Traveling with diabetes

Whether you travel frequently for business or just for vacation or to visit family, travel can pose a challenge to your diabetes care routine, disrupting regular patterns of eating, physical activity, blood glucose monitoring, and medication use. However, with a little planning, disruptions can be minimized. You can stick to your diabetes care routine by taking care of as much of the hard work involved in travel as you can before you leave your home. The following are some tips for making travel easier if you have diabetes.

Your diabetes travel action plan

Prescriptions and supplies
  • Always carry a prescription for your oral medications and insulin
  • Carry twice the amount of medications and supplies that you think you’ll use
Research care options at your destination
  • ALocate a care facility at your destination
  • Obtain a list of English-speaking doctors where you’ll be traveling
  • Contact ADA and get a list of Diabetes Federation groups in your destination country
  • Have your doctor write a letter describing your condition and listing medications and dosages
ID yourself as having diabetes
  • Wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace
  • Learn to say that you have diabetes in the language of your host country
Keep your supplies handy
  • Carry all your diabetes supplies in a handy tote bag or backpack
Storing your medications and supplies
  • If you are traveling by car or bus, make sure to keep your medications and other supplies that are heat or cold sensitive in a place where they won’t get too hot or cold
  • If you are going to a destination where there are extreme temperatures, plan to carry your medications and other supplies in appropriate thermal containers
Develop an eating plan
  • Since eating is less predictable when you travel, put together a plan for eating, glucose monitoring, and adjusting medications, especially if you are crossing time zones

Put together a travel action plan

As part of planning for any trip, you should talk to your healthcare provider. Tell your provider where you are going, how long you’ll be away, and what you are planning to do. Talk to your provider about arrangements related to your diabetes care that you can take care of before leaving. The list should look something like this::

  • Make sure you have a medical ID bracelet or necklace that identifies you as having diabetes.
  • Have your doctor make a prescription for your medications or insulin.
  • Locate a care facility or doctor at your destination(s) in case you need medical attention.
  • If you’re going abroad, the nearest American Consulate, the American Express office, or the nearest medical college may be able to identify local English-speaking doctors.
  • Contact the American Diabetes Association (ADA) for a listing of International Diabetes Federation groups—groups like the ADA that promote diabetes care—in countries where you will be traveling.
  • Have your doctor write a letter describing your condition and what treatments you use..
  • Find out if your insurance will cover you while you travel and whether you should arrange for supplemental insurance.
  • Pack more medication (injectable and oral) and equipment for blood glucose monitoring than you think you will need: a good rule of thumb is to have twice as much medication and monitoring supplies as you will need.
  • If you use an insulin pump, make sure you have an alternate way to get your insulin in case your pump stops working.
  • Keep your medication and other supplies (including oral medications, insulin, syringes, blood glucose monitoring equipment, glucose tablets or gel, glucagon kit, and snacks) handy, in a tote bag or fanny pack.
  • Plan for temperature extremes in terms of storage of insulin, medications, and monitoring supplies (extreme temperatures can affect the potency of your insulin and the accuracy of your glucose monitoring equipment)
  • If you are traveling by car or bus, make sure to keep your medications and other supplies that are heat or cold sensitive in a place where they won’t get too hot or cold and if you are going to a destination where there are extreme temperatures, plan to carry your medications and other supplies in appropriate thermal containers.
  • If you’re traveling abroad, learn how to say that you have diabetes or ask for sugar or fruit juice in the language(s) of your destination country or countries.
  • Work with your provider to put together a plan for eating, monitoring blood glucose, and adjusting dosages of insulin and other medications, especially if you are going to be traveling to different time zones

Sticking to your care routine while on the road

Even if you’re on the road, you can still get the physical activity you need and stick to a healthy diet. Again, the key is to do a little pre-travel planning. Make sure that you pack comfortable shoes and exercise socks or other exercise equipment, such as a swim suit. Do a little research into the availability of workout facilities at your destination. Usually hotels are equipped with gyms. There may be health clubs at your destination that offer visitor specials that allow you use the facilities while your in town.

Walking is a great way to get the physical activity you need while you’re traveling. You can do it almost anywhere and it’s a great way to see the local sights. If your travel schedule is very busy (say you’re on the road for business) figure out how you can squeeze in a short walk for 10 or 20 minutes. You may need to get up a little earlier, but in the long run you’ll be glad that you did. If you’re going to be traveling by car, make sure to stop every couple hours and take a short 10-minute walk. If you are going to a professional meeting, make sure that you wear comfortable shoes that will allow you to take a walk when you have extra time.

Sticking to your diet can be difficult while you’re on the road. Plan for the unpredictability of eating during travel by always keeping snacks on hand. You may also need to check your blood glucose more often because you’ll be eating unfamiliar foods on a slightly different schedule. Talk to your provider and develop a plan for eating meals and adjusting your insulin, especially if you are crossing time zones.

Packing your carry-on bag

Medications

Monitoring equipment

  • Insulin or other injectable medications
  • Pump supplies, pen needles, syringes
  • Oral medications
  • Glucagon kit
  • Glucose tablets or gel or other rapid-acting carbohydrate
  • Snack (crackers, dried fruit)
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Other prescription medications
  • Glucose meter
  • Test strips
  • Lancets
  • Alcohol wipes or hand-washing gel
  • Spare batteries
  • Tissues

Planning for air travel

Much has changed in air travel over the last decade and a half. Airport security has added extra time to even the shortest trips and when you’re traveling abroad, lines for security checks can seem interminable. This means that you should always build in extra time whenever you are traveling by air. This is even more important if you are traveling with your diabetes supplies. You will have to be extra organized and anticipate extra scrutiny when US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and other security officials examine your medical supplies.

The US TSA website (phone: 1-866-289-9673) is a good source for information on what to expect with your diabetes supplies and medications when going through airport security. Regulations allow all travelers to pass through airport security in the US with small amounts of liquid, gels, and other similar substances. However, you are allowed to have larger volumes of prescription liquids and other medical equipment if you have a medical condition like diabetes. If you’re traveling by air in the US or abroad, you should always carry with you a letter from your doctor stating that you have diabetes. Specifically, the TSA allows a range of diabetes supplies and equipment to go through security, including:

  • Insulin (must be labeled) and insulin-loaded dispensing products (pre-loaded syringes, infusers, epipens, biojectors, jet injectors, and vials or boxes of vials).
  • Unused syringes accompanied by insulin or other injectable medication
  • Lancets, blood glucose meters, test strips, alcohol swabs, and blood glucose meter testing solutions.
  • Insulin pumps and related supplies (batteries, tubing, infusion kit, catheter, needle).
  • Glucagon emergency kit.
  • Urine ketone testing strips.
  • Used syringes transported in a disposal container.

Eating onboard. When you are traveling by air, meals can be unpredictable. Always make sure that you carry snacks with you so that you can have something to eat. Even if you are traveling on a flight that includes a planned meal, your planned meal may be delayed. If you order a diet soda or other diet beverage, ask the attendant to pour the drink in front of you or serve it in its container. This will prevent you from accidentally getting a sugary drink. Keep in mind that air conditioning in airplanes makes air dry and can cause dehydration. Drinking alcoholic beverages can make dehydration worse, so limit your consumption of alcohol. Drinking plenty of water during your flight is a great way to stay hydrated.

There is no substitute for planning when it comes to reducing travel stress

Some people are natural planners and others are not, but when it comes to reducing stress associated with travel, there is no substitute for having a comprehensive travel plan and making all arrangements (travel, lodging, tickets for attractions, and information about food and restrooms) ahead of time.

Start by making a day-by-day, detailed plan of what you will be doing and where you’ll be going. This will allow you to know exactly what you’ll need to pack, where you may need to make arrangements, and how you can plan to get some rest in between activities. A word to the wise! Build in extra time for rest and recovery and for taking the extra time you’ll need to have a relaxed and enjoyable experience wherever you are visiting. Purchasing travel insurance (if it is available) can give you financial protection from unexpected difficulties and affords valuable peace-of-mind.

To help you in your travel planning, there are a number of web resources that offer information and services for travelers with medical conditions like diabetes. The TSA provides a hotline for questions about airport accommodations. Frommer’s (www.frommers.com) offers valuable information about accommodations and services on a destination basis, including information for many cities in the US and Europe, as well as many resort locations. The website www.disabledtravelers.com also offers a range of useful travel information, including information about vacation packages (such as cruises and tours) with special accommodations for people with diabetes.

Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: May 2014.