On Oxygen & On The Go - Part 5: Plane, Train, Bus, or Cruise
If you're on supplementary oxygen, traveling by plane, train, bus, or a cruise, can become a reality, you just have to make the right preparations for the trip.
Travel with someone
First, if at all possible don't travel alone. Next, you need to learn all you can about the mode of transportation you want to take. Contact them and get the required information you'll need as soon as you can. Then you'll have plenty of time to assemble any documents or make any arrangements you need regarding your oxygen. Each of the aforementioned modes of travel have their own restrictions and regulations.
Secure a window seat
If you're going to travel by plane, train, or bus, my personal advice would be to get a window seat; let your flight partner have the aisle seat. That will minimize your exposure to other passengers who may have an infection or may be wearing a scent that affects your breathing. Have your surgical mask handy in case you have to use it. Remember the air in planes is recirculated; in other words, if someone has a cold and breathes the germs out into the air, you're going to be breathing those germs.
Sanitize your hands
The same goes for making use of your hand sanitizers. Anything you touch on those vehicles, make sure to use your sanitizer before touching your face, mouth, or equipment. If you use a nebulizer to take your medications, if at all possible bring it on board with you. If you can't use it on the plane or bus you can use them in the terminals; trains and cruise ships have electricity available to you on board. Or you can have a portable nebulizer like me which operates on AC, DC or battery. Sometimes a rescue inhaler is just not going to do the job. Take your meds in a carry-on bag, in their original prescription bottles. That way you will avoid any possible hassle.
Avoiding an embarrassing situation
Lastly, when traveling wear Depends (adult absorbent underwear), that way when you getshort of breath, (and you will get SOB at times), to the point that you lose control of your bladder, it will save you from unneeded embarrassment. Sadly, being embarrassed in that way has prevented a lot of those on oxygen from ever traveling again. Don't let it happen to you.
Traveling by plane
The first thing you need to do is make sure the doctor feels you're well enough to travel. Not everyone on oxygen is capable of flying. Although the air in plane cabins is pressurized, the air is still much thinner than the air on the ground. Due to the severity of my condition, I haven't been able to fly in years. So make sure you get your doctor's permission before you fly.
Contact the airline in advance
The next step is to get in touch with the airline, as far in advance possible, and make the arrangements through their medical or special services departments. Tell them what your oxygen needs are and ask them what their requirements are. Most airlines these days allow FAA-approved portable oxygen units, but each airline has a different set of rules governing their use. Make sure your portable oxygen unit has the FAA-approved label on it.
Many of the airlines require that you have 3 hours of oxygen over the predicted trip time. And they don't mean flying time, they mean from the time you leave your house till the time you get to your destination. In other words if you're flying from New York to LA, flight time is about 5 1/2 hours. To that you add two hours check-in time, travel time from your home to the airport and from the airport to your destination, which would be about 10 hours. So your oxygen, whether it's a portable concentrator or FAA approved liquid portable, it has to last 13 hours. If necessary, arrange for your supplier to meet you at the gate with extra oxygen. Especially if you have a layover, you might need to use that option when traveling with liquid oxygen.
Familiarize yourself with the airline's rules
It's very important that you know exactly what the rules & requirements are for the flight you want to take. Make sure you have all the documentation and enough oxygen for your trip. Be sure to verify your reservations at least 48 hours in advance. Since 9/11, most airlines only accept portable FAA-approved concentrators. So if you're normally on liquid and don't do well on a portable concentrator, you may not be able to fly. Ground transportation may be a better choice for you; it takes longer but it's a lot easier with fewer regulations. If you don't have an FAA-approved oxygen unit, many airlines will supply you with oxygen while on the plane for a large fee. But, you need to have your own oxygen before you board, and someone has to meet you with oxygen at gate in any layover cities and at your destination city. Now that you know what's needed, happy flying!
Traveling by train
The preparations are not as hard as by plane. When traveling by train you can use a concentrator, gas tank, or liquid oxygen. If you're using a concentrator you can't rely solely on their electricity. Your oxygen must work for at least 6 hours without power in case of an electricity outage on board. You're allowed to bring gas tank, or liquid tanks onto Amtrak, however they do have restrictions on the number and the weight of each unit. And all units must be Factory Manual or Underwriters Laboratory certified. If you need more than the limit, then you'll have to arrange to have oxygen waiting for you at one of the stops along the way. You will have to do that through your oxygen supply company. You must notify Amtrak that you're bringing oxygen on board 12 hours in advance. However, as with flying, I advise you make a reservation as far in advance as possible and verify within 48 hours of your trip. Also, get permission from your doctor and have a prescription for oxygen with you.
If you don't like riding in a small car for long trips, and can't fly but still want or need to travel, then the train would be your best option. I haven't taken too many train trips, but the ones I have taken I've enjoyed tremendously. It's a great way to just sit back, relax with a cocktail, enjoy the scenery and leave the driving to someone else.
Traveling by bus
I wouldn't advise anyone on oxygen to travel by bus. You are exposed to too many other people in close quarters that could cause you to catch an infection. If you're not on a portable concentrator, they are very limiting on the amount of oxygen you can bring with you. But if you insist on going by bus, you can check out Greyhound's policy for passengers traveling with oxygen on their website. I strongly advise against this form of travel for those on oxygen.
Vacationing on a cruise
With advance notice as little as 10 days, most cruise lines accept passengers that require oxygen. Like the other modes of transportation, they do have regulations and requirements. Doctor's approval is required and you must supply your own oxygen. A cruise is a great way to see new places. They have doctors on board to deal with any emergency that might come up. Get in contact with the specific cruise line you wish to travel on to get their specific requirements.
As with the airlines, when calling, ask to speak with special services or medical department. Many cruise lines have group sailings designated specifically for those of us who are oxygen-dependent. For more info, Google "cruises for the oxygen-dependent." If you get a chance to take a cruise for the oxygen dependent, go for it! You'll have a great time and you won't feel out of place; everyone on the cruise or their partner is on oxygen. The activities are planned around those requiring oxygen and your every need is met. You are traveling with others that are very aware of the challenges of being oxygen-dependent; these cruises are awesome.
Another good thing about traveling by train or cruise, if you need or want you can bring along a scooter on board. It's great for getting from place to place on the train or cruise ship. It's also great when sightseeing as you don't get SOB as often. Lastly, the clean salty sea air is great for breathing, and very relaxing. Happy cruising!
Now that you know there are several options out there, don't let your supplemental oxygen keep you a housebound hermit anymore; get out and get traveling! Breathe deep and easy.
Want to read more articles like this? Check out the other parts of this series!
On Oxygen and on the Go - Part 1: The Burden of Portable Oxygen
On Oxygen and on the Go - Part 2: Oxygen Embarrassment
On Oxygen and on the Go - Part 3: Oxygen and Anxiety
On Oxygen and on the Go - Part 4: Let's Hit the Road
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on March 2, 2018, Mary Ultes passed away. Mary was an engaged advocate for the COPD community who strived to help people live fulfilling lives. She is deeply missed.
How has your experience been navigating the healthcare system as someone with COPD?