Beyond Limitations: Travel Tips + Tricks for People With Diabetes
Living with any type of diabetes can make traveling a little more challenging but not impossible! We sat down with Beyond Type 1’s Senior Community Manager, Tiana Cooks, who frequently travels for her role.
Tiana shares her top tips and tricks for making traveling with diabetes easier and more enjoyable.
Handling travel anxiety + managing diabetes
Beyond Type 1: When you approach traveling, what is the first step you take to ensure you feel prepared and will have a safe trip?
Tiana Cooks: The first thing I always make sure to do when I go anywhere is to pack, pack, pack! I’m an over-preparer. I love to have extras because you never know what may happen. There are a lot of potential risks you’re taking whenever you’re traveling, including baggage getting lost or something breaking in your bag. I always make sure I have extras.
My rule is to always pack three times the amount of supplies I will need. If I go on a seven-day trip, I pack for 21 days. That way, I am always prepared—just in case!
Do you experience any travel anxiety due to diabetes? If so, what proactive steps do you take to help reduce travel anxiety or manage in the moment?
I think it’s normal to experience anxiety, whether you’re traveling and living with diabetes or just living life. The first thing I always remind myself is so long as I have what I need, I will be okay. I always have a bag with me [on the plane] to keep all of my supplies in.
Anything I might need to pull out is there to ease my anxiety. That way, if anything goes south, I have everything near me and not in my checked luggage. I always carry cash, too. You never know where you’ll be—but everywhere will accept cash.
Just a couple of months ago, I was low in the middle of the night in a hotel. I woke up and realized that I had already used all of my [low blood sugar] snacks. And I remembered seeing a vending machine outside the hotel…I walked out to it at 4:00 AM and was able to use that. Having cash can really help!
You can also tell your flight attendant that you live with diabetes if you’re really feeling anxious about traveling on the airplane, especially if you’re traveling alone. Medical alert IDs are also great. That way, if you’re in an unfamiliar place, at least you have a bracelet that can help identify what is happening [in an emergency].
Getting through TSA: Plan ahead + practice patience
Are there other hurdles you’ve encountered while traveling with diabetes? If so, how did you handle them?
I’ve had a couple of different things happen while being away from home, starting with TSA. Navigating TSA depends on where you’re at—it’s never a consistent thing. You might plan to go through TSA like ‘normal’ at your home airport, but it might be entirely different when you get somewhere else…show up early and plan in advance to make sure you have enough time to go through. Adding that extra 15 to 20 minutes will be a game-changer!
Make sure you let TSA know you have diabetes before going through. Remember, it’s your choice about what you decide to do with your supplies. Do what you feel comfortable with.
Also, be nice—sometimes, people don’t know what diabetes is. TSA might have to wipe your insulin pump, for example, with a little testing pad and put it through the scanner to make sure there are no chemicals or explosives on the device. It’s usually a simple thing to get through but always plan ahead in case they have to do a full body patdown. It can be embarrassing but take it with a grain of salt. Don’t let it ruin your travel experience!
Another ‘pro tip’ is if you’re ever going through TSA and you want to bring juice boxes, they technically do have a size limit on the amount of liquids you can carry with you, but if you need more, they’ll usually let you go through. [Having diabetes] should work and qualify you to bring anything. You just need to explain it but have your doctor’s card or information with you in case you need backup support.
Getting meds + supplies away from home: Have a doctor’s note handy!
Have you ever had to receive medical services or get diabetes supplies filled while you were traveling? How were you impacted by being away from your regular doctor’s office and pharmacy?
When I’ve left the state, I’ve had to go to the doctor a couple of times. My advice is if you can’t remember the name of your supplies or doctor’s phone number, write it down just in case a new place needs to get paperwork or call your doctor for any other purpose. Have that on hand! My endo has helped me a couple of times.
When I was in the United Kingdom, I was trying to get on a plane [back home] and happened to have packed a doctor’s note. And I’m happy that I did! They checked my bag and saw there were needles, insulin and other diabetes supplies, and they were not going to let me bring them through—there was no exception. I had the doctor’s note, and thank God I had it with me because that was the only way they were going to let me bring my stuff back.
Always have a doctor’s note just for backup because you never know what they’ll require going through an out-of-state or foreign airport.
If you don’t already know the doctors in the area in the place you’re traveling to, I’d make sure to pinpoint where emergency rooms, hospitals and doctors are nearby before you take off to have awareness and be able to utilize them for your trip if needed.
Prioritize packing meds, supplies + snacks efficiently
How do you approach packing your bags and deciding what diabetes supplies and medications to put in a carry-on versus checked luggage?
I pack two or three vials of insulin. I would rather have backups than not. I will put one in my actual suitcase and the other two in my carry-on. Pack all of the supplies you usually use, plus other things like ketone strips. Pack a meter, even if you’re using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), because you never know what could happen. Once when I was traveling, I got sand in my CGM, and it stopped working!
Bring a fanny pack to carry your things, rather than use the backpack you travel with the whole time you’re away. I would say to bring syringes and long-acting insulin as a backup if you wear an insulin pump, in case it fails. I bring my stuff in a cooler bag if, for any reason, it takes a long time to find a fridge when I land. That way, my stuff is in a cool place.
Do you have tips for parents to help their child/children living with diabetes pack and prepare to be away from home?
Make sure everyone is on the same page… just in case something gets lost or is needed at a random time. [Parents] should always have backup snacks on hand. My mom will still carry snacks for me to this day in her back pocket!
The last thing I would say is to give that person grace. Traveling is a lot, especially in the summertime or if it’s hot outside. Still allow them to have a good time. It’s a vacation for everybody. Check in every now and then. Do your best to treat it as a regular day.
If it’s a trip where the person with diabetes—a child or adult—goes low, just give them grace because sometimes they do feel bad. It’s hard when you have to stop doing something with your family on vacation, and everyone has to sit down a second and wait for you. Give them grace and be kind.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned while traveling and managing diabetes simultaneously?
The other thing I would say is to eat. I think many people get anxious because traveling is a lot, and flying can be scary for some people, but please eat. There’s so much adrenaline! You want to make sure that you have some type of carbohydrate or energy to walk through the airport.
You don’t want to have a severe low in the middle of a flight either. It’s a very uncomfortable place to have a low. If you don’t have snacks, even though they usually sell them on the plane, there are instances where the pilot will say to take your seat, and they won’t let servicing continue, so always have your own snacks with you.
Grab fruit snacks at the airport if you forget to pack your own low blood sugar snacks—they’re relatively cheaper than most other airport snacks.
Beyond limitations: Doing the things you love—like traveling!
Do you have words of encouragement for people with diabetes who want to travel but feel hesitant?
Diabetes is not something that should prevent you from experiencing life. If anything, it should motivate you to want to experience it more. There are so many beautiful things to see and do in other places. Once you’re comfortable, I highly suggest just going after it!
You keep yourself alive every single day—going on a trip is doable. You got it! You already know what to do.
I also want to be mindful that my experience is not the same as other people’s experiences. However, whenever you feel the urge to do it, it will be one of the best things you’ve done for yourself because you will have realized what you’re capable of doing and how much life there is to live.
Traveling has been a blast for me because I’ve been able to meet so many people from different walks of life—I’ve been immersed in so many different cultures. It’s been an eye-opening experience to see the world.
To be able to do that and say I’m doing it while living with diabetes makes me feel accomplished and empowered. Hopefully, I can encourage other people to get out there and experience this earth as well because it’s beautiful.
Get more tips for traveling safely and comfortably with type 1 diabetes here.