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6 tips for travelling with a medical condition

written by Helen Wills November 27, 2017
Sunset views from the plane

Travelling with your children always takes a bit of planning. Add in a medical condition and it can be tempting to decide that a weekend close to home will suffice.

But far-flung travel doesn’t have to be off the cards when you’re dealing with health issues – it just takes a little more preparation. Our daughter, Maddie, is 13-years-old and has Type 1 diabetes, but that didn’t stop us taking her on Intrepid’s 8-day Cambodia Family Holiday this summer!

1. Plan to be spontaneous

This has been my motto ever since Maddie (below) was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of nine. Type 1 is the autoimmune version that often starts in childhood, and is controlled with regular insulin injections. It’s a tricky condition, especially in a child, but we’ve always said that having diabetes shouldn’t stop Maddie from doing anything at all, and it certainly didn’t on our travels in Cambodia. The trick is to be an optimistic pessimist. Assume the best will happen, but plan for the worst. That way, whatever your trip throws at you, you know you’ll be able to cope.

Helen's daughter, Maddie, in Cambodia

Image by Helen Wills

2. Think ahead

Before travelling, I read up on everything we might experience, from food to airport security issues. I also made a list of where the main hospitals were in relation to our itinerary, and called our medication manufacturers to find out if our usual brand would be available in the local pharmacies, should we need it.

Plan for your time zone and weather too. For us, a change in time zone is a big deal, because the body’s need for insulin varies at different times throughout the day. We change the time settings on my daughter’s insulin pump as soon as we board the plane, so we have plenty of awake time to adjust things as we go. Heat and cold can affect blood sugar levels, and insulin must be kept cool, so we travel with insulating bags and use a flask of iced water to store vials whilst we’re in hot countries.

Always pack more medical supplies than you need to, and split it across two or three bags. That way if anything goes missing or breaks, you’re still covered, and you don’t need to interrupt your holiday.

3. Take vaccinations seriously

Visit your GP a good 6 months before you plan to travel, and get all the jabs they recommend for your destination. Sometimes vaccines may not be in stock, and you might need to wait for them to be ordered in. Discuss with your specialist whether you should have anything beyond the standard recommendations.

Cambodia is mostly additional risk for malaria, so you can get away with using 50% DEET, but our diabetes consultant recommended malaria tablets for Maddie, to really cover all risks.

We also paid for Hepatitis B vaccines for her. With diabetes, any standard illness is more likely to land you in hospital, and it’s good to know she’s protected for future travels too. We took a small sterile hospital kit of needles and cannulas; we didn’t use them, and Cambodia’s hospitals seem to be excellent, but it gave me peace of mind that we’d have sterile equipment if we ever needed it.

Helen and her family at Angkor Wat

Image by Helen Wills

4. Book a guided trip

Doing this took a lot of the stress out of our itinerary. Having booked a family tour, we knew the planned visits would be appropriate for children, the hotels would be of a certain standard and we wouldn’t be taking any real risks.

Plus, our guide was with us every day, which meant there was always someone close by who spoke the local language. We also really got to know him, and learned about his country as a result. Great for the kids, who aren’t up for reading the guide books!

5. Get super organised for airports

Getting some medications and medical devices through airport security can be stressful, but we’ve found being over-prepared for every possibility usually helps things go more smoothly. Maddie’s insulin pump can’t go through x-ray machines or full body scanners, which often makes security staff wary. Equally, the current recommendation on insulin is that it shouldn’t go through either.

We pack everything in clear bags with copies of our hospital letters stating what’s needed and why. In most cases this works, and we’re on our way fairly quickly. We also set off really, really early for the airport, because on the odd occasion when you do have a problem, the last thing you need is panic that you’re going to miss your flight!

Staying calm, and compromising where you can is a good rule of thumb. We had one flight out of Thailand where the ground staff insisted our insulin should go in the hold; that kind of temperature exposure would damage it beyond use, so not surprisingly we held firm until they brought a manager. But when cabin crew asked us to let them know if we needed to inject, and use a special disposal bag that they provided, it really wasn’t worth an argument, so we went with it.

Helen's family riding the Bamboo Train

Image by Helen Wills

6. Research your food options

Type 1 diabetes isn’t caused by lifestyle factors at all, but once you start injecting insulin, food management becomes a round the clock issue. On a long-haul holiday, it’s natural for most parents to be concerned about food, especially if their children aren’t used to spices, or unusual dishes.

With diabetes in the mix, we needed to know that there would be access to carbohydrates to prevent hypos, as well as foods that we knew how to carb count. We spent some time reading up on what might be readily available in restaurants, and practising eyeballing food plates to estimate the carbohydrate content. We also carried cereal bars and biscuits with us just in case we needed something quickly.

In reality, we found culinary Cambodia easy to navigate – there was usually bread, always rice, and the rest was meat and vegetables. Check out what the typical foods are at your destination, and think ahead to what you might order, and what you might need to take with you.

Just do it!

And that’s it! It can feel like a huge chore preparing to travel with a medical condition, but it’s so worth it, and the time invested before you go really pays off once you get there. If it’s at all possible, don’t let your medical condition put you off travelling. Good luck with your next adventure!

Ready to take your family away on the trip of a lifetime? Check out our range of Intrepid family tours.

Feature image by Talal Ahmad via Unsplash

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14 comments

Onna Boden February 5, 2019 - 8:49 pm

Wow what an inspiration. I have people close to me with type 1 diabetes but your positive attitude and pragmatic approach very impressive!

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Amie Roberts August 23, 2018 - 7:16 pm

Hi Helen,

I love love love this post – it makes me feel so much better! I’m going travelling in January and am going to India, south east Asia, Australia and NZ! I have a medical condition very similar to your daughters – if I’m continuously sick of have dioreah, I have to go to hospital and be on a drip. I also have to take lots of Meds and injections with me. I’m just wondering what happened when you went to hospitals – was it a quick response and were the hospitals easy to access? Sorry for the questions but my anxiety about this is sky high!! Thank you again x

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Cathy Glynn December 19, 2017 - 8:24 pm

My goodness Helen it sounds like you have to be prepared for any eventuality. I’m glad you can still enjoy travelling x

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Kira December 7, 2017 - 10:41 pm

I love that you have an ‘unstoppable’ attitude to life . It’s so inspiring . Loved this post Hun xx

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Chloe Ciliberto December 7, 2017 - 8:24 am

You are so well prepared and so amazing that having a medical condition hasn’t stopped you doing anything, especially being spontaneous. It sounds like you have to plan a lot more and prepare a lot more. I love the airport tips! All of these tips are going to help so many people. x

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Emma December 7, 2017 - 8:07 am

We are preparing to go backpacking around South East Asia and we have spent a long time sorting out vaccinations, essential items and researching safe routes that suit the experience we are looking for. I think it is good to plan to make sure everyone is safe, there is always room to be spontaneous and change plans along the way but I do think preparation is key.

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Mellissa Williams December 6, 2017 - 3:34 am

What a helpful post. I agree thinking ahead and being super organised is brilliant advice, especially if you have diabetes

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five little doves December 5, 2017 - 9:18 pm

Great tips, I have several medical conditions that can often lead me into hospital, so I do worry about travelling abroad! Fab advice.

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Ana De- Jesus December 5, 2017 - 11:06 am

It must be hard for her having diabetes at such a young age but I love that you are so supportive and are showing her that you can still travel with a medical condition x

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Sonia Cave December 5, 2017 - 6:53 am

These are all great tips and advice and it is important as you say to go for it. Try and not let it stop you doing things and seeing places

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Talya December 5, 2017 - 3:25 am

These are great tips I love that you are so pragmatic and make sure you are super prepared but that you just do it! – as you say- and don’t let it get in your way.

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Jon December 4, 2017 - 9:07 pm

Some fantastic advice here. Getting organised at Airports is an absolute must!!

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rick be November 27, 2017 - 10:55 am

I have a traveling buddy who now needs dialysis is there any way to find a clinic & make a reservation,say,in Mexico,or Europe…or Thailand-I know he wants to go there?

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Helen December 5, 2017 - 8:43 pm

Hi Rick, sorry to hear about your friend, but yes, it is possible to book dialysis treatments while you’re away travelling. Phuket hospital offer dialysis. I imagine it will be about booking in treatments first, and then planning your travel itinerary around that. I’d suggest the first stop should be the GP – all GPs have a travel clinic where your friend will be able to get the best advice.

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