10 Tips to Travel like a Boss with Chronic Illness
There is a not a moment of my life that isn’t filled with memories of travel. My very first flight was at 2 months old, and I haven’t stopped since. This world is full of so many fun places to see, cultures to explore, and things to do, and I don’t want to miss any of it. But the reality is, traveling hasn’t always been easy. In my early twenties, I received two autoimmune diagnoses amongst a plethora of other diagnoses related to the damage caused by my autoimmune issues, and it completely flipped my whole world upside down. Nothing was the same. My lifestyle changed immediately, the food I was eating; everything suddenly centered around the fact that I now had these illnesses and needed to learn to live with them while taking the best care of my body that I possibly could.
It was only a week after this overwhelming doctor’s appointment, that I was on a plane flying across the country to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I remember going to the grocery store with my dad and literally sitting down in one of the aisles in tears because I didn’t even know what I could eat. It all felt like so much to take on. Thankfully since that moment, not only have I learned how to take care of my body, but I’ve also learned how to travel with chronic illness like a boss!
Here are my top 10 tips for traveling with chronic illness:
Planning ahead and doing your research before leaving on your trip can be a life-saver! Look ahead at your destination so you’ll know where the grocery stores and restaurants are with the best food options that work for you. Tools like Yelp and Google Reviews have completely changed the “pre-search” game, and even allow you to search for places that accommodate your specific dietary needs. And nothing replaces a good old fashioned phone call to a restaurant to ask all your toughest dietary and allergen inquiries. I’m on a very specific food protocol, so it can be really stressful when I’m not in my own kitchen and in full control of what’s being made. Researching ahead of time takes the stress out of dining. Yes, it takes some time before you leave to prepare, but it’s so worth it!
If possible, pack your own food to bring as much as you can, and even have non- perishables shipped to your destination ahead of time so that you can eat them or cook with them in your travels. Did you know that you can ship things to hotels? Figure out what you can do ahead of time to minimize stress when it comes to food! Traveling with chronic illness all comes back to being prepared!
2. Hone in on Local Hotspots and Hospitals
In case of an emergency, being caught off guard will only make things worse, so know where the nearest urgent care, emergency room, or hospital is as a precaution. Or even if it's as simple as needing a medication refill while you’re away, know where you can get access to the things you need ahead of time so you aren’t caught in a bind. If nothing else your research ahead of time will buy you peace of mind while traveling!
3. Say Goodbye to Stress
Reducing stress as much as possible is a major tip to a successful trip! One of the worst things we can do for our bodies is get worked up and find ourselves overly stressed. And this includes the planning phase of your vacation too. Leave yourself margin while you plan to keep the whole process manageable and fun.
Make sure you know what your triggers are, and get creative about stress reduction! If doing yoga everyday is something that helps your body destress, then find a local studio where you’re going. It’ll be a fun experience in a new place! If journaling helps reduce your stress, find a picturesque park where you can sit and experience some quiet. Whatever it is that works for you, you just might find that in the process of reducing stress, you get to explore the places you’re going in ways that others usually don’t.
And repeat after me, “it’s okay to cancel plans.” Cancelling plans is hard anytime, but especially on a trip. If you have to cancel something because of stress levels, or anything else for that matter, that’s okay. Give yourself permission to take care of your body. It’s your first priority.
4. Create a Home Away from Home
Choosing where to stay once you reach your destination is key. Whether it’s a traditional hotel, or an unconventional spot through Airbnb, VRBO, or Home Away, you may prefer to stay where you'll have access to a kitchen along with other comforts of home. Making a good choice ahead of time gives you the freedom to prepare meals for yourself and follow your routine.
Let’s face it — sometimes a less-accomodating “temporary home” is unavoidable, which changes how you’re able to take care of yourself, especially when it comes to food. But most hotels will bring a mini fridge to your room if you let them know that you have allergies, medications, or an illness that requires it. And when in doubt, packing a cooler might be a last resort, but a workable option.
5. Stay in the Groove
Stick to routines as much as possible while traveling! If you like to start your day with meditation to help center yourself and reduce stress, don’t stop just because you’re somewhere else. Routines and consistency are so important to keeping our bodies functioning as optimally as they can. This also includes things like medications and supplements. Don’t get lazy while you’re away from home. Bring everything that you need to support your body and stay on top of your program.
And in case “vacation brain” causes you to relax to the point of forgetfulness, don’t be shy about setting alarms and reminders on your phone to drink water, take your medications or supplements, grab a quick rest break, or even get ready for bed. Do what it takes to preserve your groove!
6. Play Keep-Away with Contagions
In a world full of beautiful places to explore, the road to get there is often filled with toxins and viruses and germs (oh my!). Many of us have compromised immune systems and the thought of exposing our bodies to a world full of “ick” can be daunting. Whether it’s hand sanitizer or packing a pollution mask, don’t be ashamed to use the tools you need to keep your body well. Even bringing cleaning wipes can help — from the surfaces you’ll touch on an airplane to the TV remote at your hotel. Having what you need to fend off the “ick” might just help you let go of your worries and enjoy.
7. Plan for Downtime
When I travel, I tend to be a “go, go, go” kind of person! I don’t want to miss out on seeing anything or making a memory. But I’ve learned over the years that no downtime is a “no-go” for my body. It’s important, perhaps even more so while traveling, that you plan for downtime to give your body adequate rest. Even when we’re as prepared as we can possibly be, being somewhere new or out of our element can still increase our stress levels. I find that I am typically more tired when I’m away from home, and generally nap everyday on a trip because my body needs that extra rest. Don’t run your body ragged. It’s better to take frequent breaks than to have a “flare to remember” and end up totally out of commission during your vacation.
And this goes beyond just your travel plans! Once you get home, consider planning a recovery day to give your body a chance to recoup from your adventures. Travel can hard on our bodies, and factoring in that next day at home rather than making plans to jump back into your normal day-to-day life can really help you transition back with a little more ease.
8. Don’t Slack on Your Sleep
When it comes to counting sheep, don’t compromise! If you have a certain bedtime every night, keep that same bedtime while you’re away from home. I know it can be hard when visiting friends or family, or even when you’re simply out exploring somewhere new. You get caught up in the moment and want to take everything in! But if you compromise on your sleep, it will catch up to you eventually, whether it’s while you’re still on your trip or later when you get home. And make sure the conditions are right as well — temperature, the darkness of the room, etc. Even packing your favorite pillow can be a huge help. Running on little to no sleep is not fun for anyone, especially those of us who know the ups and downs of living with chronic illness!
9. Pack Your Favorite People
It’s all about the support system. Who you travel with makes all the difference in the world! Living day in and day out with chronic illness can be hard enough on its own, but when you’re traveling, there’s often more to plan for. If you’re traveling with others, make sure you have someone that’s supportive and understanding of your routines and health issues so they can be a support to you.
And remember, friends are fantastic, but they’re not mind-readers. It’s your job to help them understand your health needs, and keep them up-to-speed on how you’re doing throughout the trip. Do they know you have dietary restrictions? Can they help make sure you take breaks throughout the day? Your illness doesn’t need to dictate your adventures, but having your fellow travelers aware of the accommodations you’ll need along the way can really help set healthy expectations for everyone.
10. Factor in Some Fun
Get out and enjoy the local culture, especially if you’re traveling internationally. Just because we have limitations doesn’t mean we have to fully miss out on what’s around us during our travels. Whether the food is holding us back or our mobility, there are always ways to get around and interact with the local culture to enjoy the places we go. Our illnesses aren’t what define us. Have a blast! All the planning and preparedness ahead of time is so worth it to create lasting memories and have the trip of a lifetime!
I hope these tips help you prepare for your next trip! It took me awhile to figure out my rhythm when it came to traveling with chronic illness. In fact, there was a solid year after my diagnoses that I didn’t want to go anywhere at all because it just felt too overwhelming. But now nothing can stop me!
Bon voyage, fellow travelers! Your journey awaits!
Written by: Kelly Halsch
Our world-traveler extraordinaire, Kelly Halsch was born and raised in New York, but now lives and represents the People Hope Tribe in Maryland. Her big dreams include things that many of us can relate to like going to a restaurant and ordering off the menu without making special requests or asking a thousand questions about allergens. Her dogs are her babies, she admits to watching too many episodes of Real Housewives, she’s terrified of ET (yes, from the fictional film), and she’s on a mission to try every local juice bar. But her heart is made alive when she writes, and is there anything more stunning than a woman who sets her mind on encouraging others? We think not.
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