Don't let being ill (or obese) stop you travelling

People sometimes think their medical conditions rule out holiday travel - but this isn't necessarily so.

While it's true that doctors recommend some patients don't travel, other patients are cleared to hit the road. Still, it's wise to seek medical advice if in any doubt about fitness to travel.

As travel agents fight decreasing margins and slashed commissions, they're increasingly highlighting little-known options for travellers who might otherwise stay home.

Trips are aimed at people with allergies, asthma, severe sleep apnoea, gluten intolerance, diabetes, kidney disorders and other ills. Even obese people not contemplating weight-loss are included.

Sydney pharmacist Fabian Marsden doesn't let his every-second-day routine - the five-hour dialysis task of removing toxins from the blood, normally the kidneys - come between him and well-earned breaks.

Along with domestic trips, Marsden has visited Japan, Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean. "I can go almost anywhere," he says, adding that he's able to extend by a day if necessary periods between dialysis.

His most recent trip: a cruise from Singapore. He travelled with a small group packaged by a specialist travel agent. "A kidney specialist was, reassuringly, in our group," Marsden recalls.

Dialysis wasn't performed on the liner, which he chose because it allowed patients to have pre-arranged dialysis at ports of call.

Adelaide-based Dialysis Abroad, a travel company specialising in holidays for kidney patients, markets tours for four to 40 people, to go on land trips or sea cruises to destinations as diverse as Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Bali and Hawaii.


"Family and friends are encouraged to join," says managing director Nancy Douglas-Irving OAM. "On land trips the maximum is eight having dialysis, 16 on a cruise."

She says dialysis is offered in hospitals en route and, sometimes, aboard cruise ships where "we set up temporary dialysis units in two cabins".

According to Wendy Marsden, Fabian's wife, "there's plenty to keep me entertained" while her husband has dialysis.

Douglas-Irving and joint managing director Enzo Scipioni themselves needed dialysis for many years before undergoing successful kidney transplants. They identified holidays for dialysis patients as a niche after realising their "passion for travel" wasn't diminished by kidney failure.

After customers with allergies contacted David Goldman, director and general manager of Sydney's Goldman Travel Corporation, explaining they didn't want allergic reactions wrecking their holidays, he asked around.

Goldman discovered some Hyatt hotels have rooms branded Respire, which are hypoallergenic rooms that "undergo six-step processes to reduce airborne particles and minimise potential irritants" and include air-purification systems.

One of Goldman's clients who stayed in one of these rooms advised him that their holiday was "wonderful".

Another issue that can arise is that tightened airport security can be a problem for health-related equipment.

Agents advise travellers to keep medication prescriptions handy and to travel with prescribed medication in packaging with chemists' labels. Similarly, diabetics who self-inject insulin are told to carry doctors' letters identifying them as diabetics.

But what of less common situations?

A client of Phillip Boniface, manager of Sydney's Travelscene Carlingford, needed to take sleep apnoea machines (CPAP - continuous positive airway pressure - devices) on flights and travels.

Boniface overcame toughened airport security rules before navigating several different sets of airline regulations. In the end, the passengers were well looked after by airlines and hotels and "returned as happy travellers".

Boniface's colleague Sue Laybutt, manager of Sydney's Travelscene Menai Metro, remembers an altogether different challenge: "A couple's son had a major disability - degenerative muscle disease - meaning he could walk only short distances, aided by a walker," she says.

"Wheelchair assistance and private car transfers were arranged for the family's much-needed holiday. They were more than happy and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

"We booked the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa because of its well-equipped rooms for the disabled."

Many hotels now have rooms for disabled guests. Bathroom doors accommodate wheelchairs, walk-in showers have extra rails and seats, toilets have rails. These features are in addition to more common wheelchair ramps to public areas.

Dietary ills are frequently mentioned in travel agents' offices these days, says Anne Willacy, owner of Perth's Travel Success. Holidaymakers may previously have opted not to travel - but no longer.

"We're seeing major tour operators, cruise companies, airlines, hotels and restaurants catering for those afflicted," she says.

Gluten-free menu choices are now common at many resorts.

Even obese people are targeted by a travel industry pioneering specialist niches. On Mexico's Caribbean coast, for instance, Freedom Paradise is a resort calling itself "size-friendly" where staff are warned not to use words such as "fat", chubby", "jumbo" or even "overweight". Instead they should say "big" or "large".

The beachfront resort doesn't cater solely to obese guests but markets heavily to them, mostly in North America and Europe.

Websites for the obese showcase complaints about being ridiculed and humiliated - particularly at beaches. Freedom Paradise therefore emphasises escapes from such unpleasantness. "We don't ask them to change their lifestyle," explains a spokesman. "Big people can celebrate their size."

The resort isn't aimed at people wanting to lose weight. Hundreds of options (diet clinics, health spas, "fat farms" and the like) exist around the world for overweight people wanting to shed kilos, says the spokesman.

But Freedom Paradise and others like it aim at obese people who accept, or are happy with, their weight.

It features strengthened furniture (including beds and poolside sun beds, preventing embarrassment or injury), armless chairs, extra-wide doors and walk-in showers with optional seats.

One concern of would-be travellers with health issues is insurance.

"No company in Australia covers pre-existing kidney disease or dialysis," says Dialysis Abroad's Douglas-Irving. "Some travel insurance companies overseas will cover pre-existing renal disease."

But the company sells clients travel insurance not related to their pre-existing conditions, which Douglas-Irving points out, are generally well-managed. Customers usually decide such insurance is adequate.

The gluten-intolerant, including people with celiac disease, for instance, easily obtain health coverage with their pre-existing conditions the sole exclusion. Travelscene Carlingford's Boniface recommends these travellers keep well by choosing increasingly common gluten-free menu options at meals and, in severe cases, take food with them for times when gluten-free options aren't available.

With intensified competition, travel agents search ever-harder for ways to separate themselves from competitors - and holidays for people with medical conditions is one such niche.