Tips for traveling with chronic iillness

It seems, these days, everyone knows at least one person with a chronic illness. This could be diabetes, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or any number of other incurable diseases or disorders. Some people with such illnesses choose not to travel or cannot because of their condition. But many do travel.  People with these disorders face a host of challenges healthy people never need to consider unless they are traveling with a chronically ill person. Such challenges can range from heat intolerance, muscle fatigue, drops in insulin levels, or even traveling with a cane or some other mobility assistance. I am one of the people who travel despite illness. I was diagnosed in 1995 with Multiple Sclerosis. To date, I have visited 24 countries on 5 continents as well as taken 6 cruises and traveled to many parts of the US in the years since my diagnosis. Have my travels been without certain challenges? Of course not, but it can be done with some preparation. Here are a few tips to help make travel more manageable for you or a travel partner.

Scheduling Your Trip and Your Activities

Before leaving for a trip, it is a good idea to schedule with your limitations in mind. If you are heat sensitive consider traveling in a region’s cooler months. There could be an added benefit to this. In many cases, it could be less expensive to travel then because it’s considered off-peak. If you do not do well with the cold, you might want to skip Greenland in the winter. Try a South America cruise in February which is their summer. Also, consider the time of day that you want to schedule tours and other activities. You probably do this at home so the same rules apply when traveling. Many people with chronic illnesses say they are better in the morning. If that is your situation, schedule morning activities and leave time to rest in the afternoon. If after taking time to rest you feel up to it head back out for an early evening.

Traveling with Medication

Those with chronic illnesses frequently have a host of medications and supplements in their self-care regimen. There are some things you may want to consider. I always make sure to carry on my medication. Along with prescription, it is a good idea to have a printout from your physician with all your medication. It is often advised that you carry your pills in their original bottles. The last thing I want is to land in a foreign country without it. This is my main priority because I cannot think of a single thing that would put a damper on a trip quicker. For the first 10 years of having MS, I was on an injectable medication that required refrigeration or at least to remain cool. This means carrying an ice pack. I have had issues with that at security. It has shown up as something they could not identify on the scanner. I simply needed to take it out of the bag. Another consideration with medication that requires refrigeration is where you will store it while at your location. Make the hotel or cruise line aware in advance that you will require a refrigerator in your suite. Today treatment of chronic illness and pain as well as a host of other conditions includes the use of CBD products. If you are a traveler that uses these products there are a host of things you should know before tossing it in your carry-on. This is especially true of traveling Internationally with CBD.

Make Your Medical History Available

If you could not communicate for yourself or a language battier exist between you and medical personnel, how would you make your condition known?  A medical alert bracelet or a band like the one I wear from Road ID could be a lifesaver. It may be the difference between getting the proper treatment or worse death. My band has a number on it that first responders can plug into Road ID’s web-based database to obtain all my important medical information. This includes past and present illness, medications, past surgeries, emergency contact information, all my doctors, and even family history. I tell the people I am traveling with what it is so if necessary they can inform emergency medical personnel how to obtain the information. In the US most medical response people will be aware of how this works but that may not be the case in other countries.

Self-care and Energy Conservation

Air travel can take a lot out of anybody. It is probably best to avoid making huge plans for the day you arrive. On my first day in a location, I will typically try to get my bearings. I get a map and try to familiarize myself with the city. This is often enough. Another great way to get familiar with a city without a lot of walking is using the Hop-On, Hop-Off buses that you find in many cities. Standing and walking for a significant amount of time can really drain us. This is why I carry a cane wherever I go though I typically do not require the assistance. However, there have been times in my life where I have needed one. I have a cool folding cane that is funky colors. Because it folds up, I can throw it in my backpack or handbag and pull it out if needed. Even if you are not concerned with balance or walking issues, using a cane or other assistive device can really help conserve energy. However, don’t wait until you are exhausted to use it. Use it to stave off the fatigue. A bad case of fatigue could otherwise put end to the day.

Avoid Crowds and Long Lines

Since we are talking about assistive devices and energy levels, consider the crowds when planning. You may not want to visit the Vatican and Sistine Chapel during Easter week. Mobility could become a real source of frustration. For that matter, depending on the type of assistance you require you may want to skip the Sistine Chapel altogether as it is mobbed most days. If you have your heart set on it, get recommendations for the best time to visit or look into a tour that starts before a site opens for general admission. A word about long lines; if you have to wait for entry into an exhibit or site, this is an opportunity to grab a break. When I was in Istanbul in 2015, we had a long wait outside Topkapi Palace. My friend graciously offered to stay in line while I went and sat in the shade or went to the café. I would not have thought to ask. It was such a great relief as it was incredibly hot and heat is not the friend of anyone with MS. The most important thing is to listen to your body. If it is telling you to stop, do it. Take a break at a café. Stay as long as you need in order to continue or to make it back to your hotel or continue. There is no point in forcing yourself to keep going. You will pay for it in the end. No one wants to spend their time in their hotel room when visiting an exotic land but by not listening to your body, you could end up sidelined for a good portion of your trip.

Plan Time For Recovery After Your Trip

Through the years and numerous trips, I have learned not to schedule anything for the day I return or the next. I need to recuperate and give myself permission to do so. I tend to push myself probably more than I should when traveling so that usually means when I get home I need to recover. That includes sleeping until noon or later the following day if necessary. Unpacking and laundry can wait. It is not going anywhere. It will be there when I get to it. While traveling with chronic illness can present additional challenges, you can do it with a bit of extra planning. If your dream is to travel, do your best not to let disease sideline you. Happy, healthy, and safe travels to you. If you have tips or an experience you’d like to share, leave a comment. I’d love to know how you make travel work for you.  
Here are some tips for packing lighter, whether you have a chronic illness or not.

Susan Decoteau-Ferrier

Travel writer/blogger, photographer. Avid potter and wanna-be artist. Wife, Mom to 6 fur kids, gardener, coffee snob.


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  3. I love this story, Susan! You are so resilient. Preparedness really is key!

  4. Those are great suggestions! I have some back issues and although mild in comparison, I think twice about certain activities. I love that you don’t let your limitations stop you!

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