By Lu Sobredo
Growing old is not a joke. In my younger years, I heard elders say: growing old is not for wimps. To this I add—growing old with a chronic illness is not for the weak-minded. And may I remind our loved ones to please be patient with us when we move a lot slower than before, show signs of fatigue easily, or speak and think as if in a fog. Even when young, if you have a chronic illness, these symptoms are the heartbreaking reality of the disease along with constant pain that we navigate everyday.
Almost two years ago, I created my blog to serve the disabled community especially those afflicted with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). I was thrilled about the warm reception it received. Requests from readers for topics inspired me to explore new themes. It’s gratifying to hear that the blog posts have helped those with a variety of limitations that otherwise would have hampered travel possibilities. Many readers who don’t have a chronic illness have found useful hints helpful to any traveler. They include but not limited to: traveling on a budget; places to see, eat and stay; and proverbial warnings of potential perils e.g. pickpockets, and obstacles encountered during travel.
While on my 2018 summer travel in Spain, I received a request for a piece to help seniors who travel. The same summer travel also taught me a few lessons I included in this essay. One thing for sure, if I had listened to my inner voice, I believe I would have avoided intense RA flare up. Or at least the RA flare might have been minimized. Some recommendations for seniors could ostensibly fit any traveler.
The list of 12 travel hints below is not in any particular order of importance: Travel on a Budget in the Off-Season, Update Passport, Purchase Travel Insurance, Travel Light, Secure In Your Hand-Carry: Prescription Medications & Must-Have Items, Pre-check with Airlines and Reserve Wheelchair Service for the Airport, Respect Your Mobility Threshold, Travel With a Companion if possible and Stay Connected with Family or Friends, Do a Safety Check Once Inside Your Hotel Room, Write a Journal and Take Photos, Watch Out for Pickpockets, and Keep a Flexible Itinerary & Have Fun.
These helpful hints make an assumption that you have already decided on your travel destination. For now I write mostly about travel to Spain. For other destinations, check out these talented travel writers: Legal Nomads, Leah Travels, Nomadic Matt and Rick Steves.
1. Travel on a Budget in the Off-Season. I suspect most seniors are on a fixed income, unless they are independently wealthy. My professor husband’s university teaching includes global economics. I often hear him talk about the statistics that only about 30 percent of Americans in the U.S. have saved for retirement.
“Typically in any year, half of workers have a retirement plan. In 2017, participation by civilian workers, full and part-time was 54 percent." (Pension Rights. Web. August 27, 2018.)
This dire data looks worse when you consider that the U.S. does not provide its citizenry the safety net commonplace in other countries, e.g. universal health care, free or low cost college education for their children, etc.
If budget is stopping you from exploring abroad, it’s time to rethink and rewind the thought process. Off-season offers great deals for both airlines and hotels. If you could save for the price of an airline ticket, you’re well on your way. Off-season airline tickets could run you $400-$800 roundtrip, depending on your location of departure. If leaving from the east coast in the U.S., the distance to Europe is shorter than if leaving from the west coast; thus the difference in the price. If going during the height of travel season, be prepared to pay $1000 dollars or more for roundtrip airfares. Once in Europe and hopping to neighboring countries, remember the travel cost of airline tickets and other modes of transportation is quite affordable.
Consider traveling in the Off-Season (November to March). If not, try the Shoulder Season (April to Mid-June & September to October). I encourage you to travel during off season if you don’t mind traveling in cooler weather. Not only are the airline and hotel prices lower, there is also less crowds in the major cities. Pace is less hurried. Who wants to be crunched in a crowd when walking or standing in line for events or when Tapas Bar hopping with a cane while in Spain?
As seniors, chances are, you are retired with a flexible schedule. Since my hubby has not yet retired, we try to visualize our travel plans months to a year in advance; sometimes two years ahead, as in our preparation for walking the Camino de Santiago. See Walking the Camino de Santiago: Parts I & II.
Do check for airline prices online at three to six months prior to planned travel month. Ask a trusted family member or friend to scour online for packaged deals if you’re not tech savvy. This often includes airline ticket and hotel accommodation for a limited number of days. My preference is to travel for four weeks, even longer.
At times we wait until one month before, sometimes seven weeks to two months before travel to secure our tickets at a reasonable price. We have used credit card points to fully or partially fund our family members’ airline tickets. Once tickets are locked in, you have the luxury of taking your time to search for good hotel prices. Cost of accommodation will take the most from your budget. Popular these days is opting for airbnb, hostels and house swapping. Our choice is still hotel or pension (lodging ala guesthouse). Once you’re at your destination, watch for or ask for senior discounts, or free entries to venues if disabled.
2. Update Passport. If you don’t travel often, you might have to apply for a passport. Application process could vary from country to country. Delay could occur if there’s a high volume of application.
If you already have a current passport, review to ensure it hasn’t expired, or might expire while in transit or prior to your return flight. When traveling to Europe, make sure your passport is valid at least three months beyond your intended departure date or you could be refused entry. Therefore the passport’s expiration date is important if you want to leave the country to go abroad, and more importantly if you want to return home. U.S. Passport is often all you need to enter most countries around the world with a couple of exceptions. Some places might require you to secure a visa in advance, particularly if you plan on staying longer than the few weeks. Check with the official Embassy website or visit the Consulate or Bureau of Immigration near your residence, of the country you plan to visit; particularly if visiting Spain and plan to stay longer than 90 days or 3 months. The United States shares the fifth place ranking along with Portugal, South Korea and Ireland, with access to 173 countries with only a passport. Germany is in the first ranking and Singapore second. (The 2018 World Passport Ranking, Web. September 12, 2018).
3. Purchase Travel Insurance. Travel Insurance could cover medical emergencies, changes and delays in travel plans and/or luggage or transportation issues.
Protect the potential that travel plans could change after purchasing airline tickets. Circumstances might also require that you change return flights for personal or emergency reasons.
As someone with a chronic illness, I minimize travel risks abroad as much as I can. Medical coverage is must. Some credit card companies have health insurance coverage available or included if using their card to purchase your airline tickets. Take the time to confirm with your travel card company. Otherwise, when traveling abroad, obtain a reasonably priced plan. It could cost less than $200 for a month or two of travel abroad. We have used travel insurance through American Express and Allianz Travel. There are others out there. Check with your home or car insurance company if they carry travel insurance for a trip abroad. Do a price comparison and research the pros and cons. Choose the coverage that fits your individual needs.
4. Travel Light. I don’t mean lose weight, although I would love that for myself so my pained knees could function better. Seriously, luggage selection is important. I prefer a small and sturdy hard suitcase with wheels, preferably lightweight acceptable abroad as a carry-on. Remember to lock carry-on suitcase to discourage would-be-in-flight thief. If I could help it, I avoid checking in any luggage. I dislike the idea of luggage being misdirected.
My preference is for my suitcase to have an outside pocket that zips up. This comes in handy for slipping in travel documents while going through security-check lines. Sometimes, the outside pocket is perfect for securing my foldable walking cane when not in use.
Clothing choices must be of lightweight fabrics that easily layer. Layering is best for sudden change in temperature. Wear your heavy or bulkier items on the plane instead of having them take up room in your suitcase. See a previous article for additional hints: 10 Summer Travel Essentials.
5. Secure In Your Hand-Carry: Prescription Medications & Must-Have Items. Prescription medications must always be with you. Find out more on packing meds in this previous blog: Travel Abroad With My Son and Disability.
Take a water bottle that you can fill at airport water fountains once you’ve passed the security-check. Pack edibles for snacks in your carry-on. Individually packaged cookies, almonds or power bars have been hunger-savers when airlines additionally charge for food. A lower airline cost often involves taking a flight with short layover in a major city in the U.S. or small airport in Europe. Food is not included for most domestic flights although they offer meal options for purchase.
Once at your destination, chances are at some point during the night, you could be hit by jet-lag and might not be able to sleep. If you’re anything like me, that’s when I usually feel hunger. If the hotel restaurant is closed, you might have very little option but raid your stash of snacks. I avoid hotel fridge filled with overpriced snacks.
6. Pre-check with Airlines and Reserve Wheelchair Service for the Airport. It goes without saying that to minimize the stress inherent in travel, you must arrive at the airport early or within the time recommended when traveling abroad—two hours before scheduled departure. Furthermore, allow sufficient time for layovers when taking connecting flights that might be in another terminal.
I am not recommending to sign up for Global Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program to facilitate expedited clearance through airports while in the U.S. or through Customs on your return to the U.S. This eligibility is available for low-risk travelers. Friends who travel often have opted for this program. I am satisfied with checking in online with the airlines around 24 hours prior to scheduled flight.
A must for me is to use the airport wheelchair service. The quality of wheelchair service varies from city to city in the U.S. My illness makes traversing through airports a major struggle. Some brief layovers in Dallas or Philadelphia could mean a connecting flight that requires taking sky-rides or monorail from one airport terminal to another.
|Wheelchair Service at Madrid Airport. ©James Sobredo|
Here’s the good news: the wheelchair service at the Madrid Barajas International Airport is excellent. I was so touched with the care and efficiency demonstrated by each of the many staff who wheeled me and drove me (and others in a van) at different points of the airport terminals. I wanted to give a tip. Was I surprised and impressed when each of the staff declined explaining that this was part of their job. I gather Spain pays their employees well. Unfortunately that wasn’t always the case in our U.S. airports. A couple of workers at a Dallas airport in Texas tried to guilt-trip my husband and me in giving them a tip. I was totally turned off. I realize that the outsourced service is provided by a company that might not even pay a living wage, but I expect a job well-done before offering a tip. Many other places in the U.S. airports did not behave in that manner.
7. Respect Your Mobility Threshold. Keep in mind your body’s restrictions when planning your trip, e.g. making hotel reservations or deciding on land transportation. If you need a disability friendly hotel, ask for disability accommodations when making your reservations or make it known upfront at check-in. I have encountered too many bathtubs constructed so high, I felt susceptible to falling when going in and out to shower. In these situations, I have always needed help from my husband.
Search for transportation options and disability friendly metro stations at your destination. Elevators and escalators are my friends when trekking airports for connecting flights, and when using land transportation. When saving for travel cost, I purposely set aside sums for taxi rides, a necessary luxury for someone with a chronic illness and limited mobility.
|Walking Cane & I Waiting for Renfe Train. ©James Sobredo|
I paid dearly when I had a mental lapse this summer 2018 while flying to Palma, Mallorca in Spain's Balearic Islands for my husband’s conference. I felt emboldened not to ask for a wheelchair accommodation at the airport, totally ignoring that all important inner voice. A huge mistake on many fronts. Once we disembarked, I had to walk down a steep set of stairs from the airplane onto the ground. Small airports at island destinations do not have the convenience like in large airports. Furthermore, we had to be shuttled to the luggage carousel in another building. Which meant I had to stand in a crowded shuttle bus operated by a maniacal driver. The jerky turns further placed unnecessary pressure on RA-afflicted knees. I am still trying to recover from the pain, two plus months later. Pained knees on travel meant constant icing or alternating hot and cold compress. The limited movement kept me close to or inside the hotel. I had to be very selective with sightseeing excursions, and only did so when hubby was done with conference duties.
8. Travel With a Companion if possible and Stay Connected with Family or Friends. Others have opted for guided group tours for safety and convenience. I mostly travel with my husband and sometimes with my young adult son if he is available. My family prefers independent travel where we stay in one place longer and immerse in the daily activities of a neighborhood abroad. Whichever option appeals to you, remember to stay connected with family or friends at home. For safety precaution, we share our travel itinerary through a text or email message with a family member.
I travel with a smart phone and lightweight laptop. Our phone provider gives us free texting anywhere in the world, so far. We stay connected via text, email and Facebook FaceTime with friends and family. We also purchase a low-tech phone when in another country especially when we travel to remote or rural areas in Spain or countries where wifi access might not be robust.
9. Do a Safety Check Once Inside Your Hotel Room. If traveling in the off-season, you might just be offered a free upgrade as you check in at your hotel. If not, there’s no harm in asking. This happened to us without even asking.
Once inside your hotel room, do not unpack right away. Look around to make sure the room especially the bathroom has been cleaned. Because I have a suppressed autoimmune system due to medications I take for RA, I take extra precaution and wipe off with alcohol wipes the door handles, tv controls and faucets. Get to know the location of light switches, and air or heat controls. Yes, and double check if they work. Learn to use the safety locks and/or dead bolt. Call the front desk for anything that needs fixing or adjusting. While you’re at it, ask for additional pillow and arrange for a wake up call if you did not do so at check-in.
Take a mental picture of the room’s layout. You wouldn’t want to bump into furniture for those late night bathroom trips. Granted you are not going to spend you’re time watching television while on vacation, but ask for help in operating the TV, just in case. Being easily prone to fatigue, I purposely plan a day to stay indoors to rest my body. Don’t hesitate to ask for a change of room if what you were given did not meet your specifications, including not wanting to be next to the elevator which could disturb your sleep despite the use of ear plugs. This has happened more than once to my family, and the hotel was quite accommodating. Thus the warning not to unpack before doing a quick check once inside the hotel room.
10. Write a Journal and Take Photos. Memory is fleeting regardless of age or illness. So I carry a lightweight laptop and a smart phone. The laptop serves as my notebook. I also carry a light notepad for handwritten notes when it’s not practical to take out the laptop. I write down interesting observations as soon as I can. When I do, I seem to capture the moment much more vividly. Those written notes came in handy for some of the popular essays I published on my blog.
|A Handy Journal Notebook & Laptop. ©Lou Sobredo.|
I have access to a lightweight professional camera. However, my smartphone takes great photos. I learned how to take pretty creative photographs from listening to and watching my husband, the professor who is also an accomplished photographer. It’s riveting to observe hubby engage in the artistry of his photography as if immersed in scholarly work. The fundamentals of taking good photographs are pretty straightforward. Three pointers that help me:
(1) Keep elbows close to the body and press camera button lightly to minimize movement when taking photos. Unless you like blurred pictures, you can ignore this hint.
(2) Take long panoramic shots of the environment and close-up of details and faces. Posed shots are common, but look for opportunities to take candid shots that communicate a feeling or story.
(3) Resist putting the subject in the center. Off-centered shots make for an interesting vantage point. Doing so, might capture beautiful leading lines not immediately visible to the naked eye unless you’re mindful of them.
11. Watch Out for Pickpockets. Be alert to the brazen tactics of clever thieves, especially in highly touristy areas. I used to only warn travelers to be careful when walking about in the Metro, main thoroughfares and crowded neighborhoods. But I must now include, the hotel lobby. Find out why in this blog: The Day I Was Robbed in Barcelona: Thank Goodness Spain is More Than Barcelona.
A comprehensive post about pickpockets is a must-read: Watch Out For Pickpockets in Barcelona.
12. Keep a Flexible Itinerary and Have Fun. Enjoy a leisurely travel itinerary that includes lull time or a day off from sightseeing, shopping or other activities. This is especially helpful for seniors and anyone with a chronic illness who experiences pain and fatigue. I personally have relished time lounging by the pool of a hotel. Using the exercise room’s stationary bike, watching a television program in a language other than your own, and taking naps in hotel break up the monotony of staying put. The half day or full day of rest re-energizes me and helps heal pained knees.
Be open to meeting locals and other travelers. Chance meetings at museums, restaurants and other venues could prove to be fertile for making new friends. One doesn’t have to try hard. A “hello” and a smile could go a long way. Starting a conversation with local might generate a name of a cafe or neighborhood worth visiting that you otherwise would not have known. My family has had this experience in more than just a town or two in Spain.
For other helpful information geared for seniors, check website operated by Rick Steves, my go-to travel guru. Find practical tips for seniors here: Savvy Senior Travelers.
Growing old doesn’t have to mean staying put in your hometown or being relegated to a retirement home. Growing old with a chronic illness doesn’t mean being satisfied with sitting in a wheelchair diligently taking life-sustaining medications. It’s not always possible for all with a chronically debilitating illness to venture outside of the home, much more travel. But if you can, travel now while you still can.
|Four-Wheeled Suitcase Enroute to Mallorca. Photo ©James Sobredo|
I now travel with a walking cane after being confined in a wheelchair for almost three years. When pushing my rolling suitcase through airports, I like to tuck away my cane to the side of my small backpack. This alleviates pressure off my other pained hand and wrist.
The diagnosis in 2013 of crippling RA was life-changing. But I fought the urge to wither and give up. Once I decided not to let my disability define me, I stayed fiercely focused to increase mobility. Interested in finding out how I did it, look at a previous blog post: Life With RA: Exercise Strategy That Works. And as of 2016, I once again joined family in travels abroad. These 12 helpful hints helped minimize the typical source of stress and obstacles encountered in travel. To the young and not-so-young seniors among family, friends and new acquaintances among my readers: It’s never too early to start saving, visualizing and planning for your travel abroad.
©Essay by Lu Sobredo
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
About the Author
Lu Sobredo is writer/publisher at Lu Travels Abroad, a blog dedicated to folks whose limitations do not hamper them from traveling. About a year into early retirement came the diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Her world collapsed from under her as the disability rendered her nearly-immobile and wheelchair-bound for almost three years. Her family's life changed. Her total life changed, but she did not let RA define her. With much will & love from family, friends and an awesome doctor, she regained some functionality--her new normal. She will have RA all her life. And she now writes about life, health and travel with RA.