One Travel with Aging Parents reader, Tim Penn, sent in a question asking about how to handle his parents’ medications during long-term travel (that is, a trip lasting several months). I’m really glad he asked that question, because putting together this response gives me the opportunity to emphasize one very important point: taking regular medications shouldn’t prevent anyone from traveling—even on super-long trips! Long-term travel with medications merely requires a bit of extra planning.

I’ve written other posts that address how to deal with some particular medical concerns that may affect your travels. (For example, here’s information about traveling with someone who needs dialysis, how to travel with medications that require refrigeration, and what to do if your medications are lost or stolen during a trip.) Whether you and your parents are going on a short trip or a long trip, though, certain “good practices” apply to any travel situation that involves someone who uses regular medications.

  • First, know exactly what medications (both prescription and nonprescription) your parents need. Talk with your parents about this and—if possible—talk with their doctor as well. Make sure you know the following information about each medication: prescription name, generic name, purpose, dosage amount, dosage frequency, and dosage method. Get all of this information in writing (ideally, on their doctor’s official stationery).
  • Next, make sure that whatever medications your parents need to take are actually allowed at your destination. If you’re traveling only within the USA, your parents shouldn’t have any problems on this front. But if you’re traveling internationally, that’s where things can get sticky. Not all medications are legal everywhere, even with a prescription; in some countries, some are even classified as “controlled substances” (in other words, the kind of thing that could land you in very hot water indeed!). So as you start to plan your trip, check with the US embassy or consulate in your destination country to find out what medications you can (and can’t) take there. A travel medicine specialist, too, can advise you on this subject.
  • If you and your parents are traveling by plane, you’ll also need to check your airline’s rules about bringing medication or medical devices (such as needles to administer medicines) on board. Find out what’s allowed, and be sure to follow all airline and TSA regulations about packing your medicines. Bring copies of all prescription forms and other medicine-related documentation (and, as with any importation travel documents, leave copies of them with a friend back home), and keep all medications in their original containers. And whenever possible, make sure your parents bring a bit more medicine than they expect to need (a three-week supply for a two-week trip, for example), in case you encounter any significant travel delays.

So there’s the general refresher on traveling with medications. Now to the specifics about long-term travel with medications. First and foremost:

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Ideally, when going on a long trip, your parents should bring all the medications they need with them. Nonprescription items (such as ibuprofen or aspirin, for example) generally aren’t a problem—just purchase enough at your local store to last the duration of your trip. Making sure you have enough prescription medications, though, can be somewhat more complicated.

Usually, doctors, pharmacies, or insurance providers limit the amount of medicine you can get at one time, which is why refills cover only a certain time period (typically 30, 60, or sometimes 90 days). Even when that limitation isn’t in effect, though, some countries have policies that restrict the amount of a medicine that a person can bring in at one time.

If you and your parents are planning to embark on a long trip that will require a prescription refill while you’re away, there are a few options you can explore.

Ask their doctor to provide a prescription override before you leave.

  • With an override, your parents can get a slightly larger quantity than the usual refill amount—not a whole lot, though, so this is usually an option only when the duration of your trip doesn’t exceed the usual medication supply by more than a few days or weeks.

Arrange for their doctor to call in refills to a pharmacy near you during your travels.

  • If you’re traveling long-term in the U.S., this is a great option even if you’re moving from place to place. The hotel concierge or RV park management should be able tell you the closest drug stores. If traveling overseas, contact the hotel concierge as well to obtain a list of nearby pharmacies. I highly recommend calling the pharmacy before you depart to verify they will refill all your parents’ prescriptions. You should also confirm costs, if the pharmacy requires the ‘script to be faxed or if you’ll need an original copy with you and if your parent’s doctor needs to provide any additional information.

Arrange for a family member or a friend to pick up your parents’ medications and mail them to you.

  • This works if you know you’ll be at a certain place at a certain time (and you’ll also have to be sure that you aren’t violating any local laws regarding the possession or distribution of those medications). Be sure to account for slower than normal mail service (I sent a postcard to Mom from Mexico on one trip and it took 9 months to arrive!).

Sign up for travel medical insurance with a company whose services include offering medical assistance to their customers.

  • When you’re abroad, these companies can often connect you to a local doctor and pharmacy who can provide a prescription evaluation and the medications, or they can sometimes arrange to have refills shipped directly to you.

If you can’t figure out a way to arrange for prescription refills while on the road, consider making a quick visit home during your long trip.

  • Popping back to your home country (you don’t even have to go to your hometown) for a couple of days to take care of prescription refills can be both expensive and inconvenient. But if it’s the only option that will let you get the medicines your parents need, it’s better to go ahead and do it (and get back to your trip after a brief interruption) rather than rule it out completely (and end up cutting your trip short).

Most importantly, if your parents use regular medications and want to go on a long-term trip, make sure their doctor clears them for travel and is willing to help you out (as much as he or she can) in arranging for prescription refills. You definitely need their doctor’s support for this! And you’ll also need extra time to work out the medication details, so be sure to start your long-term travel planning even earlier than you would for a regular trip!