My name is Sam and welcome to my article about traveling with diabetes. I’m from a small coastal town in the Scottish Highlands but it wasn’t until after graduating university in 2018 that my passion for travel ignited.
Before this, I had only been on a few city breaks and once ventured out of Europe for a resort holiday in Egypt. My girlfriend Lucy, who I met at university, was the first person to really put the idea of traveling on my radar. Together we decided to put on our backpacks and head off to Australia for a one-year working holiday in September 2018. Over the course of 15 months we visited Bali, Australia, NZ, USA, Mexico, Cuba and Spain.
After returning home from our year away we realized that backpacking and photography had become our biggest passions. It was clear that we wanted to continue our adventure and travel to even more destinations!
We had planned to work and save at home for a couple of months before resuming our trip but unfortunately the pandemic hit soon after which put the brakes on our plans. However, as of October 2021, we have been back on the road and have since traveled to 28 countries across five continents.
My Favorite Travel Experiences to Date
So far I have visited 49 countries but I still have many more on my list! My top experience to date has to be witnessing the overnight lava eruptions of Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego from the neighboring Volcan Acatenango. We joined a group tour and hiked for almost six hours to Acatenango’s basecamp – 3,700m elevation – where we camped overnight and both saw and felt Fuego’s magnificent eruptions which occurred every 20-30 minutes. It was a truly surreal experience and one we will never forget!
My other travel highlights include exploring the majestic dunes of the Sahara Desert in Morocco, finding a secluded paradise in the San Blas Islands of Panama, visiting Balandra Beach in Mexico’s Baja California Sur, and seeing Orangutans and Proboscis Monkeys in Malaysian Borneo.
Why Diabetes Doesn’t Hold Me Back
I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2011 when I was 14, so it was already a big part of my life before my first backpacking trip. However, I will admit that having diabetes initially made me more anxious about going on a long-term trip – as it comes with some extra challenges and considerations.
Questions like ‘how do I access insulin in other countries?’, ‘would they have my insulin?’ and ‘could I even afford it?’ were running through my head as I knew I couldn’t take a whole year’s supply with me. As helpful as doctors are, they don’t always know exactly how these things work in other countries, and to be honest even Google wasn’t giving me many answers.
Nevertheless, I took what information I could find and dived headfirst into the adventure. I have found that with some extra planning and organization, diabetes doesn’t hold me back from my travels. I also believe that it shouldn’t stop other healthy diabetics from exploring the world! This has inspired me to start the process of creating my own blog to document my experiences and offer tips for traveling the world with type 1 diabetes.
How I Control My Diabetes When Traveling
I have always managed to control my diabetes pretty well which does make traveling with the condition easier. Although, a couple of issues I have had to deal with are adapting to different foods and hidden ingredients, such as added sugar in Thai cuisine, and the difficulties of accurately counting carbohydrates (how many diabetics determine their insulin dosage) as I tend to eat at local restaurants and street food stalls.
However, these haven’t been major issues and just take some trial and error to overcome (and maybe a few extra high/low blood sugars as you adjust). A tip I have for this is don’t be afraid to eat the same meals regularly when you travel. You might feel like you have to try as many different foods as you can, which is great, but there is also nothing wrong with sticking to the same dishes and getting to know accurate insulin doses for these.
On the other hand, I have found hotter climates and the physical activity that comes with active and fast-paced backpacking to be beneficial for my diabetes. This is because my body’s sensitivity to insulin tends to increase in these conditions – meaning it takes less insulin to control my sugar levels and thus makes my diabetes easier to manage. So it’s not all negative!
The Diabetes Medical Equipment I Travel With
The type of insulin and medical equipment diabetics use can vary but I travel with insulin pens, cartridges and needles, blood glucose testing machines, strips and sensors, Frio packs for transporting insulin, and extra sugar and snacks in case of low blood sugar levels or meal delays. I try to take enough with me to cover my entire trip and let me tell you that when traveling for long periods this takes up a lot of extra space in my bags!
The one thing that doesn’t change, though, is that on flights all diabetic medication and equipment should be stored in hand luggage. This is to protect it from being lost or delayed in hold baggage, and to avoid insulin being frozen and damaged in the aircraft hold. I have got a few tips to make life easier when traveling with these items. Firstly, keep a note of how much medication you use at home which will take away the guesswork when organizing the quantity you will need for your trip.
Secondly, if traveling for more than a month, I recommend carrying insulin in Frio packs (water-activated cooling gel packs) on travel days to help keep it at a safe temperature. Insulin not in use has to be stored in the fridge and expires generally one month after you start using it. Frio packs have been a lifesaver when traveling between accommodations and fridges.
I would also recommend splitting medical supplies between anyone you are traveling with. Not only does this free up some space in your bag but also minimizes risk in the case of someone’s bag being misplaced or stolen.
Lastly, it’s a good precaution to travel with a signed letter from your doctor stating that you need to travel with prescribed medication, needles, etc. for when you are passing through airport security. I have never needed to use my letter, thankfully, but it is something that is good to have just in case.
Most & Least Diabetic-Friendly Countries
I would say everywhere is diabetic-friendly if you have good control of your diabetes, all the medication you need for your trip and good organization. However, if you find yourself needing to get your hands on medication abroad (as I have done on longer trips) then some places are more challenging than others – which comes down to accessibility and price.
I will never forget the moment when I met a diabetic nurse in El Salvador in 2021 who noticed my blood glucose sensor on my arm (relatively new technology) and stared at me in amazement. It turns out she had only ever seen the device online as it was not available at all in El Salvador. It was an incredibly humbling moment that really opened my eyes to the drastic difference in accessibility to life-changing medicine and technology – especially since I receive these sensors for free in the United Kingdom!
However, even if the medicine and technology is available in the country you are visiting, this doesn’t mean it will be affordable. For example, I couldn’t buy insulin in America on a budget as it is super expensive there, whereas I planned to be in Vietnam and Malaysia when I needed to top up supplies as I knew I could access these things affordably.
If you are ever in the situation where you need to purchase medication abroad, I would recommend contacting your insulin/equipment manufacturers who can advise on which countries they supply and possibly on the process and price of purchasing in these places. I have always had a positive experience and received great advice when contacting Novo Nordisk, my insulin manufacturer. National Diabetes Organisations have also been very helpful with providing information too.
More Tips for Traveling with Diabetes
It is vital for diabetic travelers to purchase travel insurance that covers pre-existing medical conditions and to declare your diabetes, or your policy will be invalid. Another consideration is to let people you are traveling with know about your diabetes and what it entails – so they are aware of it and also so they can let medical professionals know about your condition in the rare chance of an emergency. However, if you are traveling solo, as an extra precaution, I would also wear a form of medical ID (e.g. a bracelet) which can be identified by medical professionals in an emergency.
Finally, it’s also good preparation to have some key diabetes related words and phrases translated into the local language and saved in case you ever need them, and to pack a copy of your prescription that has your name and the name of all your diabetes medication/equipment clearly stated.
My Travel Plans for the Near Future
I have just arrived home to visit my family and friends after an 11 month trip to the Balkans, Southeast Asia and the Middle East but my plan is to get back on the road and be traveling again within a couple of months – but nothing is booked as of yet! Lucy and I have recently started working as online ESL teachers so we are hoping to try some slower travel journeys this year and explore some new and old favorite destinations in more depth. One thing is for sure though, the travel bug isn’t subsiding anytime soon!