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I’m retired and want to travel, but am worried about my health

I had a vision of retirement that involved traveling in the U.S. and internationally. But a lingering health issue has taken over, limiting my ability to travel. Any thoughts on how to hit the road while keeping control of my environment?

G.M., Essex Junction, Vt.

Dear G.M.,

There’s an undercurrent of stress and uncertainty when booking travel. Fronting an airline or tour company thousands of nonrefundable dollars in advance of a trip takes a leap of faith.

Travel insurance is an option. But dollar for dollar, you’ll probably overpay for the level of coverage you receive—and policy exclusions can kick in and prevent or lower reimbursement. (Why do you get so many prompts to buy travel insurance when booking a trip? It’s because the product is so darn profitable.)

Preexisting medical conditions are hard enough to control when you’re at home. They can be more vexing when you hit the road.

Read: Fully vaccinated and after a year at home, retirees are hitting the road. Here’s where they’re going and how they’re doing it

As a lifelong allergy sufferer, I endured a flare-up years ago while on a cruise. Passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, my eyes were so red and itchy that I could barely see the famous rock.

If you’re determined to travel—and I admire your drive—start by laying the groundwork. Ask your doctor for travel tips, stockpile your medicines and confirm you can refill them at your destination.

Print out and bring a summary of your medical information, including a list of your chronic conditions, medications (along with allergies to meds) and contact info for all your physicians, says Quratulain Syed, an Atlanta-based internist and geriatrician.

If you struggle with a lingering health problem, you have one advantage: Experience dealing with it. Hopefully, you can recognize its onset early enough to tamp it down.

“Know what can cause a flare and avoid those triggers,” Syed said. If you know that lactose can cause diarrhea or sitting on a metal folding chair can lead to leg cramps, maintain your vigilance. When you’re in a new place, you may become disoriented or enraptured by your surroundings and lower your guard.

Think like a pessimist as you plan your trip. Consider adverse what-if scenarios and how you’d handle them: What if I miss my plane? What if I lose my medicine? What if my wheelchair breaks?

“Go with your worst fears and find solutions to each of them,” said Candy Harrington, founding editor of Emerging Horizons, which offers tips on accessible travel. “A lot of people don’t travel because they’re afraid to move from a familiar environment to an unfamiliar environment,” but if you’ve considered what can go wrong and devised contingency plans, you’re a step ahead of the game.

Start networking with potential allies on the ground at your destination. Call the hotel where you’ll be staying, explain your medical condition and ask for accommodations (such as skipping the check-in line at the front desk). Ask to speak to the manager and remember to drop that person’s name when you arrive at the hotel.

Research healthcare providers or hospitals where you’re going—and then call and ask about their services. Check with your health insurer and even your credit card issuer to find out what perks, coverages and other resources they offer for travelers.

Tempted to opt for an organized tour? You pay for the convenience of having the travel company arrange everything. But you lose autonomy.

“Group tours aren’t the best for people with low energy or some other health issues,” said Harrington, author of several “Barrier-Free Travel” books including “National Park Lodges for Wheelers and Slow Walkers.” “There may not be the opportunity to chill. You need flexibility, not ‘The bus leaves at 7:00 a.m.’”

Ambitious travelers may favor a peripatetic itinerary, hopping from place to place every few days. But if you’re worried about a medical flare-up, stay put for longer periods. Choose one or two destinations that appeal to you, spend a week or two in each spot and explore at your own pace.  

Older travelers with medical ailments who’ve spent their entire life waving off assistance may need to rethink their gung-ho attitude. There’s nothing heroic about refusing help if you wind up in pain.

For example, you may insist on walking to the gate at the airport. But a last-minute gate change can leave you hustling through crowds for another 10 minutes.

“Take the wheelchair assistance if you think you might need it,” Harrington said. “Some people say, ‘Oh, I don’t need that’ or ‘I don’t want to take it away from someone else.’ Then they regret not taking it.”

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