I adore traveling in Europe. But I’m not a college student anymore—I can’t throw some clothes and a Eurail Pass into a backpack and hit the road. Now I, like tens of millions of other people around the world, suffer from chronic pain. Pain makes traveling a challenge, not an impossibility. Here are ten tips for travelers with pain:
- Budget extra cash for creature comforts like better hotels, first-class train compartments, and taxis.
The better the sleep I get, the better my travel experience will be. Pricier lodgings usually mean comfier beds. When my pain flares while I’m out on the town, I can’t always negotiate public transit. So I need to have the money in my pocket to hail a cab without guilt. That may mean saving up for a few more months, but the comfort is always worth the wait.
- Ignore the common “wisdom” about overcoming jetlag.
Instead, plan to spend the day you arrive in your new time zone “catching up on your sleep.” What I do: get to my accommodations, get some food, then go to bed without setting my alarm clock. If I wake back up at 2 a.m. local time, fine. I eat something, maybe take a shower or read for half an hour, then go back to bed and keep on sleeping until it’s daytime wherever I am. If it’s 3 p.m. local time when I wake up, cool! Afternoon is a great time for sight-seeing. Yes, I lose about 24 hours on the ground in Europe by doing it this way. But I spend the rest of my trip better rested and better able to do things than I would if I forced myself to stay awake past the point of exhaustion, tried to sleep in coach plane seats, or both.
- Speaking of sleep, don’t do the overnight train thing.
I don’t sleep well on trains, plus I like looking out the window to see the countryside. So I don’t take overnight trains to get from place to place, or I’ll arrive at my next destination both sleep and scenery deprived.
- Pick one and only one must-do attraction per day.
It’s sooo tempting to try to pack six or seven sights into each precious day I’m visiting Europe, even though I know that trick never works. My physical ability varies widely when I travel—some days I may only be able to spend an hour or two sightseeing, other days I can run around all day. But I always make a base plan that includes my pain, which means one attraction for sure, and two or three “maybes” in case I’m feeling great.
- Research walking distances.
When I study a tourist map of Paris, it looks like the Louvre and the d’Orsay are close enough together to make walking from one to the other easy. And then there’s real life. Before trying to walk in an unknown city center, I make sure to check my map’s scale, or better yet, plot distances online using miles rather than kilometers so that I’m sure I know what I’m getting myself into.
- Get some protein at breakfast.
It may not be typically Continental, but it’s important to ingest some protein early in the day to keep my energy level stable and my muscles moving. Hardboiled eggs and yogurt often appear on the breakfast menus of many European hotels; both are also easy to buy at markets and keep in the fridge of a rented apartment.
- Resist the urge to overdo the shopping.
Carrying stuff takes energy and changes balance when walking. I can’t buy a bunch of books at my favorite museum gift shop, then carry them around all day and expect to feel well by dinnertime. Fewer bags to carry means less pain, both physically and financially.
- Use elevators whenever you can.
There will be plenty of places where elevators don’t work or don’t exist. Just because I can climb some stairs doesn’t mean I need to climb all of them. Europe is thick with buildings that offer scary elevators or no elevators at all, as well as subway stations with malfunctioning escalators. I’ll get lots of chances to climb stairs, so I ride the elevators and escalators whenever I get the chance.
- Enjoy the cleanliness and comfort of pay toilets.
Using the facilities on the road can be a big deal for travelers with pain. And while free public toilets do exist, they’re often filthy—too filthy to make sitting down pleasant or even possible. Trying to squat or stand on one leg can increase pain, and holding it can cause a flare. So I keep a few Euros in my pocket and use those fun and futuristic pay toilets whenever I can. The auto-wash function keeps them clean, the locks work, and they’re often perfectly placed just where I need them while I’m sightseeing or shopping.
- Take some time out from the museums and monuments and cathedrals to enjoy beaches and parks and lounging spots.
The cultural attractions of Europe stack up one on top of the other, making it easy to trip from one to the next with nearly no rest. But traveling that way causes both physical and mental fatigue. After a few days of nonstop churches and museums, I can hardly remember where I was an hour ago. To drop the intensity level, I take some time out to enjoy a variety of attractions. Instead of bouncing from museum to gallery to cathedral on the Cote d’Azure, I might spend a whole day (or even two!) planted on a chaise on the beach, looking out over the beautiful blue Mediterranean. I feel pretty good about this–after all, isn’t that what the locals do when they’re on vacation? City parks, botanical gardens, and hotel balconies also offer the opportunity to take some time to kick back, let my body recover, and let my mind contemplate the wonderful sights I’ve seen.
Liz Hamill is the author of The Imperfect Traveler’s Guide to Traveling With Pain . Wherever in the world she is, you can find her at Travels With Pain .