"What the hell are you doing?"
"Oh my god. I am SO sorry." I was mortified. I had been trying to fit my daughter's suitcase into an overhead bin on an early morning international flight, but in the process, it slipped out and knocked a woman in the head.
Her partner was not amused. "WHAT were you thinking?!? Why didn't you ask for help?" he snarled. I was afraid he might bite me.
Those were the same questions I was asking myself, as I confirmed the woman I had hit was neither bleeding nor unconscious.
"I'm so so sorry… Are you OK? Oh my god, I'm so sorry."
Air travel is hard. Air travel with MS is even harder. Mobility may be a challenge. You may have dietary restrictions or heat intolerance. Yet if you love to travel like me, flying often is a necessary part of the process.
Here are some mistakes I've made and the lessons I've learned the hard way:
1) Don't knock anyone in the head. The corollary, of course, is Ask for help. Be gracious, be apologetic, but if you are not 100% sure you can lift your suitcase into an overhead bin, or walk down the jetway unassisted, don't attempt it alone. If you're afraid you might spill your drink because of weakness in your hands, ask to keep the whole bottle or can. You don't have to prove anything – you don't even have to explain why you need extra help. It's OK.
2) Don't pack a bomb shell in your carry-on bag. I didn't think that the "trench art" vase I'd bought in Bosnia might cause problems at airport security, but when the agents pointed out that it was made from a bomb casing, I could see their point. Be careful about what put in your carry-on bags. If you have prescription medicines, especially those that require a cold pack, make sure to have the printed prescription, or something to indicate what the medicine is, to avoid any hassles. Make sure your liquids meet the size restrictions. Check out the Homeland Security website for more info.
3) Don't wear shorts on the plane. Dressing in layers for plane travel is essential. Often in the summer the planes are baking on the tarmac and miserable for a heat-sensitive person with MS, but once you're in the air, the zealous AC can overcompensate. Be thoughtful about your travel-day clothes: wear sensible shoes (I am always stunned by the number of women in heels at the airport!), comfortable pants, and, if it's summer, a lightweight shirt (but make sure to bring a sweater or jacket in your carryon bag).
4) Don't get putrid fish juice all over your checked luggage. I didn't know that commercial airlines ever carry frozen fish alongside the passengers' checked bags, but when we picked up our four bags in San Diego for a family vacation a few summers ago, all four bags were soaked with stinky water that had spilled out of a container with dead fish. We spent the first day of vacation doing laundry, and part of the week suitcase-shopping. On nearly every flight since, we have carried on all of our bags, avoiding the often long delay at the baggage retrieval area… and any more fish juice incidents.
5) Don't arrive at the airport 15 minutes before your flight takes off. This wasn't entirely my fault, but on a business trip this summer, the airline (the same one, incidentally, responsible for the fish juice) cancelled my flight and rebooked me at an earlier time. I wasn't notified until the last minute, and I nearly set a new Sacramento-area record for fastest run from drop-off spot to jetway. Although I made the flight, I was a flustered wreck by the time I sat down. Those of us with MS don't need that extra stress. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, get through security, use the restroom, and grab a snack before getting on the plane.
6) Don't forget your pants. Once I left for a 3-day business trip wearing some casual capris, and I left my professional black pants at home. Why? Because I didn't make a list. With most trips, I make a packing list and stick to it. I save my lists so that now I have one for almost any type of trip: beach, mountains, visit to in-laws, New York City or Beijing – I'm covered. I make minimal adjustments, stick to the list, and I can usually fit everything into my carry-on bags, avoiding both fish juice and long delays at airports to retrieve my stuff.
I think the most important lesson is to Take care of yourself when flying. Bring extra snacks on the plane. Bring cozy socks for a long flight. Stay well hydrated. Plan recovery days for both your travel destination and when you come home. Avoid the temptations, such as free alcohol on international flights and endless inflight entertainment when you should be sleeping. Have a back-up plan in case your flight is delayed or cancelled.
The benefits of travel far outweigh the difficulties. Don't let MS – or any chronic condition – be an excuse to stay home. Make the necessary accommodations, and then go see the world!