How To Travel On An Airplane And Keep A Smile On Your Face
Remember when you got excited by taking a trip on an airplane? You got free pillows and blankets, a hot meal and if you were a kid, a wing pin. Now you are lucky if you get your uncomfortable, ever shrinking seat. The good old days sure were nice! Add rheumatoid arthritis to the mix and traveling can become downright scary. With all of these challenges in mind, it is more important than ever to plan well, and even with the problems we face individually and collectively, with a few extra steps, you can actually make a trip to the airport fun.
A few years ago, I learned about TSA pre-check. This is a program that allows eligible U.S. Citizens, nationals, and residents to go through a special security line. TSA pre-check customers don't have to take off their shoes and belts, nor do they have to remove their laptops or take liquids out of their bags (the 3 ounce limit still applies.) It does cost $85 and you need to re-apply every five years, but I've used it for three years and I love it because for me, it can be especially hard at times to take my shoes off and back on, especially when there are people behind me ready to run me over if I don't move fast enough! According to the TSA pre-check website, in 2017 the average wait time for a pre-check customer was less than five minutes. Not every airline and airport uses pre-check but most do (over 180 airports at this point and you can get on the website, https://www.tsa.gov/precheck, and see the list.) Because more and more people are signing up, there can be wait times to apply, so it's best to get an appointment as soon as possible if you have a trip in mind; once you apply the approval process takes 2-3 weeks. The appointment involves giving your social security number, answering a few security questions, and taking fingerprints, and lasts less than thirty minutes. I think anyone with RA who travels a few times a year or more would benefit from doing this because, as we all know, every little bit helps, especially when you need all the energy you have for your trip.
The other thing to consider as you are booking your trip is travel insurance. Depending upon the cost of your trip and what you will be doing, it may or may not be worth it, and the website https://www.insuremytrip.com is a good one for looking at your options.
Airlines have facilities for travelers with disabilities. Avail those!
When you are booking your flight I recommend getting on your airlines website and looking up options for travelers with disabilities. Each airline has their own policy, (here is the information from United Airlines : https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/specialneeds/disabilities/default.aspx) and in the past I've needed wheelchair assistance to get me from gate to gate so I call ahead and they are always happy to help. I've also called and talked to agents about my injectables when I traveled internationally and have had them help me with ice for my cooler. Airlines transport people with all kinds of issues every day, and as I've gotten older I've learned that the more up- front I am with everyone involved with getting me from point A to point B, the easier the trip is for everyone.
Choose your luggage wisely
Packing early is another thing that saves my sanity as I get ready for my trip. If you don't have lightweight luggage with wheels, invest in some, and find a carry-on with wheels as well unless you can manage to pack your carry-on with only a few pounds of weight in it. The last thing you need is a heavy carry-on to lug around with you, wearing you out before the trip starts. The other reason to have a really light carry-on is because it is important to walk around at least a little once you are in the airport so you don't arrive at your destination hobbling. Plus, the inside of airports are transforming into malls so it's actually fun to walk around and explore the airports these days! Packing early is going to ensure that you remember everything and I always enjoy relaxing the day before my trip knowing everything is done instead of scrambling and wearing myself down before my trip.
Speaking of packing, remember that travel will be hard on your body by definition, and because of this, pack a few items that will help your trip to be more comfortable. I usually bring a few ace bandages to wrap swollen joints, some extra pain and sleep pills just in case, ziplock bags to fill with ice if needed, and topical pain cream, along with my supplements and medications. Always bring comfortable shoes, and clothes that will keep you comfortable even in inclement weather.
Prepare for the trip with a day of rest and light activity
The day before your trip should be a rest day that includes light exercise so your joints will be ready for the big day. As you pack your carry-on eliminate weight as much as possible (use your traveling companion as your sherpa if you can!) and remember to carry your medical insurance cards with you along with your medications in your carry-on, not packed in luggage. No irreplaceable valuables and especially things like opioid medication, should ever get packed- I've had things stolen from my luggage on more than one occasion and I never want someone else to go through this. Go to bed early the night before your trip and use a sleep aid if this will help you because you need to get up feeling as good as possible on the day of your trip.
Curb-side check-in to the rescue!
The day you are traveling, get to the airport early. Use curb-side check-in; with the cost of traveling a few more bucks for a tip won't break the bank and it will save your joints the standing time while waiting in line. Once you get to your gate, tell the agent you need more time if this is the case and wait close to the door so, once again, you don't have to stand in a long line. During your flights, get up and walk the aisles a few times, or at least once an hour. During lay-overs I always take the opportunity to get up and walk the airport for a bit because if I don't I get really stiff. If walking is too much energy-wise, I sit and do a few range of motion exercises like ankle and shoulder rolls and tapping my feet on the ground. I was once on a 12 hour flight to Australia and the flight attendant led everyone in some yoga stretches halfway through the flight which gave me the idea to do this every flight. Sometimes my seat-mates join in now, it's a good way to get to know your neighbor! Make sure you drink water at every opportunity- usually the flight attendants bring water through the cabin at some point during the flight in addition to the drink service and I always take advantage of this because staying hydrated is one way to not get sick when traveling. I also carry vitamin C and take some when I travel; in the past I've used airborne and other wellness supplements for cold prevention because getting sick is a real concern and traveling with a compromised immune system always leaves me more vulnerable than most.
Lastly - planning is important
As with any planned activity, things never go the way you think they will, so it's important to keep your stress levels low. If the unexpected comes up, as it usually does, remember to do whatever you can to keep calm. In the past I've practiced deep breathing, I've kept my spirits up by chatting up my travel companions, and I always bring my Ipod nano loaded with relaxing brainwave music. Anxiety does nothing but ramp up pain and use up much needed energy, so think happy thoughts and get ready for an amazing trip!
Do you have any tips you have picked up along the way? Join the conversation and let us know!
And check out the downloadable travel checklist below:
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