buy Travel Medical Insurance

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you might escape a Carbon Monoxide incident, but if you don’t have travel medical insurance, you’re going to end up with a very large hospital bill.

The cost of healthcare overseas is notoriously high – just a few days in hospital could bankrupt you depending on the country. So it’s absolutely essential that you travel with worldwide medical insurance.

We’re not joking or over exaggerating; even in developing countries, healthcare costs can be outrageous and put you into serious debt. Five days in South Africa for my friend in a shared hospital ward reached close to $10,000. He only had a broken arm.

When you consider that you can get travel medical insurance from a reliable company for as little as $37 for 4 weeks, it’s ridiculous to travel without it. We recommend insurance with SafetyWing.

Why We Recommend SafetyWing

It’s not good enough to just buy any travel medical insurance, you have to make sure that you’ve purchased it from a reliable provider.

If you spend money on a product that doesn’t do you any good, you’ve actually wasted money, which is worse than not having insured yourself at all.

We recommend SafetyWing because they’re a company specifically set up to insure nomads; people who travel full time. They cover people from all over the world, and include medical: hospital expenses, intensive care, ambulance, urgent care, and physical therapy.

These are the reasons we recommend their insurance:

Completely reliable: SafetyWing policies are administered by Tokio Marine, one of the largest insurance companies in the world. They are always available, offering 24/7 support.

Completely flexible: It works like a subscription; you can choose your start date and cancel any time. There is no cap on the duration of the trip and no need to know how long you’ll be travelling in advance. You can set up monthly auto-renewal payments to avoid having your coverage expire and forgetting to renew in time.

Completely Affordable! Travel medical coverage starts from $37 for 4 weeks of coverage. This is a third of the price of the biggest competitor for similar coverage.

Offers worldwide coverage, as well as limited home country coverage (up to 30 days every 3 months). It is available for purchase in 180 countries and can be purchased while you’re already traveling.

Young children included: 1 young child per adult (up to 2 per family) aged between 14 days and 10 years old can be included on the insurance without added cost.  

Seriously. Click to sign up for travel medical insurance now.

TELL PEOPLE ABOUT THIS ISSUE. SHARE ON YOUR PINTEREST BOARDS ↓

Katie is a 4th generation San Diegan, born and raised a half an hour away from the Mexican border. She is the lucky Mama to 12 year-old twins, wife to retired firefighter Frank, living and adventuring full time in mainland Mexico since November of 2012.

Follow the adventures of the O’Grady family on their blog, Los O’Gradys in Mexico, or connect via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

    54 Comments

  1. I always look for smoke detectors but never thought to consider carbon monoxide, as well. Thanks for writing and for your recommendations. Sorry for what you and Frank went through.

    • Thank you, Clare. It was a heck of an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone!
      And you are right, looking for smoke detectors is far more common than CO ones. I do hope the sharing of our experience helps to empower and protect others. #carbonmonoxideawareness

  2. TY for posting and sharing, Katie. After hearing what happened to Frank, I bought a travel carbon monoxide detector and take it with us wherever we go – Mexico or USA.

    • Glad to hear you’re now all set with a detector Mikel – crazy what happened to Frank. So glad he pulled through.

  3. Wow, what a truly scary experience you went through! It’s honestly something I never think about…..but realise now that I should! I travel alone a lot too so it’s probably even more reason to get one. Thanks for the advice.

    • I’m glad that we could share Katie’s story to bring the issue to your attention Louise :) I figure it’s so easy to travel with a portable detector that there’s no reason we shouldn’t be taking this step to ensure our safety.

      Safe travels XX

  4. How scary. I have a Carbon Monoxide detector at home but I’ve never had thought of carrying one to travel. Now obviously I will reconsider!

    • Glad to hear you have one at home – but also recommend a portable detector for travel :) Glad we could spread awareness with Katie’s story and bring it to your attention.

      Safe travels! X

  5. OH my goodness I’m so glad that this didn’t have a different ending! Portable carbon monoxide alerts are a great idea for travel – whether to a hotel or a friends or family members house!

    You can never be too cautious!

    • I know, it’s so scary to think what would have happened if they’d gone back to the hotel and laid down for a nap.

      Happy to help them in any way I can to spread awareness – so glad he was ok in the end.

    • Exactly Liz, I honestly take one with us now wherever we go to an enclosed space. Yes, I’m “that lady” with a CO detector in her purse! BYOB and BYOCO detector! Would much rather be safe than sorry after witnessing firsthand my husband’s near-death poisoning. I am grateful to Megan for sharing our story and spreading the awareness…thank you.

  6. Oh my gosh, what a harrowing tale. I’m so pleased it had a happy ending! It does really make you remember that not all countries have the same regulations or attitude to safety and carrying a portable CO detector could be a life-saver. Will share on Twitter.

    • Absolutely – when I heard about Katie’s story I thought that CO detectors should be fitted in every hotel room out of law, but you do take it for granted that every country will have the same regulations and laws to safety.

      Appreciate your share Hannah – we’re trying to spread as much awareness as possible about the issue.

  7. Something you would rarely think about when traveling. Definitely purchasing a travel CO2 detector is something to consider, especially when traveling to foreign countries.

    • It’s definitely something you don’t think about – but such a dangerous thing. So we’re trying to spread as much awareness as possible.

  8. In all honesty, I never consider this. I noticed that during my most recent trip to Bali, there were smoke detectors missing in almost every room, which kind of strartled me. I know people die of CO poisoning each year, but never considered this for hotel rooms. Thanks for the warning!

    • You’re not the only one – it’s not something people think about. It’s not something we ever thought about until last year when we had a similar scare to Katie in a cabin in Alaska.

      Really crazy to hear that the smoke detectors were missing from your room in Bali. Definitely a wake up call that not all countries have the same level of legislation and enforcement as we might take for granted in our home countries.

      Highly recommend picking up a CO detector for your next trip. Travel safe! XX

  9. Never thought of this although we have them in our house and they’re fitted in planes. We have seen a few reports of tragedies in Greece and other resorts. The families were on package holidays with ‘big’ holiday companies and the hotels and villas were meant to be of a high standard, not a backstreet hostel.

    • I’m glad to hear you have detectors in your house Marcus / Mel … I’ve started to hear reports of tragedies in hotels and resorts too – hadn’t heard the story out of Greece though. Goes to show that it’s not being “paranoid” or over cautious to travel with your own detector – it could legitimately save your life.

      Safe travels XX

  10. Scary and new to me. Never knew a CO detector existed in the first place. Adding this to the checklist right away.

    • I’m glad that we could give you some information then Indrani – such a huge issue, but so many people just aren’t aware of it.

      Travel safe XX

  11. It was a scary incident and my heart goes out to Katie.
    A new thing and must follow for frequent travelers in today’s polluted world. I am certainly going to explore further on this CO detector. I live in Delhi and can feel an urgent need to buy one for home as well.

    • Thanks Himanshu – yes I definitely recommend purchasing a second one for your home as well. It’s such a dangerous issue, so we can’t ever be to cautious or careful.

  12. This is such an eye opening post. The truth is that nothing like that incident has ever happened to me. If I were you, I would definitely ask each hotel for a detector before going there. This is a great lesson for all of us, bloggers and travelers. Organizing a trip is so much more than an itinerary. You have to think about safety first and foremost!

    • I’m glad to hear that nothing like this has ever happened to you Efthimis, but I’m glad we could share Katie’s story to inform you about the risks and dangers to be aware of in the future.

      Absolutely re safety always coming first. Travel safe! XX

  13. That’s a really scary experience and not one I’d expect to potentially encounter when traveling, especially when staying in hotels. I really hope that hotel took care of all the hospital bills and then some for what they put you and your family through, Katie.

    I’m not sure I’d travel with a CO detector but I certainly should purchase one to have in my home.

    • You definitely wouldn’t expect it – but we actually ran into something similar in Alaska recently, the cabin CO detector was going off and the manager told us it was just low on battery. Wasn’t a great night in terms of stress and worry!

      They actually had a lot of trouble dealing with the hotel. If you’re interested she’s published their back and forth emails in a post on their website here: http://www.losogradysinmexico.com/my-retired-firefighter-husbands-carbon-monoxide-poisoning/

      Definitely start by purchasing one for home, but they’re so light and portable you could pack one in your travel essentials kit without even noticing it. Since it’s a silent, odorless and tasteless gas, the detectors are the only real way to know there’s something wrong.

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Nearly 2 years after my husband’s near-death CO poisoning, and the hotel management and owners have not had the decency to acknowledge what happened nor reimburse us for our many expenses incurred in saving Frank’s life. Shameful, to say the least.

      I can’t emphasize enough the importance of taking a CO detector for travel, or even 2 so you have one for back up.

      Kind Regards,

      Katie O’Grady

  14. Wow, what a terrible experience. Of course I had heard about CO and that it can kill people but I never imagined that it could be an issue for travelers. I will definitely consider buying one if they are that small (and can save my life!). Thanks for writing about this interesting topic

    • They really are that small, and really can save your life! Glad we could make you aware about the risk as a traveler. Trying to spread as much awareness and information as possible.

    • They are small that I put one of the several we now travel with into my purse because I had already closed up my suitcase. The alarm sounded when we stopped to get gas and when we were behind a city bus, inside of our car. That was proof enough for me that they are designed to be very sensitive and pick up varying levels of carbon monoxide. Something so simple and so affordable can save your life. #carbonmonoxideawareness

    • Yes, not good! Hopefully we can spread awareness so others don’t have to face the same.

  15. Thank you for this most helpful article. I came across your website after googling ‘portable Carbon Monoxide devices’ having reading last week of a Spanish man who died in a FOUR STAR hotel in Kensington London, his friend is on life support. It is quite shocking that this can also happen in a first world capital city. These two men in their thirties were over for the weekend to see the musical ‘Hamilton’ (one of them was a film-maker). Their friends came to the hotel when they didn’t meet them as arranged. It was too late for one of them. Imagine they choose a high star rating in an excellent part of London (Kensington Palace is not that far away) and still this happened. Shocking…
    So glad your story had a happy ending.

    • Hi Fifi, thanks for reaching out, I hadn’t heard about the Spanish man who passed away in London yet – that’s so tragic – and you’re right – it’s SO scary that this happens even in luxury high end hotels in what is one of the most advanced and westernized cities in the world.

      It’s a very very scary thing – it’s not overreacting or silly at all to be traveling with a portable detector – it could just save your life.

      Thanks for reaching out. Safe travels XXX

  16. Do you recommend one for traveling? How does that work in airports though security?

    • Hi Christine, I absolutely recommend a portable detector for travel – you can never really trust a hotel’s technology 100%, so having one yourself is extra peace of mind, and it really could kick in and save a life.

      Re airports and security, pack it in your checked luggage, and you’ll never have any issue – but keep the batteries out of the actual device. Check the restrictions on batteries for the specific country you’re traveling too – for instance, Katie’s experience is that you’ll have to have the batteries unopened in their original packaging for travel to and from Mexico.

      Hope that helps. Safe travels XX

  17. Too bad the Family of four from Iowa didn’t see this before their deadly Mexican condo vacation. So glad FF Brother Frank didn’t get to the pearly gates via CO2

    • I was heartbroken to hear that :( All of a sudden last week I noticed huge spikes in traffic to this post, and was devastated to find out why. Yes, I’m so glad for Frank, and hopefully everyone who has visited this page over the past week will purchase a portable detector for their travels. Stay safe XX

    • CO2 (Carbon Dioxide)? Don’t you mean CO – Carbon Monoxide? It is CO that is the danger you need to detect. You need a CO detector. Not a CO2 detector. Very different molecules!

    • My husband was one of the “lucky ones”, Dane. And just for clarification, it is CO, not CO2. My heart breaks for The Sharp Family and their loved ones left to deal with this unthinkable and totally preventable tragedy. #4Sharp

  18. Fantastic post.Ne’er knew this, appreciate it for letting me know.

    • I’m glad we could give you some information then Bovian, it’s a really important thing to make sure you’re safe from. Safe travels.

    • Hi Danuta – this is Katie O’Grady’s story. You can find links to her website and social media accounts in the authors bio at the end of the post, just above where the comments start :)

  19. This is a really timely post for me, Megan. Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple visiting San Miguel de Allende from the US died in an AirBnB apartment one block from my home from… Carbon Monoxide poisoning due to a faulty water heater. I’ve never had a CM detector before. But you can bet I am shopping for one right now. And another for travel.

    • Really sorry to hear that Donna :( Scary when it’s so close to you even though it’s not someone you know. This may not happen often, but it’s not something that’s worth risking, because it DOES happen, and it’s not worth risking even the slightest chance that it’ll happen to you.

      Glad to hear that you’re shopping for them to take with you on future trips. Safe travels! XX

    • Donna, I was so sad to read this story…CO poisoning is easily prevented by regular maintenance on all gas-fueled appliances AND CO detectors. I pray for their loved ones left behind to make sense of this senseless tragedy.

  20. Oh! Scary it is. I never knew a thing about CO poisoning and CO detectors. Invaluable piece of information. Sharing this so others could learn from this incident and be extra cautious. I’m buying a CO detector right now.

    • So glad to hear that Anjali; I’m glad that Katie’s story could make you aware of the risks. It really is so important to practice caution with this.

      Safe travels!

  21. Thank you for the reminder, I just ordered one. We are travelling to Australia and New Zealand this summer/their winter and I anticipate some room heating devices in our AirBnB rentals. Better safe than sorry!

    • Really glad to hear it Nicolene :) Absolutely, in this type of situation it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Australia / NZ in general are very safe, but when you’re staying at private places like on Airbnb, you never know.

      I hope you have an amazing trip, I’m in Australia so I’m bias but two best countries in the world :D

      Happy travels :)

  22. My husband recently purchased a travel CO detector. It’s an off-brand so we’re going to test it out. If it works i’m going to buy one for all my family members for Christmas. They all travel and stay in hotel rooms, cruise ships and residential homes.

    • Glad to hear it G :) And I think it’s a really great idea for your family members for Christmas, practical gifts are the best!

      Safe travels XX

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