Your Essential Guide to Traveling With Medications

What to Take With You and How to Keep Them Safe

world map pills
Andrew Brookes/Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

When I first started planning my trip around-the-world, the one thing I noticed that was rarely covered was how to pack and travel with medication. The thousands of packing lists I stumbled upon would give a brief rundown of the pills they were traveling with -- often just a few painkillers and some Imodium -- but wouldn't offer advice on how many to take, how to store them, and whether you needed to take precautions when entering a new country. I was perplexed and concerned. 

How could I possibly travel with six months' worth of malaria tablets? The packages were enormous! What about my year's supply of birth control tablets? And the antibiotics my doctor had generously prescribed to me in case of emergencies? How would I get prescription medicine abroad? What about decongestant tablets that may be illegal in other parts of the world? How could I prolong the life of my medication? What did I need to do to ensure I kept it safe? 

This post answers all of these questions and more. 

Which Medications Should You Take Traveling With You?

We'll start with the basics: how to decide how many different types of medications with you. First of all, you need to be aware that you can get most general medicines in every country around the world. You don't need to worry about stocking up with hundreds of painkillers, for example, because practically everywhere you'll visit will be full of pharmacies you can get them from. It's worth bringing one pack with you in case of emergencies, but you really don't need more than that. The same goes for decongestants, antihistamines, Imodium, and motion sickness pills.

Keep your backpack as light as possible by only carrying one pack of each and replacing them as you run out. 

it's also worth picking up a small travel first aid kit before you leave. Look for one that contains bandages, bandaids, and antiseptic for any health emergencies. 

One thing I always recommend to new travelers is to see your doctor before you leave to ask for a course of antibiotics. I suffer from so many more infections when I travel, and having a spare course in my bag has saved me in times where I would have been unable to get to a doctor for several days. Of course, you should only consider taking these antibiotics when you are 100% certain you actually have an infection. 

Anti-malarial pills are a pain to travel with, because they often come in blister packs rather than bottles, meaning that a six-month supply can take up an awful lot of room. I recommend picking up a small pill bottle and putting all of your anti-malarial tablets in there. It's a good idea to peel off your prescription label from one of the packs and attach it to the bottle -- if you do happen to be questioned by anyone, you can prove they're yours if you do this. Tape some sellotape (clear scotch tape) over the label to make sure that the writing doesn't rub off and it remains readable.

 

If you take them, try to get your hands on a year's supply of birth control pills before you leave. 

What About Prescriptions? 

Before you leave for your trip, visit your doctor and explain that you're going traveling. They should be able to give you a prescription for the duration of your trip unless it's extremely long. Be wary of expiration dates -- this was a problem I had when I received a year's worth of birth control pills and discovered that six months worth of pills would expire before I would get a chance to take them. 

How Should You Store Your Pills?

I recommend storing your first aid kit and easily replaceable pills in your backpack at all times. I bought a small toiletries bag to keep everything in one place while I'm on the move. 

When it comes to anything that would be frustrating to lose and difficult to replace, I keep it in my carry on daypack. For me, that means motion sickness pills (I experience this on every form of transport!), birth control pills, and antibiotics, if I'm taking them. I don't currently take prescription medication, but if I did, I would keep this in my daypack as well. 

What about liquids? If you need to travel with liquid medication, you'll need to take a few more precautions. First of all, if it needs to be kept at a certain temperature, you'll want to invest in a cooling pack to store them in. Remember that liquids freeze when they're in the hold in planes, so you'll need to carry them in your carry-on luggage. 

How Can You Refill Your Prescription While Traveling?

There are a few instances when you might need to do this: your doctor might not be comfortable prescribing you enough medication for your entire trip (this is very likely if you're going to be traveling long-term for a year or more), the expiry dates on your medication mean you can't carry the fully amount you'll need without them expiring, or you decide to extend the length of your trip once you're on the road.

If I need to refill a prescription while traveling, I call my doctor and ask if he can refill it for me. I get my parents to collect it and mail it out for me using expedited shipping. As long as you include the prescription inside the package, you shouldn't have a problem with doing this. 

What About Replacing Medication in the Country You're Traveling Through?

Depending on the country you're traveling through, you may be able to replace any medication you're out of with ease. In the majority of the developing countries I've visited, you can get antibiotics, birth control pills, and even things like insulin and Valium over the counter and without a prescription! To find out if that's the case in your current country, have a quick google to find travelers' reports. 

You may also be able to go to a doctor in the country to have your medication replaced. A doctors note will help in this circumstance, although your mileage may vary. It's best to research online to see if anyone else has shared their experiences.

You Can Still Travel Long-Term if You Have Diabetes 

I receive quite a few medical-related questions from diabetics who are wondering if they'll every be able to travel the world. The answer is absolutely! You may need to buy a slightly larger backpack and a cooling pack for those long travel days in hot climates, but you definitely don't need to let your insulin requirements keep you at home. Here's a quote from Reddit user DaintyDaisy about their experience traveling with diabetes. You can read the full response, along with other people's tips here.

 

[...] the main thing is to way over pack supplies. I use MDI's and definitely bring doubles of pens, way more needles than needed, double the strips, and an extra meter. [...] There are insulin cooling packs, I believe 'Frio' is a good one, which can be constantly reactivated on a trip to a hot place so it doesn't spoil. [...] Also, I would definitely keep two copies of my full prescriptions, and keep them with my passport [...] Oh, and don't forget your doctors note saying you have diabetes and can bring needles and juice on planes, etc.