I’m a sucker for a good motto, and ‘travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer’ is one I throw around with great delight. Travel has gifted me many things- perspective on the wonderful life that I lead, confidence in my abilities, clarity about what I value, but above all, a sense of wonderment about the endless experiences the world has to offer.
When it comes to living with Crohn’s disease, other quotes spring to mind. ‘Fear is the thief of joy’ seems to sum it up quite nicely. Crohn’s has bestowed a slightly different set of traits upon me- inflexibility, crippling anxiety, and an unparalleled appreciation for a clean toilet within walking distance.
As anyone suffering from unpleasant symptoms can attest, fear of my condition has resulted in me avoiding many travel experiences. Helicopter ride? That would be a no. Sketchy bus trip to ancient ruins? Absolutely not. Long queues to enter a museum? I’ll google it…
When home is your safe zone but travel is your passion, what do you do when your body and interests are at odds with one another?
While I’m yet to fully conquer the anxious beast within, I have developed some handy tips for travelling with a chronic illness to best prepare myself for any challenges while I’m away.
My Tips for Travelling With A Chronic Illness
1. Visit Your Healthcare Professional
Before you head off on the trip of a lifetime, check in with your doctor. They are the most clued up on your condition and can make you aware of any risk factors before you’ve parted with your money. If applicable, ensure you grab the following:
- A summary letter of your medical condition: This may come in handy when communicating your medical needs to airlines, doctors or emergency staff in your destination country. It also serves as supporting documentation to explain why you are carrying certain medications. If required by your airline or insurance company, ensure they certify that you are medically cleared to fly in this letter.
- Medications List: Have your doctor provide more information about the exact medications you are taking, including the name of the active ingredient, dose (usually in mg) and frequency.
- Copies of your prescriptions: Ever lost your tablets overseas? It blows. Get some extras to keep in your suitcase as well as your hand luggage. It can’t hurt to bring the original prescription away with you as well.
- Advice on how to take your drugs if you are in travelling to a different time zone: Don’t assume you can gradually move the time you take your medications- seek your doctor’s approval first.
2. Research Restrictions
- Travelling with a chronic illness is a big turn off to insurance companies- sadly most won’t cover pre-existing health conditions. While there’s not much you can do about this, try researching policies that cover unexpected cancellations instead. Something is better than nothing!
- While it’s tempting to go for the cheapest flight or hotel deal, they usually come with a list of restrictions. I always recommend buying a flexible flight ticket or booking a room with free cancellation. The few extra dollars is worth it for peace of mind should your illness interrupt your plans.
- Check whether your chosen airline has any rules regarding travelling with medications.
- You may need a personal license to carry your medications into another country if they contain a controlled drug. Check in with the embassy of your destination country to confirm whether any of your drugs are on their list of prohibited substances- you’d be surprised!
3. Streamline Your Transport Experience
If there’s one thing sufferers of chronic illness hate it’s drawing attention to their differences. I used to feel mortified at the prospect of sharing my feelings with strangers, and probably shed years off my life with the silent stress I endured getting from A to B. Since I’ve learned to let go of this fear and prioritise my wellbeing, my uncertainties about the journey have halved. You are not burdening anyone by discreetly asking for help.
- A few days before your trip, phone both your airline and the airport to ask what provisions they have in place for those with a medical condition. They may be able to issue you with a fast pass, or provide a wheelchair if long distances are difficult for you. Some countries offer their citizens medical alert cards for this reason. If your condition is less severe but equally stressful, approach the staff at the front of the queue to explain the situation- for the most part, I find people are gracious and helpful.
- Select your seat in advance: Need an aisle seat near the toilet? Arrange this as far in advance as possible. In the event that you can’t find a suitable seat online, get to the airport early and chat with the check-in staff.
- Prebook your meal: This goes without saying, but if you have dietary requirements specific to your condition then arranging your meal in advance is essential. Most major airlines offer fantastic selections.
- Inform the check-in staff if you require early or late boarding on medical grounds. For long-haul flights, this service is usually complimentary, but short-haul operators may charge a small fee for speedy boarding. Consider whether this may lower your anxiety levels, and take advantage!
- Speak to the Cabin Manager when you board the plane regarding any special needs you have for your equipment, bathroom proximity or food and drinks. Sometimes I find just having 1 staff member ‘on side’ makes all the difference to my anxiety.
- Wear loose-fitting comfortable clothing, stay hydrated and try to relax!
4. Plan To Stay Well
- Never assume your hotel will have the amenities you need. If you need a small fridge for your medications or special access, confirm this before you arrive.
- Research medical centres and pharmacies in your area that have multilingual staff. The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers provide excellent resources for travellers and can connect you with local medical services that speak your language. Most good hotels also supply information on health services in their room compendium- they may even have an in-house doctor.
- Familiarise yourself with basic local terminology to describe your condition or dietary requirements. I once attempted to use Google Translate to convey that I had stomach pain in Khmer- it did not go down well. I think it actually said I was dying! Equip yourself with this knowledge in advance.
- Remove the uncertainty by researching cafes or restaurants that cater to your dietary requirements ahead of time.
- Order wisely: Stay away from anything that might give your immune system a knock. I always avoid ice, unpasteurised dairy, and (sadly) most street kiosks. Know your limits when it comes to trying new things.
- Put together a little pack of essentials that travel with you wherever you go. Think hand sanitiser, pain relief, masks, wipes, water- anything that will promote you feeling well.
5. Reduce The Pressure
- Educate your travel buddies: I have a supreme fear of letting my travel companions down. I hate to think my condition has resulted in others not enjoying themselves fully as I sit pale-faced and exhausted in a corner. If you are travelling with friends, manage expectations early and let them know you might bow out of planned events if you’re feeling rough. You’ll feel like less of a killjoy, and have the freedom to go home guilt-free.
- Prioritise which sites you want to see: There is always the temptation to go-go-go on holiday and cram as many attractions into a day as possible. When you have a chronic illness, this is going to burn you out hard and fast- and risk leaving you with extreme FOMO. Categorise attractions into 2 lists- ‘must-see’ and ‘would be nice’. If you tick off all your ‘must-sees’, you’re much less likely to consider the holiday a fail if you do have a symptoms flare.
- Be prepared to splurge for comfort: If you start feeling a little left of centre, be flexible with your plans. Take a taxi home. Eat in the restaurant rather than cook for yourself. Upgrade yourself to a private room if the idea of diarrhoea in a dorm makes your soul shiver. Do whatever it takes to look after yourself- and remember to schedule some rest days!
6. Pack A Positive Attitude!
The most suitable motto I can muster here is ‘fear is the thief of joy’. You’re on holiday! You could spend the whole time worrying about what could go wrong (and I’ll admit this is the part I struggle with), but first and foremost you are here to enjoy new experiences and nourish your mind. Be content with the research you have done. Be prepared to be flexible, but stay within the confines of your comfort zone. Accept that your plans may change. Above all, try to enjoy yourself!
I hope my tips for travelling with a chronic illness have provided you with food for thought in planning your next journey!
What are some strategies you swear by when travelling with a chronic illness?