Traveling is one of my greatest joys in life so when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, I refused to let my symptoms prevent me from doing what I love. Flying can be a big source of anxiety for those with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. There are many factors that can play into the feeling, but one of the most common ones is the concern about not being near a bathroom. Flying is also a necessity in some situations - work travel, family visits, etc. Your travel schedule and GI symptoms unfortunately don’t coordinate to make sure you have a comfortable experience. That being said, anything to reduce the anxiety around flying when experiencing GI symptoms is a welcome suggestion. One of the most simple ways to combat a common concern is to make sure you are positioned near a bathroom on the flight.
On certain airlines, you can choose your seat ahead of time. This means locking in that prime aisle seat right next to the facilities. No stepping over other passengers mid bathroom emergency and you are close by so you won’t have to fumble down the aisle as you’re trying to make it to the facilities. This is great for airlines that offer this preselection option.This isn’t always the case, though. I most frequently fly Southwest which has open seating (i.e. no preselected seats). This has caused me a lot of anxiety over the years - panicking when I didn’t get an early boarding group, having to ask passengers to switch seats with me and awkwardly explaining why, and trying to do anything I could to avoid having to use the bathroom on flights (which was not very effective).
A few years ago, I saw some fellow IBD patients share a travel tip and it instantly changed traveling for me. Southwest offers disability preboarding and Inflammatory Bowel Disease is a disability. When I first found this out, I was in the stage of denying IBD was a disability that impacted functions of my life, but now looking back I wish I would have accepted this sooner so that I could utilize the resources that are there for IBD patients. That is why they are there, to help us!
I check in like I normally would for my Southwest flight and once I get to the gate, I speak with the gate attendant. I explain that I require disability boarding due to my Crohn’s Disease and need to be seated next to a bathroom. I always have my doctor’s note on hand to show if it is needed. The gate attendant updates my boarding pass to list preboarding status and I am good to go.
Disability preboarding includes passengers with all types of disabilities. This means you will often be boarding with wheelchair users and other passengers with mobility challenges. I understand that for them it is more necessary that they have the seats closer to the front of the plane, while for me I have the option of sitting near the rear bathrooms. That being said, I make sure not to take the front seats if they are needed by others. When I board the plane, I confirm with a flight attendant that there are functioning bathrooms at the back of the plane and head on back to secure my seat.
This small tweak to my travel routine has made a significant impact on my anxiety level while traveling. The knowledge that I will be able to have easy access to a bathroom while in the air is a huge comfort. I recently realized how many fellow IBD patients don’t know that this is an option. I didn’t for the longest time, until I saw a patient advocate share the information ( I wish I remembered specifically who because I would definitely shout them out!). I know how much that information helped me so I want to help spread the word that Southwest does offer this option to support passengers with visible AND invisible disabilities.
As I mentioned before, I went through a period where I was in denial that IBD was a disability. For a while when I started to actually utilize these types of programs, I would feel embarrassed. I thought people were looking at me strangely because they couldn’t see that I was sick. I went out of my way to awkwardly over justify why I needed certain accommodations. It has taken me years to work through and I still struggle with it, but I have gotten a lot more comfortable. Just because my condition isn’t visible doesn’t make me any less deserving of the programs that are in place to assist people like me. I am not saying to utilize every offered accommodation “just because,” but if it is something that will impact your condition, symptoms, or quality of life, you should feel empowered to use these resources that are there for you.
As an IBD patient did you know that this was an option for you? How would an accommodation like this impact your travel experience with IBD?
Mental health advocate.
Sharing my raw and real journey through motherhood and navigating Crohn’s Disease. CrohnicallyBlonde is a place where I serve up my unfiltered commentary on chronic illness, mental health, pregnancy, and motherhood alongside lighter lifestyle content like beauty product reviews, travel tips, and book recommendations. My hope is that by authentically sharing my story I can help others going through similar situations not feel so alone and maybe even laugh along with me.