6 Helpful Tips for Traveling with an Illness

May 22, 2017
Six Tips for Traveling with an Illness

While recovering from a long-term illness, I was excited–and nervous to start traveling again. It had been over a year since I’d flown internationally–which is a long time for someone who was used to flying halfway across the world twice a year for months at a time.

Now, as much as I wanted to deny it, I knew that my travels would have to be a little different. I would have to pack slightly differently and take new precautions, but I definitely did not want to be held back.

Here are six tips for traveling with an illness:

6 Helpful Tips for Traveling with an Illness

1. On your first trip after a difficult time, travel with someone you love.

After spending the better part of five months in bed, my mother decided it was time to get me out of the city for a three-day trip to the Hamptons. The Hamptons, better known as the Sex and the City or Gossip Girl getaway, is only a few hours from my parents’ home. But, the idea of being further than a short trip to my doctor terrified me.

I had suffered from an eye parasite that blinded me and basically knocked me out for my last semester in college. The weekend we planned to go fell over the time when I was supposed to stop my medication to see if the parasite was fully gone.

My mother let me know that we’d stay in the Hamptons for one night and only extend if I was feeling well enough. Traveling with my mother on a flexible schedule ended up being the perfect cocktail. Though I had a few moments of panic, we had a wonderful time, going to the beach, biking, soaking in the beautiful landscape, and of course, seeing the second Sex and the City movie, which had just been released.

2. Find the contact information of local doctors.

About a week after one unplanned eye surgery, I was set to travel to San Francisco to visit a friend. Though I was no longer in pain, I was still nervous about experiencing a mishap far from home. My eye doctor gave me his blessing to go, and also the contact information of a local eye doctor who could help me in case any issues arose. Thankfully nothing went wrong, but I felt much more confident knowing there was someone who could help me if need be.

3. Rest when you need to.

As anyone who has had surgery knows, surgery is exhausting. Though it may be localized, it takes a huge toll on your body and it’s very important to take the time to heal.

On that same trip to San Francisco, I was often very tired–which meant I was a vastly different person from my regular caffeinated self, who wants spend every hour of the day soaking in my destination.

My friend was aware of what I’d just gone through and followed my lead in terms of sightseeing, allowing me ample opportunities for down time. It ended up being an extremely revitalizing trip.

4. Pack your medication well and think about how you will transport it in advance.

After all of my surgeries, I started experiencing severe dry eye, which required me to take refrigerated eye drops. This, I felt, would definitely put a dent in my travel plans. I would have to figure out how to keep them cold 24/7.

Ben, my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) and I planned a big trip to Romania and Israel, which would involve long flights, layovers, and tons of moving around. I bought a soft cooler with lots of space for several ice packs. Halfway through the first flight, I requested that the flight staff give me a bag of ice to continue to keep the medication cold. Because it was for medication, the flight staff was extremely accommodating. At hotels, I either requested a mini fridge in our room if it didn’t come with one, or I requested that the hotel staff put the medication in its refrigerator and the ice packs in its freezer. There was never an issue with this.

On one long hike, Ben and I took turns holding the cooler. The only thing we decided to forego was an overnight train ride to Kishinev, Moldova, because the ice situation didn’t seem practical. In the grand scheme of things, I think it’s okay that I missed out on Moldova–that time.

Six Tips for Traveling with an Illness
Me on a hike in Sinaia, Romania with my medicine cooler

5. Ask for what you need.

You know the phrase, “Ask and you shall receive”? It’s true. There were countless times when I asked restaurants to put my medication in their refrigerators, and they almost always said yes. This is your health–do not be afraid to ask for what you need.

6. Expect some inappropriate questions.

In the US, almost no one commented on my eye’s appearance–though it definitely looked like something was going on–probably because it’s just not considered polite to comment on others’ defects.

But once I landed in Israel, the questions did not stop. Random strangers, waiters, cashiers, children, and peers would all look at me in shock and exclaim, “What happened to your eye?!” At first it was a huge jolt and made me feel very uncomfortable, but then I started to realize that people just genuinely wanted to know. After I told them, they had a million follow up questions and would always wish me good health in the future.

People in different areas respond differently to sickness and physical appearance and after I overcame my surprise, I actually started to embrace the locals’ interest and concern.

Don’t let your chronic illness hold you back from traveling. Just be honest with yourself and the people who love you about your needs. Plan ahead, and also, have faith in the kindness of strangers.


Photo credits for 6 Helpful Tips for Traveling with an Illness by Pixabay and Rachel Sales. 

About Rachel Sales

Rachel Sales is a co-founder of Pink Pangea.

5 thoughts on “6 Helpful Tips for Traveling with an Illness

  1. January 17, 2019

    Lucie and Karen,
    Your stories inspire me! I feel for you, root for you, and wish you both many, many more adventures around the world. Travel is so healing in so many ways. I love that we are all finding ways to make it happen for us. <3

  2. Karen Padilla
    January 17, 2019

    In 2013, just 1 year after getting one of my dream jobs, I was diagnosed with Menierre’s disease with headaches. As if the vertigo wasn’t enough of a problem, I had the headaches with it. Part of my job was traveling to wherever my company sent me and did involve flying at times. My assignment at the time of diagnosis was 34 miles from my home in heavy traffic and it was a snowy winter which added to the stress I had on the job. My job was as a interim coodinator which usually those assignments were on for about a month but this one was in it’s 4th month and no end in sight. They were refusing to give an end day to either me or my bosses. I had to ask for a medical leave. It turned out that they had hired someone within the company 1 month after I started but were having her do something else since they already had me. I gave them notice that I would be leaving for medical leave. The diagnosis came as a blow. It’s unpredictable. Good days, bad days, Severe weather could trigger days of vertigo. Medication that made it difficult to function. I didn’t think there would be anyway I could fly when I could barely walk a straight line or stay in a standing position. I resigned my job because if I couldn’t fly or feel safe driving, I didn’t feel like I could do the best job. I also had a part time job of travel writing but I couldn’t do that job either. Sometimes the medication can be worse than the disease so I quit the medication. I found an herbal treatment that from the first dose, worked. I didn’t have the vertigo extreme vertigo. A month later I had a conference in Miami that had been planned before the diagnosis. I was scared that flying may trigger more vertigo because I always had problems with ear pain when flying. I survived the flight, the 1st of the seqestering of the air traffic controlers, a freak lightening storm, an emergency landing for fuel in a blizzard, and a blizzard ride home that took almost an hour to go 14 miles. I still take precautions, but in 2018 it marked 2 years of not flying. I did do long road trips during 2017. My first international flight since 2016 will be next week. By the time I get home, I will have circled the earth by air. I am nervous about the headaches since the herbal I have been using since 2013 have recently been discontinued. I’ve been without it for several weeks and it’s going well. In the last 4 weeks, I have been nursing a herniated disc in my lower back. This 40-day trip is my first trip of bringing only a backpack. The weight of the backpack could easily throw off my balance so I’m wearing it when I’m on a treadmill to get used to it. I will have to use careful thought about how I move but I think I’ll be okay. Your story gives me more confidence about the entire trip. Safaris in Africa, day trains and night trains in India, will be the test. I did a trip to the Boundary Waters last August with way too many bag. Being a photographer, it’s hard to leave camera equipment home but I’m going minimal this trip. I’ll be thinking more of my body mechanics and less about being daring. At my age, that might be the wise thing to do.

  3. June 11, 2017

    Hi there
    I fell out of cancer treatment (ouch), got myself a backpack and headed for South East Asia to volunteer in orphanages! It was a challenge of course, I couldn’t actually stand up and balance with my empty backpack at first, but I adapted! I had all sorts of challenges as I’d had several major surgeries and all the other treatments that come with it, plus of course the psychological aspects, but I found that escaping and going somewhere to be myself again was healing. I didn’t tell anyone I met about my story, which was wonderfully freeing, and I just worked my way around the physical and emotional challenges, one small thing at a time. Occasionally I’ve had friends become grumpy with me when I’m too fatigued to do something, but in the end their grumpiness is their problem, I have better things to think about and wonderful work to get involved in! I do prepare and I am careful with my health, but I find attitude and perspective makes a big difference! I seem to be the only one who doesn’t complain of being “sick”, because I’m too busy appreciating how wonderful life is! It is completely possible to travel with health challenges and in my experience, very healing. Definitely a positive to come from a terrible situation, just have courage, realise that you are probably stronger than others with no health challenges, remember than you are not an illness and you don’t have to explain yourself and your choices to anyone, just go for it with as positive an attitude as you can manage and love it xxxxxx

  4. Rachel Sales
    May 12, 2014

    Thank you for your kind words, Tanya. If you want to share your own experiences, please be in touch!

  5. May 12, 2014

    Rachel, this touched a cord, thank you sharing your experience. Ever since my injury and recovery, I too try to be extra careful because the need to get on the road is always higher than physical discomfort 🙂

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