Hey! I’m so excited that you’ve found your way here! Today I am writing about a very specific topic- traveling with a chronic illness. As many of you know I have been traveling around the world a lot and for many years now. What only few of you might know is that I have had a chronic illness since I was a baby called Cystic Fibrosis– which doesn’t keep me from traveling and doing whatever else I love to do (You can read more about CF=Cystic Fibrosis here in this article).
And since there are so many of you out there who have a chronic illness and there have been so many people who have some type of disease writing me and asking about how I am able to travel so much and that they also would love to travel more I have decided to concentrate more on this subject on my blog: Traveling with a chronic illness.
In my last article „Traveling with a Chronic Illness: The Why“ I told you about how traveling has been such an enrichment to my life and why you also should seize the opportunity of seeing as much as possible of what this beautiful and amazing world has to offer– illness or no illness. I would definitely recommend for you to read that one before getting into this little How-To. This post about setting priorities in life is also a great way to get motivated and attuned to this article. Since this post here turned out to be pretty long and I constantly thought of more things to share with you, I splitted this one into two separate articles: This here is the first and the second should be coming soon, so stay tuned and don’t miss it 😃
In this post I want to get into practical pointers on what you should consider while traveling with a chronic illness. And by that I don’t mean All-Inclusive trips or lounging at the pool of a hotel (though that of course can be nice, too), but individual traveling- going on your own adventure with real, tangible and profound travel experiences. It is a very comprehensive article, thus I would love to get into certain points in separate blog posts later on. I also wanted to point out that I am not a doctor and can only speak from my experience of many years of traveling. These are all things that I have learned by doing– which of course does not mean that anything I say goes for you, too! In this post I will be referring to mainly my own illness, Cystic Fibrosis, but will try to keep it a bit more abstract, so you can also use the information in case you have a different type of illness.
So, let’s go!
Traveling with a Chronic Illness
The first step to planning a trip will usually be deciding where to go. Will it be the mountains? The ocean? A city? What type of climate will you be in? What is the hygiene like on spot? Depending on which type of disease you have this can of course lead to different preferences on where to go. (You can find tips on travel planning in general here, by the way.) Just so you know: I did not know any of these things when I started traveling and have found these things out only through trial and error. So I really hope you can use some of my experiences 😃
What to consider while choosing your travel destination:
- Climate/ vegetation: Especially with my illness the choice of where to go is essential to my health during my trip. Especially being at the ocean is really great for my lungs, as well as just being outdoors, in nature amongst clean air. I try to avoid large cities because of the smog. I also try to avoid places or cities that are very high up. These high altitudes, which can already be challenging to a healthy person, are naturally even more exhausting to a person with a (lung) disease. Also, crossing many different climate zones and altitudes in a relatively short period of time can be very strenuous and can really affect your health. I experienced this myself while traveling from one coast to the other by car and then flying from Mexico City to Cancun and back home during the mere 2 and a half weeks I had in Mexico.
So: Try to stay in one place for a longer period of time, so your body can acclimate (I prefer to travel slowly anyway, because you can travel much deeper and have more time to understand a culture much better, because you are traveling less as a tourist in comparison to when you constantly hop from place to place.)
- Hygiene/Civilisation: I always love to travel to places that are a bit more off the grid, where you don’t have as much tourism and you have the chance to connect with the local people. With a chronic illness though you unfortunately do have to be careful about not landing in the most remote and off-the-grid place on the planet. First of all, especially with a disease like mine, you do have to watch out for the hygiene on spot- inhalants have to be kept steril and cleaned regularly, your hands need to be kept clean, because some bacteria can be extremely dangerous if they ever make their way into the lungs. Also, you have to keep in mind that the further you are away from civilization, the further you are away from hospitals and, above all, specialists who are familiar with your disease. (This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do a small tour through the woods somewhere or anything like that, but referring to a longer period of time, being too off-the-path might be pretty difficult.) Which brings me to the next topic:
- Hospitals/Specialists: If I’m planning a trip and want to stay in one place for several weeks or months at a time I always try and research the local hospitals and more specifically the specialists in the area (in my case a lung specialist), so in case my health begins to deteriorate while I’m on the road I know where I need to go. Especially if your condition worsens due to a chronic illness it is difficult to find good help in a normal clinic. In case of any other emergencies or other, sudden diseases a normal clinic will do, as well.
- Sports/exercise: It’s always good to think about possible physical activities ahead of time when planning a trip. Especially with CF, and for sure with any other illness, sports and exercise in general are super important! If you’re interested in skiing or hiking or canoeing- the mountains might be more your thing. You want do surf, do yoga at the beach or go long boarding along a promenade? Then a trip to the ocean would obviously be your choice. Of course you can also combine different activities and check out different places during your trip, so you can experience a bit of everything.
- Accomodation: Here you also have to watch out a bit with the hygiene. If your budget isn’t that high and you’re thinking of staying in a hostel or want to go couch surfing: In itself not a problem, just definitely check out the ratings beforehand and see how other visitors rated the cleanliness of the place. Because, as I already mentioned, you have to especially watch out for the cleanliness of the inhalers (in case inhaling is part of your regime) and I have seen a few negative examples regarding cleanliness. Especially if you plan on staying in one place for a while I advise you to check out Airbnb. Here you have your own kitchen and you yourself have the say over how clean things need to be when you don’t have to share a kitchen with 20 other people. Also, you have your own space and can find out how it is to actually live in a foreign place, instead of just being there as a tourist. (Here you can get a great discount if you decide to use Airbnb for your next trip, by the way!)
Another piece of advice: I would not recommend staying in a hotel. It’s often not just unreasonably expensive and takes away from the real travel experience, but you also don’t have use of a kitchen. Of course you can ask the hotel staff to store your medicine in the fridge and let you use the kitchen to sterilize your things, but I think I’d find this pretty annoying. But that is of course just my opinion and maybe you prefer staying in hotels- and that is absolutely fine, too! 😉 (Here you can find some tips on finding an accommodation!)
Traveling with a Chronic Illness: Baggage
One of the biggest question marks when traveling with an illness: What do I do about all the medicine I have to take?
A tricky question and had you seen me on my first-ever trip with my huge-ass suitcase , you’d know that at the beginning I had absolutely no clue how I was going to handle this. Meanwhile I’ve learned a few things and I now know how to handle this issue, because now I travel only with a carry-on.
What can I take in my carry on?
Technically you can take all the medicine you want in your carry on- as long as you have a medical certificate for them! On this certificate all the medicine you are carrying with you needs to be listed, including the quantity, the info on how many times per day you have to take which medicine and the names of the different pharmaceuticals.
This certificate should definitely be in 3 different languages (but at least in English and Spanish), so you don’t have any problems during the security check at your destination (which, by the way, has never ever happened to me yet!). There are forms online which you can download and fill out. All you have to do then is let your doctor sign this certificate. I always have my doctor’s phone number with me in case anyone ever gives me problems during the security check.
My inhalers I also carry with me in my backpack and apart from a curious look or two, I’ve never run into any problems.
By the way: So far, I think I have only been asked for this certificate twice before, in case you were wondering how strict airlines are about carrying medicine with you. So it is pretty chilled out 😉
If you don’t want to travel with a carry on only, it makes sense to spread out your medicine between both bags: Keep approximately one one-week-ration of medicine in your carry on, just in case the bag you checked in gets lost. Therefore you will have a week to either wait for your luggage (in case it is just temporarily lost), have someone send you some more medicine or, worst-case-scenario, book a flight back home. Besides, you then have your medications with you in case you need to spend a larger amount of time at the airport or if you have a long trip.
Another advantage to traveling solely with a carry on: You medicine is not lost if your checked in bag has been lost by the airline! But even if you travel with more than a carry on- you will still be needing that certificate.
Traveling with a Chronic Illness: Carrying medications with you
Original packaging- yes or no?
If you google the regulations on the transportation of medicine in your luggage, you often find the statement that medication must always be taken in its original packaging, including the package insert. At the very beginning of my travels I did do it this way, until I realized just how much space all this packaging was taking up in my backpack! If I had to take all my medicine with me on a 4-week trip, all of it in its original packaging, it would look something like this (mind the size of my backpack in the background as a comparison):
And sorry, but I really don’t see the point in carrying this amount of stuff around with me, considering I do like to take at least some pieces of clothing with me as well 😉
So how have I been doing it these past years?
I take all medications out of the packaging, tablets I take of their films and then pack everything into Ziplock bags. This is of course only if you take these medications very regularly and know exactly what each medication looks like. If I take Ibuprofen or other additional medicine, these always remain in the film. This separation into Ziplock bags also really comes in handy, because I then have one bag each for a different purpose, for example, one with all my pills, which I need to take when I eat, another for the medicine I need to inhale etc.
Of course there has to be some type of labeling, otherwise you could just be carrying around some random pills. So I always cut out the labels of the original packaging and tape them to the insides of the Ziplock bags. Here you can see what I mean:
Certainly it could be argued here that this is not sufficient to prove that these are actually the medications that are on the labels, but so far I have not once had any problems during the security check- even in Mexico! And even if anyone has a problem with it: With the certificate from the doctor for the medication and my disease, they can’t simply take away the medication. And in the worst case: You can still have medicine sent to you from home.
How do I keep my medicine cool?
Medications that must be kept cool, I always put into the fridge upon arrival at my accommodation, of course. For the transportation I use a cooling pack in a small insulated bag. What I advise though is to look up in the package insert of the medication or call the manufacturer. Because sometimes these medications actually get by for a while without refrigeration. One of my inhalation drugs, for example, can go by without being cooled for 48 hours, which in most cases is enough time to get from A to B. On spot, as mentioned, I use the refrigerator in my accommodation. Here it is best, especially in hostels, to pack the medicine in a Ziplock bag (Yes, I love Ziplock bags!) when putting it in the fridge to protect it from potential bacteria.
When camping, for example, or during road trips the whole thing can admittedly get a bit tricky. But it’s possible! Here you can either use an electric cooler that you can run through the cigarette lighter of the car or a normal cool box with normal ice packs. In most cases you can have these ice packs frozen overnight art campsites. So take a few ice packs, so that you can replace them repeatedly.
What if I want to be abroad for several months?
The problem abroad is that you cannot use prescriptions from your own country to obtain medicines abroad. Especially when it comes to medications that are needed for certain chronic diseases you might even run into problems concerning the availability (not every country has the same medication on the market as others).
So if you want to travel for several months, you might have to take a pretty large amount of drugs. What you can do in this case? You can have the medicine sent to you! You can pack up everything you need before your trip and either send this „Medicine box” to your accommodation in advance (in case you know exactly where you’re going to be) or you have someone (preferably someone you really trust) send you your ration of medicine to you while you’re away. I did this 2 years ago when I was in Italy and we had no problems doing so. Just don’t forget that medical certificate from your doctor!
Things you can do otherwise?
If you have a friend who is thinking of coming to visit you during your stay abroad (and you really trust them too), you can ask them to bring your next ration of medication. I haven’t tried this option myself yet, but I couldn’t think of why this shouldn’t be possible. 😉
Other pointers I have for you:
Normally when packing I say that less is more and that most things you can buy abroad just as well. When talking about medication though it is always best to rather take a bit too much with you than not enough! I made the mistake myself last year when I was in Mexico and only had one asthma spray with me. You can read the story behind that one right here (it has a pretty funny outcome actually 😉). And: If you have cystic fibrosis as well and/or inhaling is part of your everyday tasks, I suggest you rather take fewer inhalers than too many with you (they take up quite a lot of space), and instead, find a clean and good accommodation with a kitchen, where you can clean them properly and regularly.
Check out this post to read more about traveling with a chronic illness:
Was I able to help you in any way with these pointers? Do you also have a chronic illness and travel in spite of it? What were your experiences? Were they rather positive or negative?