Travel with medication can be a daunting prospect. I remember my first trip with the Big Drugs. This uninitiated, anxious traveller was convinced that having pills in my bag meant that I would be pulled out of the security line. In my head, I was already being cross-examined. I checked and rechecked that my medications matched the amounts on the boxes and kept a hand on the crisp, new prescription tucked in my document wallet.
In the end, no one even asked. I always check that I have my prescription, but now it feels routine to travel with a small pharmacy in my hand luggage.
Drama… in my mind
Even after more than seven years of travelling with a disability, I learn new things all the time. In 2016, I went to New Zealand, via Dubai, Singapore and Australia, and went through security at least once at each stage. This was my first trip travelling internationally with syringes, as a year before I had started injecting etanercept. I was prepared with my letter from my GP, checked that the ice packs were small gel packs that did not contravene the liquid rules, had the boxes and bags accessible for inspection by hand as needed, and I had paid close attention to the requirements for each country.
At my first airport I said to the security attendant, “I have syringes; should I take them out?” and she waved me through, reassuring me that it wasn’t an issue. It only then occurred to me that between people with immunosuppressants (like me), diabetic travellers and those who need epi pens, they must see dozens of needles every day and don’t need me to tell them I’m a special case.
After all that preparation, the trip was surprisingly incident-free. The only thing that caused concern on my long journey was a mysterious metal appendage on my luggage scale as I left Dubai. This was something I had never noticed, and that was the biggest lesson of all: sometimes luggage scales come with handy integral tape measures!
Apparently not that suspicious
A few years earlier, I was already travelling with my rolling drug stash in the form of chemotherapy pills, anti-inflammatories and painkillers. When I set off for a long trip around South East Asia and Australia, my complaining joints forced me to eschew the traditional backpack.
As I crossed the border between Thailand and Malaysia – two countries not known for a relaxed attitude towards chemical enhancements – literally everyone on my train had to unpack their luggage as the border guards watched sternly. I dragged my heavy suitcase over to the tables and prepared to heave it upwards, hoping that optimism would lend me superhuman strength.
The guards took one look at my sweaty, 7 a.m., half-slept face atop a physique of questionable soundness, and waved me on with kindly smiles. Thus the only person on the platform with actual drugs – albeit legal in both countries – limped back onto the train uninspected.
Before you go
It’s easy to catastrophise and assume that one’s naivety reflects reality. Sometimes you only need to ask to realise how normal you are. So read the airline guidance, follow the rule and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Tips for travel with medication
1. Have copies of your prescriptions and, if necessary, a letter from your doctor. Although this isn’t a standard service here in the UK, it can cost as little as £20. In the context of travel, that’s well worth it for the peace of mind if you are travelling across borders or through especially strict regions. It is also a must-have if you have anything that might pose a problem, such as heavy-duty painkillers or syringes.
2. Read up on country-specific guidelines. These can usually be found on national government websites if there isn’t a dedicated page on a national tourism board site. Japan is one country that is surprisingly strict on prescription medications that are standard elsewhere, such as some decongestants and ADHD medications. Greece is especially strict on medications that contain codeine. It is always worth checking that it is safe to travel, and that includes considering whether your medication can go with you. It’s then up to you to decide if compromise is an option.
3. Keep your medication in boxes in your hand luggage. While it’s tempting to pack a week’s worth of pills in a pill organiser – and certainly more economical with space – things go much more smoothly with a prescription in hand and the original containers. Your luggage could go missing, so it is sensible to have the essential medication on hand. Furthermore, you can’t advocate for yourself if your meds are elsewhere. If you, the medication and the prescription are all together, you have the best chance of all ending happily.
4. Pack sensibly. First, make sure your medication is accessible. If your medication needs to be chilled, make provisions. I had to keep my syringes chilled when I was on one particular medication. Some passengers report that flight attendants are happy to put things in an in-flight fridge, but I’ve never been lucky with that. Other flight attendants will tell you that they are not allowed to do this on their airline, so it seems to be a question of luck. They will almost always, however, give you ice if you need to top up on a long flight. I took gel cool packs – frozen, and under the 100ml liquid limit – and packed everything tightly in an insulated bag. Bulky, but effective.
5. Prepare for security. Know where your medication is. Be ready to pull it out for scanning separately – especially if you have any liquid medications. Remember the liquid restrictions and ask if your pharmacist can give you containers that meet the size requirements so there is no problem. In most places, larger amounts are fine if they are needed, but if you can get around that, why worry?
6. Back up! Scan your medical documents. Take photos. Email them to yourself. Screenshot your emails. Have as many different ways to access your medication records as you can fit on a smartphone or in your passport wallet.
Has anything surprised you as you travel with medication? Comment below!