If you have followed me for a while you will know how much I love travelling. Travelling is something that has given me experience and perspective that remain some of my greatest motivators in my health journey. It is the ultimate freedom.
In my teens I was blessed to have a doctor that recognised that travel was something that I found fulfilling and saw as an important part in of leading a meaningful life. Instead of opposing my adventures he respected my choice and made it as easy and as safe for me to do so as possible – though he still does laugh with a “I-can’t-believe-you-were-THAT-crazy tone” about some of the times I waltzed into his office and announced plans to a new off the beaten track destination. I wouldn’t take back those experiences for one second however his concern was with due reason – traveling with chronic illness is far more complicated than it is for the wider community.
My adventures haven’t been completely without hairy-scary moments – dengue fever in Mexico, a bad episode of haemoptysis in the back of a cab in North America (without travel insurance) and arriving in China without digestive enzymes probably top that list, but for the most part I have been very lucky which I credit largely to a list of non-negotiable travel rules which I have developed over time.
As someone who now travels almost monthly, here are my top tips for enjoying your time away.
- Start planning a packing list as soon as you have locked in your holiday.
Put a note pad in an easily accessible place and begin adding to it – you will be grateful for it in the final days before you leave. It is those things that seem obvious but get forgotten at the last minute that can cause the most stress.
- Don’t risk the small stuff.
Getting sick from something easily preventable is one of the most frustrating ways to spend your holiday. There are a few staples that I keep on me at all times to minimise the chances of this happening; hand sanitiser that clips to a spot in my handbag for easy access, wet antibacterial wipes for aeroplane tray tables, hotel room surfaces and my phone, a Vog mask for plane, train or bus travel and a saline nasal spray to use regularly.
- Be insured!
This one doesn’t require much explanation but I can’t say it enough! I know for some conditions this is easier typed than done but it is worth looking into every option before deciding to go without or not take that bucket-list trip. Travel agents or patient advocacy groups can sometimes offer helpful recommendations about which companies are more lenient with their coverage options.
For those unable to take out a policy due to a chronic pre-existing condition (I am one!) it is sometimes still possible to get coverage for accidents and illness that are unrelated which is well worth it!
- If you can’t take out insurance have a plan C!
If you don’t have the luxury of an insured plan B, seriously consider plan C. If you decide to travel without insurance work closely with your medical team to evaluate the risk and come up with ways to minimise it. Personally, the benefit of travel in the past few years has outweighed the risks for me but I have always carefully considered what I would do in case of an emergency.
For longer trips overseas having the details for a medical centre with the specialties you require or a local foundation/organisation that has an understanding of the health system at your destination is a reassuring start. If you are an Australian citizen some countries have reciprocal agreements that you provide you with some level of publicly funded care if the worst does happen.
If traveling within your own country be sure to pack the things you would need if you had to turn up at a doctor’s surgery or emergency room – social security card (Medicare card here in Australia) and your private health insurance details if applicable. Always take those ‘occasional’ medications that you might need in a worst case scenario or to account for a change in diet, atmosphere or sleeping arrangements.
- When it comes to hotel rooms don’t assume!
This one could be a blog post all on it’s own. I have learnt that issues are so much easier to deal with ahead of time by calling and clarifying any extra requirements with the hotel directly. Don’t assume things will be provided or that the room has been cleaned the same way you would at home.
Confirming things such as a bar fridge or microwave to prepare treatments/medications, room proximity to elevators or hotel facilities and hygiene concerns such as bathrooms requiring a deep clean prior to your arrival (I still find it surprising how many hotels find ‘just a little bit’ of mould acceptable) can save considerable time and stress when you reach your destination exhausted!
Other considerations include taking your own dust mite proof pillow case for those with breathing difficulties and ensuring surfaces are wiped down with antibacterial wipes for those susceptible to germs (don’t forget the TV remote!).
- Hang in the club!
Airport lounge membership might seem a luxury however, if it ensures you can enjoy the holiday you have invested in it comes at a small cost. Lounge membership often means less walking to gate lounges and a space away from larger, more condensed crowds.
For long haul travel, lounges generally offer clean and private places to do treatments or take medications if necessary which help you arrive at your destination fighting fit and ready for action. In my experience having lounge access also means during delays or cancellations your plans are much more efficiently dealt with, again away from the chaos and crowds that generally ensues.
- Save energy.
It makes sense to save as much energy as you can for the good bits! It might seem silly at the time or mean swallowing your ego but if it means you are more able to enjoy your precious time away it is worth it!
Using elevators and escalators in airports or on the long days and taking advantage of airline transfers between terminals and gate lounges is totally acceptable for anyone living with chronic illness – visible or not! Don’t try and do it all – use your energy on the things that matter. Even if you feel fine at the time you might appreciate it at the end of the day!
- Quote the doctor!
I can’t emphasise this enough, carry a doctor letter at all times! There was a time I didn’t think my degree of illness warranted carrying one of these – especially for domestic travel however this is now a must have regardless of your condition or the number of medications you travel with.
Planning this well ahead of time is important, not all doctors can whip one up at a moments notice. A doctor letter will ensure you medications are not taken away from you by a grumpy air hostess, will often enable you to have extra hand luggage for medical purposes and can be useful for getting priority if flights need to be changed.
Ensure it includes a brief summary of your recent medical history, confirmation that you are medically safe to fly if there could be any doubt, a comprehensive list of all the medications you take – prescription and over the counter and specifically states they must remain with you at all times and not be stored underneath the cabin where temperatures are not stable. Copy this letter and guard it with your life, as you would your passport.
*Please note some medical conditions require prior authorisation for flying be sure to check this with your airline and medical team.
- Less is best.
Many companies make ‘travel sized’ versions of everyday medical equipment. This saves baggage space and the energy it takes to lug it around. While investing in these items for a single trip can be a huge expense, looking into options for hire can be a practical solution. Your patient advocacy group is a great place to start. If utilising this type of service be sure to check that your hire plan or travel insurance covers loss or theft of the item.
- BYO snacks.
A holiday wouldn’t be a holiday without indulging in some special treats and local delicacies! However, it is still possible to do this as well as making sure you are getting some nourishing foods in to take care of your body and particularly your immune system.
A pre-arrival google search of cafes close to your hotel where you might be able to grab a green smoothie or super salad, packing healthy snacks so you don’t have to eat the unhealthy stuff when it isn’t worth doing so (hmmm… plane food) and investing in some travel sized, nutrient dense supplements so you can dose up each day, are all tactics I pull out of my bag of (travel) tricks regularly.
- Pack like a pro!
Having organised luggage makes travel life so much easier! While it is temping to put some of those bulky medications and equipment in your checked luggage it really is safest to keep it with you. Even then, packing some spares and splitting your supply of critical medications is a good idea.
Utilising the compartments in your bag/case as well as containers and snap lock bags to separate all your goods makes finding things a breeze but be sure to pack them in a way that means they won’t go flying if you need to open up before you arrive at your destination (helloooo pills all over the floor at airport security).
I like to take pill boxes to sort out all of my medications the way I would at home and make it easy to remain compliant and healthy – even on the busiest trip. For international travel I leave all of my medications in their original packets and only organise my pill boxes once I arrive at my destination, because traveling with boxes packed with pills is generally frowned upon by customs!
Keep in mind most airlines don’t have refrigeration facilities so investing in quality long-life icepacks will prevent the dripping bag full of melted ice scenario or the deterioration of mediations. It is also worth checking with your pharmacy or the maufacturer if your refrigerated medications do require constant refrigeration. Some medications that state they need to be keep in the fridge do so for long term storage purposes however for once-off shorter periods (sometimes up to 24 hours) will be totally ok!
- Take a break!
Back to back activities always seem like a great idea at the time but sometimes the joy of being on holiday is slowing down and enjoying the moment. Shift your mindset when it comes to booking up every minute of down time. In my experience quality over quantity wins every time, so make a list of ‘the must do’s’ and from there see if you have time for the other things rather than allowing FOMO (fear of missing out) to rule the itinerary. Perhaps having days of doing nothing during your time away will mean you enjoy the things that matter most even more!
Above all, have fun, enjoy the moment and remember fear is the killer of all joy. If you decide something is worth taking a risk, do it wholeheartedly!