Top Tips for Travelling with Chronic Illness & Disability (From a Girl Who Loves to Travel)

Top Tips for Travelling with Chronic Illness & Disability (From a Girl Who Loves to Travel)

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Travelling with Chronic Illness & Disability – Why I Do It Anyway

Travelling is one of my biggest passions in life, and I’d like to share my top tips for travelling with chronic illness and disability in this post. Whilst we all travel for various reasons and find pleasure in different things, being chronically ill can be a literal pain (beyond the neck).

The everyday lives of people fascinate me, simply because it isn’t the same normal as back home. I enjoy the stimulation from environments and languages that I’m unfamiliar with. I love to take relaxing strolls along the streets, and also delight in the beauty of open landscapes and nature.

Most importantly, travelling reminds me that possibilities are as endless as the stars in a clear desert night sky. It also reminds me that life still bears much beauty, despite all the suffering that exists. These are easy to forget, especially when you’re stuck in a pain-filled and mundane routine.

I hope that these tips for travelling with chronic illness and disability will help with your own holiday planning. It will include practical resources and suggestions that hopefully eases your mind, so that your trip is as smooth and enjoyable as is possible. Have a lovely holiday, whether it’s a staycation, or on to distant lands!

“I hope that these tips for #travelling with #chronicillness & #disability will help with your own #holiday #planning. It will include practical resources & suggestions that hopefully eases your mind.” Share on X

*Disclaimer: This article is meant for educational purposes and is based on the author’s personal experiences. It is not to be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your own doctor before changing or adding any new treatment protocols. This post also contains affiliate links. It will cost you nothing to click on them. I will get a small referral fee from purchases you make, which helps with the maintenance of this blog (approx. $100/month). Thank you!

Article first published on: 17 April 2017

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Why I love to travel, despite chronic illness and disability [Background: A map flatlay, with sunglasses, earphones, mobile phone, boarding passes, passports and a camera surrounding the corners.]

1. It’s All About the Prep Work When You Travel with Chronic Illness & Disability

Even on a regular day at home, people with chronic illnesses and disabilities spend a lot of time preparing to…prepare. This may come in the form of meal preps, pacing around an event or just a night out with friends. On a bad day, that might look like how many trips you can afford to make to the toilet, or how many dishes you can wash, as your joints hurt so bad.

Travelling is obviously a bigger endeavour, but not impossible with some preparation. Like this woman, Macy, who travels in a wheelchair, and even tried skydiving! Here are some important things I try to get in order before embarking on any trip.

“ Even on a regular day at home, people with #chronicillnesses & #disabilities spend a lot of time preparing to..prepare. #Traveling is obviously a bigger endeavour, but not impossible with some #preparation.” #ChronicPain Share on X

Get Your Doctor to Write a Summary of Your Medical Conditions & Issue a Patient Medication List (1PML)

Before I embark on a trip, I always ask my rheumatologist for an updated letter that summarises all my medical conditions and prescribed medications (also called a 1PML/Patient Medication List where I’m from). I have a clear folder that I keep with me at all times, and this very important letter goes in here. I also keep a digital copy, but it’s good to have a hard copy as gadgets can fail, or you can lose either copy.

These letters are crucial for when you need to see a doctor overseas, or require emergency medical attention where time is of essence. It also helps to speed things up at the airport security bottleneck choke point, especially if you’re carrying needles, opioids, or other medications that are less commonly used in other countries.

Bring All Your Essential Medication Supplies…and More

This might be stating the obvious, but I ensure that I have enough medication supplies whilst on vacation. More than enough, in fact – I bring about half the necessary amount as a buffer. In case of a delay or mishap (or if you choose to extend your holiday!), this will not only save you time and stress, but maybe even your life.

This is even more crucial if you are going to a rural area, or a country where you don’t speak the language. Even if you manage to find a hospital, they may not have the rare drugs that you need. Every country also favours different brands of medications, and the formulations might differ. According to Merchant, L. et al. (2020):

“Patients and consumers who fill prescriptions abroad, either when travelling or when shopping at foreign internet pharmacies, need to use caution because drugs in other countries may have identical or highly similar brand names for products with different active ingredients.”

Some of us may be sensitive or allergic to the ingredients in other formulations, or they may interact a little differently as compared to your usual brand of medications. This applies to OTC (over-the-counter) medications too. I remember being in the U.S. for a heart surgery, and not being able to purchase plain old paracetamol at any chemist. Similar types of medications all contained NSAIDs, which would interact with my warfarin medication.

I also split my medications up into different bags, in case one goes missing. On top of my prescribed medications, I also carry my own over-the-counter mini pharmacy. As someone with chronic illnesses, I am prone to infections, and random ailments pop up all the time. So I bring along sachets, pills, potions and lotions for food poisoning, UTIs, colds and other minor or generic health problems. Witch or amateur pharmacist – that’s for you to decide 😉 Bonus: Your travel companions will thank you for that magical formulation if they come down with a bug, too.

“ Every country also favours different brands of #medications, and the formulations might differ.. Some of us may be sensitive or allergic to the ingredients..or they may interact a little differently.” #ChronicallyIll #TravelTips Share on X

Keep Your Medical Information with You at All Times

There are a few important medical cards which I keep in my wallet at all times, even when I’m not travelling overseas. There is one that states that I’m on warfarin (a blood thinning medication), and another that states that I have autoantibodies in my blood. I also have a medical card that states that I have an annuloplasty band for a mitral valve repair, so that medical professionals are aware that I have had a heart surgery before.

On top of these medical cards, I also keep my medical information in the ‘Health’ app on my phone up-to-date. This information can be accessed by anyone, even without a password. Here’s how to set up your medical ID on your iPhone, Samsung or Android phone.

Some people also wear medical bracelets so that it is immediately apparent that they have a medical condition. You can purchase and customise such accessories online such as from Amazon, and they should, at the very least, alert emergency responders of your main chronic illness condition(s) or medications that you’re on that could be potentially life-threatening.

Such medical information is crucial, especially if you’re unconscious or unable to communicate, or if a blood transfusion or emergency surgery is needed. With the additional antibodies in my blood and medications that I take, my body can still react negatively, even if I receive universal donor O negative blood which is supposedly neutral.

Keep Your Packing & Medication Lists Online

Packing is often repetitive and boring, yet forgetting to bring an important item can cause major stress when you’re travelling with chronic illness and disability. I have a packing list which I refer to for every trip. This not only includes medications, but also items needed for different seasons and environments.

For example, sunblock for sunny places or the beach. This is very important especially for those of us with Lupus. Even if you aren’t overly photosensitive, the sun can still trigger a Lupus flare (Barbhaiya, M., & Costenbader, K. H., 2014). Other items may include hand warmers and/or foot warmers for cold destinations, or even your own food supplies or kitchen accessories, especially for those who have food allergies or sensitivities.

I also have my medication routine written down on my phone. It is confusing even when I’m warded at my local hospital, as I take about 20 pills prescribed by various doctors, at different times every single day. Whenever I visit the A&E / ER or visit a new doctor, I just show this list to them. This makes the process a bit easier for both you and the doctor, especially when you’re in severe pain and have difficulty communicating clearly.

I keep all these checklists on the “Notes” app of my iPhone. I also add a hashtag #travel and #medications, and pin them for easier referencing. Putting them on the cloud also means that you can share and sync these lists with loved ones and medical personnel digitally as well.

Download your free travel checklist template here!

2. Communication is Key During a Medical Emergency Whilst Travelling

Mark Down All the Hospital Locations

This is common sense, but be aware of where the closest hospital locations are whilst travelling with a chronic illness and disability. You can save the Google map offline, but I also take screenshots and put them in an album on my mobile phone for quick and easy access.

Do save or print these maps out in the local language as well if you can. It saves everyone – from your travel companions to hotel staff to drivers – from trying to figure out where exactly it is you need to rush off urgently to.

You can also do some research before you depart for your holiday, so you know where the better hospitals are, and if they have a medical team who speaks your language. Communication matters, especially during crises, as it leads to more accurate diagnoses and faster treatment.

Educate Your Travel Companions in Case of an Emergency

As mentioned above, don’t forget to carry your medical information on your own person whilst travelling with a chronic illness and disability. If you have a travel companion, ensure that they know where and how to access them quickly. Not everyone may be as tech-savvy as you are or even think to check for such information, because they’ve never been chronically ill or disabled before.

They should also know where your doctors’ letters and your medications are. If you need them to administer medication for you during an emergency, such as an epipen for an anaphylaxis reaction, then don’t forget to teach them how to do so. Walk them through it, because they will probably be panicking if it does happen, and they have no confidence or clue as to how to help you. I have epilepsy, so I ensure that my travel companions know what to do should I get a seizure.

“If u need yr #travel companion to administer #medication for u during an #emergency..Walk them thru it, because they will probably be panicking if it does happen & they hv no confidence or clue as to how to help u.” #ChronicIllness Share on X

Keep Your Loved Ones Updated on Your Travel Plans Seamlessly

I also have a Google Calendar solely for the purpose of storing travel information, such as dates of where I’ll be, flight timings, and hotel contact details. When I’m travelling – especially if I’m alone or going to a remote destination – I share this timeline of events with my family and/or friends.

In case of an emergency, they will be able to contact the hotel where I’m at for more information, or to coordinate with them. In a worst case scenario, they may need to fly up to rescue me, and the information will help to speed things up.

Be Contactable at All Times

Some of us go off-grid or only use free wifi whilst travelling, but this isn’t ideal during an emergency situation, or should you be feeling unwell. These days, your telco should have affordable overseas data plans that use your existing mobile phone number. Back in the day, we had to purchase local SIM cards with loads of data (2GB was considered ‘loads’ back then 😉 ), and ensure that our loved ones knew what the temporary number was. You can still do that as well as a backup plan!

If you’re travelling to a country where access to Google or other useful sites are blocked, such as China, then don’t forget to buy a VPN (Virtual Private Network) plan for your device as well. Think of a VPN as a global location where your data transmits to and from, instead of a local network. Usually all you need to do after downloading the VPN app on your digital device is to open it, connect to a selected location server, and then you should be able to access your favourite search engines or websites again. Server locations will depend on which VPN company you purchase a plan from, but often have U.S. and U.K. servers. If you want a faster connection, usually the closest location to where you are will work best.

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Chronic Illness Travel Guide - Tips, Tricks and Hacks. What to do in an emergency. How to manage chronic pain. And how to enjoy yourself. Read the post!

3. The Nitty Gritty Travel Details (in Font Size 6) are Important Too

Yes, Buy That Travel Insurance (with Buffer Dates as Well)

Many people travel without insurance because nothing devastating happens 99% of the time, and they see it as a waste of money. But it’s that 1% that can end up as one of the biggest regrets in life. It is crucial to have travel insurance for those who are travelling with a chronic illness or disability, as we have a higher chance of needing medical aid. This is essential even for short or nearby trips.

These days there are more travel insurance plans that also include pre-existing medical conditions. They mostly only cover a small token fee for hospitalisations and doctor visits that are related to your chronic illnesses or disabilities, but it’s better than nothing.

In addition to chronic illness, we can also still fall ‘regular people’ sick (a.k.a. ‘muggle sick’), or become injured due to incidents or accidents. In such circumstances, travel insurance has you covered, as these are unrelated to your pre-existing medical conditions. They also cover lost or damaged baggage, flight delays, etc, depending on the travel insurance plan you choose.

I read all travel insurance policies thoroughly and scrutinise the plan differences. Most of the time the difference between mid and top tiers is merely an increase in over all coverage, yet the daily maximum payout sum for hospitalisation fees are the same for chronic conditions. So do read everything closely to see what fits your needs best, in case of an emergency. I also buffer in a couple of extra days when I purchase travel insurance, just in case I need to delay my flight due to chronic pain or for any other reason.

Purchase Flexible Flight/Transport Tickets

As a chronically ill or disabled person, it might be worth paying extra for a flight ticket that allows you to change flights without further penalties. I have had instances where I had to delay my flight due to acute or chronic pain, so I see it as a sound investment. Of course, if it’s only a small fee to change the dates, or if it’s a budget ticket to a nearby location with many flights available, then I purchase it at regular price.

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4. How to Maximise Comfort on a Stuffy Airplane, Whilst Travelling with Chronic Illness and Disability

Dress for Ultimate Comfort

Save those stylish skinny jeans for your actual holiday, and wear something loose and cosy for the flight. Bring a shawl or soft jacket, as it can get freezing cold on a plane. Ask for an extra blanket or two if you need it. They usually provide you with fluffy airplane socks you can walk around in on long-haul flights as well. I love those, and even save them for home use sometimes!

I love compression gloves as the tiny joints in my hands often ache from Lupus, and they help to manage the pain a little. I use them in school, and have had comments that they look ‘cool’, as if it were a fashion statement 😉 My favourite ones are from Grace & Able (who sponsored one of our Christmas Giveaways!), and also these two that I bought from Amazon: Long Copper Compression Gloves and DrNaiety Dotted Compression Gloves.

I am thankfully a deep sleeper who can pass out anywhere, but for those of you who are light sleepers, I’ve personally heard good reviews for the Manta Sleep mask (another awesome sponsor for one of our Christmas Giveaways!), which is 100% blackout. They’re also adjustable, and zero pressure on the eyelids and eyelashes.

Other items that can help you to have a good rest, or at least some peace on a flight, are things like a neck pillow, noise cancelling headphones, something soft to hug, a stress ball to squeeze, just listening to your favourite songs, or if you’re like me, playing Sudoku 😉

Shop the Manta Sleep mask here:

Stay Hydrated

It isn’t just you – everyone becomes dehydrated on a flight. In fact, humidity levels of less than 25 percent are common in the cabin. I live in Singapore, where the humidity levels can reach up to 100 percent, yet I still suffer from dry skin problems. A healthy person might just get cracked lips and a croaky voice, but the slightest pain is often amplified in your body if you live with chronic illness.

I’d skip the alcohol selection for now, and save it for when you land. It not only dehydrates you further, but is inflammatory and might trigger more pain if you’re travelling with a chronic illness. I have a LARQ Bottle Movement PureVis, which is really useful for travelling, camping, or even whilst on-the-go back home. You can fill it up with tap water from anywhere, and simply press a button to purify it and kill bacteria with UV light. It also cleanses the bottle periodically to keep the water fresh.

“It isn’t just you – everyone becomes #dehydrated on a flight. In fact, humidity levels of less than 25% are common..& the slightest pain is often amplified in your body if you live with #chronicillness.” #ChronicPain #TravelHacks Share on X

Get up to 20% off Larq bottles here:

Get up to 20% off Larq bottles here

Limit Germ Contact

I suppose there isn’t much you can do if you’re sitting beside a sick passenger (oh no!), so just try to remain calm. I switch seats with a healthy travel partner if I can. Since the pandemic, it’s more common to wear a mask as well, so don’t forget to bring plenty of masks along. I personally have an Airinum Lite mask with replaceable filters, which I strap around my neck for convenience. Other popular reusable filtration air masks are Vogmask, and Cambridge Mask. They all come in a variety of cute patterns or colours.

I also carry alcohol wipes in my little pouch wherever I go to clean dirty tables, toilet bowl seats and whatnot. I also use them to disinfect my phone and earphones when I reach home. It doesn’t hurt to carry them around whilst travelling too, on top of a good hand sanitiser for when no soap is available.

Move Around & Keep Your Blood Flowing

Something else that I try to do is to get an aisle seat for any flight that’s more than 4 hours. You can try requesting for this at the assisted check-in counter, though it’s better to do so 48 hours beforehand by checking in online, as the flight might be fully booked. You might have to pay a small fee to do so, especially if it’s a budget airline. Even healthy people can get DVTs (Deep Vein Thrombosis) on long flights; I have Antiphospholipid Syndrome, a blood clotting disorder, which increases that risk.

Sitting along the aisle makes it easier for me and everyone else as I go for my routine toilet breaks and mini strolls every hour. I do my silly exercises in the toilet, which includes jogging on the spot and wide hip twists. Sometimes I giggle to myself because it feels ridiculous, but a girl’s got to do what she’s got to do to arrive in one piece 😉 Here are more simple exercises you can do whilst onboard a flight, from Washington Post.

Make the Travel Process from Start to End as Smooth as Possible

Travelling can be exhausting even for a healthy person. I prefer to take a day flight if that option is available, as I’m usually in the most pain at night, and need to take my medications before I feel alive in the morning. Whenever I take an overnight flight, I always need a day to two to recover from the aftermath. It’s also double the misery when I’m trapped in a cramped chair whilst aching all over in the night.

All the waiting around and security checks at the airport whilst dragging your luggage around takes up time and energy as well. Energy that a healthy person has to spare, but not you. You are all here to enjoy your holiday, so allocate your energy supply wisely! Make the process of leaving your house up to stepping foot into your hotel as smooth as possible.

I print out all my flight and accommodation details (you guessed it – off it goes into that clear folder). Whilst many hotels accept digital confirmation these days, I have always found good old paper to be more reliable. This is especially true in countries or places where internet connection is sketchy. I’ve seen people getting rejected at hotels, even though they have an email confirmation from a third-party booking site such as Agoda or Booking .com. Somehow my printed copy seems more legitimate. It’s also easier to refer to your hotel address should there be language barriers, or issues with your mobile device.

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Top tips for travelling with chronic illness and disability (from a girl who loves to travel)

5. Adjust Medication Schedules to the Destination Timezone

Lots of people with chronic illnesses need to take medications a few times a day, every day. I have pills I need to take in the morning, afternoon and night, and sometimes others are added on top of them. It may create a bit of anxiety if you’re travelling to a destination that has a significant timezone difference.

The best way to stay on top of this schedule is to start adapting to your destination timezone even before you depart. You can take your medications an hour or two earlier or later, so that the time difference isn’t too wide, and so that it isn’t overly disruptive to your regular routine. Once you land, you can adjust it further, bit by bit.

I personally am a little lazier, and only start adjusting my medication schedule on the flight, where my mind is in the “I’m travelling for real!” zone. I take my medications up to 4 hours earlier/later than usual, aimed at the destination timezone. It then takes about a day or two for me to fully adapt my medication schedule thereafter. Note that this works for me and my types of medications, but may not work for you. So do check with your own doctor should you be unsure about how to adjust your medications whilst travelling with chronic illness or disability.

6. Use the Tools You Have Whilst Travelling with Chronic Illness & Disability

All the little details to take care of, moving around, and changes in routine can drain your energy bar pretty quickly. Whatever assistance, medication or mobility aid you have – use them. I’ve read many accounts of people with chronic illness or disability who do so – and not one of them have regretted making that choice. You’re there to have fun with your travel companions after all, and not to prove how much you can tough things out at the risk of a pain flare.

“You’re there to have fun with your travel companions after all, and not to prove how much you can tough things out at the risk of a #painflare.” #Traveling #ChronicPain #ChronicallyIll #DynamicDisabilities Share on X

It’s Okay to be a Little More Liberal with Your Painkillers & Medications

I try to control my intake of painkillers and steroids as I have limited painkiller options, and don’t want to build up a resistance to what I can take. But I’ve also come to realise how silly it is not to use these pain medications that I’m allowed to take whilst travelling with a chronic illness and disability. I’ve wasted days on holidays simply because I was in too much pain to walk, or felt too fatigued to leave the hotel. It’s ridiculous!

These days I am a little more liberal with the tools I have; this simple short-term change has improved the quality of my holidays by a great deal. This also includes anti-anxiety tablets, or whatever medications you need to keep your chronic illness at bay. You don’t go on a holiday all year round, so try to maximise the pleasure, and minimise the pain!

Bring All the Mobility Aids You Might Need

With my permanent knee injuries now, I also need to bring along a walking stick for those extra bad days (or simply to swipe at annoying people who have no sense of personal space, or who are glued to their phones whilst walking). I have a quad-cane and a nicer looking one, but I think I will be getting myself a foldable one for my future travels as well. I’ve come to realise that having a walking cane that can stand on its own ‘feet’ is actually a must-have whilst travelling, because my hands will be pretty full. It can be pretty annoying with my sleek walking stick, where I keep needing to find surfaces to prop it against whilst I rearrange my items.

If you are travelling with a wheelchair or motorised scooter, you will want to check with the airlines and insurance company, and see how they can best help you out. You might also want to do some detective work via Google beforehand, to see what the experiences were like for previous disabled customers. Avoid bad service like the plague – you don’t want a missing or damaged wheelchair when you land at your holiday destination (which would probably end up costing you more than taking a more inclusive airline company).

Mobility aids aren’t just confined to wheelchairs or walking canes either. Yes, electric can (and wine!) openers are counted. Whatever else you need to keep yourself most mobile during your holiday – find a way to bring it along. P.s. If you do drink, these wine wands are great for filtering antihistamines and sulfites from wines, without compromising on taste or alcohol levels. You can read my review on Drink Pure Wine here for more details.

7. Non-Tangible – But Practical – Tips for Travelling with Chronic Illness & Disability

In order to actually find some enjoyment from travelling with chronic illness and disability, it’s important to accept your limitations, and to make peace with these added hassles. Yes, it’s annoying that we need to take all these extra precautions and spend more time and money for safety’s sake, but life experiences, at least to me, are worth all that and more. There is no point in denying that we’re physically weaker in many ways, but if we are able to be our best selves (ill or otherwise), the right people will enjoy your company nonetheless.

Do remember that it’s okay to ask for help whenever you need it. Should you try to do it all on your own, you might end up in a pain flare, which would affect your travel companions too. It’s not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ to ask for help, especially when it’s a true need. Others probably also have more energy than you do, so it might not affect them that much as it will you.

“There is no point in denying that we’re physically weaker..but if we are able to be our best selves (ill or otherwise), the right people will enjoy your company nonetheless.” #TravelTips #traveler #ChronicPain #InvisibleIllness Share on X

Some Inspirational & Motivational Travel Quotes to Get You Going

Here are some quotes to inspire, motivate, and hopefully get you to book that next ticket to check one off your bucketlist!

“Maybe life isn’t about avoiding the bruises.
Maybe it’s about collecting the scars to prove that we showed up for it.”
— Hannah Brencher

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?”, asked the boy.
“Help”, said the horse. “Asking for help isn’t giving up. It’s refusing to give up.”
― Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

“Think of giving not as a duty but as a privilege.”
– John D. Rockefeller Jr. ➡️ For your travel companions 😉

I hope that you found these travel tips for travelling with chronic illness and disability helpful! Do you have similar protocols, or more tips to share? I would love to hear them. Have a happy holiday!

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Check out our travel guest posts on Huffington Post & To Better Days.

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