Travelling with arthritis - James's tips for making holidays easier

07 March 2023
James on electric scooter on holiday

Planning a holiday? James, who has rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, is only 28 but has already ticked many destinations off his bucket-list from Portugal and Vietnam to Mexico and China.  

Here he offers his tips on how to make your next holiday one to remember as someone with arthritis. 

Planning your trip

Doing a little bit of research before your holiday can make your trip a whole lot smoother. For example, you might want to: 

  • Book travel insurance. 
  • Find out the name of your nearest chemist, doctor’s surgery or hospital, just in case you need it. 
  • Check how accessible your accommodation is. For example, if you struggle with stairs you might want to book a room on the ground floor near the lift.  

James recently flew to Mexico and was worried about how he would cope with the long-haul flight. “I didn't really know how my body was going to deal with being cramped up in the flight or waiting in long lines,” he explains. “I was flying from Heathrow to Mexico City, which are two of the busiest airports in the world, so either way there was going to be a lot of standing around.”  

He says that calling up his airline about his condition before he booked his trip was a huge help. “Luckily they were able to reserve me a seat with more leg room,” he says. “They also organised a wheelchair so that I could cut through customs too.  

“This was helpful because my legs were a bit stiffer in the morning and I knew the flight might take a lot out of me. It meant I could conserve my energy, especially because it’s such a long trip.”  

What should I pack? 

What can you expect to find in James’ backpack? It depends on the location and the weather, of course. But you’ll always find some comfortable clothes.  

“If my ankles or knees were to swell up whilst I was away, I’d want to bring clothes that I could easily put on if I was having a flare, like baggy joggers,” he explains.

Comfortable shoes are important too, because you're probably doing more walking than you would usually.” 

On a recent holiday to Spain, James also brought a travel walking stick that folds up and can be put in his bag.

“It’s really helpful if I do a lot of walking and get to the stage where I’m feeling pain in my legs,” he says. 

If you’re bringing a walking aid or medication with you, James also reminds you to “make sure you bring your doctor’s letter.” 

“You could also bring a little flare-kit,” he adds. “It could have painkillers, anti-inflammatory medication as well as pain spray, just in case.” 

Learning the language

If you’re travelling abroad, James’ also recommends learning some of the local lingo as it might come in handy. 

“Try to learn a few words in the language of the country you’re going,” he suggests. “Maybe you could learn how to say, ‘arthritis’ or have a translator app on your phone so you can ask for medication if you need it out there.” 

Flying with arthritis  

It doesn’t matter whether you’re travelling by plane, train or car, chances are you’ll be sitting for a long time when you’re travelling.

But there’s small ways that you might be able to make your journey more comfortable. 

James says it's worth trying to squeeze in some movement if you can. Maybe you could do some simple stretches or get up and walk around every 30 minutes.  

“I stretched on the plane, walked up and down the aisles and even did exercises like calve raises,” he says. “I also took my shoes off to avoid any extra swelling,” 

Travelling can be tiring at the best of times, but when you’re dealing with fatigue, it can be even tougher. It varies from person to person but, if you can, James recommends trying to get a bit of sleep on the flight.  

“I’m still working out how to deal with fatigue, but I’m pretty good at sleeping anywhere so I’ll try and nap on the plane if I can,” he says.  

Don’t know where to start? Try these exercises for healthy joints 

Coping with the weather 

Whether you prefer to soak up the sun or explore a chillier climate, it’s worth keeping the weather in mind. That’s because, many people with arthritis say that their pain and stiffness can flare up, depending on the temperature and humidity.  

When it comes to destinations, James says he “wouldn't pick and choose based on the weather” but that he would “definitely prepare" properly” - and this was definitely the case when he visited the Chinese city of Harbin.  

Nicknamed the ‘City of ice’, Harbin hosts an annual festival where you can see breath-taking castles and sculptures all made of ice, but temperatures can plummet to –40. 

“I really wanted to go there but I knew that I was going to struggle with the temperatures,” explains James. “So, I researched the best way to keep him warm and brought hand warmers, warm gloves, and filled my suitcase with things to keep warm.”  

“I also said to my friends ‘As much as I’d love to do everything on this itinerary, there are going to be times when I'm going to have to tap out or stay inside to keep myself warm. We can regroup later if my joints aren’t agreeing with these plans’.” 

Find your support network 

It isn’t just the food or the destination that makes an unforgettable holiday. James says that who you go with on your trip can have a “massive impact” too.  

“When travelling as someone with arthritis, you need people to understand that you might need extra rest, or you might take a bit longer to ready"

James, who has rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis

He recommends having an open and frank conversation with your friends. “I had a sit down with my friends and said ‘Listen, I'm excited and I want to do as much as I can. But there might be times when I just can't do it. So just be gentle with me and know that I'm not trying to mess you around’.” 

You might also want to talk to your healthcare team beforehand too. They can chat to you about vaccinations, how much medication you’ll need to bring, and offer you any other advice you need. 

“Sometimes I will call my rheumatologist to let them know if I’m travelling somewhere to ask for advice, especially if it’s particularly hot or cold, far away or I’m going for a long time,” James says. “It’s best to check with them.” 

What’s next? 

James has travelled the world over, but he has no plans to pack away his passport just yet. So, what destination is next on the horizon? 

“Taiwan,” he says. “It's very friendly, I speak the language and it's just a beautiful country"

“My aim is to live aboard again and work abroad again. Travelling is my biggest passion in life. I just to go out and learn more languages, see more of the world"

James, who has rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis

If you’re itching to go travelling, James says not to let your arthritis diagnosis hold you back.  

“I think that sometimes you have to be pushed out your comfort zone to eventually get comfortable with something,” he says. “I've gone all the way to Mexico, and it was fine. So now travelling to Poland feels like nothing.” 

“Book that first trip in and you’ll realise just how do-able it is,” he says. Having arthritis doesn’t mean that you don’t have to stay in your house for the rest of your life. You can still go out and explore. You just have to take that first leap.