Travelling with chronic illness: 10 tips to help you rock your first solo trip

Solo travel doesn’t have to stop just because you’re now managing a chronic illness. Here’s how you do it.

I’m a solo traveler. I also have chronic illnesses. I will always admit that travelling with a chronic illness makes things not as easy as it used to be, but it’s far from impossible. Practice helps, and so does building functional systems so that you don’t miss stuff, or try to push yourself too hard.

Now, before I dive in I feel like I need to add the world’s largest caveat: while I have pain flares, my pain usually is only debilitating for short periods of time, half a day at most. And I can generally take care of my health needs on my own, just with a lot of whining – and a lot of gear. My needs are almost certainly different from yours, so absolutely add your own tricks. Or let me know in the comments if there’s something that’s a must add?

With that, let’s get into the tips!

The pre-prep: talk to your doctor(s)

Before your first trip, at least a month in advance, check in with all of your doctors who are involved in your day to day functionality about how you should prepare for your first trip. I don’t care if they’re your general practitioner, your therapist, or even your nutritionist, grab those folks that make your life happen and ask what they’d like you to plan around before, during, and after a trip. (If you can’t see them all, it’s not the end of the world, this is just being comprehensive.)

Like when I started travelling solo, I talked to my physical therapist. My main issue when travelling is my hypermobility, so we needed to choose ways to keep my physical therapy routine going while away. We ended up building both a mini-routine for travel and a physical therapy travel kit. And when I got back, I gave her feedback on how well things went. I’m still using the kit years later, and we update exercises as we go.

A note: while there’s no deadline to do any of this, the sooner the better here really is best in case the doctors need to make any special orders. Like I needed so many allergy meds to go to this one wedding because there were going to be cats everywhere and it took a few days to get everything ordered, so I was super glad to do stuff a month in advance.

Choosing a hotel

Here’s what you want to know before choosing a hotel (besides if you like it/can afford it):

  • Where is the nearest pharmacy to your hotel?
  • Where is the nearest urgent care clinic and/or hospital?
  • Where is the nearest easy source of food that you actually will eat?
  • Where is the nearest source of public transit that is not a taxi? (Or will you need taxis to get around?)
  • What are the amenities (that you might use)? Is there a towncar service, free breakfast, an in-hotel library that’s got a hidden doorway to another library?
  • How close is this hotel to your main goals? (more on this later)
  • Does the hotel room have enough outlets for your needs? (Also, if you have a CPAP/BiPAP, is there a way to plug the dang thing in near the bed?)
The melon water at the Omni San Francisco was a nice touch – just not great for someone on levothyroxine who needed plain water. (They do offer complimentary water delivery, with bottled water.)

The full list of a hotel’s amenities can actually be hard to find, simply because they’re often changing. If you can, search in the reviews to see if there’s anything you can’t miss. (Like the free breakfast at Shangri-La Vancouver was so worth it. On the flip side, their free tea and water service ended at 6 pm.)

The French toast at the Shangri-La Vancouver? Better than this scene!

And seriously, don’t discount the importance of access to an easy food source. Having a cafe you’re excited about either on site or a block away means easy food that you’ll likely enjoy when you’re exhausted, which might happen a ton. (Though check their hours and make sure they’ll work with your needs. Like so many of the best cafes and bakeries in Seattle and Vancouver close around 4 pm.) Eating sad food can be necessary when travelling, sure, but this way your spirits can stay a little higher.

Splurge – when possible – on options that will reduce pain later

Or, as I like to put it, “will saving money now cost you more in physical therapy later?”

A while back I decided to fly coach to a conference. It wasn’t even a long flight, but I got unlucky with my seat assignment and sat next to someone who would not share space. I ended up jammed in position for two hours, which led to two weeks in physical therapy just to get back to how I felt before the conference. Nowadays I like booking a nicer flight on the way out and coach on the way back. If I get injured at least I’m almost certainly going to be in physical therapy the next day rather than limping about on my trip.

(Pro-tip: If you’re flying Alaska and you can confirm if it’s a refurbished Virgin plane, book first class if you can. Those leg rests are a freaking lifesaver.)

We tend to splurge in Vancouver because the rooms are way affordable compared to Seattle. Which means we get actual sleep when we visit.

And while this mainly applies to transit, it can apply to anything that will improve your experience from a health (and mental health) standpoint. Will you benefit from a nicer hotel room with Club Level Access so you can snack all the time? Will you need a guide so you don’t get lost on your first day and feel confident later? Would taking the 10 am bus instead of the 8 am help your sleep schedule? Pick the options that make sense for you and your budget.

Build a medical supply checklist

I’ve never been someone who liked using checklists for my bag. My outfits are pretty simple, why use a list? But for medical supplies it is so important.

Organize it however you like. (I like separating by medical need, so Medications, Physical Therapy Supplies, etc.) Just build out the checklist – and then make sure everything actually gets into your bag. I’ve totally forgotten physical therapy supplies because I left stuff on the couch. Learn from my mistakes.

Pro tip: include a power strip in that checklist. This totally counts as a medical supply, because you need your phone, your CPAP, everything you’re taking with you to function.

Bring your bed with you

Clearly, I don’t mean your mattress, but even just bringing your pillowcase is a huge help.

(Seriously. Unless you’re staying at a super fancy hotel, your sleep will be so much better.)

Heck, if you need to, bring one of your flat sheets. No one’s going to know besides you, and now you are going to almost certainly sleep better without increasing your luggage weight much. If you want to be more fancy/less obvious, I’ve covered the Brave Era silk sleep sack here:

Also, ask the hotel if possible about borrowing their white noise machines and humidifiers (or dehumidifiers depending on where you’re going). Mid and luxury hotels should offer those complimentary, but a lot of hotels might even offer them for a small rental fee. It definitely beats carrying more gear around.

(Yes, there are travel humidifiers, and I’ve tried going that route. I’d rather borrow whatever the hotel has since travel humidifiers are usually rather weak.)

Don’t drop your diet because “you’re on vacation”

This is not me saying don’t get those croissants in Paris. Dear goodness, get those croissants.

What I mean is that you need to keep your dietary needs in mind with your food even more than usual when you’re traveling. After all, you’re going to be distracted by all the delicious food! And while that’s awesome in the moment, it’s not so awesome later when your body revolts because you’re low on some nutrient you usually get at home.

For example, I have high fiber requirements and can’t eat too much sugar in a day. So I might stagger the sweets a little, or bring stuff back to the hotel for souvenirs. And I can bring high fiber snacks as a supplement and am even more vigilant than usual about taking my multivitamins. It all helps. (A good option here is to pick a way to get a high-nutrient breakfast or dinner, so you can do whatever you want the rest of the time.)

Have a short but doable Must See/Eat list

I’ve found that the best way to fully enjoy each trip is that I hit the ground with 2-3 simple, attainable goals, usually attractions or restaurants. Why so few? It’s really easy to actually manage, even if you’re sick for half the trip. And then everything else after that is a bonus.

And I do mean keep them simple. For San Francisco, it was to see as many of my friends as I could, and get some soft serve. For Vegas, I wanted to try a buffet and visit the art vending machine at the Cosmopolitan.

My can’t miss in San Francisco? The lemon cream tart at Tartine. I regret nothing.

That being said, you also need to be honest about your list – and make time to do them early. This is your list, not the ‘what you think others would like you to see’ list. I’m sitting here still regretting not eating enough soft serve the last time I was in New York, and that happened because I didn’t treat it as the Must Eat it was.

Build your schedule in chunks

Ideally flexible ones. You don’t know when you’re going to have a pain flare, so being flexible means you can work around them. (And it should leave enough time for a midday nap.)

I like breaking plans into clusters of 2-3 activities that are physically near each other. Think a museum, a meal, and a snack. Like in Edinburgh we got breakfast at this adorable French bakery, walked the half mile to the Royal Botanical Gardens and meandered about, then got lunch. Or in Seattle you could visit Pike Place Market, walk a few blocks to the Seattle Art Museum, and then go get lunch somewhere downtown. (I’d say that Seattle plan could be a touch intense if you’re really exploring Pike Place, but you could also just go to The Crumpet Shop and people watch.)

The Edinburgh Royal Botanical Gardens were lovely – but so was Patisserie Madeleine!

It’s worth testing the waters first

I get being scared to travel solo. It’s intense! You’re on your own, and you may only speak one word of the local language! And yet, so worth it.

First: there is no shame in being nervous about solo travel. In fact, I think it’s good to ease into it. That way you’ll be more likely to try it again.

Here are some options for your first trips:

  • Travel to see friends/stay with friends: It’s a built-in support system! And you’re with someone who knows the area! A total win-win. (I prefer seeing friends, so that you have an activity for part of the trip, but time to yourself as well.)
  • Travel with a purpose: This doesn’t have to be a volunteer trip; you could attend a convention you’ve been dying to visit. The point here is that part of your trip has a purpose, which will make planning easier.
  • Start small: There’s no need to book a two week trip as your first solo adventure. What about two days?

Cover your self care basics in your schedule

This is kind of covered above, but I’m including it again because proper self care is that important. Also, what is self care to you? Is it making sure to have a routine? An hour to read before bed? How can you keep that going while you’re on vacation?

Because these are load bearing activities. (I want to attribute that to Joy Demorra/Bibliosphere, but I can’t be sure and google isn’t helping.) These are the methods and steps that help you function, and they matter whether you’re on vacation or not.

Here are some basics to consider:

  • What’s your hydration plan? Do you like the local water? How much water do you need normally, and how will you get it? (I am Team Grayl Forever, especially after my trip to Vegas, but maybe you need full-on distilled water or flavored water.)
  • What’s your food plan? Do you have a budget in case you can’t eat the easily accessible food? Can you get to better for you food options if you need them?
  • Rest – how much rest do you need? Do you need naps or scheduled introvert time? How do you rest? Do you need a humidifier, extra pillows, a separate bed?
  • Exercise – do you require exercise or physical therapy? Swim time? Walking? How much is your minimum for functionality, and what is your maximum? Are you able to take rests as needed?

I hope these tips for travelling with chronic illness helped! And if you use any of them on your next trip, I’d love to hear all about it!

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