A jet aircraft flies high in the sky.
Before you take off on the jet for a great vacation, make sure to prepare for your diabetic needs. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Even if you have diabetes in your family, just one guideline can make a summer vacation as adventurous as you wish: Plan carefully.

That’s the simple secret, said Gregory Deines, DO, division chief, diabetes and endocrinology, Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“Families with one or two members with diabetes – there’s nothing that we don’t do,” he said. “We go all over the place.”

In a chat about traveling with diabetes, Dr. Deines frequently used “we” because he practices what he preaches: he and another member of his family have Type 1 diabetes. But that doesn’t stop them from having good vacations.

“Any kind of vacation is within reach,” Dr. Deines said. “The big issue when you travel is to be prepared.”

Yes, there’s extra planning because of the need to bring equipment and medicine, plus a backup supply, he acknowledged. And an unusual destination could add another layer of organization to a trip.

Dr. Deines said he regularly talks to his diabetes patients—especially the newly diagnosed—about travel.

For example, do any family members use an insulin pump? He tells them to anticipate the possibility, however remote, that the pump might break. His family’s solution is to bring insulin pens, which don’t take up much room in a bag or suitcase.

And what about a glucose meter? Bring an extra battery.

Young children may need extra attention during the packing process, but Dr. Deines said his advice is the same for all ages: Anticipate possible problems and pack accordingly.

Some destinations are easy.

“There’s a difference between traveling to Tampa, Florida, and a small island,” Dr. Deines noted.

At a destination such as Disney World, which sees many thousands of visitors a year, accommodations for visitors with special needs—including healthy restaurant menu items—have been in place for years.

But in a remote location, replacement supplies will be more difficult to find—which means packing extra insulin, needles, test strips, batteries and other diabetes supplies.

Having a list of your medications as well as phone numbers for your care team nearby may help speed their replacement, should that be necessary.

Considering a trip to a country where English is not the main language? You may want to wear a medical ID bracelet. Also, Dr. Deines suggested, “you might want to learn how to say, ‘I have diabetes,’ in that country’s language.”

And how about a driving vacation, rather than a trip with just one destination?

Driving in a car with an air conditioner will help keep medication at a proper temperature, not to mention your own disposition. But if you stop along the way for lunch, don’t leave your insulin in the car with the windows rolled up, even on a moderately warm day. The inside of a car can heat up significantly just from radiant heat. And don’t leave your medication sitting in the car overnight—even the extra, just-to-be-safe medication you’ve brought along.

“If your insulin is not protected,” Dr. Deines cautioned, “you’re in trouble.”

A cooler with dry ice packs for any medicine requiring refrigeration is one possibility. Similarly, does your hotel have a refrigerator in your room for storing any medicine that needs to be kept cool? Many hotels offer this amenity, often at no extra cost.

And on a long driving trip, “keep your medication, your meter and device near you, so that you can get at everything easily. People sometimes pack carefully, but pack away so well that they can’t get at what they need,” Dr. Deines said.

The same goes for air travel, he noted. Airline passengers are permitted to have their diabetes equipment on board with them. Dr. Deines said he regularly gets requests from his diabetes patients for a special letter granting them permission to bring their insulin and glucose meter in a carry-on bag.

“That’s one of the biggest myths” about traveling with diabetes, he said. The TSA requires no such letter.

The website of the Transportation Security Agency, whose employees staff airport security checkpoints, explains the agency’s suggested steps for passengers with diabetes.

The key, Dr. Deines explained, is to “give yourself extra time at the security checkpoint.” Pack your equipment and medication—with prescription labels showing—so that you can easily show the agents what you have. TSA staff members are trained to know about diabetes and what diabetes equipment looks like.

You should be able to perform your daily diabetes care with no interruptions or hassles from security personnel, he said. The American Diabetes Association also has suggestions for people with diabetes whose vacations include flying.

If you’re on a long trip…

  • Keep a snack or two nearby in order to avoid swings in your blood sugar.
  • Keep track of time zone changes so you take medication at the proper intervals.
  • Get up and move around occasionally. If you’re in a car, stop regularly and stretch your legs.

Careful trip preparation will result in a successful vacation, Dr. Deines said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people with diabetes who go everywhere every year.”

And when Dr. Deines says “everywhere,” he’s not exaggerating. The ADA has reported several examples of athletes with Type 1 diabetes who’ve run footraces through the Sahara Desert and even climbed Mount Everest.

Of course, only a few people—with or without diabetes—would think of attempting such endurance efforts. But even those looking for extreme adventures will follow the same plan as a family driving to the beach.

“My advice is really the same: Be prepared,” Dr. Deines concluded. “And have that backup plan. Diabetes does not take a vacation—it just travels with you.”