Traveling with a chronic illness is harder for me now compared to ‘the time before.’ I guess that’s obvious! Long gone are the times of booking a ticket and breezing through an airport at a moment’s notice…. (Seriously, I did that way too often.)
But it’s all good. I’ve travelled enough now that I’m still more than confident navigating trains, planes, and international transport systems, regardless of whether I am having a bad flare day or not.
I wrote a blog a few years ago called ‘The Tales and Tips of a (Once) Anxious Traveler.’ This, along with a post that popped up in the Vasculitis UK support group, inspired me to put together my tips for navigating travel on trains and planes with a chronic disease. Whether it’s vasculitis, fibromyalgia, IBD, or anything else that impacts your daily life, hopefully these tips will be of some use!
(These tips are purely based on my experience, my illness, and what works for me. These may not work for everyone.)
My ambition knows no bounds. Every week I travel 7 hours across the south coast and back to study my masters degree in Creative Writing. While this is a pretty extreme task even for a healthy person to undertake (for two years, no less!) I’ve found ways to do it with some ease.
As I have fatigue and mobility issues, I make sure to always travel with my walking stick, Gertrude. My university campus is essentially on top of a mountain, so it really helps to have a crutch when I’m panting up the hills! As my stick is collapsible, I always pack a spare carrier bag. This is so that when the train is inevitably swamped, I can wrap it up and store it in my main bag (and prevent it from getting dirt everywhere in the process).
I’ve also now got a roll-on bag, rather than a backpack. This is infinitely better for someone experiencing aches and pains, as it’s much easier to wheel your luggage along than it is to lug it on your back.
Now, this probably goes without saying, but when it comes to seats, reserve them when you can. Make sure to consider whether you’d be more comfortable in a normal seat, or at a table. Even if it seems like they offer more space, sometimes I find that the tables are cramped and can, therefore, cause me bigger problems in the long run. Again, this is completely up to you and what works best for your body!
I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a good idea to have a bottle of water and relevant pain medication in an accessible place at any given time. I tend to get stiff and dehydrated on my traveling days (which my boyfriend calls ‘Seren’s grumpy Mondays’), so having these nearby improves my journey a LOT.
On a practical level, I always bring a charged battery pack for my train journeys, as most of the trains I take don’t have plug sockets (I know, it’s 2020 – what the hell?). I also make excellent use of noise-canceling headphones, as packed trains and fatigue can cause my anxiety to come out of hiding and make everything a bit crap.
If you suffer from mobility issues like me, I would really recommend you get in contact with airport assistance.
Depending on which airport you are flying in and out of, you can get help in traveling through check-in, customs, security, and boarding. In fact, depending on where you are and who you fly with, you have the right to special assistance. The Civil Aviation Authority explains your EU rights:
“If you’re a passenger with a disability or reduced mobility you are legally entitled to support, commonly known as ‘Special Assistance’, when travelling by air. This means airports and airlines must provide help and assistance, which is free of charge, and helps ensure you have a less stressful journey.
Special assistance is available to passengers who may need help to travel such as the elderly, those people with a physical disability, such as wheelchair users, and those who have difficulty with social interaction and communication, such as those with autism or dementia.
Your right to special assistance is stipulated in EU law and applies when:
You fly on any airline from an EU airport,
You fly on an EU registered airline to an EU airport.”The Civil Aviation
For example, when I travelled to Turkey, I was able to use a wheelchair in Heathrow and cut through certain queues with my boyfriend. I was transported from one place to the next, assisted through security, and aided in our international transfers.
From my recent trip to Paris, I know that Gatwick has golf-cart style transportation which take you from place to place. You don’t need to be a wheelchair user to access this; it’s there for a range of passengers who require help, whether it’s with limited mobility or social interaction.
These services have really helped me to conserve energy on long travel days, and I definitely regretted not using it when I went to Paris!
I thought the journey would be quick and that I would manage on my own, but I had to stand in very long queues and that naturally took a toll on me. If you do want to explore mobility assistance, make sure you get in contact with the airport (or the airline) prior to your departure date.
On the day of flying, you can also get sunflower lanyards. This is to alert airport staff that you have an invisible condition and that you may need extra assistance. I’m yet to try them for myself, but I’ve only ever heard great feedback for these. You can even get them at certain UK supermarkets, too!
Another tip: always check-in online before your flight if you can, as it’s another queue you can avoid. When it comes to luggage, I do a few things. If I only have a carry-on, I make sure that all my liquids are together in a washbag so it’s easy to decant them into plastic bags at security. Once I’m past, I generally buy a bottle of water and paracetamol so that I can keep pain-free and hydrated (as airplanes are SO drying).
Regardless of if I have hold luggage, I always store my medications in my carry-on bag. The worst thing that could happen is that my suitcase goes missing with my medication inside!
If you have a pharmacy’s worth of medications like me, I would also advise getting a letter from your GP/consultant to explain that you need them for your condition. I did this when I went to Turkey in the summer; I take a methotrexate injection every week for my vasculitis, and I didn’t want to explain why I had needles in my bag…
I hope these tips helped – if you have any that I haven’t included, please do let me know. I hope you have a fantastic, easy, and pain-free time on your travels!
Discover more about your EU rights to special assistance here: https://www.caa.co.uk/passengers/prm/passengers-with-disabilities-and-reduced-mobility/
Find out specific details about seeking special assistance from a list of airports and airlines here: https://www.caa.co.uk/Passengers/PRM/Special-assistance-guidance-from-airports-and-airlines/