12 Tips for Traveling With a Chronic Illness

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First and foremost: yes, you can. I’m not going to lie and say that traveling with a chronic illness is as easy as traveling as a healthy person, but it is still possible and, planned properly, can still be extremely fun and rewarding. 

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If you thought on the day that you received your diagnosis that your traveling days were over, I’m happy to report that you were probably mistaken.

Many people tell me that they would love to travel the world the way I do, but they have a chronic illness so it’s just not possible.

Since I have fibromyalgia myself, I’m not especially inclined to take that excuse at face value.

In the years since I was first diagnosed with fibro, I have had to make some changes to the way I travel, but I’m traveling more than ever. Actually, I quit my day job (the stress from which was undoubtedly a major contributing factor in the progression of my illness) to travel and write full time. Maybe that won’t be your reality, but I fully believe that if you’re passionate about travel, there’s no reason you can’t continue even with a chronic illness.

1. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you can handle (including me)

 You know your body best, period.

Especially if yours is one of the “invisible” illnesses, people love to tell you that you can easily handle more or less than you know you can. I used to let other people pressure me into cramming more and more activities into a trip when I really just needed to take a nap. Inevitably, I would end up sick and miserable.

Well-meaning but useless things people will probably say to you:

  • “Did you go all the way to [fill in exotic destination of your choice] just to take a nap/lounge by the pool/turn in early to watch TV? You’re wasting your trip!”
  • “If you aren’t going to [fill in well known tourist activity or destination of your choice] you should have just stayed home!”
  • “You can sleep when you’re dead!”
  • “Oh, the weather is fine. Just put on your boots and go enjoy it!”

Healthy people can be so annoying, can’t they?

You hereby have my express permission to tell all of those people to heck off into the sun.

When you’ve ignored your own body’s signals and overdone things to the point that you end up bedridden in agony for days, they won’t be affected at all. Therefore, they don’t get a say. Deal?

Until you’ve experienced the pain and fatigue that come with a long term illness, you have no idea how useless all of that well intentioned advice really is.

CYA Disclaimer: While you know your body best, I feel compelled to mention that you shouldn’t do anything your doctor has expressly told you not to do. That should go without saying, but this is the Internet, so…

2. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day

Don’t over-schedule yourself and don’t forget to schedule regular rest periods. Even entire days for R&R if you think that’s necessary for you.

I used to pack my trip itineraries so full that it would have been impossible even for a healthy person to accomplish everything. I’d plan on getting up with the sun every morning, cramming in every tourist sight in the town, and then checking out the local nightlife. I always told myself, “You may never come back here again, you’ve got to cram in every single thing you can because this may be your last chance!”

I mean, I wasn’t wrong- for many places I visit, that will be my only chance to see them. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth killing myself to see every single thing a city has to offer.

3. Plan ahead

Plan ahead to determine what the most important things are to you at your destination, and schedule them early in your trip. That way, if you have to take an unexpected rest day, you can reschedule the most important things. If you end up with extra energy, you can fill in your itinerary with other cool stuff as a bonus.

This is another thing I’ve had to learn the hard way. I’m a born planner, and I live for making things as efficient as possible. My old way of trip planning would have had me mapping out attractions neighborhood by neighborhood and systematically checking them off on an efficient route. Lovely on paper, but this meant that some of my must-see sights were scheduled for the end of my trip, and sometimes got skipped because I just plain ran out of energy.

Make peace with the fact that you will not see everything you want to see or do everything you want to do. That doesn’t mean you can’t still have an amazing trip. You just need to manage your expectations and stop comparing your trip to your pre-illness travels or the trips your healthier friends are taking.

4. Pack appropriately

And pack as lightly as possible, especially if you’re traveling solo. There’s nothing worse than trying to haul an oversized and overstuffed suitcase around when you’re already feeling like garbage.

Here are some things I always have in my carry-on bag to make flights easier:

  • Hand warmers for random aches and pains
  • Pillow I love heated ones because airplanes are always freezing, so I found a great one with a pocket for  hand warmer. 
  • Warm blanket
  • Socks– the warmer and fluffier the better, so you can take your shoes off and relax after takeoff. 
  • Water (You can take an empty water bottle through security and fill it up in the secure area so you don’t have to pay $47 for water or make do with the tiny plastic cups they give you on the plane.)
  • Clorox wipes because airplanes are giant flying petri dishes. 
  • Painkillers & other medications (FYI, your meds should never go in your checked baggage in case it gets lost.)

You may also want to consider flying in a surgical mask if your immune system is compromised. We all know planes are recirculating germ factories.

4. Don’t leave home without travel insurance! 

Having fibro means I can feel fine one day and be barely able to walk the next. Apart from the disappointment of having to cancel or cut short a trip, the financial loss can be enormous if you don’t have insurance. I use and recommend World Nomads. .

6. Rethink how you travel

I used to turn up my nose at organized tours, city sightseeing buses, and anything else that struck me as being overly touristy and inauthentic.

News flash: unless you’re on the payroll at National Geographic, no one else really cares how you travel. If you have a good time and get to see some of the places on your bucket list, what else actually matters? If you find a tour easier to manage than getting around on your own, go for it.

Also, in many places, hiring a private driver can be a great option as well. As a bonus, you’ll get to interact with a local (and nap in the back seat if necessary). Just be sure to hire someone reputable who has been recommended by another traveler.

7. Pack some snacks for the hotel in case you don’t feel up to going out

Throw a few protein bars in your suitcase and hit a local market as soon as you arrive to stock up on a few things. Many times, I’ve found myself awake in the middle of the night due to jet lag or illness, starving and unable to go out and pick up food. Trust me when I say that makes for a very long night.

8. Consider getting a spa treatment at the start of your trip

You are on vacation, right? Treat yoself. Travel can be stressful and overtaxing even for healthy people. If you have a chronic illness, that goes double for you. Many countries have such varied (and supremely affordable) spa treatments available, it would be a shame not to try some of them out, right?

Before you leave home, check Groupon for spa & wellness deals at your destination. They usually have tons.

If that’s not in the cards, I also like to pack a few at-home spa treatments in my bag and pamper myself in the hotel. As I write this, I’m on an Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Melbourne, and my bag is stocked with a variety of face and hair masks, fancy shower gel, and mani-pedi supplies. As soon as I get to my hotel, I plan to take a long, hot shower, scrub off all the travel skank that comes with multiple days of travel, take a nap, and then evaluate whether or not I feel up to doing any sightseeing today. There is nothing on my agenda for the rest of the day whatsoever, so if I decided to just slather on a papaya face mask and go to bed at 2 in the afternoon, there’s no guilt about missing anything I planned to do.

9. Watch what you eat

If you’re used to controlling some of your symptoms with diet and exercise, try not to completely fall off the wagon while you travel.

10. Hope for the best, plan for the worst

I’m optimistic that my Australian adventure will go off without a hitch, but realistically I know it may not. So I’ve taken certain precautions to ensure I’ll be able to make the most of my trip either way.

  • I’m arriving in the early afternoon so I can go straight to the hotel and rest. One time I arrived in Edinburgh at 6 a.m. and couldn’t check into the hotel until 4 p.m.. It was November, the weather was miserable, and I was exhausted. I spent all day trudging around in the rain, frozen, trying not to fall asleep in museums while the security guards eyed me suspiciously. By the time I was finally able to go to my room and relax, is it any wonder I had a massive fibro flare-up and spent the rest of the trip sick?
  • I’ve booked a hotel in the middle of the city, within walking distance of almost everything I don’t want to miss. It would have been a bit cheaper to stay further out, but adding a long metro ride to the itinerary every day might be enough to make me reconsider going out. In addition, being centrally located means I can take advantage of the free city tram to get around instead of having to do a lot of walking if I don’t feel up to it.
  • I have a Kindle fully stocked with new books in case I do have to stay in bed for a day or two. Not to mention the aforementioned pampering supplies and all of the snacks I’ll be buying as soon as I land.
  • I’ve left my itinerary as flexible as possible and haven’t booked myself any nonrefundable activities in case I get sick.
  • I can be flexible because I’m traveling during the off season. Nothing will be terribly busy, so I didn’t need to book activities well in advance.

11. Figure out your specific illness triggers and plan around them

When I first started having the symptoms that, years later, finally led me to a fibromyalgia diagnosis, it seemed completely random. And sometimes it is; I really can feel perfectly fine one day and be unable to get out of bed the next. But I have also learned that some things nearly always trigger a predictable flare-up. Everyone has different triggers, but mine are cold, stress, lack of sleep, and the start of my menstrual period. Some of those things are unavoidable to an extent, but there are ways to ameliorate the effects of all of them:

  • Cold– Yeah, no more trips to Scotland in November for me. When I do have to be somewhere cold, I plan much better for it. I’m never without a large package of hand warmers in the winter. Like I mentioned in the packing section, I have a small travel pillow with a pocket for a hand warmer. It feels great on the lower back during a long, chilly flight.
  • Stress– There are so many ways to plan for this. Pre-arrange a taxi to pick you up and take you straight to your hotel if you’re worried about sorting transportation at the airport. Rent a pocket Wi-Fi hotspot from Tep if you’re worried about not being connected or having access to Google maps all the time. Join an organized tour or hire a driver if the thought of driving in a foreign country freaks you out. Pay a little more for a better airline (Hello Emirates, I love you) or a nicer hotel if it’ll put your mind at ease. Buy the travel insurance I recommended earlier. Whatever is going to stress you out, find a way to work around it. Don’t be a martyr. Your trip still counts even if you didn’t solo hike through Mongolia, surviving only on foraged radishes and yak butter while sleeping in a yurt and staging perfect Instagram shots with your floppy hat.
  • Lack of sleep– This is really groundbreaking but, uh, I get more sleep. I know, it’s crazy how that actually works. I no longer try to justify staying up all night because I’ve got an early flight; I pop a melatonin if necessary and go to bed. For that matter, I try not to book any super early flights if I can help it. I’ve learned to make sleep a priority.
  • Period– There’s only so much I can do about this one without medical intervention, but I can plan around it. I already know the first few days I’m going to feel like hot garbage, so I just don’t plan anything vital. Those are rest days, reading days, beach lounging days, etc.

12. Be as comfortable as you can afford to be

There is a big difference between stretching out in Business Class and being crammed into economy with a shoehorn. Use your credit card points to upgrade your flights if you can, and watch for deals if you can’t. Some airlines will email you upgrade offers after you’ve booked, and these are almost always less expensive than booking the higher class outright.

When you’re renting a car, see if they’re offering any upgrade deals at the counter when you pick up. (They almost always do.) I once reserved a basic econobox car for a cross-country road trip and was offered an upgrade to a Cadillac Escalade for a few dollars more. Let me tell you, that was a very comfortable road trip.

I love a deal as much as the next adventurer, but if you’ve been working and saving all year for your dream trip, don’t deny yourself some creature comforts just to save a few dollars if they’re going to impact your health & well being.

Need some more inspiration? Check out one of my favorite blogs, The Geordie Traveller, and follow along as he attempts to become the first wheelchair user to visit every country in the world. 

Have you kept (or started) travelling after being diagnosed with a chronic illness? How has it impacted your travels? What advice would you give to someone else nervous about managing their condition while on the road? Let me know in the comments!

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