‘Travelling with COPD: My tips for staying healthy in the air and on the road’

Feb 01, 2020
Fran went on the 'trip of a lifetime' to Italy in December 2019 and shares her tips for travelling with a chronic illness. Source: Stock Photo/Getty Images

Travelling can be stressful as well as fun, but planning your trip when you have chronic illness can be very daunting. I have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. It is classed as a chronic illness as there is no cure and it does worsen. When I was 17, I had a dream to go to Italy and now, at 66, was finally able to go!

First, I have to say I am pretty broke. Without the help of my sister and a preparedness to flight with budget airlines, I could not have travelled to Italy. I’m also fortunate to have a great travel agent. I started planning my adventure in February 2019, setting my dates for travel in December of that year to allow me to meet with my sister in Innsbruck, Australia for Christmas.

With COPD, I have trouble with exertion, so I needed to consider things like walking and stairs etc. I didn’t want to collapse or go somewhere I wouldn’t be able to utilise because of stairs.

There was a lot of discussion about the destinations I would be visiting. Once Innsbruck had been locked in, I decided on Venice, Florence, Pisa and Genoa. The stop in Genoa allowed me to meet up with a friend I first met on Starts at 60. How wonderful!

Now came the hard part. Was I as fit as I could be? I made an appointment with my wonderful doctor and together we planned what could be done so that, health-wise, the trip would be safer and easier for me.

I was travelling during the European winter, so I needed to be extra careful not to contract any sort of chest infection. They are dangerous for people like me.

I’d not have an infection for four years. My doctor insisted I have regular flu and pneumonia immunisations, so that if I did get anything it would be a milder form. However, I’d not even begun my trip and I became ill. I had bacterial pneumonia. It was devastating to me. My biggest concern was whether or not I’d be well enough to travel.

Working with my travel agent we confirmed flights and travel time. I would take four planes and travel a total of 23 hours to get to my destination. It fit within my budget.

Given the size of airports and how just being in one gives me erratic breathing, I opted to get some assistance with my transfers between flights. My travel agent arranged all of this for me. She also arranged my insurance, Eurail pass and seat reservations, with a minimum of fuss to me.

Two weeks before the first flight my doctor cleared me for travel and I was ready.

If you’ve got COPD or a chronic illness and are feeling apprehensive about travelling (especially internationally), then I offer the following tips:

  • Plan your trip. When you take the time to plan you will do so safe in the knowledge you’ll be able to manage (excluding any unforeseen complications, of course)
  • Invest in a travel agent. Find someone who will understand your unique situation and will work tirelessly to ensure your needs are met before you even board the plane
  • Don’t overload your itinerary. When you try to pack in too much to your travel schedule, things become complicated and difficult
  • Visit your GP. Talk with your doctor about your travel plans and work out together what medical assistance you might require before, during and after you trip, including prescription medications
  • Be sure to carry with you the necessary medical paperwork (prescriptions, medical certificates etc.). I kept these on me at all times, in case my luggage was lost or delayed at any stage during my travel, which gave me peace of mind
  • Carry hand sanitiser. Planes and airports can be full of foreign germs. Washing your hands regularly and having hand sanitiser for those occasions where hand washing wasn’t available can help keep the germs at bay
  • Learn the lingo. If travelling to a non-English speaking country, consider learning some basic phrases in the local language. I learned ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘can you help me’ in Italian before setting off on my journey
  • Check your insurance. It’s important to see if and how your insurance will cover you if you become sick while travelling. It might mean you need to pay a little extra to get the appropriate level of cover
  • Check your passport. Be sure you confirm that your passport has enough time on it for the period you will be travelling. If you need to apply for a passport or renew a passport that has expired, allow yourself plenty of time
  • Travel lightly. I got this tip from a friend who said that in doing so I’d have more fun because I didn’t have to carry “all that luggage”. She was right!

Mostly, smile, breathe and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t travel on a tight budget or with a chronic illness. Go for it, you only live once.

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Do you have an illness or disability that makes long distance travel difficult? What tips do you have?

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