How to Travel Abroad With a Chronic Illness


Living with chronic illness isn’t easy, but traveling with a chronic illness is even harder. While I’m fully aware that many of you aren’t fortunate enough to be able to travel at all, I am currently managing my fibromyalgia well enough to be able to travel on a month-long honeymoon to experience Southeast Asia with my new husband. I’ve always been in love with traveling and I refuse to let my chronic illness get in the way of experiencing as much of the world as I’d like.

In my travels, I’ve picked up a few tips to make traveling with a chronic illness easier.

Plan Your Trip and Itinerary

Doing this well in advanced can help you plan each leg of the trip. Will you need to go through Customs and Immigration? Can you get disability assistance at the airport? While it may save you money to take local transit, will the stress and cramped quarters trigger a flare? Opting for pre-arranged, private transit will ease the stress and allow you to sit comfortably in air conditioning or heat. Plan tours in advance and make sure you have rest days between. During my travels, I planned private tours with solo tour guides who were able to cater each tour to my specific needs. This helped with day-long excursions that wiped me out, but at least I was able to go at my own pace.

Visit Your Doctor or a Travel Specialist Doctor

It was important to me that my illness didn’t hinder my experiences. Make sure you have any prescriptions for anything you might need with your condition to make travel easier. Lidocaine pain patches and muscle relaxers were my most valuable tools on my 20+ hour travel to Indonesia from Seattle. I also asked for Azithromyacin (antibiotics) and medication to help with any tummy troubles, since I’m already predisposed to having issues with IBS. The antibiotics came in handy when I caught a nasty bug at the end of my trip.

Consult your doctor about any vaccines you might need and make sure you get them in advance, just in case you have any reactions to them. You may want to familiarize yourself with the local health care system of the region you are planning to travel to, just in case.

Ask Your Doctor or Insurance For Extended Prescriptions

Some insurance companies don’t like when you double up on medication. Call your insurance provider as soon as you can to ask about getting twice the amount you need for the entire length of your travel. You may need to pay out of pocket or wait a few days to pick up your scheduled prescription, so make sure you don’t do this right before you leave. Pack the medicine you need and consider bringing a doctor’s certificate detailing your medical history (perhaps in other languages in case you get stopped at Customs).

Pack Light

Carrying all of your luggage can use a lot more energy than you think. Planning your outfits in advance can help minimize excess baggage. If you know you have special occasions, plan those first. If you’re going to a much warmer climate, pack comfortable clothes instead of fashionable outfits. I packed my clothes in a similar color scheme so every item could be worn with each other. Wear your outfits until they need to be laundered, and bring lots of underwear and socks! Utilize your space by nesting items inside of each other, like socks inside of shoes. Plan to do laundry at your destination if you’re traveling for longer than a week and plan to purchase items that might be heavy to travel with, like sunscreen.

Contact Your Airline

Call your airline to ask for an aisle seat or a seat near the bathroom or galley. I explained to the representative that I had a disability and needed to be able to get up regularly. This was a lifesaver for me because I was able to stand or stretch throughout our long flights.

Ask For an Upgrade

Similar to the last tip, get to the airport early and ask for an upgrade to business class. It may cost extra money, but the seats might be much more comfortable with room to lay down or stretch out.

The Layover

If you have a layover longer than five hours, locate the airport hotel (most airports have these attached or very close by) and rent a room for a short period of time. Take a power nap or at least shower and change your clothes. You will wake up feeling refreshed and slightly more energized.

Get Accustomed to the Time Change

Once you finally arrive at your destination, if there is a time change, try not to nap. I know it’s very tempting, especially with chronic conditions, but it’s very important to get your body on a similar circadian rhythm. Most of us already have a hard enough time sleeping, so don’t make it any worse! Staying hydrated and making sure you’re eating enough. Protein can help add a little extra energy when you’re feeling low on stamina. If you find yourself really struggling and you have chronic fatigue – then by all means, listen to your body, but try your best to get on the same sleep schedule as the time zone you’re in.

Give Yourself Rest Days

This is the hardest part when you’re on vacation, especially if you’re limited on time and want to make the most of your travels. Try to plan your trip just like how you would manage your illness at home. Do activities in small increments with large breaks and plan days in between sightseeing to rest and recuperate. Find activities that allow you to sightsee without much physical exertion like an electric bike tour or hiring a private driver. It’s OK to need a whole day to rest. You are on vacation, after all!

Know Your Limits

Similarly, don’t worry about missing out on activities for resting in the afternoon or in the morning. It’s better to rest and feel somewhat normal than to burn yourself out and not be able to do anything for several days or weeks after. Sightseeing is hard, and often uses way more “spoons” than we anticipate. Make sure you take lots of breaks and stay hydrated. Setting a timer on your phone to remind you to take breaks every hour (or sooner) can help you pause while you see the sights. Step into a café or find a bench with a view to recharge.

Don’t Skimp on Accommodation

If you know spending the day sightseeing is going to really take it out of you, you’re going to want a comfortable place to stay at the end. Depending on your condition, you may prefer to get a private apartment so you can do your own cooking, or a private villa with its own pool. If you like to be close to a city, opt for a centrally located hotel so you can experience the culture of your destination with only a few short steps out the door. If you’re going for a beach getaway, look for a cozy interior and a great beach to lay out on.

Finally, Have Fun and Relax!

In my opinion, this is the most important part of battling a chronic illness. Often, we get so caught up in managing our illness or pain that we forget to enjoy the life we can live. Don’t let your illness prevent you from seeing what you want to see; just make sure you manage your time and energy in the same way you do at home. If you’ve always wanted to see a temple in Thailand or the beaches of Bali – then please, don’t spend your life wishing. Use your resourcefulness to find a way. Just because we’re chronically ill doesn’t mean we need to stay in one place.

Editor’s note: Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

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