How to avoid travel chaos when flying with type 1 diabetes
Flying with a long-term health condition like type 1 diabetes can be a daunting experience. Not only do you need to plan how much medication to take with you on your trip, you also have to ensure the airport is prepared for the potentially “dangerous” equipment present in your hand luggage (such as needles or vials of insulin).
Type 1 diabetes doesn’t have to stop you from travelling or going on holiday abroad, however it’s vital that you prepare and plan before setting off on your travels. To help you begin planning your trip we have created a guide about travelling with type 1 diabetes that includes tips on how to prepare for travelling, what to take with you and how warmer or colder climates can affect your type 1 diabetes. We hope this guide can help you plan ahead and stay prepared whilst on holiday so you can get the best out of your travel experiences!
Before you start: check-ups and essential documents
Before you book your holiday, there are some things that you will need to get in order. This will include:
- Health check ups
- Travel insurance
- Signed doctor’s letter
- Medical ID
Visiting the doctor’s: health check-ups and vaccinations
When you’re diagnosed with type 1 diabetes you will have access to a healthcare team that specialise in different areas and are available to offer you advice and guidance. Before planning a holiday, especially if you are travelling for a period of weeks or months, you will need to consult your GP or members of your diabetes team so they can assess and discuss your condition. They will need to ensure you can control and maintain your health during your trip and have any vital check-ups before going away.
Vaccinations can affect your diabetes, so it is important to consult your team before and during your vaccination process to ensure your diabetes is stable before you travel. Consider writing down a list of all your queries before your appointment to make sure you remember everything you want to discuss.
Anyone living with type 1 diabetes will need to purchase travel insurance before going away, but be aware that standard travel insurance doesn’t always cover pre-existing conditions like diabetes and, even if they do, they may not cover all costs that could occur and affect your diabetes management, such as stolen equipment. Read the fine print and make sure you know exactly what the policy offers. There may be other offers available, including annual diabetes travel insurance, which is ideal if you travel frequently, and if you are travelling in Europe you can apply for a free European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) which will give you better access to medical treatment and supplies.
Doctor’s letter and medical ID
Getting a signed doctor’s letter with proof of your type 1 diabetes diagnosis and medication requirements is one of the most important items you need to take on holiday. This letter will provide authoritative proof of your diagnosis and enable you to take your insulin pens, needles and further diabetes supplies with you through the airport and into other countries much more easily. Take a couple of physical copies with you and try to save digital copies in case these are lost or damaged. Another tip: if you’re travelling to a country whose official language is not English, get the letter translated into this language too.
You will also require medical identification to show you are diabetic in case of an emergency abroad. If you haven’t already got a medical ID you can buy it in the form of jewellery, such as a necklace or bracelet, that is engraved to show you have type 1 diabetes and require certain medication. You can also have telephone numbers or other personal information engraved.
Planning ahead: research and supplies
If you’re travelling abroad with type 1 diabetes the best thing you can do is to plan well ahead. The internet is your best-friend, especially when it comes to researching your destination, as you can find out about the climate, local cuisine and other factors that could affect your blood sugar levels or diabetes equipment. You should also research the location of local hospitals that have suitable facilities in case of an emergency, and nearby pharmacies and facilities that can supply the same insulin and equipment as you need.
Try to have an estimate of how long you’re going away for so you can take enough equipment and medication. If you’re going on a short holiday it will be easier to estimate how much insulin and how many supplies you need, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan for a longer travelling trip. It is necessary to take more supplies than you need when you’re travelling with type 1 diabetes; Diabetes UK and other guides recommend taking double, but you can take more if you are able to. Make sure your medication doesn’t expire whilst you’re away or, if you’re travelling for a longer period and they do expire, organise where you can get the right supplies in the country you’re visiting.
You can get cooling cases for your insulin, including Frio or Medicool bags that can be used to keep insulin pens or vials cool for hours without refrigeration. These are ideal when travelling to hot climates, especially if you are walking for a number of hours and don’t have access to a fridge. They can also be used in-flight to keep your insulin cool on the aeroplane.
Another important item you will need to pack is emergency contact papers. These should include phone numbers for the emergency services in the country you’ll be visiting so, if you have a medical situation involving your type 1 diabetes, you or a travelling partner can easily ring them. Additionally, you should have the contact details of your travelling partner (if you have one) and your family and doctor back home. This will make it possible to give medical professionals more information about your type 1 diabetes if you are being treated abroad and let your family or friends know if there is an emergency.
Flying and navigating airport security with type 1 diabetes
Although a doctor’s letter is usually enough to enable you to travel with your diabetes medication and equipment, it is best to contact the airline to check their own policies and make them aware of your needs.
One of the most important things to remember when flying with type 1 diabetes is where to keep your insulin. You must not put insulin in your hold luggage as it will be exposed to extreme temperatures below freezing, which can cause your insulin to become ineffective. Instead, keep your insulin and all the equipment you need in your carry-on bags so you can use them if needed on the aeroplane. You can pack your supplies into two different bags in case a bag gets stolen or damaged, but they should be quite safe in one bag if they are with you on the aeroplane. If you wear an insulin pump and have a glucose monitor, these cannot go through an x-ray machine or the airport body scanner. Instead, your pump can go through a metal detector or you can ask for security to hand-check your pump.
There are a few factors that may affect your diabetes when flying. Firstly, flying can cause high altitude sickness, with similar symptoms to hypoglycaemia, and it can also affect your equipment. Some people who wear an insulin pump decide to turn this off for take-off and landing due to the pressure, which can cause air bubbles in the pump’s tubing that could affect insulin intake. However, this is not mandatory and is usually down to personal experience and preference. Flying through different time zones will shorten or lengthen your day, which will change what time you are eating and may affect how much insulin you will need. It’s a good idea to talk through this change of insulin intake with your healthcare team before you travel.
If you are travelling on a long-haul flight you may need to consume a meal whilst flying. If you are concerned or unsure about the food served on the aeroplane, you can call the airline in advance to enquire about their menu and nutritional values. If this is not a suitable option, you can also enquire about bringing your own food, but this will usually be dry food such as pasta, bread and crackers. You should also make sure you have a sufficient supply of snacks that will raise your blood sugar if you experience hypoglycaemia.
Blogs, inspiration and resources for those with type 1 diabetes
Dream Big, Travel Far is a travel blog written by Bradley and Cazzy who show that type 1 diabetes doesn’t have to limit your travel experiences. Cazzy is living with type 1 diabetes and hopes that the blog can inspire other diabetics and their partners to keep travelling and exploring. Their blog features a diabetes zone that has a wealth of information about travelling with type 1 diabetes, including tips for travelling in different countries, equipment reviews and general travel advice for other type 1 diabetics.
Cazzy has also partnered with Kiersten (or Kiki), the author of The Blonde Abroad blog, which focuses on solo-female travel, to give tips to more young women who are travelling with type 1 diabetes.
More diabetes travel information can be found through charities, such as Diabetes UK, and through Diabetes, a global diabetes community that has lots of information and advice for people living with type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Travel experiences won’t be the same for everyone with type 1 diabetes – that’s why you need to make an appointment with your healthcare team who can guide you personally and give their advice depending on your personal health, the specific equipment and medication you use and the country you’re visiting. We have given a brief idea of the things you need to consider before travelling with type 1 diabetes and, although there is a lot to take in, we hope this advice can help you to stay prepared and have the best experience when travelling to countries across the world.
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