10 Tips for Traveling With Diabetes
Whether you’re jetting off to Rome, boarding a ship for the tropics, or just dragging the kids to the family cabin, traveling can be complicated, even when all goes according to plan. Diabetes poses additional challenges.
Take, for instance, exercise. If you work a sedentary job, a sightseeing trip around London could double the amount of physical activity you get in a day. And that can impact your blood glucose. Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LD, CDE, a certified diabetes educator and avid traveler with type 1 diabetes, always carries snacks to prevent low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) when exploring a new city, but even after 50 years of managing diabetes, she runs into snags. Eight years ago, after exhausting her supply of glucose sources while exploring the Greek island of Santorini, she was forced to duck into a bar for a pint of juice.
With careful planning—and a little bit of creativity—you too can ensure that diabetes doesn’t spoil your vacation.
1. Plan Ahead.
Travel can take months of planning. This includes searching for hotels, booking flights, and working out an itinerary. But diabetes planning is just as important. Get a letter from your doctor that outlines your medications and dosage. Refill your prescriptions, make a list of emergency medical contacts to bring with you, and carry a copy of your insurance card. Prep diabetes supplies, such as meters, test strips, glucose tablets, infusion sets, batteries, and so on—you’ll want to bring more than you’ll probably use. “It may be more to carry,” Smithson says, “but in the long run, it will reduce the stress of possibly having your meter or pump fail.”
If you’ll be flying to your destination, make a checklist of all your medical supplies so that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents have an idea of what items are going through the scanner. Contact the TSA (855-787-2227 or email@example.com) two to three days before traveling with any concerns, such as getting through security while wearing a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) or insulin pump.
2. Voice your needs.
Staying silent won’t help your health. Instead, ask your airline for a diabetes-friendly meal and speak to travel professionals about available medical accommodations. “A refrigerator in the hotel room can come in handy to store perishable foods or snacks if needed,” Smithson says. That, and a hotel fridge can keep insulin cool.
3. Make like the locals.
You’ve just endured a grueling 10-hour flight, jumped across time zones, and arrived at your destination. While it may be nighttime back home, here it’s daytime. How will this radical shift impact your insulin schedule? That’s a question to ask your health care provider as you plan your trip. He or she can advise you on how to adjust your long-acting insulin, if necessary, and how to dose during travel days that involve trips across time zones. Your care provider can also advise you on adjusting your insulin pump during travel. “Typically, if you are using an insulin pump, your doctor will have you change the settings on your pump to the new time zone upon your arrival to your destination,” Smithson says. Still, you may want to check your blood glucose more often than normal, especially during your first two days in a new time zone.
4. Be active, but be aware.
Travel can be relaxing, but in your rush to hit every museum before closing time, you’re likely expelling more energy than you do at home. “Check [your blood glucose] often as you get adjusted to your ‘away from home’ routine,” Smithson says. That’s why it’s extra important to carry fast-acting glucose with you at all times. Ensure your safety by wearing a medical alert ID—engraved with your diabetes type—at all times.
5. Eat a snack.
Whether boarding an international flight or setting out on foot to explore a new town, don’t forget to carry a supply of glucose tablets or gels to prevent lows. Stash supplies inside a fanny pack so they’re always at hand. And keep in mind: If you’re traveling to another country, you may have difficulty determining the carb count of local snacks. Bring backups from home just in case.
6. Indulge responsibly.
Don’t be afraid to sample the culinary specialties, including the local libations, but stay mindful of your portions. This will give you the freedom to explore new flavors. Eating new foods can also affect your blood glucose levels, so it’s another reason to remain vigilant and check your levels often.
7. Look before leaping.
The sparkling waters of the hotel pool can look refreshing after a long, hot day of sightseeing, but be sure to read the instructions on your insulin pump before diving in. Many brands are waterproof, but not all are, and broken equipment is the last thing you want to deal with during vacation. If your pump isn’t waterproof and you plan to spend your days by the water, consider using injections for the duration of your vacation.
8. Get clean.
If you’re on the move without access to soap and water, it pays to keep a collection of unscented wet wipes. Use them to clean your hands before pricking when you’re doing blood glucose checks. Lancing dirty fingers raises the risk for infection, and certain substances on your fingers (such as fruit juice or scented lotion) can lead to an inaccurate reading. Alcohol swabs will do in a pinch, but these tend to dry out the skin after use.
9. Learn the lingo.
If you’re traveling to a locale where you don’t speak the language, familiarize yourself with a few diabetes-related terms and phrases. Translate “diabetes,” “insulin,” and phrases such as “I need juice” on notecards, then store them inside your fanny pack in case of emergencies. Or download a translation app that can speak for you.
10. Insulate your insulin.
We all love being outdoors on a sunny day, but exposing your insulin to extreme heat could reduce its effectiveness. Carry your insulin in an insulated bag with a cold pack to keep your insulin at room temperature. Just be sure the insulin isn’t pressed up against the ice pack—extreme cold is just as bad as extreme heat. Or try cool packs made specifically for insulin, such as Frio cooling cases.