For most people, packing for a trip means counting underwear, deciding on the right number of swimsuits, maybe picking a warm sweater for the evening. But with Type 1 diabetes, things can get a bit more confusing - How much insulin should you pack? Where should you carry it? How to protect your insulin from overheating? What can and cannot go through the X-ray machine, metal detectors, and so on...
At BreezyPacks, we’re dedicated to making your life easier, so we created this handy guide to answer all these questions and more.
This article is split into the following sections:
If you just want the bottom line, we have a summary article that even comes with a handy checklist for traveling with diabetes :)
How much insulin and equipment should you bring for your trip?
For most trips, the answer is double what you think you’ll actually need. That doesn’t just mean your insulin – think about everything you normally use, including glucometer or sensors, needles, alcohol wipes, and your insulin pump.
I say double for a reason – many things can happen to your diabetes supplies during your travel, including a pump malfunctioning, insulin going bad from the heat, or even a bag with your diabetes supplies being stolen. The solution to this is not to panic, definitely not to skip doing anything, but to be prepared: make sure that no single event can leave you without what you need. Having double means half can be in a different bag, in different conditions, and ready to be used if something happens to the other half, so nothing ruins your trip. For example, when my small bag, containing my main supply of insulin was stolen at a bus stop in Peru, I simply took out the other half from my larger bag and went on the trek I was preparing to.
How do you make sure to have enough diabetes supplies? Saying “double” can be misleading. Having a spare insulin pump is great, but not always possible – having extra insulin vials (including long-acting insulin, which you’ll need to know how to use) and needles or syringes to use them is simpler and can cover you in case of emergency. Some companies in particular countries (including the US) have a “travel loaner” program that allows you to borrow a spare insulin pump.
For trips longer than a month, you’ll still need to have spares, but not necessarily double the amounts, as you’ll have enough time to get the extra help and supplies you need. In such trips, aiming to have at least a month’s worth of spares is a good idea.
Visit your doctor before the trip, get the prescriptions you need, and have them filled well before the trip – Just imagine the pain of discovering your pharmacy is out of stock the day before your flight…
How to pack for your trip as a diabetic?
Besides packing enough underwear and pajamas, as a person with diabetes, you need to make sure you’ll have all you need to treat your diabetes. I’ve already covered how much insulin and other equipment to bring on your trip, but don’t forget your sweets – make sure to have more than enough to treat hypoglycemia, both on your flight, on your way from the airport, and depending on your trip – maybe even for later, so you don’t find yourself struggling to find an open shop that carries the sweets you need.
Which food should you take with you to treat hypoglycemia?
Solid foods are preferable to juice - you are allowed to bring a juice box through TSA screening, but this might not apply everywhere and could lead to added screening. Higher glycemic index foods that get absorbed quickly are always preferable.
I prefer pre-packaged candy or snacks that I can buy in bulk – This way, I know exactly how much carbs I’m getting, I am less tempted to eat more than I need to treat my low sugar, and since I buy it in large quantity, it doesn’t cost too much. My favorite setup is carrying small caramels (with about 5g of sugar – enough if I need “just a touch” of higher sugar) and small granola bars with 15-20g of sugar to treat real lows. Go for snacks having low amounts of fats and fibers to ensure they will be absorbed quickly.
Keeping your insulin cold & safe
Another thing that requires preparation. Insulin can last at temperatures of up to 30°C/86°F for up to 28 days; If your trip is not to a warm place, keeping it in a simple case or organizer can be enough. If you’re worried about keeping your insulin cold during your trip, especially when traveling through warm places, using an insulin cooling case will ensure that your insulin stays cool & safe during your trip and prolong its life. I recommend our very own BreezyPacks (huge surprise, I know). They use specialized active cooling materials to keep your insulin cold when it’s hot outside and regenerate by themselves at room temperature, so all you have to do is place your insulin inside and let our packs do the work.
I honestly think it’s the simplest and most comfortable solution.
Still, it’s not the only one – another product that I’ve used in the past is Frio insulin cooling cases, which need to be soaked in water and then cool by slowly evaporating water. Other options exist on the market- Frio has some knockoffs, and many insulated cases are sold for insulin. Note that insulation alone will not last as long compared to an actively cooled case, will usually keep less cold, and requires access to a fridge or something similar to cool your insulin after each time it loses its warmth.
Keeping your insulin safe doesn’t end with temperature:
think about where you carry it. You want your insulin and emergency food to be easily accessible during your flight, so keeping it in a designated case and not in the overhead bins is a good idea. It is always recommended to keep your insulin in your carry-on luggage since the temperatures and pressure in the passenger compartment are better controlled and checked luggage can (and does) get lost. When flying from China to Kyrgyzstan, my luggage made its way to Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan before reuniting with me almost two weeks later – not having enough warm clothes and underwear was annoying. Still, since I’ve packed my insulin in my hand luggage, it was not a crisis, and I could continue my trip.
Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket –
If your carry-on gets lost or stolen with all your insulin and diabetes supplies, you can end up in trouble quite fast. If you’re traveling with another person, split the supplies and keep some with them. If not, consider keeping a small amount in your checked luggage. Note that this is a controversial trip, as the common idea is that insulin kept in your checked baggage might freeze, which can end up destroying it. This can sometimes be true, but generally speaking, the luggage cabins of modern aircraft are heated and pressure controlled, allowing them to be used to carry pets, for example. Think about your journey and decide if keeping a small amount of insulin in your checked luggage might be better risk management.
Flying with insulin
So you finished getting ready, and now you’re headed to the airport – well done 😊. Getting through the journey shouldn’t be too complicated if you packed properly and organized according to our previous paragraphs.
Taking your diabetes supplies through airport security –
First thing first: Your insulin. You are allowed to take it on the plane, and in most countries (including the USA), limitations on the amount of liquids you can carry do not apply to your insulin, and you are not required to keep it in a transparent Ziplock bag. It’s always a good idea to pack it separately so it can be taken out and shown to the security officers if necessary. Can you put your insulin through the X-ray scanner? You’d be surprised, but insulin manufacturers don’t give such clear answers to this. The American diabetes association states that this can be done with no issue. I (and many, many other air travelers, including frequent business travelers) put my insulin through X-ray scanners many times to no ill effect, and I would recommend that you keep things simple and do so as well.
The answer might be different for Insulin pumps and CGMs.
Many manufacturers warn against exposing these sensitive electronic devices to X-rays: this includes both X-ray scanners and full-body scanners (the type where you stand with your hands up), as they can also emit a small amount of X-rays. Dexcom CGMs and basically all insulin pumps (except for Omnipods, which use a different type of delivery system) are examples of devices that, at least officially, shouldn’t be exposed to X-rays. These declarations are usually explained by lack of testing – they are done to be on the safe side, not necessarily because devices were tested in these conditions and malfunctioned. The probability of actual damage from X-ray imaging is very low. Metal detectors, including walk-through metal detecting gates, are generally fine.
If you are asked to carry your CGM or insulin pump through an X-ray or full-body scanner, you can notify the agents and ask for a pat-down or a manual scan instead, to be on the safe side. In addition, some insulin pumps and CGMs have an air-travel information sheet included in the user guide (Like this one) that you might want to bring with you to make explanations easier.
Carrying your insulin and diabetes supplies on the plane
Keep them close to you & keep them safe. You don’t want to struggle to get to your medicine or emergency food when you need it – have it handy and not in the overhead bin, as it might be problematic to get to when “wear seatbelts” signs are on. Don’t let your insulin overheat during the flight. In many planes, the heating vents are located on the floor, so it could be a good idea to avoid placing your insulin over them or store it in an insulin cooling case such as our BreezyPacks.
Airplane cabins are pressurized, which can slightly affect the amounts of insulin injected, especially if using disposable syringes. The effect is small but can have an impact, especially for kids - for which smaller doses of insulin usually make a more significant difference. Taking out air bubbles and letting a tiny bit of insulin out to take out internal pressure can help deal with this, and if you’re traveling with diabetic children, pay close attention to their sugar levels.
You might need to adjust your treatment to fit the situation. Air travel can be stressful, include unfamiliar food in unusual quantities, and can include disruptive time changes – See our article on adjusting your treatment to time differences to learn more about it. As for airline food, I usually find that by eating or avoiding the bun, which tends to come with most in-flight meals, I can keep the quantity of carbs in the food similar to what I usually eat and easier to manage, even without having to order a special diabetic meal.
Got any other questions?
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