Here are some scary facts for you. Autoimmune disease is on the rise, especially among women, and more than 50% of Americans are diabetic or pre-diabetic. Depression and mental illness are epidemic. And for too many women, our hormones are a hot mess of imbalance. The fact is, a lot of us Millennial a dealing with unseen, chronic illness, and it ain’t fun. But by and large, we also want to travel more than any generation before us.
I know from experience, the stress of traveling with chronic illness can ruin the best of holidays.
I have a condition called Reactive Arthritis. It means that a few times a year, usually triggered by illness or inclement weather, my joints get achey. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it is painful. Luckily, I can easily manage it with Aleve and lifestyle choices, but it is still something that’s on my radar while I travel.
It hasn’t prevented me from traveling, but it certainly has impacted the way I travel. Long days of partying and nights in crowded hostels are not really my thing nowadays. Trust me, I’m not upset about that part! But in the past I’ve let the stress of worrying about my arthritis impact my life more than the arthritis itself ever has. Now, I like to think I have a system down for managing chronic illness and stress while traveling.
So after years of traveling with chronic illness, I had a few words to say on the topic.
Bring All Of Your Medication
Duh, right? Packing for a trip to Mexico City, I was so stressed about bringing every gluten related supplement (I was on a gluten free kick) I totally forgot to pack my inhaler. Luckily, I didn’t need it, but Mexico City is not a place you want to visit without your rescue inhaler if you have asthma.
Get Your Own Room
I know at a certain age there is a temptation to do the whole hostel thing. And even when traveling with friends it is tempting to share a hotel room to save on cost.
It is so not worth it.
Whatever condition you might be struggling with, chances are there are going to be moments when you need privacy. Whether your stomach is upset, you’re feeling a wave of depression coming on, you have a migraine, or you just need way more sleep than the average person, knowing you have your own private, safe space to retreat to is going to bring you so much relief. Sometimes you just need to be alone and that’s especially true when traveling with chronic illness.
Travel can be stressful. Scratch that, travel is usually stressful. Stress triggers flare ups, mood swings, and autoimmune disease. It can also fuck up our hormonal balance. That doesn’t mean you can’t travel, it just means you should consider your stress tolerance when making travel arrangements.
Here are a few ways I recommend for reducing stress while traveling:
- Pay for your seat assignment ahead of time
- Do NOT book basic economy seats (normal economy is fine)
- Yes, it is worth it to pay for lounge access (I have Priority Pass Access with my Chase credit card)
- Pack ample snacks so you know you have something you can eat on hand
- Consider splurging on business class seats
- Get to the airport early
- Consider cruises instead of flying
- Use a travel agent, specifically a travel agent for the differently abled if you need extra help
- Make your hotel aware of your needs beforehand (there are actually agencies who will do this for you)
- Consider leisure travel vs. adventure travel
- Only travel with compatible travelers
Be Comfortable Doing Your Own Thing
One night on a group trip to Krakow I decided to stay in while everyone else went out. I relished in my personal space and spent the night journaling about the experience I was having traveling around Central Europe (also writing angry letters to my ex boyfriend, but that’s a different story!) It was quite literally my favorite night in Krakow.
If my friends want to go out drinking, that’s awesome for them, but I will probably opt out. Alcohol has a big impact on my mental and physical health. I also really love sleep. Likewise, my friends might want to get BBQ, while I don’t eat meat. I am certainly not offended if the group wants one thing, while I go do my own way. I won’t hold a group of people hostage to my dietary restrictions, but I also won’t sacrifice my comfort to please other people.
Know Who Is On Your Team
Even though I am totally comfortable doing my own thing, not everyone I have traveled with is. I once went on a trip to Vienna with someone who had no understanding of personal space or alone time. She also really couldn’t handle the planning and coordinating of travel, so every Uber, every subway ride, every museum ticket, ended up on my plate and I was a total grump about it. We also did not plan our days of travel the same way. She also wanted to wake up at 7 blow dry her hair, and get rolling. Whereas I like to take my sweet time to wake up, eat a huge breakfast, and take the day at more of a leisurely pace.
Another time, I went to Mexico with a guy I was dating. Likewise, he wasn’t much of a planner (or doer) so I ended up having to plan every detail of the trip while he played video games. He was also super indecisive about everything and got to the airport 30 minutes before our flight. I needed some privacy to have a meeting with a client and ended up having to bribe him to leave the Airbnb for an hour. It was all wildly stressful for me, but totally normal for him. We weren’t not compatible travelers and I learned the hard way that I can only travel with people who can share some of the responsibility and respect personal space.
I have also traveled with people who just don’t understand the literal needs of something with chronic illness (avoiding certain foods, less alcohol, more sleep) and that was a frustrating problem for both of us.
No judgement intended to other types of travelers, but it’s important to travel with a compatible traveler otherwise both parties be stressed out! You have to know that whoever is on your team is on the same page and supports what you’re going through.
Do Your Research
If you have dietary restrictions, come prepared with a list of safe restaurants nearby. Know where the closest pharmacy is and how late it’s open. If you don’t speak the language, at least learn or write down the name of your condition (in their language, duh), names of foods you need to avoid, and any other words related to your condition. I can’t tell you how many times I said GLUTENMENTES?! (gluten free) while I lived in Hungary. It was one of the first words I learned.
Remember to Enjoy Yourself
On my trip to Mexico City I was having a horrible time because I was sooo stressed about needing to know every ingredient I was eating while hoping and praying it wouldn’t make me sick. Then I said fuck it. I went to an incredible bakery and ate whatever the fuck I wanted. Seriously this bakery was out of this world. Even Gwyneth Paltrow thinks so. They have an open kitchen and I have NEVER seen so many sticks of butter in one place <3
So I ate some pastries. Guess what? Nothing happened. The gluten gods didn’t sweep down from heaven and damn me. My stomach and joints felt fine. I actually felt BETTER than I had the whole trip because I wasn’t obsessing and stressing about every small detail.
Here’s the thing, whatever you might be intolerant to or what might be a trigger, stress is way worse for you. It is so damn easy to spend your whole vacation worried about what could go wrong. Yes, so many things could go wrong when traveling with chronic illness. But you’re on vacation for a reason, to experience a new culture and get outside of your comfort zone. So eat the damn pastry and enjoy your trip.
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