On She Goes

How to Travel with a Chronic Illness

With some thoughtful strategies and planning, you can travel every corner of the world despite being diagnosed with a chronic illness.

Alexis Dent
Alexis Dent
May 15, 2017
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Although traveling is often depicted as an activity for unencumbered and carefree folks, those with chronic illnesses shouldn’t be left out. With some thoughtful strategies and planning, you’ll find that you can explore every corner of the world you wish—despite the most frustrating of diagnoses. Whether your illness manifests itself in the form of chronic pain that could prevent you from backpacking through Europe or digestive upset that could stop you in your tracks in a foreign country, traveling with chronic illness can be worrisome. Luckily, traveling is also more accessible now than ever for those with chronic illness. Give this guide a read, give your favorite travel buddy a call, and then get out there to see the world.

photo by Alexis Dent

Travel with a Partner
Having a travel partner is perhaps the single most useful tip for those traveling with chronic illness. Your partner does not have to be a romantic partner; a friend or colleague can be just as helpful to ensuring you have the proper emotional and physical support.

Before traveling, make sure your travel buddy is debriefed on exactly how to handle your illness in the case of a flare-up or symptom relapse. This is particularly pertinent with international travel, when it is doubly important for your travel buddy to know the risks of your illness, how to appropriately handle a medical incident, whether you have any allergies to certain medications, and what loved ones should be notified in case of an emergency.

Don’t fret: talking all of this over with your travel partner doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom! Kicking back with a bottle of wine and forming a plan of action in a relaxed environment is a great way to inform your travel companion without making travel preparations a sad or stressful experience. However, not everyone has a pal who can just drop everything and travel the world. If that’s the case, never fear. You may have to do some extra preparation if you’re going solo, but traveling often lends itself to new friendships, and there may be kind souls ready to lend you a hand as you make your way across the globe.

Bonus: Purchase a medical bracelet that will inform medical practitioners of allergies and illnesses you may have. If you know you’ll be in a country where a different language is spoken, it might make sense to translate your information. Not only will it be useful in the event of an emergency, but it’s like a travel companion that’s just an arm’s length away at all times.

It’s important to consider the effects of travel before your plane even leaves the gate.

Travel Insurance
Travel insurance may seem like an unnecessary expense, but “better safe than sorry” is a timeless adage for a reason. Travel insurance is usually a small fraction of your total trip value, making it a logical add-on in order to protect your investment. Whether you need to cancel your trip last minute for a refund or you have a medical expense while traveling that you need covered, travel insurance offers peace of mind from the moment you book until you arrive back home. Additionally, typical travel insurance allows you to cancel your trip (without penalty) in the event of a natural disaster or a work emergency or lay off, as well as jury duty, bankruptcy, and many other reasons that may impede your travel after you’ve booked your trip. Like any insurance policy, it’s important to research and read the policy’s clauses before signing on the dotted line.

Whether you take a daily prescription or just occasionally when you have a flare-up, it is crucial to ensure that you have enough pills for each prescription to last you the entirety of your trip, plus additional doses in the event of a travel delay. If you are nearing the end of your current prescription and will run out while you’re away, you may ask your doctor to refill the number of prescriptions needed to tide you over until you return. And whenever possible, make sure your meds are in your carry-on for easy access.

If you are traveling domestically in the US and are unable to receive the necessary prescription(s) before you embark on your travels, your pharmacist may be able to send your prescription to a pharmacy near where you’ll be staying. But your best bet on international travel is to get your prescription filled before taking off.

It’s important to consider the effects of travel before your plane even leaves the gate. For example, if you need some type of shot or treatment before leaving, will it cause any side effects that would negatively impact your travel? Could it have complications that would pose an issue? Likewise, what is the environment like in the region to which you’re traveling? If you have asthma, cystic fibrosis, or any other lung impediment, you may want to avoid heavily polluted areas and/or have your inhaler (and other medical necessities) on your person at all times. If you have a disability that hinders your movement, you may need to research how handicapable the city you’re visiting is. It is totally possible to travel the world with chronic illness; you’ve just got to do your homework.

Living with a chronic illness does not mean you have to erase all of the lofty travel dreams on your to-do list.

Look up Nearby Resources
It is always a wise strategy to research the medical resources you may need while traveling. For example, if you have a disease that requires dialysis, you can get in touch with clinics that offer dialysis services, just so you know what’s around. Finding the nearest hospital or clinic ahead of time can offer you serious peace of mind.

There may be language or cultural barriers that make finding and/or utilizing nearby resources a challenge. Here’s where the Internet saves the day: not only can you look up travel guides specific to your region that will include information like safe places to access medical care and/or English-speaking establishments, but you can also utilize translating services. (You know what they say: there’s an app for that.) Bravolol, for example, allows you to access the terminology and pronunciation for common phrases and questions in over 12 languages. Meanwhile, Google Translate will allow you to vocalize what you need translated and can even translate text on a newspaper or street sign.

It is crucial to always have a plan B. Although planning for a medical emergency is the exact opposite of a walk in the park, it is often necessary when you’re traveling with a chronic illness. Whether your plan B is to hop on the next flight back home or to head to the nearest safe medical clinic, having a plan of action in the event of a worst-case scenario may help ease your mind. And remember the word “worst” in “worst-case scenario”—your trip will probably go off without a hitch, but it’s always better to be safe rather than sorry.

Living with a chronic illness does not mean you have to erase all of the lofty travel dreams on your to-do list. I try to prepare as much as possible and keep a positive outlook so that I’m not being defeatist—and that allows me to enjoy my travels that much more. Seize the day and buy that plane ticket! Just make sure to do some due diligence first.