Pack a Juicebox! Tips for Traveling with Type 1 Diabetes
July may be Chronic Disease Month, but Type 1 Diabetes is 24/7—even on vacation. With a little prep and a lot of self-compassion, I found a few ways to take the stress out of traveling internationally with a chronic illness.
Copywriter, EF Ultimate Break
Hi, I’m Emma, Ultimate Break’s friendly neighborhood diabetic (there might be others, I haven’t exactly sent out a mass email, so lemme know if you’re also pancreatically challenged!). In a nutshell, having Type 1 Diabetes means that my pancreas decided to stop producing insulin (rude) which regulates blood sugar. I’m dependent on injecting insulin before I eat anything with carbs—pasta, rice, ice cream, bread, all the good stuff—so my blood sugar doesn’t skyrocket, which can cause big problems down the road.
When I was diagnosed in 2018, not only was I floored (I thought T1D was a little kid’s disease, but nope), but I thought everything in my life would change forever, including travel. And yeah, some stuff did change, though not as dramatically as I thought. I recently went to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, my first international trip since my diagnosis, and I was definitely nervous to be so far from the comforts of home and routine, but a little research went a long way toward feeling prepared and confident. Here are a few tips that worked for me* before and during my trip.
*I’m not a doctor or even an expert, this is just my own personal experience! And while I’m writing this through a T1D lens, a lot of these tips apply to living with many types of chronic illness. Okay, carry on.
Bring extra supplies!
A couple weeks before my departure, I made a list of what I would need to bring. I didn’t want to be caught 4,000 miles away in Europe without insulin if I lost my pre-filled pen, or without a quick snack if my blood sugar went low on a walking tour, so I brought extra EVERYTHING. This goes for anyone who needs special medication or devices.
I’m fortunate enough to use a Dexcom, which is an amazing Bluetooth system that continuously measures my blood sugar day and night (it sends alerts to my phone!), so I brought backup stuff for that, because tech doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to. A couple extra insulin pens and lots of needles, of course, plus enough blood sugar test strips and batteries for my finger pricker in case my Dexcom failed for some reason. I also packed a fast-acting nasal spray for severe low blood sugar emergencies, which fortunately I’ve never had to use. As for food, I brought fruit leathers, protein balls, and glucose gummies to stash in my bag while out and about on tour. Phew. That sounds like a lot, but it all fit in one gallon bag with room to spare, and I felt better having extra supplies on hand.
Prep for security
Airport security has always been a point of stress for me, with or without T1D. Some sources say that diabetic tech like Dexcom sensors and transmitters, or insulin pumps, shouldn’t go through an x-ray or full-body scanner, but I’ve personally never had a problem (don’t quote me, I’m not a pump girly). This time, to be extra cautious, I flagged my supplies to a TSA agent and they hand-inspected them. You can also ask for a pat-down instead of going through an x-ray. I always have a recent note from my doctor stating that I have T1D and that my supplies are needed, but I’ve never been asked for it. Medically necessary liquids like juice boxes for low blood sugar are allowed—just declare them to an agent as you go through to be inspected by hand. And fun fact: you’re allowed to have an additional carry-on bag as long as it contains only medical supplies or equipment. In general, I’ve found that security folks are understanding or sometimes downright blasé, and my experience this time around went smoothly and quickly, so yay.
One of the best tips I can tell you is to be up front with your fellow travelers and Tour Director. You don’t have to shout “I HAVE DIABETES” to the whole group, but letting a few people know will give you an extra sense of security—when you travel in a group, you have a built-in support system. On the first night of my trip, I pulled my Tour Director aside real quick and told him I had T1D and I’m fine with managing it, and how to use that fast-acting nasal spray if something happens like I pass out from low blood sugar. I also let a few of the people I was spending time with know, too, and they were both curious to know more and grateful I had told them. And that was that! It didn’t really come up again, but every now and then someone would ask a question or check in to see how I was doing, which was very kind.
Watch the alcohol
This is a big one. For people with diabetes, alcohol can have different effects. Carb-y beers and cocktails with sugary mixers or juice can raise blood sugar, while straight liquor and wine often have the opposite effect of lowering blood sugar, sometimes even into the next day. I often need LESS insulin the day after drinking wine or cocktails, which makes a big difference in how I dose for food. Not to mention, if your blood sugar goes too low and you also haven’t eaten much, you could be at risk for serious issues like passing out (again, this is why it’s important to tell a few people the deal). Know your limits, check your blood sugar often, DRINK WATER, nibble on some snacks throughout the night, and you’ll be golden.
Eat, hydrate, rest, repeat.
I can’t stress this enough—ya gotta eat. Yeah, food can be a source of anxiety for people with T1D, especially in a new place with unfamiliar food and erratic schedules. But if you’re walking around all day and possibly having some drinks, eating or snacking regularly is a must. I always had a snack or two in my bag just in case, and I did my best to dose for the approximate carb counts of whatever I was eating (didn’t nail it every time but oh well). Plus, if you’re in a foreign country, half the fun is the food, so not only is eating too little super risky, you’ll also be missing out!
Hydration and rest are also key, so try to drink as much water as possible and rest when you can. This is true for all travelers, but dehydration and fatigue can also affect blood sugars, so chug the H20, catch some zzz's on the bus between cities, and try to hit the hay a couple hours early for a few nights. Easier said than done, but every little bit helps!
Be nice to yourself
Traveling can be stressful, and when you add a chronic illness on top of that? It seemed impossible to me at first. But at the end of the day, it’s a vacation. If your management isn't perfect the whole time (and it won’t be) don’t sweat it. Eat the gelato. Inhale the noodles. Sip the sangria. Enjoy the hell outta yourself. Your trip is finite, and you can pick up the slack and get back on track when you get home. Living with a chronic disease is hard enough without being hard on yourself, too, and a week out of your comfort zone will totally be worth the memories you’ll make and experiences you’ll have.
Now get out there and see the world! Just make sure you have a juice box.
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