Traveling with Ankylosing Spondylitis: Know Before You Go

by Charis Hill Patient Expert

The first time I booked a flight after being diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) I was terrified. I had several questions, a healthy dose of anxiety, and very few answers: Did I need to take precautions because of my medications? Did I need to pack anything special? How should I prepare ahead of time? The following are some helpful tips I have gathered along the way that may help you plan for a flight before you even arrive at the airport.

Woman walking through airport with rolling suitcase.

Scheduling your flight

Book the shortest travel time. I prefer having at least one layover for longer trips, so I can move around and stretch between flights, but you may prefer a direct flight to get the traveling over with faster. Also, fly when you usually feel your best, whether that is in the morning, afternoon, or evening.

Aisle seats on airplane.

Choosing a seat

Request an aisle seat. Ankylosing spondylitis affects mobility, so you can request an aisle seat due to disability, which allows you to get up to move and stretch to keep your joints less stiff. You do not have to be a recipient of disability benefits to request an accessible seat. For most airlines, you will need to talk with customer service on the phone after you book your flight; they will help assign a seat based on your needs at no extra charge. Airlines are not required to move other passengers to accommodate your needs, so take care of this request soon after booking.

Couple checking into flight at airline counter.

Check airline policies

Locate the accessibility page for your airline. Select what accommodations you need ahead of time, such as wheelchair assistance between gates. Reserving assistance ahead of time is not required, but it alerts the airline so they are prepared. If you have complaints or believe you have been discriminated against by an airline or airport in the United States, instructions for filing a complaint with the US Department of Transportation can be found here. It is advised that you attempt to resolve any issues directly with the airline before filing a complaint. The Air Carrier Access Act requires each airline to have certain staff trained to respond to complaints by passengers.

Woman packing suitcase.

Pack, rest, travel

Try to finish your packing several days early so you have time to recover before traveling. I have learned that when I pack the day before, my whole trip can be ruined from premature fatigue. Consider packing comfort items like hot/cold patches, compression socks or gloves, a small pillow, an electric heating pad, and comfortable socks and shoes.

TSA agent checking carry on luggage with medicine in it.

What to carry on

Pack medications in your carry-on luggage. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends packing prescription medications in their original bottles. Your medical carry-on items are permitted. Canes, wheelchairs, walkers, and other necessary items for your medical condition do not count toward your total carry-on luggage allowance. Your bags are packed — you’re ready to go — but first, make sure you’re fully ready to tackle the airport and flight.

Smiling woman using neck pillow on plane.

Practice self-care

Roll your suitcase. Reduce strain on your body while traveling by rolling your luggage. Ankylosing spondylitis flares can strike at any time, so it is best to not test your luck by carrying heavy bags. Be sure to check in with your rheumatologist to see if they recommend wearing a facemask or taking any other precautions while on the plane.

Young woman sitting on her bed drinking a glass of water.

The day before

Hydrate! Joints are mostly made of water, so the better hydrated you are before, during, and after flying, the less recovery time you’ll need. And be sure to build in time to rest. Ankylosing spondylitis can cause debilitating fatigue, and flying can be stressful and exhausting. The more rested your body is before flying, the less taxing it will be overall.

Woman taking notes in a notebook and on a laptop.

Check, check, and double check

Check your itinerary. How are you getting to the airport? How are you getting to your final destination? The more you can plan in advance, the less stressful it will be on your body. Remind yourself. Create a reminder or write a note to help you remember any medications or assistive devices you need to grab on your way out the door.

Sleeping woman.

You’re ready to go, but first … rest

After a final night of sleep before flying, your next leg of the trip will involve arriving at the airport. Hopefully after taking these steps you will be well on your way to flying confidently with ankylosing spondylitis. For tips on taking care of yourself on the day of travel, click here.

Charis Hill
Meet Our Writer
Charis Hill

Charis is a patient expert, writer, speaker, and spondylitis advocate in Sacramento, California. Her story has been featured in dozens of publications, including Arthritis Today Magazine, Mother Jones, CNBC, and her blog, BeingCharis. Charis’ life goal is to make ankylosing spondylitis a household name.