Traveling with Rheumatoid Arthritis

woman walking on pathway while strolling luggage
Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on

My husband was in the Marine Corp in the mid 70s and he spent a couple of weeks in Panama. He had fond memories of that time and wanted to go back so we decided that we would take a much needed respite from work and go to Panama. I have to admit that I had some fears about traveling with RA but I decided to banish those fears and jump into our travel plans.

Mistake one was getting the cheapest airfare which put us on the red eye leaving at 2:00 in the morning which meant that we had to be at the airport two hours early. We were not able to take a nap so by the time we caught our flight we were already up for almost 24 hours. We flew from San Francisco to Mexico City, had a three-hour layover in Mexico City and continued on to Panama City. We arrived late in the afternoon. I was not able to sleep on the plane and was utterly exhausted by the time we arrived. Do I feel a start of a flare-up coming on? Yes, I think that is what it is.

Another mistake was getting stuck in the middle seat. My achy bones did alright even though I was stuck in the middle seat wedged between my husband who is a big guy and another person who was flying for the first time and fidgeted non-stop. He did not speak English and I am not fluent in Spanish so it made for an uncomfortable flight. We also sat in front of two people who were sick and did not have good health hygiene. They were sneezing, hacking, coughing, and wiping their noses on their shirts. I won’t disgust your further but there is a reason why I mention this.
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Mistake number three was taking a back pack instead of my normal luggage with wheels. I had thought that carrying a back pack would be easier on my back. Boy, was I wrong. It was a total pain in, well, you know what. My thought was to do carry on but we ended up checking in the bags. Never again! Never, never, never again. Wheels are the way to go.
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We finally got checked into our hotel after being taken to the wrong one. Who knew that there were so many Marriott hotels “at the mall” in Panama City? We were beat but decided to walk to dinner. We had an interesting meal, came back to the hotel and took a swim in the swimming pool before retiring for the night. I told my husband that I felt as if I were going to fall asleep in the swimming pool because I was that tired. However, that was one of the few things we did right was to go swimming. Swimming always helps with my achy joints. Flare up abated? Read on…

Next day, we took a tour of the city, saw the Panama Canal and did other touristy things. I felt tired but my normal aches and pains were not any worse. The following day we took a short plane ride to Bocas del Toro and caught a water taxi to our resort. This is where things started to go bad.

Remember those nasty sick people sitting behind me on the plane, well, my husband started feeling ill the day after we got to our resort and spent the greater part of our vacation sick. I thought I was coping fairly well but was feeling that extreme tired feeling that I get because of the RA. I kept putting it down to him being sick but now I believe that it was a combination between the RA and getting sick myself. I came down with whatever he had about three days into our stay but mine only lasted a couple of days although two weeks later I am still struggling to regain my strength. Flare up not abated.

Long story short (too late), we decided to cut our vacation short. However, there is not an easy way to get back to Panama City. We took a 20 minute water taxi ride to Bocas del Toro, caught a water ferry to the town of Almarote where we picked up a regular taxi who took us to the town of David- a three hour taxi ride. Once in the town of David, we caught a flight to Panama City. We left the following morning at 6:00 from our hotel and arrived home that night at 11:00. We had a six hour layover in Dallas. As I said early on, it took me weeks before I started to regain my strength again and my aches and pains calmed down.

So, what did I learn from all of this. Well, for starters, I need to look for flights that do not have me up for over 24 hours at a time. My husband and I think that maybe flying to Mexico City or Dallas and spending the night would be an option that would help break up the trip and make it easier for me.

Get rid of the back pack, period! Nice idea but not for someone that has RA. I love my luggage with wheels and I will use it in the future.

Not much I can do about being around sick people although I would have put a mask on had I had one with me. It is very difficult for me to fight off simple colds with a compromised immune system so I need to look out for me and worry less about offending others.

The resort that we stayed at offered us ginger tea with lemon and honey. I was skeptical that it would help but I truly believe that it helped speed up my recovery whereas my husband refused to try it and he continues to struggle to get better. I have since made this at home and recommend trying it if you can tolerate ginger. I put five or six slices of ginger in simmering water, squeeze half a lemon into the water and add some honey. Let it simmer for 20 minutes or so and you have instant cold remedy.
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They also suggested that I rub raw ginger on the joints that hurt for pain management. I have had marginal success with this and am still experimenting with this home remedy.

So here are so other suggestions for traveling with RA.

  • Choose a time when you are most likely to feel your best. Try to figure out when you get flare ups and avoid traveling during those times.
  • Try not to rush getting to your destination (or getting back from your destination). What I described trying to get from our resort to Panama City had a huge impact on my health. Make your journey part of your vacation. I took three days off from work after we got back and I am so glad I did because I was not ready to go back to work. What I failed at was that I should have taken the day before our travel off just to relax.
  • Immunizations are important but coordinate them with your health professionals and your Rheumatologist. My husband and I were both prescribed a typhoid vaccine. However, because I am on Mextrocate, my vaccine was an injectable and not a live virus whereas his was a pill form and a live virus.
  • Speaking of Mextrocate, I am on the injectable and choose not to take a shot with me. I just did not want to hassle going through customs/immigration with a shot in my bag. Therefore, I had my doctor give me one week’s worth of pill form Mextrocate. It makes me feel ill but I struggled through it.
  • Choose luggage that will make your life easy. Wheels, wheels, wheels are a must for me. Don’t worry about having three change of clothes for every day or taking every pair of sandals you own because “you never know.” Pack light. Try not to carry to much with you.
  • My health care plan has my entire medical record online. They have a summary that you can printout to take with you when you are on vacation. I kept this on my person at all times.
  • I kept my medications with me in a carryon bag. I have had lost bags in the past and it is not fun especially when it contains critical medication. I kept the medication in the prescription bottles and had the list of my prescribed medications with me. I only had one agent in Panama City check the medications and there apparently was not an issue because they allowed me into (and out of) of the country.
  • Wear comfortable clothing and slip on shoes. It never fails to amaze me as I watch people struggle to untie and tie their shoes as they go through the security line. Not me, I slip in and out of my shoes with ease. I wear capri pants or soft jeans and a light weight comfortable shirt-no jewelry. The fewer things I have to struggle with, the better.
  • Check with your health insurance company to make sure that you are covered when traveling overseas. You may need supplemental insurance. You should also think about “trip insurance” or “cancellation insurance” should you need to cancel a trip due to a change in your health. In our case, we cut our vacation short and had to incur some costs associated with changing our flights.
  • This is something that I did not do on our trip to Panama City but did do on the return flight and that is to move and stretch. I went to the bathroom numerous times on the return flight. It wasn’t because I had a urinary problem but rather it was an excuse to move about the cabin. I used the time to stretch my back and it helped.
  • Think about using assistive devices to make your travel easier. You know those funky neck rest things that you see around people to help them sleep. Well, my husband got one and I used it to lean my elbow against the armrest.
  • Take a look at your mediation because you may be more sun sensitive and more likely to burn. Check with your doctor if you are not sure.
  • The last piece of advice is to give yourself time to relax when you return from vacation. Travelling is hard and it wears you down. While you may be coming back from vacation, it does not mean that you are relaxed.
  • Keep yourself hydrated throughout your travels by drinking plenty of water.                                                                                                                                                           *Travel safe, travel simple*

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