Navigating airport security and airplane toilets with my catheters

July 6 2022

It’s here! The time has come to leave your home and head out, like Christopher Columbus to the Americas. Read part three in a series of blogs, written by passionate traveller and Wellspect ambassador, Serena Green.

Airplane wing. Text: Navigating airport security and airplane toilets with my catheters

This is part three of the series, read part two here.

Catheter travel logistics

If you’ve read my first 2 blogs about holidaying with my bladder, you’ll know that I will have had a busy time preparing for my trip by:

  1. Planning ahead as it’s never too early to start finding accommodation, spotting great day trips and extending my ever-growing holiday wardrobe by buying that new top, even though I have 5 like it already. Oh, and getting my airline ready for the additional luggage I need to bring with me. No, this isn’t for the new top, but for a generous supply of catheters for my holiday.
  2. Speaking to my general practitioner (GP) to ask for an airline letter and possibly some additional catheters for the holiday itself and my return home.
  3. Packing my suitcase, my husband’s suitcase (leaving room for a year’s worth of duty free in his hand luggage!) and most importantly, packing my bladder’s suitcase. My bladder is a VIP and apparently doesn’t lift a finger to help. It’s all down to me to sort out before we go away.

If that planning and preparation wasn’t enough, I’ve also made sure I’ve included a small supply of catheters in my hand luggage, in case my medical suitcase goes astray and finally I’ve pimped up my medical suitcase to make it stand out from the crowd at the luggage belt.

It is hard work. I need a holiday.

You Deserve Special Service

We all love getting special attention, don’t we? Except I hate getting special attention if I’m made to feel different or abnormal; I don’t want to cause a fuss. It’s because of this that I carried on checking in my bags at the standard airport desks. I’d patiently wait my turn in the queue that reached the airport doors (my husband usually less patient), we would get to the front and then the trauma of “the extra weight”, or God forbid, “the extra bag” would start with the Check-In Advisor. I’d be embarrassed, they’d ask for proof, I’d fling my GP letter at them, they’d study it, walk away, talk to a colleague who would peer at me and then eventually, sometimes begrudgingly, allow my extra bag on to the plane. My husband would always pester me about using the “Special Assistance” line, but I’d steadfastly refuse for fear of making a fuss. Then one day we arrived at Bristol Airport, miraculously straight to a RyanAir bag drop desk and after reading my letter and seeing my burning cheeks, the Advisor said “you should use Special Assistance for this, as they deal with GP letters all the time.” Bingo. Carte blanche to use Special Assistance, without feeling negatively special. Since then we’ve always used Special Assistance and never had any issue with misunderstanding about my condition, the letter or the extra baggage.

Airport disabled toilet sign

To Wee or Not to Wee

Rather annoyingly, we live about 3 hours from the airport, so we have a journey to the airport before our real journey begins. Whether we are flying to Copenhagen or Sydney it’s a definite fact that I will need to wee somewhere on route.

After losing bladder sensation and developing some pretty fabulous sphincter muscles, I never really feel the urge to wee and neither can I go naturally. I watch the clock instead and work out when I’d have a reasonable amount of urine in my bladder. However, before getting on a flight, I will always go to the loo in the airport; the cubicles are usually bigger than on the plane (and turbulence free), and I feel less self-conscious about the time I take in the loo. Forgive me if you’ve never thought this through until now and I’ve ruined you forever, but I always dread going to the loo on a plane and having to use the single toilet at the front of a short-haul plane. I always think that I have 180 people watching me go in and starting their stopwatches! Even if I sit in row 1, I always go to the back of the plane where there are usually 2 cubicles and fewer eyes to wait for my toilet exit. But the back is not without challenges – turbulence can be a bit more obvious at the rear of the plane, so you need a steadier hand to self-catheterise, plenty of spare catheters and a sense of humour!

Self-catheterization in a small toilet cubicle

It’s nearly 7 years since I’ve been using intermittent self catheterisation (ISC) and I’ve made a conscious decision not to self-catheterise by touch, as I have less feeling in that area. This means I use a mirror and I stand up to insert the catheter. After a few incidents of my trouser leg, tights or pants sliding down and landing on a less than clean and dry public toilet floor, I usually strip from the waist downwards to self-cath. As a 5’10 woman this can be a tricky manoeuvre in an airplane toilet, so I always make sure I’m wearing “easy” clothing and footwear to allow for my Superman cubicle change. Dresses or skirts with flip flops are my standard flight attire, assuming we aren’t jetting off to Antartica!

Serena with her travel toiletries bag

Cold Fact?

My final tip for air travel could be utter jibberish and I’d be delighted if anyone can confirm or deny my theory. I went through a phase of always contracting a urinary tract infection (UTI) when I went on holiday somewhere by plane. If we drove or took a train, I’d stay well. If I didn’t catheterise on the plane I’d stay well. I started to wonder whether my catheters had a fear of flying. And then it hit me. Literally. I was self-catheterising on a rather too well air-conditioned flight to Tenerife one day and the chilliness helped me noticed the air vent in the loo was pointing at a very unfortunate angle! We all moan that the recirculated air on a plane causes coughs and colds on our return home, so I’ve started to wonder whether the lurking toilet air vent can introduce air-borne bacteria to the catheter immediately prior to its insertion? I now always turn off or re-direct the air vent in the loo and, touch wood, I haven’t had a holiday UTI since then. I may be wrong and this is purely my conjecture, but it’s an interesting thought to help you sleep when jet lagged.

Well done for getting this far with your trip! You’re looking great in your ISC-ready travel attire, you’ve breezed through check in and your toilet trips and you are ready to holiday! Our next stop will be arriving at your destination, with your bladder in tow, ready to have a fantastic and relaxing holiday together!

If you are planning on travelling abroad this year, our handy travel certificate can make life a little bit easier. Request yours here:

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Topics: Travelling with catheters, LoFric