How to Joyfully Travel with A Chronic Illness

Asthma can leave you huffing and puffing and hiking at a snail’s pace while your friends speed up to the mountaintop. Food allergies are particularly daunting in countries where you don’t speak the language. Crohn’s can send you running into the most disgusting bathrooms grateful the bathroom exists. Celiac disease can leave you bloated and wondering what the heck you ate with gluten in it. Arthritis can slow you down and have you looking out for a place to sit every few feet.  But all that shouldn’t stop you. It’s totally possible to have incredible, joyful travel with a chronic illness.

I’ve traveled extensively since I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 4 years ago and my brother has never let this disease slow him down in the entire decade he’s had it. Here are ten tips that will help you travel with a chronic illness and joy.

Pack a positive attitude

Smiling on the Van Ness and Market Cable Car in San Francisco - How to Joyfully Travel with a Chronic Illness

Chronic illnesses are serious, but there’s always room for laughter. The more you can laugh at your symptoms or needs the better off you’ll be. The more you can see the silver lining the more fun you’ll have. A positive attitude can help solve most minor problems you’ll encounter like flight delays or a lack of restrooms. Maybe you’re hiking a mountain and it feels like you’ll never reach the summit because your lungs just aren’t having it (thanks, asthma). It’d be easy to feel glum and victimized. But you’re still out hiking that mountain and I’ll bet it’s beautiful. Think of all the beautiful things you’re noticing because it’s slow going. If you sit quietly on a rock for a few minutes, a deer might just cross your path that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Book all accommodations in advance

Never ever leave your bed to chance. Sure it sounds romantic and spontaneous to show up in a new city, wander into any hotel, and ask for a room. But if you’re exhausted and in pain, there’s no romance to it at all. It just sucks. Save your adventurous side for other aspects of the trip.

Splurge if you’re not feeling well

No matter how much you pride yourself on being a budget traveler, do you really want to be stuck in a party hostel when your whole body hurts and you just want to get some sleep?

Yeah, me neither.

Be willing to change your plans and spring for a private room at the hostel or even a hotel if you get sick. Spend the extra money and take a taxi instead of walking or public transit so you can save your energy for sightseeing. Eat restaurant food instead of grocery shopping so you don’t have to cook. Or even better, order room service at that hotel you splurged on when you travel with a chronic illness. Buy yourself a cozy new blanket because the thin one at the hostel just isn’t cutting it. A little comfort goes a long way when you feel like crap.

Prioritize your can’t miss activities and your “would like to dos”

Me with the Blue Green Sea in the Background - How to Joyfully Travel with a Chronic Illness

Every human has limitations, but those of us with chronic illnesses have a few more than most people. You need to travel with that in mind so that you see all that you came to see and do. If there’s something you absolutely cannot miss, do it first. Don’t save it for the end of the trip when you might be exhausted or sick. Even if you feel invincible at the start of the trip, you’re not. So don’t pretend you are. Do all the can’t miss things first and then the would like to do’s. You’ll be much less disappointed this way if you end up spending the last couple days of your trip cooped up with crippling exhaustion.

Pack a well-stocked medicine kit

Those tiny travel sized bottles of Tylenol are adorable, but if you have chronic pain or are prone to fevers they’re just a joke when you travel with a chronic illness. Pack the big bottle. Pack the big bottle of every medicine you might need: Tylenol, ibuprofen, Dramamine, Imodium, Tums, cough drops, allergy medicine, etc. Most importantly, pack all your prescription medications with copies of the written prescription.

Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, bring it. This is not the area to “pack light.”

Pack extra of whatever you need the most

In my case, that’s Zofran and underwear. Running out of anti-nausea meds like Zofran is simply not an option for me. I never know when I’ll need them, but I will need them. In addition to getting nauseous from Crohn’s, I can get sick on any boat or if it’s too hot out. I won’t be caught without clean underwear because I’ve had accidents. That’s just Crohn’s disease. Think about the things you don’t leave home without on a daily basis. Pack what you think you’ll need and then a little bit more when you travel with a chronic illness.

Write out your restrictions in the local language

You can’t count on everyone you meet speaking enough English to understand your medical needs (unless you’re in an English speaking country of course). Take the time to research and write out your allergies, the name of your medical condition(s), and any other special needs that you may have. Then, carry them with you. Keep this information in the same place you keep your money or your passport because this information is essential for having an awesome trip.

Know where you can find an English speaking doctor or pharmacy

There’s nothing worse than getting sick when you travel with a chronic illness and having no idea how to handle it. I have a free membership through the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT). I use their directory to research doctors before I leave on an overseas trip. I’ve been lucky enough never to need one, but the list and support from IAMAT gives me peace of mind.

There are plenty of other ways to locate English speaking doctors and pharmacies before your trip. Just make sure that you do it. I once had to purchase a bottle of Tylenol from a pharmacist who spoke only Polish. I knew about three words in Polish and somehow had to convey that the medicine had to be acetaminophen based, no ibuprofen or aspirin would be acceptable because people with Crohn’s aren’t supposed to take those. The interaction was frustrating and would have been fruitless if someone who spoke both Polish and English hadn’t shown up at just the right time willing to help.

Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.

I’ve yet to find an illness that isn’t exacerbated by dehydration. For one thing, dehydration increases fatigue and who needs more fatigue? Not me, especially not while traveling. Dehydration worsens asthma and allergies by increasing histamine levels in the body, increases joint pain and stiffness, and aggravates digestive issues. I know you want to try all the fun juice, wine, soda, beer, coffee and tea on your trip – I do too! By all means, try them, but make sure you also take in at least 64 ounces of water per day.

Just go have fun!

Two People in a Cave - How to Joyfully Travel with a Chronic Illness

Most importantly when you travel with a chronic illness is to chill out, smile, and have fun! You took this trip to relax and see the world, so do it. Don’t let the minor stresses get to you. You’re prepared for this trip. Go enjoy it. In ten years, you won’t care that your arthritis was so bad it hurt to hold your coffee cup, but you will care that you fought to stir the sugar into that perfect cappuccino in Rome because you just had to see the world.

Read more about traveling with Allergies, Sickness and Being Gluten-Free here.


Erin Southerland travels the world with Crohn’s disease, asthma, and mystery joint pain along for the ride. She loves hiking, eating new foods, running, and zip lining. She is a writer and wellness coach based in Pittsburgh, PA. She writes the blog Travel Well With Erin. Follow her travels on Snapchat at travelwellwerin.


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How to Joyfully Travel with a Chronic Illness

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16 thoughts on “How to Joyfully Travel with A Chronic Illness”

  1. Today, I went to the beach front with my kids.
    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed
    the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit
    crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back!
    LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

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