10 Tips for Traveling With a Medical Condition

Accessible options and proper planning make traveling with a chronic medical condition more possible than ever.  

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Planning is Essential

Chronic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and diabetes, shouldn’t stop the entire family from traveling, even if wheelchairs or insulin are necessary. An extra level of planning is all that’s needed for a stress-free vacation. For starters, the U.S. Department of State is a good resource for medical needs, from finding hospitals, pharmacies, and doctors at your destination to traveling with prescription medications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is another good resource for traveling with a chronic illness.

Check in With Your Doctor Before Your Trip

It’s important for those with a chronic condition to visit their doctor beforehand for a number of reasons. Besides checking that they’re healthy enough to travel, they should also discuss what shots or medications they might need for their destination, and possible drug interactions. It’s also critical for them to devise a game plan with their doctor for managing their symptoms while traveling; it’s equally important for travel companions to be informed of this as well. Travel companions also need to monitor any signs of life-threatening symptoms, and should be aware of what to do in an emergency. 

Timothy Holtz, the group travel director of Flying Wheels Travel, an agency specializing in trips for people with physical limitations and chronic illnesses, says it’s also important to consider the impact of a destination’s climate on symptoms. For example, heat and humidity will exacerbate fatigue and pain with certain medical conditions. Meals, activity level, and downtime also have to be factored into managing symptoms.

Carry Extra Medication and Supplies

An ample amount of medications and supplies should be in their original, labeled containers and packed in a carry-on. Besides helping to get through security and customs faster, Holtz notes that it’s not uncommon for prescription medication to be stolen from checked bags.

Concerning supplies, Holtz advises that certain items that are easy to obtain in the U.S., such as rubbing alcohol, can be expensive or difficult to find abroad. Other common items might need a prescription in other countries, are sold only at specialized pharmacies, or go by a completely different name. (In the case of rubbing alcohol, it’s called surgical ointment in England.)

Allow extra time for going through security and customs at the airport; review the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines for special procedures beforehand concerning medications, liquids, supplies, and more. It’s equally important to be aware of what’s allowed through customs at your destination; certain prescription medications are illegal in other countries, like Dubai.

Carry Medical Information

Carry medical records, contact information for a primary doctor, and prescriptions on a thumb drive. It’s also important to bring prescription copies for all medications. Finally, a medical alert bracelet can help paramedics diagnose the problem faster if the person happens to be alone.

Make Sure Travel Insurance Includes Medical

Some travel insurance plans only cover financial losses, and Medicare doesn’t cover overseas travel. Check the U.S. Department of State for a list of recommended medical providers. Be sure to choose one that includes medical evacuation, or medevac, in case of an emergency; that option could be cost-prohibitive if insurance doesn’t cover it. If traveling abroad, it’s also important to know the generic name for any prescription medicines; don’t assume other countries will know the U.S. brand name.  

Research Accommodation for Medical Equipment

For example, if someone is traveling with an oxygen tank, check the special needs guidelines with each individual airline, cruise, or train, since what’s allowed varies. Review the Air Carrier Access Act from the U.S. Department of Transportation to understand your rights. Holtz says you need to double check, even if a device is FAA approved. For example, he had a client whose oxygen tank was approved by Delta, but not by a connecting flight on Avianca Airlines. Holtz notes that airlines also require a minimum amount of battery power for certain medical devices, which varies depending on the airline and the length of the flight, and could require bringing as many as 10 batteries. (Even though many planes are equipped with power outlets, that option isn’t always available.)

Use a Specialized Travel Agent or Company

“Anywhere is possible with proper planning,” says Holtz. He notes that while Europe is easier, he’s taken people to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, and more, and is currently organizing a yoga trip to India for people with MS. The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality is another resource for finding agents and companies.

Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

The U.S. Department of State offers STEP as a free service that allows you to share your trip information with the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate at your destination—this way it’s easy to be notified in the event of an emergency. More importantly, there’s a section under Traveler Information that allows you to enter any relevant information pertaining to medical conditions.

Consider an All-Inclusive Trip

All-inclusive resorts provide a wide range of activities to suit everyone’s ability and activity level. Sandals features ADA-compliant rooms and grounds, and can also handle special requirements. Cruises are another good option since major lines have an infirmary with at least one doctor on board. In the event of an emergency, personnel can medevac the patient to a medical facility on land. Of course, always ask about emergency procedures before booking a trip. Royal Caribbean can arrange wheelchair and scooter rental and accommodate those who are oxygen-dependent. Carnival loans portable medi-coolers, while Norwegian Cruise Line allows travelers receiving dialysis. Disney World also accommodates a wide range of needs.

Be Honest About Medical Needs

Although this seems obvious, Holtz says it’s common for people to downplay their medical needs with him because they’re afraid of being turned away. He emphasizes the importance of being honest about this when booking a trip, whether through an agency or independently, otherwise the proper arrangements can't be made.

Don’t Forget the Needs of the Caregiver

Holtz advises against seeing too much in one day in order to account for the stamina of both people. He also advises considering the amount of care someone needs, which affects how much energy the caregiver has to expend. For example, if the caregiver has to get up early to help someone in a wheelchair get ready, then both people might need an afternoon nap. Holtz says Flying Wheels Travel also offers travel companions on both independent and group tours, which gives the caretaker or spouse a vacation as well. 

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