How to Travel with a Catheter

Although recent years have presented their own challenges to traveling abroad, many catheter users have always found that traveling with a bladder condition can be a bit tricky. We are excited to share the first blog post of a series by Wellspect ambassador and avid traveler, Serena Green. In this series, she will provide travel tips for every stage of your trip.

Early planning before you go away on a trip means you and your bladder will have a fabulous break, no matter how long your holiday is!

Sometimes life is a little too short, so when my husband retired, I gave up work so that we could see the world together. Our holidays started fairly conservatively with our typical trips being a week in New York or a 2-week cruise around the Caribbean, but as time has gone on, we’ve become more adventurous!

We were in the Caribbean a few years ago when we met a larger-than-life American guy who told us he was on a SKI-ing holiday! My geography is pretty lousy, but I was fairly sure you don’t get snow in St Kitts, so I asked him what he meant. The answer was obvious – he was “ Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”!

He inspired us to go bigger and better and for the last 4 years or so, my husband Simon and I have planned some incredible trips, from 10 weeks circumnavigating South America to spending 6 weeks on the road in the USA and most recently exploring Australia and New Zealand for 4 months.

When we tell people about our holidays, their first reaction is “Wow!”, closely followed by “What do you take with you for a FOUR month holiday?”! My answer is pretty easy – we take a suitcase each, oh, and I take my naughty bladder too!

Living with a bladder dysfunction 

Much as I’d love to leave my bladder at home for a few weeks, it’s pretty attached to me, so where I go, my bladder goes. I have an atonic bladder, probably created as a result of herniating a disc and ultimately losing the sensation of needing to go for a pee. My body overcompensated and as my bladder got bigger because I had no sensation to empty it, my urethral sphincter muscles also grew, resulting in my inability to pass any urine at all. This is terrific set up when I go for a night out with the girls, but not so great day to day! I’ve therefore been self-catheterizing for about 7 years, using LoFric Sense single-use catheters, because trial and error has shown me these catheters work really well for my body and for my lifestyle.

But, back to more exciting things…. holidaying! For me, some of the pleasure of the trip is in the planning – the destination, the accommodation, the logistics of getting from A to B……. I spend hours investigating the best way to do things and these days it also includes planning on how to take my bladder on holiday too!

Requesting an extra luggage allowance for my catheters

No matter whether I’m away for a week or 4 months, early planning really takes out the stress of going away with my catheters. Even if we are just going to Tenerife for a week, I want to use my normal baggage allowance for fabulous flip flops and sunshine strappy tops, and not lose any space to dull catheters, wipes, and disposal bags!

In the era of low-cost airlines, you don’t want to get caught out with overweight bags, especially if the extra weight has been caused by carrying catheters. So, if I’m flying, I always email or phone the airline’s Special Assistance team a couple of months before we go, to explain that I will be carrying extra baggage because of my chronic medical condition.

When I contact them, some airlines are great and immediately reply that they’ve added an extra bag or additional weight allowance to my booking, free of charge. Others can be trickier, but with a little nudge, they then do the right thing.

When you contact the airline, be confident in your request. You are entitled to have a free additional allowance for products that support your long-term medical needs. If you don’t get a positive answer from your first contact with an airline, keep on trying; sometimes the staff member with whom you are dealing may not be up to date with the airline’s policy.

Preparing a medical certificate for airport authorities

Although the airlines will add an extra bag or additional weight to your booking free of charge (the weight and size of the extra bag will depend on how long you are away), they do want to see some proof of your condition, either at baggage check-in or at the gate. They ask you to bring a letter from your general practitioner (GP), which usually needs to state when you are flying, what your condition is, how much medical equipment you will need for your trip, and how much it weighs. Each airline is different though, so their Special Assistance Team will explain what’s required.

My GP letter took about 7 days to be written and sent to me. It cost £25, as it was considered a “non-essential” administrative duty (grrrr, don’t get me started on that charge!). The GP letter will only be in English, so when I’ve traveled to a non-English speaking country, I’ve always taken the Wellspect Travel Certificate with me. It’s not a replacement for the GP letter, but explains in various languages that the holder has to use catheters to empty their bladder, how they are packaged, and requests discretion if a customs check is needed on the catheters. I’ve never been asked to undergo a customs check, but it’s better to be over-prepared. I only want a red face from having too much sun, not from embarrassment at customs!

When you request your GP letter, think about whether you may also need to ask for an extra prescription, to have sufficient catheter stock to take with you and for your arrival home. I always wee more on holiday, but that’s a totally different story!

In readiness for my 4-month Australia holiday, I asked my GP for a 5-month prescription (I always take a couple of extra boxes of catheters with me, for unforeseen problems that may crop up, airlines going bust, erupting Icelandic volcanoes, etc). She told me that officially she wasn’t able to do this, as I was out of the country for over 2 months. Mild panic ensued in my brain, and if I were able to feel it, I think my bladder would have been rather twitchy about the trouble it was causing, but thankfully my GP is very pragmatic and on my assurances that I would be coming home, she bent the rules and issued the prescription.

The moral of this holiday preparation story is therefore “plan ahead”, especially if you are flying somewhere on holiday. It’s surprising how long it takes to agree the extra weight allowance with an airline, request a GP letter and agree on an extra prescription for your catheters.

Wishing you and your bladder a happy holiday!