Traveling With Diabetes

The world gets smaller every day. More and more, when we think of vacations, we think of traveling to far off places. It could be Europe, Africa, South America, the Caribbean or simply within the boundaries of North America. When you don’t have diabetes, it’s possible to manage the unexpected without worrying about your health most of the time. When you are diabetic, traveling requires more advance planning to insure your health is not jeopardized when unplanned events happen – like lost luggage carrying medications and no access to food during a hypoglycemic episode

Travelling, Generally Speaking

Wherever you are planning on going and no matter what the mode of transportation will be used, it’s critical that diabetics plan ahead.  Planning involves being prepared in advance for emergencies or for finding yourself in situations not amenable to a diabetic. For example, if you are driving thousands of miles across a desert where there are few restaurants then packing food and snacks is necessary to insure you don’t miss a meal.

Start off simply by preparing a list of what you need to do and carry to be prepared for traveling.[1] The list may include:

  • A visit to your doctor and diabetes support team. You will need to arrange for the right type of paperwork required that documents you are diabetic for emergency purposes. This is particularly true if you are going overseas, but it’s important to have proof of your condition with you for domestic travel also.
  • Make an appointment with your physician to get a medical examination to make sure you are cleared to travel.
  • Get prescriptions for your medications. Make sure you have the right ones with original labels on the bottles or boxes plus a list of your medications (as well as the generic names) if your trip is abroad.[2] Do be sure to have on hand more than double the amount of prescriptions needed.  Medications could be lost, or you may get stranded for a week at an airport due to weather.
  • Note if you require any specific shots before travelling. The doctor can tell you if it’s safe to get the shots or if there are reactions possible when the shots interact with current medication.
  • Be sure you have a medical identification bracelet or necklace to be worn at all times.[3]
  • Make a list of snack foods and emergency supplies you need to carry with you like glucose tablets.

Once you have the basics covered, you will next sit down and look at your route and where you plan to go. You need to do research on topics like the following:

  • What weather conditions can you expect? Can your medication or insulin survive without refrigeration?
  • What type of food is available? Are there grocery stores? Restaurants regularly accessible?
  • What are the conditions of the hotel, motel, or camping site you are planning on visiting?
  • Does the destination country have a good health care system in the event you experience serious diabetic complications during travels?
  • Is the language of the destination country different than your native language?  If English is your native language and you are going somewhere where another language is spoken, make sure you know the foreign words for diabetic, insulin, hospital and other related terms. You should also carry language cards with you that have the English words and the translations printed on it for emergencies.

Once you have covered the basics, it is time to look at the specifics.

Traveling by Car

The important point to keep in mind is to adhere to your original and normal care plan. It is critical that you maintain control of your blood sugar levels. If you end up in the hospital because you failed to manage your diabetes, your health is put at risk and your carefully planned trip is ruined.  If something happens like an accident, it helps to have your ID bracelet on you. If you can carry your doctor’s phone number, fax or e-mail then you are well prepared.

Make sure your insulin is traveling safely. It should never get too hot or too cold. You can purchase a special travel pack to keep it at the right temperature.  Also have on hand with you, no matter wherever you travel, a special travel diabetes kit containing important items like glucose tablets, a quick snack and other essentials.

Travel by air

The same rules that apply to car travel also apply to travel by air. However, before you get on that plane, check to be sure you are aware of the rules of what you can and cannot carry on board. You need to carry documentation that can be used to inform the airlines personnel of your condition and your needs. The airline companies and security will validate that you are who you are, that you truly are diabetic and do really need those supplies you are carrying.

When traveling, planning in advance will act to minimize some of the potential problems and headaches that typically occur during travel, even with those who are not diabetic. You should write down your list too and not rely on memory.[4] Make sure you have the following items in your carry-on luggage:

  • Doctors’ notes and copies of your prescriptions
  • The emergency number of your doctor
  • Medications with their prescription labels attached.
  • Your medical supplies, including a glucose meter, a small instruction manual, several test strips, spare batteries, a backup meter, and a control solution
  • If you are using a pump or a pen, pack extra syringes
  • Snacks and something that can act as a meal
  • A glucagon kit, if this is part of your care package

You can reduce the amount of items on your person during walks and/or sightseeing, but you should always carry pertinent information with you. If a friend is coming with you, ask if that person will allow you to stash some extra diabetic material in their purse or bag in case yours gets lost or stolen.

One other fact to keep in mind is the change in time. Time zones can be confusing. Talk to your doctor and diabetic care team about what approach you need to take to keep your insulin routine on schedule. You will need to make adjustments so sit down and look at your flight schedule – both to your destination and back. Find out how to adjust without interrupting or severely disturbing your schedule for insulin shots, the timing for taking your pills, the monitoring of your blood glucose levels and your meal schedule. It might be a good idea to keep a watch set to your home time

Advance planning when traveling is important for diabetics no matter what kind of travel is involved. Planning ahead involves working with your diabetes support team to insure you understand how to travel safely.

References

[1] Kruger, D (2006). The Diabetes Travel Guide 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

[2] Boerner, H (2008). “Tips To Trip By. The Art and Science of Traveling with Diabetes.” Diabetes Forecast, 61(5):42-5.

[3] American Diabetes Association (2009). Type 2 Diabetes. Your Healthy Living Guide. Alexandria, VA: ADA.

[4] Chandran, M; and Edelman, SV (2003). “Have Insulin, Will Fly: Diabetes Management during Air Travel and Time Zone Adjustment Strategies.” Clinical Diabetes, 21 (2): 82-85.

This article was originally published July 12, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/10/2015.