Travelling with a chronic illness doesn’t need to be overwhelming as long as you come prepared. These are the travel essentials you’ll need no matter where you’re going – and a printable packing list to make it a lot easier.
Eleven years ago, I remembered arriving at airport security with a suitcase full of meds, thinking: “Shit! I’m going to be arrested today.”
This near-jail experience was the first flight I decided to take since my CRPS II diagnosis in 2010. And although I thought I was prepared – nothing could be further from the truth.
The good news is I was not arrested! (Obviously)
However, I did end up delaying the flight by 2 hours trying to get through security without a pat-down (it would hurt my body too much). And I can confidently say that no one on the plane liked me very much.
So, the travel essentials and packing list I’m sharing with you today are a product of experience.
I wish I had someone give me this advice back then because experience is the only thing that qualifies you to put a list like this together.
Since that day, I’ve taken more than 150 trips with my wheelchair, crutches, or various other walking aids. I’ve gone on road trips, aeroplanes, boats – you name it! Today, packing is easy for me, and I want to show you how to travel with a chronic illness or chronic pain.
A Medical Folder to Keep Your Information Together
Your medical folder is your ultimate travel essential. No matter where you go – it will keep you safe.A medical folder basically can be any folder that’s:
I have hand tremors, so losing my papers is not something I want to risk when I’m in a public space, like an airport. Try to use a folder with a button, zip or velcro closure.
At the end of this section, I give you some printables to make this part a whole lot easier!
There are also awesome apps to help you manage your medical information digitally, I review the best ones here: Top 13 Apps for People with a Chronic Illness in 2022
A Doctor’s Note That Explains Your Chronic Illness
Think about the small things here. It’s your most unexpected symptoms that make a difference in an airport.
For example, if you have:
Your Latest Medical Script to Validate Your Medication
Every country has its own rules about travelling with meds. But I find it’s always best to protect yourself here.
Make sure you keep the script and proof of payment with you.
If you just have ibuprofen on you – chill. No one cares. But if you look like a dodgy drug sales rep when you open your hand luggage, the German Shepherd at security is 100% going to single you out.
Do some research about where you’re going. You need to ask:
A Schedule to Help with Brain Fog
This is especially important if you’re travelling alone and taking more than one flight.
Try to keep organized when you travel by writing out your plans. It will also help keep your loved ones calm if your trip is mapped out.
At the end of this post, I will give you some printables. But for now, know that your schedule must include:
Top tip: transfer all this information to your phone as well, so it’s easy to share with others as you travel.
List of Nearby Hospitals, Doctors & Pharmacies
Do you want to rely on Wi-Fi in a foreign country when you urgently need to find the closest hospital?
No. You really don’t.
Print all that information out, please. Get all addresses, phone numbers and other details ready.
Not all places have Uber, so make sure you find out what taxis are available before you leave too.
You should include:
An Emergency Protocol Sheet in Case You Need Help
One of the most traumatic experiences I had was slipping in a shopping centre. The pain was extreme, I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t get up. But worst of all –
No one knew how to help me because I couldn’t get a single word out of my mouth.
This isn’t something that should happen very often (or ever)! But please don’t take any chances, especially if you’re alone.
Just write down your emergency protocol on a sheet of paper. Try to keep it to a bullet format – short and easy to read.
This should also include:
Just a quick FYI here – if the place you’re visiting uses a different language, I’d highly recommend writing down your protocol in that language (as well as in English).
Medication and Medical Equipment
The best advice I can give to anyone travelling with medical equipment and medication is to plan.
I recommend any of the following OTC medications, depending on what you struggle with:
- An immune booster (with as much vitamin C as possible)
- A natural energy boosting supplement
- Throat lozenges
- Electrolyte tabs
- Cortisone cream
- Antibiotic cream
- Paracetamol and/or ibuprofen
- Joint and muscle spray
- Antiseptic cream
- Burn shield
- Laxatives and diuretics (not a hot topic – but still important)
Don’t forget your medical equipment either:
- A face mask (Not the mud kind – the kind that covers your nose and mouth from breathing in impurities.)
- A blood pressure monitor
- A blood sugar monitor
- Iron count monitor
- Nebulizer or inhaler
- Your personalised equipment (I.e. a portable EKG monitor, or oxygen tank, Epi-pens etc.)
Travelling with Medication and Walking Aids
Most airlines will allow you to bring one walking aid on board without hassle.
Just remember to double-check the regulations for the specific airline that you’re using.
If you need assistance at the airport, call the airline you’re flying with in advance to book a wheelchair.
You don’t need to be a hero here – rather be safe than sorry.
If you are already using a wheelchair, this also needs to be mentioned.
They will need to know:
If you're new to your walking stick or cane, this article will help you: Using a Cane When You're Chronically Ill
The next point I cannot stress enough:
All medication, medical equipment and medical information must stay in your hand luggage.
Clothes and shampoo go in your suitcase. Anything invaluable (like drugs) goes in your hand luggage.
A lot of the rules that apply to flying will apply here too.
You need to check:
Road tripping or camping
Rules become a lot more lenient when travelling by car, especially if you’re staying in your own country.
If you’re crossing the border into another country, you’ll need to make sure that you are compliant with the border control rules of that country.
A High-Quality Pillow to Ease Chronic Pain
The type of pillow you travel with depends on the type of trip you’re taking. (Don’t worry – I will discuss this in more detail.)
But if you’ve got any form of chronic pain and discomfort – this is a travel essential. If you’re trying to figure out which pillow is best, it’s always a good idea to ask yourself:
What health factors make you the most uncomfortable while doing your daily activities?
Get those down on paper and explain why they make you uncomfortable.
You need to focus on those moments because they will only get harder when you’re travelling.
Here’s what I recommend:
If you’re flying
If you’re driving or on a cruise
Accessories to Help with Temperature Regulation
Honestly, if I could bring my own blanket, hot water bottle, neck rest, leg rest, down feather duvet, and recliner chair on any given trip – I totally would.
But it’s just not practical.
The irony of packing everything that may help you on a trip is that it’s a b*tch to carry around with you for the rest of the time.
But seriously, comfort does equal compact in this case.
If you’re flying, I recommend:
If you’re driving or cruising:
You have more flexibility here than when you fly. So, you could potentially pack more comfort items – especially those that can’t pass through an airport security check.
I would consider packing:
Athleisure to Keep You Comfortable
Clothes and shoes designed to keep you comfortable while you move are perfect for travelling.
I’m the kind of spoonie who travels in athleisure, and I highly recommend it.
Small things like not wearing restrictive pants that press on my abdomen help prevent UTI’s. And breathable sportswear helps me regulate my core body temperature better too.
Here’s the outfit I love travelling in:
I also suggest using a belt bag or fanny pack instead of a handbag, especially if you use walking aids.
You need to have quick and easy access to your documents, cash and phone.
A handbag is heavy, difficult to carry, and you can’t get to your things easily. Not ideal when you’re pressed for time.
Here's the ultimate read if you need to make your wardrobe more chronic-illness friendly (without losing your sense of style): 16 Fool-Proof Fashion Hacks for Chronic Illness
High-Quality Walking Shoes to Ease Discomfort with Walking
This ties in with the clothes you wear – the more comfortable your shoes are, the easier it will be to walk (if you won’t be needing a wheelchair).
I’m very particular about the shoes I wear for a couple of reasons. But mainly, unsupportive and poorly made shoes are bad for your toe, foot, leg, and back health.
Remember to look for shoes that:
Activities to Keep You Distracted
Books are a good way to keep busy when you’re travelling – whether it’s novels, short stories, puzzles, or colouring in – they can keep you busy for hours.
Audiobooks and podcasts are also great if you prefer listening to your stories.
But I like to take my travels as an opportunity to get away from technology as much as possible and just stick to good ol’ fashion paper.
And if you’re more creative, you can bring a sketch pad or some knitting to dig into.
The Daily Aids You Need to Cope with Discomfort
Travelling essentials need to include a set of daily aid items that make your life feel a whole lot more manageable.
Some of my other daily comfort aids include:
You also need to add these items to your packing list:
While I can’t tell you what you need to pack for personal preference, I thought I’d share some of my personal items to help you out:
How to take advantage of your space when you travel to maximise comfort:
On an aeroplane
If there are a few available seats next to one another in the cabin. Then ask to move there, so you can lie down.
On a road trip
Set yourself up in the back of the car and lie sideways so that you can stretch your legs. And use the pillows you’re bringing to make the back seat more comfortable.
On a cruise
Ask if you can book a room that is handicap friendly and close to an elevator, so it’s easy to get around.
Snacks That Aid Digestion and Blood Sugar Levels
I don’t travel without snacks.
Scratch that. I don’t leave the house without snacks.
Since I already feel weak from pain and exhaustion, I don’t want hunger to be on the list, too, when I’m trying to get something done.
And given I struggle with very low blood pressure and blood sugar levels – it’s worth my while to plan my meals.
I highly recommend healthy snacks. But that’s because I feel a huge benefit to my overall well-being when I eat properly.
We need to have as much energy as possible and keep on top of our plans when travelling. So, eating the stuff that correctly fuels your body and brain goes a long way.
Now I’m not saying to go all in. Leave your containers of soup or rotisserie chickens in the freezer at home, please. Keep it clean, simple and easy to eat.
Tips for travelling with snacks
If you’re flying, food gets a little tricky to pack.
Each country has its regulations about travelling with perishables - so you should check out the rules in the country you’re visiting.
Snacks I like to have with me include:
All these items are dry. And easy to buy in sealable packets.
And if you’re travelling through a country that doesn’t allow certain perishables. Then look for landmarks, like duty-free, where you can pick something up.
If you’re driving, food gets a whole lot easier to pack. Just remember you want food that is:
If you’re staying somewhere overnight or going on a camping trip, try to do some meal prep in advance.
I’m not Martha Stewart, but the good news is that you don’t have to be for this to work! The key is consistency and simplicity.
If you need some help in the kitchen, you need to read this: 14 Energy-Saving Cooking Tips When You're Chronically Ill
Another important thing to remember about snacks is that they save you when you are served foods you potentially cannot eat.
I would always recommend calling your airline or cruise ship to confirm your dietary requirements.
But having snacks on you is just good sense! You don’t want to be hungry, tired and weak while travelling.
A High-Quality Backpack to Keep Your Essentials
A proper backpack or bag is a chronic-illness must-have – it doesn’t matter if you’re travelling abroad or just to the shops.
It’s difficult to be kind to your body when you’re travelling with a chronic illness – but the right bag can make a huge difference in how much discomfort or pain you feel.
Everything we’ve mentioned in this article needs to fit into your bag – so it better be something you can carry around.
I find that the best bag for someone with a chronic illness to travel with is a backpack with extra support. This is because:
Remember to look for:
Alternatively, if you can walk quite comfortably, I recommend using a standard hand luggage bag with 360° turning wheels. This is also easy to use, and I love using one for weekend getaways.
Printed List of Chronic Illness Packing Essentials
Now for the juicy stuff – I’ve put all the templates you may need to complete this leg of your chronic illness packing list.
(Honestly, I love this part so much that I can’t help but wonder if these printables are more for me than for you.)
You can download your free chronic illness packing list printables here:
I’m sure these will help you as much as they’ve helped me.
When you get back from your trip – I look forward to hearing about how it went.
Until then – happy travels!