Those of you who’ve tried travelling with Rheumatoid Arthritis already know how hard it can be.
Even the shortest trips feel like you’re trying to conquer Mount Everest with an elephant on your back and glass in your boots, while someone’s holding a hot flame to your joints.
For non-sufferers, this might sound extreme, but it’s true. The debilitating effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis are often underestimated, routinely misunderstood and sadly far too common.
As you know, Bridget has lived with RA for over 25 years. During that time, not once has she responded to treatment meaning her body has taken an almighty battering. Sad as that is, it means we’ve learned a thing or two about living with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
And, getting back to the point of this post, we’ve learned quite a lot about “Travelling with Rheumatoid Arthritis”.
I’ve been writing about accessible tourism for three years, and although I talk about travelling in a wheelchair, I don’t think I’ve ever spoken specifically about travelling with RA, I think it’s about time I put that right.
9 Tips for Travelling with Rheumatoid Arthritis
#1. Choose When to Travel Carefully
It might seem odd putting “When to Travel” at the top of the list, but I think it’s important. As you know, Rheumatoid Arthritis flares can happen at any time, often without warning.
When you’ve lived with RA for a while, you build up a long list of triggers and flare warning signs. You know –
“If I do this, it’ll kick my joints off”
“When it’s too hot or too cold I’ve flared before”
You get the gist!
By the way, I know Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease which in theory, isn’t directly affected by the weather? All I would say is “tell that to someone in the middle of a weather-induced flare” they’ll probably have your eyes out – just saying!
Anyway, my point is this. If you know walking up an incline causes you to flare, don’t go hillwalking in Wales. If you often flare in the heat, don’t take a holiday in a hot country or at least go outside of the hottest months.
Another thing to think about under the “When to Travel” banner is the time of year, even the time of day.
Think about it. If you travel abroad in the height of summer, the chances are, you’ll be standing in long queues at the check-in, sitting around for hours in a crowded airport, possibly even delayed and getting knocked from pillar to post in a crowded holiday resort. You and I know, none of this is good for someone with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
If possible, travel outside of peak months and peak hours. The same goes for taking a staycation. I can’t tell you how many times poor Bridget’s been stuck in the car for hours on a gridlocked motorway.
By the same token, we’ve had to abandon many city visits. City centres are busy and some people see Bridget’s wheelchair as an inconvenience. Instead of walking around it, or at least trying to avoid bumping into it, they feel it’s their right to walk through it which has the potential to ruin Bridget’s day, night and most of the next day.
#2. Pick a Suitable Destination
When you travel with a disability, there is more to picking a holiday destination than finding out where the best beach is or what the nightlife is like. Yes, these are important, but so are the more practical things as well.
For instance –
Where is the nearest Doctor’s Surgery or Hospital should RA put in an appearance?
What’s public transport like, is it accessible?
Can you hire mobility equipment should you need it?
And Bridget’s favourite-
Where’s the nearest supermarket so she can get a giant pack of frozen peas to ease her pain until the Tramadol kick in.
I know it’s frustrating when all you want to do is go on a relaxing holiday, but ya know, the cards we’ve been dealt and all that…. It doesn’t do any harm to be prepared.
#3. Flying with Rheumatoid Arthritis
I have mentioned being stuck in a crowded airport and how to avoid it. The next airport nightmare has got to be transiting through the airport.
Fortunately, we don’t fly a lot, but when we do, we always book airport assistance, even though we’re using our own chair.
The beauty of using airport assistance is that they can usher you through the whole rigmarole of getting to and on your flight. Once you’re through security, if you are accompanied, they generally leave you to your own devices until it’s time to board.
Airport assistance will arrange a meeting place, usually the boarding gate, then assist you onto the aircraft. This can include pushing you onto the aircraft if it has one of those extending ramps, a lift up to the aircraft door if it’s stepped and helping you into your allocated seat.
If you’re a chair user and need hoisting into your seat, they can usually arrange that as well, but I would check first as not all airports/airlines have them.
If possible, book a seat with extra legroom so you can stretch. If you haven’t prebooked, ask at check-in to see what’s available. Although, from experience, we’ve always been put at the back of the aeroplane in standard seats.
What if you can’t get up and move around independently, for instance, to use the loo? All I can say is, before booking, ask the airline what facilities or assistance are available during the flight. On short haul flights, you might be okay, but on long-haul flights, the ability to get up and move around is so important.
#4. Travelling with Medication
Make sure you have enough medication to last the whole trip. Take extra just in case you are delayed. Carry medication in your hand luggage so it doesn’t go missing.
Ask your GP for a letter documenting each medicine, what it’s for and the dosage. Write down any generic names of medicines, often they are called something else in different countries.
This is especially important with Rheumatoid Arthritis medication as some of them are toxic (Methotrexate) and may not be allowed in some countries.
Check with customs to see if you’re allowed to travel with certain medication. For instance, Bridget travels with syringes, these need preclearance on most flights and at most airports.
How will you store your medication at your destination? Coming back to the syringes, they need storing in a fridge, so a room fridge is essential. What about disposing of needles, can a sharps bin be carried with you or will a local chemist take any used sharps off your hands?
#5. Medical Equipment and Aids
Because we mainly travel in the UK and Ireland, any medical equipment we need is either in the car with us or available at our destination. Our car boot looks like a portable hospital but at least we know we have everything we need for our trip.
Make a list of medical aids or equipment then one by one, decide whether you can travel with it, hire it at your destination or do without it for the duration of your trip.
In all honesty, I would never recommend travelling without or hiring what you need. You might be able to do without a piece of equipment for a day, any longer than that and you run the risk of a flare.
Also, if you are travelling with equipment, make sure you know in advance where you can get repairs done or spare parts should you need them. A good example is a replacement battery for a mobility scooter if something goes wrong with yours, where can you get a replacement or help to get mobile again?
Even here in the UK, I always try to find a place where I can hire a wheelchair should ours break. If something does break, and its life is over, make sure you have insurance to cover its replacement. That leads me nicely to my next tip for travelling with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
#6. Travel Insurance
I can’t tell you how much money I have lost because I’ve had to cancel a trip at the last minute. There are few things predictable about Rheumatoid Arthritis but from experience, all the excitement and rushing around to go on a trip can cause a flare. And if it’s a big one, the trip has to be cancelled.
Honestly, I can’t stress it enough, travel insurance will be your best friend if you need it. Even if you’re holidaying in the UK, insurance is worth it when you’ve paid out hundreds sometimes thousands of pounds.
If I’m booking a cheap hotel or cheap flight, I always pay the extra fiver or whatever it is so that if we have to cancel, we can get our money back. I never used to and I’ve lost hundreds of pounds because I was too tight to spend the extra fiver.
#7. Holiday Accommodation
One of the things we like to talk about on The Bimblers is accessible accommodation. In fact, we talk about accessible holiday accommodation a lot. And the simple reason is, accommodation can make or break your holiday.
Of course, we’re all different, but as a general rule, people who travel with Rheumatoid Arthritis have some things in common.
As you know, we use a wheelchair so these are the questions we ask ourselves before we visit a hotel or cottage:
- Can we park outside the accommodation
- Where is the car park
- How far is the car park from the entrance
- Does the entrance have step-free access
- What about reception, does it have a lowered counter
- What floor are we staying on
- Are there lifts to all floors
- What happens in the event of a fire
- What facilities are accessible in the hotel/cottage
- Can we hire mobility equipment
Then, when we think about our room:
- How easy is it to access the room with a wheelchair
- How much space is there in the room, can we turn a wheelchair
- How high is the bed
- Is there an emergency button/cord near the bed
- Are there bedside tables
- Are extra pillows available
- What’s ventilation like in the room
- Is the toilet accessible
- Is there a bath or shower
- Is there a fully accessible wetroom
- How many grab rails are near the toilet
- Is there an emergency cord in the bathroom
- Is there a shower chair
And you can probably add some of your own that I’ve forgotten.
#8. Holiday Activities
Let’s be honest, holiday activities make the holiday. Most of the enjoyment comes from trying and seeing new things, but be careful. If you get wrapped up in the excitement, it’s too easy to overdo it then suffer the consequences.
Rheumatoid Arthritis doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself, it just means you need to be a bit more organised and pre-plan any activities you want to get involved in.
When we’re going on holiday we try to plan activities we can do on a good day. Then, we gather information about accessibility and whether refunds are available should we be unable to take part. Of course, free activities are better because refunds are one less thing to worry about.
If you’re travelling with family, especially children, you’ll be tempted to do things so you don’t spoil their fun. Again, you don’t want to be a party pooper, but you don’t want to miss most of your holiday because you’re laid up in bed either.
The best thing you can do is communicate. Talk through what you can and can’t do. Explain you can have just as much fun sitting back and watching your family do things. That way, you can rest if you need to and your family can enjoy their holiday without feeling guilty about you.
#9. Learn to Have Fun
It sounds funny saying it now, but you’ve gotta have fun.
When you think about the planning that’s gone into organising your holiday, the research to make sure it’s accessible and the fears you’ve overcome, especially the fear of an RA flare, it’s too easy to forget to have fun.
Easy to say, I know, but you deserve it. The old saying of “everything in moderation” can be adapted to RA sufferers. I prefer “everything within your limits”, and that’s the secret.
Do everything you want to do at your pace and in your time. Don’t worry about being as active as everyone else or as active as you used to be. Worry instead about enjoying your holiday and that’s what’ll happen, you’ll enjoy it and have fun.
Tips for Travelling with Rheumatoid Arthritis
I hope you found my “9 Tips for Travelling with Rheumatoid Arthritis” useful. Obviously, not all of them will apply to you, if you know someone who’ll find them useful, share this post with them.
It occurs to me that travelling with RA can be such a worry that it puts people off travelling. I would urge you, no I’d beg you, to travel.
We thought we couldn’t do it but did it anyway. And, it’s the best decision we’ve ever made. Don’t let Rheumatoid Arthritis stop you from travelling. Instead, use RA as your motivation to travel differently.
We adapted and love slow travel because it gives us more time to soak up the atmosphere, to appreciate what’s in front of us and above all else, to get away from the daily grind of living with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Until next time… Happy Travels
Rheumatoid Arthritis Resources
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