6 tips for traveling when you have a chronic illness, because it doesn't have to ruin your plans
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have the travel bug, so it was a dream come true when, about two years ago, my journalism career took an unexpected turn: I had the opportunity to travel for work and write about it. What could be better, right? Although I had been lucky enough to travel all over the world during my childhood and college years, I hadn’t traveled much after graduation, first because of financial limitations, and then for health reasons. I became ill in my early 20s, but it took five years for doctors to diagnose me with what we now know is lupus, an autoimmune illness characterized by extreme fatigue, joint pain, photosensitivity, fevers, and headaches. Functioning day-to-day required Herculean effort, so the idea of having enough strength to travel and spend my days exploring new places seemed out of the question. After I was finally diagnosed in 2017, I began a treatment regimen that includes medication, acupuncture, dietary changes, and DBT therapy.
Treatment has helped enormously, but lupus isn’t curable, so the illness will always be part of my life, and flareups are inevitable. I was thrilled at the prospect of becoming a travel writer because it meant I’d be traveling all over the country and world, but from a health standpoint, I was nervous. So I figured I’d give it a try and, if frequent travel took a heavy toll on my body, I knew I could stop at any time.
It’s been about two years since I began traveling at least once a month, mainly for work. My trips range from quick weekend getaways in America to several weeks in a foreign country. Inevitably, I’ve ended up in situations where I have a flareup in a different state or country but, through experience, I’ve learned it’s entirely possible to travel with a chronic illness—it just requires advance preparation, flexibility, and using some simple hacks that can make a world of difference. Here are six tips for traveling with a chronic illness.
1Talk with your doctor in advance
First things first: Before booking a trip, talk it over with your doctor and make sure he or she considers it safe. Explain your travel plan and itinerary, and ask if they have any concerns or suggestions. Basically, get the “all clear” from your physician to ensure you’re not taking any unreasonable risks that could compromise your health.
2Research your destination
One lesson I learned the hard way is that it’s important to research your destination purely from a health perspective. For example, I have asthma in addition to lupus, so when I took a trip to a location with a high elevation and kicked it off with a lengthy snowshoe expedition, I was in a world of pain. By the next day, I had developed severe altitude sickness (of course even the most healthy individuals can get altitude sickness, but it’s a major blow when you’re already managing a chronic illness).
Now, in addition to changes in altitude, I also keep a close eye on the climate and temperature. Like many people with autoimmune illnesses, I’m sensitive to temperature (both cold and hot) and spending too much time in the sun triggers lupus flareups. Familiarizing myself with the geography and climate of my destinations has helped me prepare for trips and, in some cases, opt out if it seems like I’ll be missing out on too much because too much sun exposure is dangerous for me. All of our triggers are different, so do your research with yours in mind.
3Make your health a priority while you pack
The most important thing to pack is, of course, your medications—and keep them in your carry-on just in case your checked luggage doesn’t arrive on time. I’ve also adjusted my packing list to include things that protect my immune system and provide symptom relief. Planes are notorious for being filled with germs, so I recommend packing Clorox wipes in your carry-on—the first thing I do when I board a plane is wipe down my tray table and armrests. I also apply hand sanitizer constantly. Catching a cold on a trip is a bummer for anyone, but for those of us with chronic illnesses, it can cause a major setback.
Other items I pack are hydrating face masks, warm socks, and both hot and cold compresses, because these are all things I use at home when my symptoms flare up. Any items you use for symptom relief at home should definitely be on your packing list—if you start to feel unwell on your trip, you’ll want to have them handy.
4Have a plan in place in case you experience an emergency
My policy is hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Once you’ve booked your accommodations and set your itinerary, make sure to find the nearest hospital and urgent care center at your destination. Keep these addresses and phone numbers with you at all times just in case you need medical attention. If you’re traveling to a foreign country, I highly recommend getting travel medical insurance.
5Don’t overbook yourself
Every time I book a trip, I naturally want to do as much as possible and make the most of my time there. But I’ve learned that I need to be realistic about my own limitations. Before I got sick, I would be out and about from dawn until dusk. Today, that’s not feasible for me and I’ve learned that’s okay. I make sure to allow some downtime each day so I can go back to my hotel and re-charge.
If your trip includes any physically taxing activities, I recommend staggering them and having more leisurely days in between. And flexibility is key—if you’re having a tough day health-wise and you happen to have a big activity or excursion planned, don’t force yourself. First of all, the most enjoyable activities aren’t all that enjoyable when you’re having trouble standing up. Secondly, pushing yourself will cause further health setbacks and could impact the rest of your trip. Instead, re-jigger your schedule when necessary so you can rest up and rejuvenate. It’s always disappointing to have to cancel or re-schedule something, but your body will thank you and and you’ll be better poised to make the most of the remainder of your trip.
6Stick to your usual diet (if applicable) and stay hydrated
Many people with chronic illnesses have certain foods that trigger our symptoms. If part of your treatment plan involves diet, try to stick to it as much as possible while traveling. This is another area where I recommend planning in advance, particularly if you’re traveling to a different country. Familiarize yourself with the cuisine and the dining options in the area where you’ll be staying and make sure you’ll be able to find foods that are consistent with what your doctor recommends.
It’s also crucial to stay hydrated while you’re traveling. In particular, make sure to drink plenty of water on the flight. It’s often tempting to drink more alcohol than usual when we’re on vacation, but if alcohol triggers or worsens your symptoms, that glass of wine or cocktail at dinner just isn’t worth it. Every time I’ve decided to have more than one drink, I’ve kicked myself in the morning because I wake up with a headache and feeling overall worse for the wear. This, of course, means I may not be able to do as much sightseeing as I planned, and sacrificing those opportunities just isn’t worth it for a drink.
Every chronic illness is different and we know our bodies better than anyone, so the most important thing is to prepare in advance with your specific triggers and symptoms in mind. But if you love to travel, there’s no need to sacrifice amazing experiences. We may need to adjust how we travel and do more advance planning than our healthier peers, but we don’t need to let our illnesses take away an activity that brings us joy.