Abnormal sleeping schedules, unpredictable eating hours, and an abundance of local cuisine to taste: These are just a few of the reasons why it can be difficult to stay healthy while traveling. For the estimated 425 million people around the world living with diabetes, however, the task can be even more demanding.
In 2014, Laura Pandolfi was backpacking through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, when she started to feel that something was wrong with her health. “About half way through my trip, I fainted several times and generally felt very tired,” she says. “But I didn’t want to cut my travels short, so I waited until I returned home to have a medical check-up.”
When she returned to Paris a few months later, Pandolfi was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
“After I was diagnosed, I stayed in the hospital for 10 days,” Pandolfi says. “One of the first questions I asked the doctors was if I would still be able to travel.
“I was used to feeling like an independent woman who travels the world alone and fears very little,” Pandolfi continues. “I couldn’t imagine my life without adventure.”
Pandolfi’s doctors assured her she’d still be able to travel. But they warned her that she would have to be a lot more cautious—and the endeavor would be difficult. “I searched the internet and read everything I could about traveling with diabetes,” Pandolfi says. “The more I read, the more questions I had: How do I keep my insulin cool? What happens if I lose my diabetes supplies while in India? Can I buy glucose tablets in Mexico? Is the food diabetes-friendly in Peru? I had so many questions, so many doubts, and very few practical answers.
“The internet is full of general tips for traveling with diabetes, but there are very few location-specific resources,” Pandolfi says. “It became clear that diabetics needed their own travel guides, and that I could be the one to create them.”
Two years after her diagnosis, Pandolfi launched Sweet Trip, a collection of country-specific travel guides designed specifically for—and by—people with diabetes.
Diabetes-friendly destination recommendations
Sweet Trip travel guides, which are currently available in English and French, offer detailed information for diabetic travelers to Cuba, France, Mexico, and Portugal. (Diabetes-specific guides for Vancouver, Toronto, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Vienna, Thailand, Bali, Costa Rica, Hawaii, San Francisco, and New York will publish in 2019.)
Each guide is divided into three focused chapters that “represent the main pillars of leading a healthy life with diabetes,” Pandolfi says.
1. Local food and nutrition: The first section of each guide outlines the staples of local gastronomy—dishes, drinks, and desserts—and provides nutritional information about each. The Cuba guide, for example, identifies the country’s classic camarones enchilados dish as “very low in carbohydrates” and recommends that diabetic travelers complete the meal with an ensalada mixta and a side of arroz. In each guide, this section also includes a phrasebook complete with important translations of phrases like, “Without sugar please” (or Sin azúcar por favor) so travelers can learn how to customize local dishes according to personal needs.
2. Health-care system and medical information: Within each country-specific guide, this section provides emergency phone numbers and addresses for local hospitals, pharmacies, and diabetes care facilities. It also contains a dictionary with translated medical terms organized into five categories—body parts, symptoms, medical exams, diagnostics, and pharmaceutical supplies—to help facilitate important communication with health-care professionals.
3. Active tourism: Because physical activities are an important part of diabetes management, a section of each Sweet Trip travel guide provides suggested itineraries for individual walking and biking tours. The Paris city guide outlines points of interest in neighborhoods like Montmartre and Pigalle and details the duration it would take to walk between popular tourist sites in each. All guides also offer options for exploring that aren’t physically taxing: The Portugal guide, for example, includes information about Lisbon’s 19th-century Santa Justa lift, which you can ride up a steep hillside for sweeping views of the city.
Before publishing each country-specific travel guide, members of the Sweet Trip team actually make a trip to the destination featured, where they review and verify the information they’ve gathered with local doctors, nutritionists, and travel specialists.
“Diabetes is a serious subject—we’re very aware that the quality and accuracy of our content is fundamental to our readers’ health and safety,” Pandolfi says. “But travel should also be enjoyable,” she continues. “It shouldn’t prevent anyone from trying new activities, discovering new foods, or taking more liberties than usual.”
Technical tips for tackling air travel
It’s important that diabetic travelers find answers to their medical questions not only while traveling but also prior to departure. One solid resource is the American Diabetes Association (ADA), which provides an online fact sheet that answers frequently asked questions related to air travel and diabetes.
According to TSA requirements, diabetes-related supplies—such as insulin pens and pumps, syringes, cartridges, blood glucose meters, continuous glucose monitoring sensors, and diabetes tablets—are allowed to pass through airport security once they’ve been separated from other belongings and properly screened. TSA recommends that diabetic travelers arrive at airports prepared with prescription labels for their medications and medical devices, which should be packed separately from carry-on or checked luggage in a clear, sealable bag.
Of course, people with diabetes should travel with healthy snacks on hand to help maintain regular blood sugar levels. (Learn how to make one nutritionist’s favorite D.I.Y. travel treats.)
But according to the ADA, diabetic travelers should also consider carrying a “Diabetes Travel Letter” from a doctor specifying his or her patient status in the case of emergency. Sweet Trip’s website provides a free, downloadable template of this TSA-recommended medical letter.
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Beyond featuring tips for travelers with diabetes such as how to find the best diabetes travel insurance, the platform also serves as the gateway to an online community. Sweet Trip’s website is home to the Fridge Surfing Community, a volunteer network of “insulin hosts and fridge surfers” around the world who offer up their refrigerators to traveling diabetics in need of places to cool their insulin while traveling.
“More than a business, we want to build a community,” Pandolfi says. “We hope that, little by little, we can build a strong web of useful tips and resources for anyone traveling with diabetes. There are people with diabetes absolutely everywhere in the world—we should help each other.”
Sweet Trip guides range from approximately $10 to $15, although specific guide sections can be purchased at lower prices. All guides are also downloadable to smartphones and tablets upon purchase and can be used up to three times on one device. Sweet Trip encourages users to reach out with suggestions for diabetes-friendly travel guides in destinations they want to see featured.
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