8 World-Class Tips for Traveling with Chronic Illness

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 4 June 2018
  • 8 minute read
8 World-Class Tips for Traveling with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

With Summer approaching, are you dreaming of a holiday getaway? Breaking out of your daily rut, relaxing and exploring new surroundings surely is fun, but traveling with chronic illness comes with challenges. Have a look these world-class tips to make your journey and stay a little easier.

1. Choosing Your Destination and Transportation

You don’t always have a choice in where you’re going – work trips for example – but if you’re researching your next holiday destination, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • How many hours of traveling can you handle physically? That number should include energy-consuming things like checking in at the airport, delayed flights or getting stuck in traffic. Making this calculation gives you a ‘perimeter’ for destinations within your reach.
  • Which climates and temperatures best suit your health? Maybe you used to be a huge sun lover, spending your vacation relaxing on the beach – but now you’ve become sensitive to heat. Humidity, extreme cold or heat can exacerbate some medical conditions, like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Which destinations are easily accessible? If you have mobility problems, climbing the hilly streets of Lisbon or hiking in Yosemite park may not be the best choices. And when you’re going on a city trip, it’s wise to check the public transport options available, especially around your hotel or apartment. Are they wheelchair accessible if needed? Are there other way to easily get around – rented car, taxi, bicycles?
  • How will you get to your destination? Every mode of transport has its own advantages and disadvantages. Traveling by car gives you the most control over your route, where and when to stop for a break, how much luggage you can bring. But your travel range is limited, and sitting still in the same position for hours may be hurtful for your body. Of course hopping on a plane will take you further – and quickly – but getting to, around and from the airport can be exhausting. Not to mention factoring in the safety procedures and the hand luggage restrictions. You could also consider alternative modes of transportation, like the (night) train, ferry boat or going on a cruise. Another important thing to consider: do you need assistance to get to the gate, board the plane or transfer to the hotel?
  • What’s the best accommodation for you? Besides budgetary reasons, what’s most convenient place for you to stay? Camping may be idyllic, but not a great choice if you have aching joints. Staying in a hotel provides you with all kinds of services, but renting an apartment gives you more freedom for making your own meals or spending your evenings resting. An all-inclusive resort offers you sunbathing, restaurants and entertainment all in one place, while traveling by cruise ship, camper van or rail journeys show you the world from the comfort of your passenger seat. Look for the options that best suits the possibilities of you and your travel companions.

Also, make sure you check your insurances. Do you have a cancellation policy, and what does it say about getting ill before or during your holiday? Does your health insurance cover medical care abroad?

8 World-Class Tips for Traveling with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions
Images by Maria van Doorn.

2. What to Pack

It’s every traveler’s dream: packing light but still bringing all your essentials. When you’re traveling with chronic illness, you can’t always improvise and buy products locally. So when packing your bags, pay special attention to:

  • Your medication. It’s not just vital to bring your prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but also how to do so without getting into legal trouble. Which drugs are allowed varies from country to country, so make sure you check with your physician, pharmacist or travel agency weeks before departure. Keep all your medication and vitamins in the original packaging in your hand luggage. Also bring copies of the prescriptions or even better, get a so-called medication passport from your family doctor that lists all the medication you require and what for. Make sure to check the airport regulations for liquid drugs, gels and syringes when traveling by plane.
  • In Case of Emergency list. Write down essential information about your health: your medical history, the medication you take, potential allergies and the phone numbers of your treating physician and important family members. Hopefully you won’t need medical help abroad, but hey, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Comforting health items. Products that help manage your symptoms, like heat packs, a sleep mask, magnesium oil, support pillows or noise-cancelling headphones, can make your holiday more pleasant.
  • Comfortable shoes. Choose practicality over fashion. Your feet, joints and muscles will thank you.
  • Travel size aids. Depending on your health and destination, bring a small first aid kit, bug spray and hand sanitizer. Cash money can come in handy too in unforeseen circumstances. A power bank helps you to stay contactable at all times.
  • And of course, use luggage on wheels when possible.

3. Holiday Preparations

Thanks to the Internet, you can do much of your holiday planning from the comfort of your own home. It’s a big help to arrange your transfer from the airport to your hotel, book tickets for museums and excursions beforehand and make a list of potential places to eat that suit your food preferences. Think about what you want to see and do at your destination and research how you can make that possible for you. These preparations aren’t meant to take the spontaneity out of your vacation, but to save much-needed energy to enjoy your holiday instead of waiting in line.

The days leading up to your holiday, try to schedule in some pre-emptive rest. If you’re like me, buying the essential travel items and packing your bags can already be pretty tiring – and you haven’t even left home yet. So take enough time to arrange everything and start your journey somewhat rested. Oh and don’t forget to rest up for the trip back home too!

8 World-Class Tips for Traveling with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

4. The Journey Itself

Sitting still for a few hours sounds relaxing, but can be tiring and painful for people with all kinds of illness. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make the journey a little more comfortable.

  • Bring a neck pillow. It supports your head and helps you keep a decent posture, even when you fall asleep.
  • Put on ear plugs and an eye mask. Shut the world out for a while to prevent sensory overload and mental fatigue.
  • Pack healthy snacksFuel yourself with (dried) fruit, unsalted nuts, veggie sticks with hummus or healthy granola bars.
  • Stay comfortably warm. Especially on an airplane, it can get chilly. Wear layers of clothing and cover yourself with a soft, large scarf that doubles as a blanket.
  • Keep your blood and lymph flowing. Sitting down all day isn’t great for your body. Your blood and lymph flow become restricted, which can worsen muscle pain and headaches. Boost your circulation by regularly stretching your legs, doing some seated yoga poses, bring a small self-massager or put on compression socks.
  • Distract yourself. Boredom is never fun, but during travel it can make you even more aware of the pain, discomfort or tiredness you’re feeling. So keep your mind busy with in-flight entertainment, audiobooks, crossword puzzles or car games.

5. Setting Realistic Expectations

Unfortunately, you can’t take a holiday from your body or your illness. Even on the other side of the world, you face the same problems like you do at home. Maybe even more so, because you’re in unfamiliar surroundings that haven’t been modified to your personal situation.

Also make sure your travel companions have a clear picture of what you can and cannot do. You could discuss beforehand how you will handle things like how much you can do in one day, when you need to rest or special dietary requirements to prevent disappointment and arguments.

There are lots of different ways you can set realistic expectations. What’s always worked well for me were plans like:

  • Do one fun thing a day. It can be a big activity or something as simple as having a nice meal somewhere. If you need to take it super easy the rest of the day, that’s ok – you’ve had your fun.
  • One active day, one day of rest (and repeat). This kind of planning is especially helpful if you want to go on energy-consuming outings and/or need plenty of recovery time between activities.

Of course you want to do more, but when that’s not possible, a mindset like this can help you better accept your limitations.

8 World-Class Tips for Traveling with Chronic Illness
Image by Adam Stones

6. Making Fun Activities Doable

Within the spirit of realistic expectations, find ways to make whatever you’d love to do on holiday manageable for you. You may not be able to party all night long with friends, but perhaps you can go out for a drink early in the evening or listen to live music. And if you can’t explore a new city on foot, then discover it from a different angle: from a highpoint, on a hop-on hop-off bus, with a canal ride, driving a ricksha. You get the idea – a little creativity gets you far (well, at least further!).

7. Managing Your Energy Wisely

This may be the best advice my husband ever gave me: stop what you’re doing before you run out of energy. Sounds completely boring or impossible – those were my initial thoughts – and perhaps not how you enjoy your holiday. It’s not your typical go-with-the-flow, not-a-care-in-the-world kind of vacation attitude.

But being in new surroundings makes it harder to sense when you’re pushing yourself to far and overstep your boundaries. Plus, you have lots of unknown factors to work with, like what’s the fastest way to get back to the hotel or apartment and how long does that take? So alternate activities with rest, keep an eye out for the warning signs of exertion and pace yourself.

8. Embrace The Unknown

Remind yourself that things won’t be the same as home – that’s the whole point of going away. But change and not knowing what to expect can be difficult when you’re chronically ill, because not knowing what to expect makes it s much harder to anticipate, plan accordingly and manage your energy and symptoms.

Relaxing isn’t just a physical reaction, it’s a state of mind too. Be confident that you will find a way to manage new situations. And remember that the world is full of helpful people if you need a hand.

8 World-Class Tips for Traveling with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions
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What’s your best tip or trick for traveling with chronic illness? What’s the most challenging aspect of being on vacation for you? Happy & healthy holidays! 

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like How to Overcome Summertime Loneliness and 38 Staycation Ideas for a Happy Holiday at Home

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