Fusun Dulger Charles posted this question on the Facebook page for Travel with Aging Parents: “How can people travel when they have a chronic disease and really don’t know how they are going to feel from one day to another?”

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Thanks for the question, Fusun! This is definitely a tough one, because it’s the unpredictability that makes traveling with a chronic disease such a challenge (as I’m guessing you are well aware).

One option is to select vacation destinations within driving distance of your house and book hotels that allow changes to the reservation. (For more details on this option, see my response to Gayle’s question about trips that work for older travelers with health problems.) That way, if you wake up on departure day and really cannot venture out of the house, you can postpone your plans by a day in hopes that tomorrow will be better. This flexibility can also help reduce any anxiety about losing money if you need to make last-minute changes to your plans.

If you’re up for a vacation that requires a long-haul plane ride, it’s best to consult with your doctor to discuss any precautions you should take in advance or while in country. Here are a few suggestions to consider before booking your trip and while you’re traveling:

  • Select destinations reachable via a direct flight from your home city. Changing planes is a pain (especially when it involves hiking through large airports!), so avoid doing so whenever possible.
  • Slow down. Give yourself plenty of extra time to do trip-preparation tasks. Instead of packing your bags all at once the night before you leave, lay out your luggage a few days earlier and do a little bit of packing each day. Not only does this save you last-minute panic and exhaustion, but it gives you time to double-check (and triple-check!) that you’re not forgetting anything vital (such as medications you might need).
  • Take advantage of any preboarding opportunities provided by the airline. At the gate, tell the agent that you have a medical condition and ask if you can preboard. (Be sure to be extra-polite: not all airlines offer preboarding, but a sympathetic gate agent may have the discretion to let you on the plane early nonetheless.) Preboarding helps you avoid excessive standing and jostling that can be exhausting.
  • Arrange ahead of time to have a friend, taxi, or car service drop you off at your departure airport. This way, you don’t have to navigate busy roads or huge long-term parking lots when you’re feeling sluggish.
  • Arrange for the hotel to have transportation waiting for you when you land at your destination. I actually do this on every long haul flight (whether or not Mom is traveling with me) because I just don’t want to hassle with getting a taxi when I arrive. Even for well-seasoned travelers, dealing with taxis is challenging in any city—and especially in a foreign country. I want to conserve my energy for checking out the sites, not spend it all arguing with a taxi driver.
  • Arrange in advance with the airline to have a wheelchair take you to your gate. Even in smallish airports (such as Mom’s local one in Indianapolis), I reserve a wheelchair for Mom because I don’t want her to be exhausted before we ever get on the plane. But if she decides that she’s up for walking that day, I can always cancel the wheelchair reservation at the last minute.
  • Pack light! Take only what fits into a carry-on bag. If you’re not feeling great when you wake up, consider checking your luggage (rather than bringing it on board). But if you still prefer to keep a carry-on with you, someone on the plane will usually help you hoist it into the overhead bin if you’re unable to pick it up by yourself.
  • Get a window seat and pack a sleep mask and ear plugs (or try some of the sleep aids I mentioned in an earlier post) so you can try to get some sleep on the plane.
  • Travel with a group such as Road Scholar or Overseas Travel Adventure and let someone else do the planning (including moving you from one city to another). A cruise is another excellent option as long as you avoid the big ships, which—thanks to their size—can be as exhausting to traverse as an airport! Instead, opt for a smaller ship, such as those offered by Grand Circle Travel.
  • Even if you have health issues, you don’t have to rule out travel to a developing country (especially if you’re in a tour group). But you do need to understand that some comforts of home (such as elevators, private bathrooms, and air conditioning) may not be standard in hotels at your destination. Take some time to thoroughly investigate where you’re going so you understand the terrain as well. For example, if hills or stairs are difficult to manage, you may want to avoid certain locations.
  • If you do decide to visit a developing country, talk with a travel doctor to determine what vaccines you may need. (For more information about travel medicine, see my two-part interview with my own travel doctor, Douglas Zeiger.)
  • Keep activities to a minimum on your first day. Give yourself time to recover from the plane ride and the general stress of getting to your destination. Remember, you’re on vacation! So the goal is to de-stress, not to overbook yourself (after all, you can do that just fine at home!).
  • Stay in one place for a longer period of time. Do you really need to see Rome, Florence, and Venice in one week? Spending time in just one place and really exploring the local culture can be just as (or more!) rewarding than a whirlwind tour and will allow you to chill out if you need to take a break.
  • Stay in a hotel rather than rent a home or apartment. You don’t want to have to mess with washing the sheets or tidying up. You do that stuff at home, so let someone else do it for you while you’re on vacation!
  • Understand that when you return home, you may need some time to recover from the travel and the time-zone changes. So give yourself a break and don’t overschedule yourself on those first couple of days home. Try to ease back into your routine—and keep that vacation feeling as long as you can!

(For additional recommendations, take a look at the page “Travelers with Chronic Illnesses” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.)

One final note: I also recommend looking into travel insurance that allows for last-minute trip cancellation. This way, if the worst happens and you need to cancel your trip, you may be able to get most of your money back. Check out Insure My Trip, a travel insurance aggregation site that includes most of the major travel insurance providers (and many of the smaller ones).

Good luck, Fusun! Keep me posted on your travels!

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Do you have suggestions that might be helpful to Fusun or any travelers who have a chronic disease? If so, please share them in the comments here!