Travelling abroad with pre-existing conditions
Tips for travellers with existing medical conditions. Everything you need to know!
Holidays are precious. The time we spend away is time to escape day-to-day life, take in a change of scenery and spend time with our nearest and dearest.
Holidays also provide the opportunity to relax and do as little as possible, or it could be a chance to indulge in a leisure activity we love and look forward to all year. Maybe it’s visiting loved ones who live overseas, or even spending quality time alone exploring a new corner of the world.
Whatever a holiday or travelling abroad means to you, we understand that you treasure it. Too few of us get to take a holiday as often as we’d like, so when the opportunity arises we want to make it as special as we can.
However, when you have an existing medical condition or disability, it can be easy to think that taking a trip abroad just isn’t possible. Spending even a few days away from home can present what can seem like an overwhelming set of challenges.
But, with some forward planning, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy a fun and fulfilling holiday. It could even have benefits for your health A study in 2016 by researchers, including scientists from Harvard, found that not only can a holiday improve your health, its physical benefits can last for a month after you return home (telegraph.co.uk).
Of course, to enjoy the benefits of travel you will need to make sure you have taken your health needs into account before you go and while you’re away. In this guide, we’ll show you how to do just that and to prepare for taking a much-needed trip away when you have a medical condition or disability.
Speak to your doctor first
Before you make any definite travel plans or bookings, it’s important to speak to your doctor. Explain your idea to take a trip, where you’d ideally like to go, how you are planning to get there and what you’d like to do. As the healthcare professional who knows the most about your medical condition, they are best-placed to decide whether or not you are well enough to travel.
It may be that your initial idea for a holiday could pose too great a risk to your health, but even if so, your doctor may well be able to suggest an alternative destination or holiday activity.
Hopefully, your doctor will let you know what kind of holiday they will be happy for you to take. Once they do, you can start making real plans, but make sure you give yourself plenty of time to do this. There is more to think about when you have an existing medical condition or disability, so avoid last minute bookings that won’t give you time to prepare.
Pick a suitable travel destination
Although you may not want to let your health dictate where you go on holiday, your choice of destination can make a big difference to your overall experience. For instance, very warm or very cold temperatures can potentially worsen the symptoms of many existing medical conditions. As a general rule, warm yet mild climates are best.
Tiredness can also exacerbate your condition or disability, so it’s a good idea not to give yourself too far to travel either side of your flight. Also, give yourself plenty of time for each leg of your journey. Obviously there may be external factors you can’t plan for, but having to rush can be stressful and tiring.
When it comes to your choice of accommodation, think about staying somewhere that makes things simple. All-inclusive resorts can be a great option, as all of your meals, drinks and many activities are provided under one roof.
You could also consider travelling with a holiday provider who specialises in package trips for those with medical conditions or disabilities. Many of these companies offer hosted or escorted tours and group tours designed specifically to enable you to experience parts of the world that could otherwise be difficult.
Get familiar with your destination
Part of the joy of going on holiday is counting down in anticipation of your departure date. You’ll more than likely spend time planning what to do and where to go, so while you’re doing that, familiarise yourself with the medical provisions of your chosen destination.
For example, make a note of the emergency telephone number in the country you’ll be visiting, the nearest hospital and the British embassy. Click here to find details of the relevant British embassy, high commission or consulate.
Get a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)
If you’re planning to travel within Europe, it’s a good idea to have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) with you. Specifically valid within the European Economic Area (EEA) – European Union (EU) countries plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein – an EHIC means you are eligible for either free or reduced-cost state-provided medical treatment in these countries. The EHIC should be applicable for British nationals until the UK leaves the EU.
You can apply for a EHIC online and you can also download an app for your smartphone or tablet that contains important information, such as what is covered by the EHIC and emergency contact numbers for each country.
However, it’s vital to note that a EHIC is not a substitute for medical travel insurance designed to cover your existing condition or disability. The EHIC does not apply to private hospital care or treatment, and it does not cover repatriation costs to get you home again.
The EHIC is a good measure to take for travel within Europe, but for complete peace of mind it’s best to take out medical travel insurance that covers you and your medical condition or disability.
Secure specialist travel insurance that covers your pre-existing condition or disability
This is arguably the most important step to take when getting ready for your holiday. Even if your health is stable and you feel well, it’s crucial that you have cover in place should your condition force you to cancel your trip, or if you need emergency medical treatment whilst you are away.
Besides risking your health, not being insured when you travel can be very expensive. In 2016, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) reported that a total of £365 million was paid out in travel claims (or £1 million a day), the main cost of which was emergency medical treatment (abi.org.uk). That’s a huge amount that travellers would been liable for without travel insurance.
Unlike standard travel insurance, providers of medical travel insurance, such as Free Spirit, specialise in offering cover for people with medical conditions and disabilities. These specialist policies aim to cover you if you need emergency treatment, unexpected medical attention or if you cannot travel back home as you planned due to a medical emergency.
With Free Spirit, you will have access to a 24 hour emergency helpline and medical treatment should you need it, and any costs you incur will be covered subject to the policy limits, terms and conditions.
When you take out specialist travel insurance with us, we are just a phone call away; you can call our medical emergency helpline day or night while you travel abroad.
What pre-existing medical conditions and disabilities are covered?
The range of existing medical conditions and disabilities we cover is huge, and includes:
- heart conditions,
- all types of cancer,
- brain and cerebral conditions,
- disabilities such as cerebral palsy and motor neuron disease.
Free Spirit provides specialist holiday insurance cover for other aspects of travel, including:
- loss of travel documents,
- medication or travel money,
- cancellation cover in the event that you are too unwell to travel when your trip comes around.
Get any travel vaccinations you need
Some travel destinations, especially those in tropical climates, require you to have certain vaccinations before you go, and/or to protect yourself from mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
For example, to travel to many countries in Southeast Asia, health professionals recommend that you have up-to-date immunisation against hepatitis A, tetanus and typhoid at least, and depending on your exact destination, to take anti-malarial medication.
However, if you have an existing health condition or disability, or you are receiving particular treatment or medication, it may be unsafe for you to have some travel vaccinations. This may mean that some places are not advisable destinations for you to travel to. It depends largely on the type of vaccine you need; vaccines are either ‘live’ or ‘inactivated’, and it tends to be live ones that can be potentially harmful for those who have weakened immunity.
Anti-malarial medication comes in the form of tablets, rather than an injection. If you need to take these, you will have to start your course a few days before you go, throughout your holiday and up to several weeks afterwards.
Your doctor will be able to help you work out where you can and cannot go if certain vaccinations are contraindicated for your medical condition. If they’re happy for you to have the vaccinations and/or medication you need for your chosen destination, they will also tell you when you’ll need to have your injections or start taking any tablets. Many immunisations need time to build up a degree of immunity to the infection they protect against, so you may need to have them several weeks or even months before you’re due to travel.
Take a look at the Travel Health Pro website to find out which vaccinations or tablets you need, if any, to visit your chosen destination.
Make sure you’re ready to travel by air
Many holidays mean travelling by air, and if you’ve already spoken to your doctor about your travel plans you’ll know whether or not they feel it’s safe for you to do so. Of course, there are always alternatives to flying, but these often involve long car, coach, train or ferry journeys, which come with their own considerations.
Tell your doctor about your full travel plans so they can best advise you. It’s also a good idea to get a letter from your doctor about your condition and any medication and/or equipment you need to take with you on your flight. Make sure this mentions any implanted devices you may have, such as a pacemaker, and let the airport security staff know.
The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) has put together a travel checklist for anyone with a disability or existing medical condition which may help you consolidate information about your health for your airline and/or accommodation provider.
When travelling by air with a medical condition or disability, it’s possible that you will need to take extra items or medication on board with you, or that you will need additional time and help getting on and off the plane or carrying your luggage. If so, make sure you fly with an airline who provides a specialist medical service and talk to them in plenty of time before you fly, so they can do all they can to assist you. They can arrange support such as early boarding, help with any medical equipment or help getting you to your departure gate.
Arrange to take an oxygen supply with you
Some existing health conditions, such as those affecting the lungs or heart, mean that you may need an extra supply of oxygen therapy from a cylinder or machine.
Your doctor will be able to tell you if you need to take oxygen away with you and if so, they may ask you to undertake a hypoxic challenge, or ‘fitness-to-fly’ test to assess your needs. If you do need an oxygen supply while you’re on holiday, you may be able to organise it to be delivered to you at your destination, depending on where you’re going. Talk to your oxygen supplier to see whether this is possible. If so, you will only need to think about organising enough portable tank refills to see you through your journey there and back.
However much oxygen you need to take with you, remember to let your transportation and/or accommodation provider know. This is especially important if you will be travelling by air, as you will not be allowed to board the plane with oxygen tanks unless your airline has prior notice. If your airline allows you to bring your own oxygen, they should not charge you to take it with you; you should be able to take it on board free of charge in addition to your cabin baggage.
Take more than enough medication and all your documentation
If you have an existing medical condition or disability, chances are you will need to take some sort of prescribed medication to treat the condition or control your symptoms.
Depending on how long you will be away from home for, you may need to get an extra supply of medication from your doctor before you travel. Make sure you take more than you should need, just in case you lose any or all of it during your holiday. When you come to pack it, split it into two or more supplies and store them in different bags for added protection from loss.
Some medications, such as those in syringes or very strong painkillers, may be subject to extra rules and regulations when it comes to travelling. Whatever kind of medication you need to take away with you, ask your doctor whether you need to tell your airline and/or accommodation provider about it in advance.
Your medication is important, so take time getting everything ready and recorded.
It’s worth taking a set of documentation with you, including:
- Your doctor’s letter (one in English and one in the language of the country you are visiting)
- Copies of your prescriptions (again, in both languages)
- Any device ID cards you have
- A list of all the medication you take, including dosages, brand names and generic names
- Details of any allergies you have
- Your medical travel insurance documentation and a copy of the emergency medical helpline
Look after yourself while you’re away
While holidays are all about leaving your cares behind, it’s important that you don’t neglect your health. Of course, this shouldn’t be at the expense of enjoying yourself, but just taking a few simple precautions can make all the difference.
If you’re going somewhere hot, be aware that your skin may be more sensitive to the sun than that of others. Remember to stay out of the sun when it’s at its strongest – between 11 am – 3 pm. Keep topping up your sun protection at all times too, with a cream that has a high rating (at least four-star) and a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
Protect yourself from insect bites too. Even if they do not carry malaria or any other disease, the bites of mosquitos and other insects can be itchy and uncomfortable, and can become infected in some cases. Wear mosquito repellent at all times to avoid getting bitten. Try to cover your arms and legs at night, and sleep in a room with a plug-in repellent or under a mosquito net.
In addition to any prescribed medication or treatment, NHS Choices recommends taking the following list of travel health essentials away with you.
Make sure to check for any contraindications with any other medication you are already taking.
- wound-cleaning gauze
- sterile dressings
- bandage tape
- sunburn treatment
- insect repellent
- insect bite treatment
Finally, don’t forget to relax. Once you’re there, try not to set too hectic a pace, it’s important not to overdo it. Give yourself a day or two to recuperate after your journey and don’t take part in any strenuous activities unless your doctor has said they are happy for you to do so.
Ultimately, it’s your holiday and you deserve the best one possible. We hope this guide has inspired you to look into what kind of trip away you could have.
Whatever you choose, have a fantastic time.