Tips For Traveling Abroad With CF

After traveling to over 20 countries, I’ve learned that cystic fibrosis doesn’t have to hold me back from experiencing life abroad. Here are some tips for traveling with CF.

March 5, 2024 | 8 min read
A headshot of Rebecca Linam
Rebecca Linam
Rebecca standing in a decorative fountain while traveling abroad, holding her arms out and smiling

An overnight trip for someone with cystic fibrosis can turn into an ordeal.  We often have so much medicine that we end up taking along more medicine and medical equipment than clothes. That might make CFers hesitant to take more exotic vacations, such as a month-long stay in Europe.  

I’ve traveled to 20 countries in Europe. I even studied abroad as an exchange student for a semester in Aachen, Germany when I was 19. From these experiences, I can say that CF does not have to hold me back from experiencing life in other countries. I liked it so much that I now help lead study abroad groups to Germany every summer for my students at the university where I teach.

Here are my tips on traveling abroad and keeping CF in its place.

Before You Leave

  • Pick a country or countries. Personally, I like to keep my travel to countries where I know there are decent hospitals. If you’re feeling very nervous about it, you can check out CF centers around potential travel destinations before you go. When I stayed in Aachen, Germany as an exchange student, I knew of a CF center there where I could go if I had a medical emergency.
  • Pack extra medication. If your medicine is due to be refilled while you’re gone, call the insurance company and get a vacation override to fill it early. I recommend packing a little extra medicine because you don’t want to be without the ones that keep you alive if your flight home is delayed. I always have my CF doctor prescribe an oral antibiotic for me just in case I get a lung infection while I’m away from home. If you’re on Cayston, or another inhaled antibiotic and want to make things easier, pick the month that you’re NOT on those medications to take your trip.  
  • Bring medical documentation. Have your CF team write a letter on official letterhead that lists out all your medications and dosages that you require. This is good to have in your carry-on baggage in case airport security thinks all of your medicine looks suspicious.
  • Get a convertor/adaptor for your nebulizer so that it will work in Europe (I go to Germany so often that I bought a Pari nebulizer to avoid having to use an adaptor).

Packing Medicine and Equipment

  • Put all of your medicine and equipment into a carry-on bag. DO NOT check your medicine and equipment!  
  • Be proactive. When you go through airport security, let the employees know ahead of time that you have liquid medicines and a nebulizer in your carry-on. I always get pulled aside for my nebulizer because it looks suspicious on X-ray scans (this is where the letter from your doctor/CF team is helpful to have).
  • Get a travel cooler if you have medicine that needs to be kept cool and load it up with frozen packs. Airport security often likes to check out the cooler that I use to store my Pulmozyme®
  • Pack all your medicine compactly. For example, if your bottle of enzymes has extra space at the top, fill it up to the top with some enzymes from another bottle. I can usually condense five bottles of enzymes down to four by doing this, which saves valuable space. If the box for your albuterol has extra room, put in a few packets of sinus rinse solution, a handheld inhaler, or an Advair discus. Because I often have to take out all my medicines from my carry-on while going through security, I like to tape all the boxes of medicine together so that they form one big clump that I can easily take out of my carry-on quickly. That way, I can avoid the hassle of having to repack 20 different containers back into my carry-on.  (See photo.)
Several boxes of CF medications taped together into one bundle.

Luggage and Packing Everything Else

  • Pack light. If CF makes you tired when you carry heavy things, you’ll want to ensure your luggage is as easy to carry as possible. Plus, you don’t want to take the whole house with you. That’s a mistake most people make on their first trip to Europe. 
    • To save on room for clothing, pack clothes that can be layered up in case the weather gets cold.  
    • People walk a lot in Europe. Save space by taking only one pair of shoes — good, sturdy, comfortable walking shoes.  
    • Combine shampoo into smaller travel bottles to save on space. If you run out, they have more in Europe and a lot of the same brands we have here.
    • Take clothes that you were planning on donating anyway. Leave them behind when you get ready to leave, and you’ll have more room for souvenirs. (Also, as you use up your medicine, you’ll have more room too.)
    • To cut down on luggage weight, take fewer clothes and wash them often. You don’t have to find a laundromat, either. Do three or four pieces of laundry in your hotel sink, wring them out, and hang them to dry. They should be dry in 24 hours at the latest. And besides, you’ll be wearing other stuff while these are drying, so you’ll have plenty of clothes! To see how I do this, watch my short study abroad laundry video.
  • Bring a sturdy suitcase. For Europe, I recommend a suitcase with roller blade wheels. When I lead my study abroad program each year, students want to take huge suitcases with four tiny, upright plastic wheels. By the end of the trip, everyone has at least one broken wheel from the many cobblestone streets in Europe. Rollerblade wheels are sturdier. 

Flying

  • Wear a mask. I like KN-95s best of all because they feel more secure. Take several extra masks with you just in case. Wearing a mask on the plane keeps you safer from any germs circulating around and keeps your sinuses from drying out on the plane.
  • Take hand sanitizer with you and use it religiously!
  • Drink lots of water during the flight.
  • On an overnight flight, I keep doses of medicine that I will need in my pockets so that I don’t have to rummage through my carry-on during the flight. I pack enough enzymes and pills for each day in disposable pill bags.

CF While in Europe

  • If you take medicines, such as Pulmozyme, that have to be kept refrigerated, most hotels have a small refrigerator. In the one hotel I stayed in that didn’t have a refrigerator, I explained my situation and was allowed to use the hotel refrigerator.
  • The tap water is safe to drink in Europe. Washing handsets is just like in America — hot water and dish soap. However, when I went to Turkey, I was told not to drink the water, so I bought bottled water to wash my nebulizer handsets.
  • An alternative to washing nebulizer handsets is to take a bunch of those cheapy handsets that your pharmacy might provide for free every time you get a refill. If you have enough of them, use one each day and then throw it away.
  • For sinus rinses, I buy bottled water from the grocery store, but watch out! Make sure it isn’t the carbonated stuff! (In Germany, you would want stilles Wasser — still water — or ohne Kohlensäure — without carbonation.)
  • I recommend wearing a mask on public transportation just because it can get pretty crowded in there sometimes.

Just For Fun

  • Learn some basic phrases in the language of the country you want to visit. You don’t have to be perfect, just try your best.
  • Try new foods. Take pictures of all the things you try.
  • Make a video with all your fun pictures and video clips.

List of Countries I’ve Visited

Germany, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Luxemburg, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, France, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, Poland, Croatia, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and Canada

Countries on My List to Visit

Iceland, Sweden, and Easter Island

Interested in sharing your story? TheCF Community Blogwants to hear from you. 

This site contains general information about cystic fibrosis, as well as personal insight from the CF community. Opinions and experiences shared by members of our community, including but not limited to people with CF and their families, belong solely to the blog post author and do not represent those of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, unless explicitly stated. In addition, the site is not intended as a substitute for treatment advice from a medical professional. Consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment.

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Traveling with CF
A headshot of Rebecca Linam

Rebecca Linam is an adult with cystic fibrosis. She completed her doctor of modern languages at Middlebury College in Vermont and lives in Madison, Alabama with her husband. She teaches German at the University of North Alabama. When she travels to Germany, Rebecca likes to go native and speak only German. Visit Rebecca’s website or find her on Twitter or YouTube.   

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