Traveling in general can be overwhelming and stressful, but when you add chronic health problems to the mix, it gets even trickier. When I mention chronic health problems, I’m not just talking about chronic illnesses or chronic pain – I’m also talking about someone with food allergies, a bad knee after a sports injury, and basically anything that causes health problems for a long period of time, including things that aren’t illnesses, per se. This is a much larger group of people than those who have a diagnosed illness or condition.
In case you’re wondering where I’m coming from on this: I’ve been in pain for over 15 years, and for the first 9 we thought it was “just” a bad ankle due to a genetic condition. I spent nearly 10 years dealing with that while I traveled, and then things got ticked up a notch when I was diagnosed with arthritis. Plus, I went to college in (and then lived in) Nashville, Tennessee, so I spent a LOT of time flying across the country over 5 years. I’m not saying that these questions only apply to people with diagnosed illnesses, but I am saying that my years of experience dealing with the ridiculousness that is my body can probably help you make your life easier.
Question 1: Will I need a wheelchair? – This is a question that every person who lives with chronic pain should ask themselves while traveling. For a lot of people, this depends a lot on 1) the day and 2) how much walking is involved. I’ve had the awful luck of needing to walk to the very end of the terminal to reach my gate, and that alone can set me in too much pain for the rest of the day. This is also a question you should ask yourself if you have a layover, and then you need to take into consideration where your layover is. For example, I know from personal experience that Detroit, Atlanta, and Charlotte are huge airports. There is no way I can walking through any of those airports, even on a great day.
Then there’s the matter of getting a wheelchair in the first place. If you book your flight directly through the airline, you can probably indicate that you will need a wheelchair, but often if you book it through a third party you aren’t given that option. If this is the case, once you arrive at the airport, you can ask the airline check-in to order you a wheelchair. If you have a connecting flight, once you get onto your first flight, ask the flight attendants to make sure you have a wheelchair available when you arrive at your layover. Then, go through the process again to make sure you have a wheelchair at your destination. Also, FYI, most wheelchair attendants will expect you to tip them, so bring cash with you.
Question 2: Where will I be able to eat? – If you have no allergies, sensitivities, or special diets, this won’t be a problem. If you do, though, make sure you research the airports or train terminals beforehand. This way, if it turns out that you can’t eat anywhere, you can plan ahead and bring food. But if you’re flying and you bring your own food, you also need to keep in mind TSA requirements. For example, don’t bring applesauce – they’ll either make you eat it before going through security or throw it away (shoutout to Past Kate for not thinking about this and losing applesauce).
Question 3: Will I be comfortable? – It’s SO important to me that I be as comfortable as possible when I travel because traveling itself is already so difficult for me. If I’m not wearing comfortable clothes, I’m extra miserable. But it’s also important to me to be somewhat pulled together when I travel because then I feel less like a mess, so I’m all about walking the line between comfortable and dressed nicely. I would also suggest that you bring back up comfortable clothes, so maybe a pair of leggings if you’re wearing jeans or a t-shirt if you’re wearing a nicer shirt. This way you have the option to get more comfortable if you need to.
Question 4: Do I have everything I need? – I’m just going to sidestep the “normal” things you need when you travel and go straight to things people with chronic health problems need to bring with them. There are a couple key things you don’t want to forget: your medications, doctor’s note if you’re traveling with certain medications (like controlled substances), and any mobility or pain aids. When I say medications, I don’t just mean the medications you’re prescribed; if you have a bad knee but no chronic illness, make sure you bring Advil with you so you don’t have to cough up a ton of money for a couple of pills in an overpriced airport store.
Plus, as I mentioned, I strongly suggest that you get a note from your doctor if you’re traveling with any sort of controlled medications, and that you bring that medication in the bottle with the official prescription information so you don’t have any trouble with bring it. (FYI – if you fly with a large liquid bottle of medication, that’s fine getting through TSA as long as it has the official prescription information on it. They’ll also test it for explosive residue or something, so don’t be surprised.) A doctor’s note is also helpful if you’re flying with an injectable medication. The TSA is used to people flying with these medications and people with diabetes who have needles with them, but it will make you feel a lot better and less anxious if you have an official medical note with you.
Finally, make sure you have the tools you need to get around or lower your pain. This can include a cane, KT tape, ace bandage, TENS unit, etc. The last thing you want is to travel and forget the non-medication aids that help make your life easier!4 questions to ask yourself before traveling with a chronic health problem Click To Tweet