Top 10 tips for travelling with RA

Blog by Nadine Garland

I think I am the perfect person to ask about travelling with RA, because it is something I love to do and basically what brings me to the UK from Australia. I was diagnosed with RA way back in 1987 at 19 years of age, and was given a bleak prognosis of the life I could now expect, this included being in a wheelchair by 30 years of age which would make travel impossible.  

Being a stubborn little so and so, I did everything to make sure this was never going to be my reality. In fact, having RA has opened up so many opportunities to travel, to attend conferences and seminars in some amazing countries. I have also managed to infect my husband with the travel bug, even though he had never left Australia before we met. So, we have a lot of travel to catch up on and this is the main reason we are living in the UK, having arrived in December 2019 and then had all plans of our midlife adventures altered by a global pandemic. We have come to discover that the desire to travel and experience other people, cultures and places is more than just a physical thing but very much an attitude of finding solutions rather than getting stuck on the obstacles.  

So these are my top 10 tips on how to travel despite having RA. 

1. Plan where to go

Write your bucket list of places you want to go and include some domestic destinations. This can help you get an idea of what some of the obstacles you may face and give you an opportunity to find solutions before you go. You can also try a virtual tour; these are online tours by local guides and can be of cities or attractions like museums and zoos. I have been using and it has helped me narrow my extremely extensive list of places I want to visit and given me some ideas about what I will need if I go to visit some of these destinations. For example, when I get to visit Rome, I will need to be realistic about how many of the attractions I can see in one day, and that whilst sandals may be pretty, there is no way that my feet would cope with all that walking without supportive shoes. 

2. Plan when to go

What time of year does your chosen destination look amazing, and can you manage it? For example, I would love to see the Ice festival in Japan, but the practicality of walking in thick snow whilst wearing numerous layers is questionable at best, and don’t even get me started on using a squat toilet whilst dressed as a Yeti. 

3. Plan how to get there

Whilst flying is the fastest way, sometimes you can enjoy the journey, not just the destination. Cruising can sometimes feel like you are in a floating RSL Club (a very Aussie reference, but Returned Servicemen’s Clubs or RSLs are big clubs with bars and bistros/restaurants and gaming machines and a variety of entertainment) they do have many benefits. You can see may different places without having to pack and unpack or organise transport. You can do as much or little as you like and you have medical assistance to hand when you need it. Trains are also a good way of travelling long distances as you can get up and move about much easier than you can on a plane, and you can see a lot more of the surrounding countryside than you can in a plane. 

4. Plan getting around

Do they have taxis or public transport and how easy is it to use. Are there day tours available that mean you don’t have to navigate on your own. Can you hire a car, what are the road rules?  

Do they have cobblestone streets? I don’t know about you, but I need to double the estimated time to walk places if there are uneven footpaths and I miss so much because I need to focus on where I am putting my foot rather than looking around me. 

5. Plan contingencies

What to do if you have a flare or injure yourself. How do you access a Dr? If you are having a difficult day, what activities can you do with minimal effort? 

6. Research

A lot of this is included in the planning stage- but sometimes you need to look closely at what other people have said about the places you are visiting and the hotel you plan to stay in. First question for hotels is how many stairs and do they have a lift? Even if you are fairly mobile, it’s always good to make sure your room is easily accessible. The last thing you want after a day of adventures if having to face 3 flights of stairs before you can lay down. Do they have a fridge in the room? 

Check their reviews from other people. Make sure they are everything they say they are. Sometimes the pretty pictures do not match the reality or experience of others. 

7. Flexibility

Find out cancellation and refund policies for every step. If booking through a travel agent, make sure everything is covered in the package. I have known people who believed they had full flexibility, but discovered that one connecting flight was with a different airline who had a different policy on refunds, so were not able to get a refund on that flight.  

8. Medication

I always pack at least a week’s extra medication just in case. I have a case that I keep in my handbag with a small supply and, when flying have the rest of my medication in my carry-on luggage. If you are on medication that requires refrigeration you can use a lunch cool bag with an ice brick in it. If you have a long journey, pack a couple of snap lock sandwich bags that you can fill with ice. Don’t expect to be able to put your medications in a fridge on the plane, they don’t allow it.   

9. Other packing 

I was slow to the packing cube/luggage cell revolution but am now a convert. I have varied sizes and a couple of waterproof ones for swimwear- they always stay damp so it’s good to keep them separate. I also pack an empty cube for my dirty cloths. The type of luggage you chose can also depend on you and your destination. Pack a week before you leave and remove 1/3 of what you have packed. Wheely cases are great, except if you need to take them over cobblestone streets- Sorry to keep banging on about them but it’s not something I really thought about too much in Australia! Backpacks can be good as well, but I always found them best if you have someone to help you put it on and take it off. 

10. Balance rest and activity

Schedule in rest days and siestas. Have a day to explore all your hotel has to offer. Do they have a spa room? Is there a park nearby that you can spend a quiet morning sitting and watching people? I discovered the joy of a siesta (or nanna nap as I call them) when travelling in Zimbabwe. I would get up early to find a spot to enjoy a sunrise, then a leisurely breakfast, followed by more exploring. I usually only had something light for lunch and had a nap, followed by a swim, which would set me up for an afternoon/evening of adventure. Take up photography, it’s an excellent excuse to walk slower and take frequent breaks. Plus, you have amazing memories captured forever and you can go back to your favourite places again and again.