Letting reality be good enough: enjoying travel in spite of chronic pain

Sometimes, reality intervenes between our ideal experience and one we can achieve.

Since being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, I’ve found myself having to adjust my expectations for many facets of life. That includes my hobbies, which can be hard enough to prioritize for a stay at home mother of two.

One of my favorite things is travel. I’m not a full on globetrotter like some, but my trips—planning them as well as taking them—are great highlights of my life.

In the past year, I’ve had to cancel much-loved annual jaunts due to flaring symptoms. I’ve had to “waste” money already spent on non-refundable tickets, and I’ve regretted going on excursions for which I was in no condition to participate.

I’ve found myself asking:

Should I even try to travel for pleasure anymore now that I’ve been diagnosed with autoimmune disease?”

My answer to that question—when the flare passes, and when the pain and exhaustion have subsided—is that I should. In fact, I must carry on.

If I don’t persevere, the disease wins. If I give up what I love, I’m choosing misery over joy. I never want to live that way.

I got dealt a bad hand this time around, but it’s the only one I’ve got to play. I can make the best of it, or I can quit the game. I could just watch the other players, but what fun would that be? That’s not the life for me. Nor would I wish such circumstances on anyone else.

With that said, here are a few tips for putting some of the pleasure back in travel for a traveler with a chronic condition.

I’ll be honest: a lot of the work is mental preparation. It isn’t easy to compromise, but it’s a better choice than capitulating to despair and infirmity.

Enjoy what you can do

Don’t dwell on what you can’t do. Let some be better than none.

Give yourself permission to do less while judging a vacation successful. You may not be able to hit as many hot spots as another traveler. Prioritize your lifelong dreams on a good day; on a bad day, choose a more accessible option.

On a recent city visit, I made self care a priority. I took a long, hot bath every day. It was good for my arthritic joints, and a definite change of pace from life at home with a tub I scrub myself. I resisted the urge to dwell on local experiences I was missing by staying in, and took pleasure in the peaceful respite for what it was.

Pack a good book, a facial treatment masque, or a yoga DVD that you don’t find time for at home. For you extroverts, perhaps sit in the bar and chat with locals or the staff. Make use of the facilities on offer at your hotel, resting and relaxing however you like best.

There’s no wrong way to vacation… unless you come home knowing you compromised your health.

Try different modes of travel

If your condition is not well controlled, this may be the time to experiment with new kinds of travel.


Go by sea

Cruise ships have always catered to a mature clientele, so they’re an easy option for a health challenged adventurer of any age. Some of them go to off the beaten path destinations*, and all of them let you unpack once before enjoying your stress free voyage.

You don’t have to participate in the on board atmosphere unless you want to. Take advantage of the inclusive dining—which will often cater to a special diet, by the way!—and comfortable cabin by night, and explore ports by day just as you would if you’d flown in. No one says a cruise ship passenger must play trivia or attend art auctions, but you can if you want.

I question whether there really is a single “cruise passenger type” of person, but, if there is, going by cruise ship won’t turn you into a traveler type that you are not. It will get you where you’re headed in comfort, though.

Susceptibility to motion sickness is the single biggest obstacle I can see to travel by ship. If you can’t take the standard medications for mal de mer, make your maiden voyage brief, just in case!

Go by train

Travel by train is another option I find less painful than flying. You can’t get everywhere by rail, but, if the tracks are headed your way, you can have an adventure without being tortured by cramped conditions and an aggressive TSA smackdown pat down.

Train travel might be a poor choice for passengers with some sensory or balance issues. You will be on a train for much longer than you typically spend flying, and both the noise and the swaying motion are continuous while the vehicle is in motion. Most people get used to it; some even find it soothing. Take a quick local trip to assess your reaction if you think you might find either issue particularly bothersome.

Go by Recreational Vehicle

Consider renting an RV and making domestic voyages via road trip. You’ll be able to take a break of any sort exactly when you need it.

A soft bed for a nap? A full kitchen to help you stick to your special diet? Even a hot bath to soothe body aches? All of these comforts can be had in an RV.

Check the specs for a rental to be sure you are getting the amenities you seek, especially a bathtub as opposed to a tiny shower cubicle.

You don’t need a special license to drive one, but there will be some new skills to master, especially if you opt for a larger vehicle. You do need a standard driver’s license.

If you travel solo—or your travel buddies also have physical limitations to consider—take note of any special effort required by the RV you reserve. There might be manual cranks or heavy equipment to maneuver in some circumstances. Rent a model that works for the members of your party.

Spend money where it counts to ease your burdens

Finally, be open to spending more to make air travel bearable again.

Upgrade air travel whenever possible

At least browse fares for premium economy, business, and first class. Sometimes, it’s less of a jump in price than you might expect. Great deals happen on all sorts of itineraries. If you’ve earned airline frequent flyer miles, see if they can be applied toward upgrades to a bigger seat, or to discount fares higher than you’re used to paying.

When you upgrade, you’re paying for a little—or a lot!more room and a chance to board the plane before the pushing, shoving, bag bumping scrum begins.


Pre-board when it helps

If you can’t afford a ticket that lets you board first, tell the airline about your physical needs and join the “pre-board for a little extra time to get settled” group. I have to admit that I still feel embarrassed doing this because I look pretty healthy, but I can’t predict when my symptoms will flare. Sometimes, I really need that extra help.

Walk on last when sitting is the enemy

Alternatively, check as much of your luggage as you can for the small fee (usually $25 per suitcase) and walk on last. Only do this when you don’t need overhead bin space!

With my arthritis, sitting for twenty fewer minutes is a blessing anyway. My smaller carry on luggage fits easily under an economy seat, and my short stature means I don’t miss the extra legroom it eats up. Weigh this against your own needs.

If you travel with a partner, perhaps s/he can board first, stowing the bags, and you can follow at the last minute to get the best of both worlds.

Check bags through & bring all you need

On the topic of baggage, you may need to pack more to meet your needs with a chronic condition. Do bring whatever is likely to keep you comfortable where you’re going.

At inexpensive destinations, you might make do with a shopping list. Pick up what you need in local shops, but you will pay with your time. You can bring purchases home as souvenirs of sorts, or donate them to a local charity before departing.

For me, that list would include a hot water bottle, inflatable cushion, and a down throw blanket at least! Depending on how I’m doing, I might also have a pair of wrist splints, a special neck pillow, or a Beastie Ball massage tool. When I’m not feeling well, I might pack bulkier, less travel optimized clothes because they’re that much more comfortable.

Carry more medication than you think you need. Never skimp on space for this category of self-care. Finding a local doctor and then filling prescriptions can too easily eat up far too much precious vacation time, and the expense involved could be high. Your regular medications might not even be available if you’ve traveled internationally.

For longer trips and international travel, I carry a locking medication pouch—which I will stow in the overhead bin if I bring a larger carry on bag—and also keep small quantities of each drug in my purse or personal item. This duplication means I’m covered for at least a few days even if one of my bags goes missing or gets snatched.

Invest in luggage that you can manage for yourself if necessary, but also consider shipping your bags ahead of time and/or taking advantage of curbside check in to reduce your energy expenditures en route.

Enroll in a Trusted Traveler program

Join Global Entry or TSA Pre Check to lessen the pain at mandatory security checkpoints. For $85 – $100, you’ll join a potentially shorter queue while also usually enjoying the privilege of keeping your shoes and light layers on during screening.

There are other benefits to being pre-screened via Trusted Traveler programs, but those two directly improve my experience of flying with an autoimmune condition. I’m also grateful to receive less radiation—with a side of humiliation—as most Pre Check lanes bypass the full body scanners at the checkpoints.

Sit back, and enjoy the ride

I can’t change my diagnosis, but I can choose how I deal with it.

I choose optimism. I choose to keep doing the things I love. I’m still going to see the world, but it  looks like I’m going to do so at a slower pace.

When my carefully laid plans conflict with the real needs of my body, I attempt to graciously acknowledge reality and switch to plan B.

I don’t have to like it, but my choice is to be flexible or stay at home. Flexibility, it is!

If you’re dealing with a chronic condition, I encourage you to do the same.

Your specific solutions might be different from mine, but a change in attitude—and a willingness to slow down or ask for more help—can make the difference between continuing your adventures or giving them up.

Happy, safe, and healthy travels to all who want them!

*Check out smaller ships like those of Blount or American Cruise Lines for visiting tiny ports around North America and the Caribbean that aren’t crawling with other tourists; in Alaska, there’s also AdventureSmith.

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