Tips for Traveling with a Medical Condition

Sep 25, 2015

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While traveling with a medical condition may seem overwhelming at first, it doesn’t mean you’re destined for a life as an armchair traveler. TPG Contributor Christine Cantera has some tips for traveling with an illness or disability, on airlines, at your accommodations and while sightseeing.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock
A physical disability may mean you require some help, but it shouldn’t keep you from traveling. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Physical Disability

With strict regulations in place for handicap accessibility in the US, it’s a rare instance to not be able to find your way with a physical disability. But in other parts of the world — even in major cities — it can be annoying or even downright dangerous to get around when you’re physically compromised. Here are some tips on how to stay informed and prepared when preparing to travel.

Air travel: The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH) notes:

New Horizons for the Air Traveler with a Disability, a 33-page booklet from the Department of Transportation, explains the Air Carriers Access Act regulations that came into effect in March 1990, as well as the changes resulting from the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Topics include accessibility of airports and aircraft; requirements for advance notice, attendants and medical certificates; handling of mobility aids and assistive devices; and much more, including how to file a complaint. […] A growing number of American airlines also publish travel information for handicapped passengers.

Illustrating this last point, major US airlines, such as United, American and Delta, offer detailed disability information and assistance on their websites, as do foreign carriers, such as Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Be sure to visit this page to find links to many other major carriers’ policies. Before your book your flights, check your chosen carrier’s site for information on available mobility aids, ideal seating and what types of assistance are available.

Accommodations: Make sure that your hotel or vacation stay is wheelchair accessible — not only your room, but also the entrance itself — even if you have to call the front desk and ask. Many foreign hotels and apartment buildings have several steps up to the landing where the elevator is, as it’s been retrofitted into the existing structure. To more easily find accessible lodgings, check online resources, such as Access Travel Center and Tripadvisor, the latter of which clearly defines a hotel’s accessibility and, unlike a hotel’s official website, will sometimes feature photos of accessible rooms.

Sightseeing: Although newer museums are wheelchair accessible, historic sites from the Anne Frank House to the Great Wall of China are either wholly or partly inaccessible. Your best bet is to seek out tour operators who specialize in disabled travel. At the very least, a guided tour of an attraction can help smooth things over.

It should also be noted that public transportation and even pedestrian walkways can be frustrating for the physically disabled. Trams in Rome, for example, can sometimes require a steep climb into the cars. And tiny cobblestone streets, while lovely, are a nightmare with no sidewalks, foot and vehicle traffic and an abundance of uneven surfaces. So a bit of advance planning needs to be done so that your planned route is accessible.

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Don’t think twice about taking the easy route everywhere you go. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Heart Conditions or Breathing Problems

Air travel: Don’t be shy about asking for assistance to your gate. It can be a long trek, especially if you’re carrying any luggage or if time is tight. It should be noted that although you request assistance through your airline when booking your flight, assistance is actually provided by the airport itself. Most airports require notice at least 24-48 hours in advance of departure.

Accommodations: Again, watch out for stairs in your accommodations. Don’t be shy about asking direct questions to get specifics that will help ease your mind, such as hours that the front desk will/won’t be manned, proximity to hospitals, etc.

Sightseeing: You’ll have a better experience if you enlist a tour guide to help you skip long lines and ease access to attractions. A good example of this is TPG’s tour of the Acropolis in Athens where his guide was able to take him along a less physically taxing route to the top.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock
To make sure you travel safely with diabetes, keep a well-stocked medical kit with you at all times. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Air travel: The American Diabetes Association (ADA) has plenty of great information for traveling with diabetes:

TSA specifically states that diabetes-related supplies, equipment and medications, including liquids, are allowed through the checkpoint once they have been properly screened by X-ray or hand inspection. Passengers should declare these items and separate them from other belongings before screening begins. […] Whenever possible, bring prescription labels for medication and medical devices (while not required by TSA, making them available will make the security process go more quickly). Consider printing out and bringing an optional TSA Disability Notification Card.

Also, to treat low blood glucose, make sure to keep a quick-acting source of glucose with you. Between delays and other inconveniences, the proper food may not be available to get to you in time. And the same goes for the flight itself, as many short-haul flights don’t have food available at all.

And perhaps most importantly, if you inject insulin while in flight, frequent travelers suggest to be careful not to inject air into the insulin bottle. In the pressurized cabin, pressure differences can cause the plunger to “fight you,” and make it hard to accurately measure your insulin.

Dining: Again, from the ADA:

Before any trip, get two papers from your doctor: a letter and a prescription. The letter should explain what you need to do for your diabetes, such as take diabetes pills or insulin shots. It should list insulin, syringes, and any other medications or devices you use. The letter should also list any allergies you have or any foods or medications to which you are sensitive.
If you’re going to a country where English is not the main language, make sure you know all the proper terms for your condition in the local language — this may prove especially helpful in restaurants and other eateries.

Sightseeing: Although planning a daily diet is easy in your day-to-day life, a long day of sightseeing can hamper even the most vigilant diabetic, especially when you’re more active than normal. Make sure to always have snacks with you to deal with low blood sugar. In addition:

  • No matter what kind of diabetes you have, it’s smart to watch what you eat and drink when traveling.
  • Avoid tap water overseas, including ice cubes made from tap water.
  • Ask for a list of ingredients for unfamiliar foods. Some foods may upset your stomach and impact your diabetes control, but you’ll also find foods that give you a healthy taste of local culture without hampering your condition.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and never go barefoot. Check your feet every day to look for blisters, cuts, redness, swelling and scratches. Get medical care at the first sign of infection or inflammation.

Have you traveled with a medical condition? What are your favorite sources for making the world accessible to you? Let us know in the comments.

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