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The Migraine Girl’s Tips for Air Travel, Part I: Before the Flight

I’m sitting at the Albuquerque airport—or “Sunport,” as they call it—and I’m having a really nice time.

Yes, you heard that right: I’m sitting at an airport before a long flight and am enjoying myself. I have always traveled a lot, but since I’ve accumulated a ton of SkyMiles, I’ve been able to travel more in the last couple of years.  (I “earn” my frequent flyer points via credit card purchases, which I do not endorse unless you can pay off your balance each month. Do as I say, not as I do.)

As I sat down in front of these huge windows in the airport’s “observation deck” area, I thought for a moment about how much more pleasant and migraine-free (or migraine-light, I should say) my air travel has been lately. I thought I’d share what works best for me, The Migraine Girl, in the hopes that you all may discover something that will make air travel a little easier on your migraine brains as well.

Flight times and luggage

Book flights for times that will not impact your sleep schedule too terribly

If I can book flight times that allow me to not wake up more than 60-90 minutes earlier than I usually do, great. (Sometimes the price differences make it worth booking an earlier flight, but not too often.)

Check a bag

Now that most airlines charge for checked luggage, I see more and more passengers lugging heavy bags around in order to save cash. I get it. But, for someone with a health condition that can be triggered by neck and back pain, it’s worth not straining my muscles to carry on my suitcase. Even if your rolling bag can technically fit in the overhead bins and counts as a carry-on, consider the trade-off: would you rather check your bag or not have to lug it around (and heave it into a bin)? Stress-wise, I cannot abide the way fellow passengers get pushy and possessive over the boarding and storage process. I’d rather not get involved with passive-aggressive people in general, and I’ve noticed that people with this tendency get exponentially worse when it comes to airplanes. (FYI, you might want to check with your airline to see if you’ve accumulated enough miles to be exempt from the checked bag fee; you should also read the fine print on your credit card and see if you get a free checked bag as one of your member benefits.)

Checking in and scheduling time for arrival

Check in early using your computer or, better yet, your smart phone

Most major airlines prompt you to check in for your flight electronically 24 hours before departure. Do this! It makes life so much easier. Checking a bag? You can still check in online—the sites or airline apps will ask you how many bags you’re checking. When you get to the airport, you proceed directly to the baggage drop with your electronic (or printed-out) boarding pass. Or, if you didn’t check a bag, you can go straight to security with your boarding pass and I.D.

Calculate how long it will take you to get to the airport on time, and then add on 30-60 minutes

This tip usually results in my having a lot of extra time at the airport, which is actually not bad. (More time to read or write!) But, once in awhile, it has saved my a**. You never know when you might get held up—in traffic, in the security line, etc. Plan to get there a little earlier than necessary and you will have a lot less travel-related stress. I promise.

Park at a well-reviewed offsite airport parking lot

This tip is for people who, like me, have  both a vehicle to drive and a home airport that is gargantuan. I park at a well-lit place a mile from the airport for a very low price. They have good customer service, and they pick me up immediately after I get out of my car. They hand me a little paper that shows my row and spot (I will give this to the bus driver when I get back home so he/she/they knows where to drop me off), and they help lift your luggage. Then they drop you off at your terminal. I know that, at the Atlanta airport, parking offsite like this is cheaper and gets me to the gate faster. (If I park at the airport in the economy lot, I have to walk at least a football field with my luggage in order to get to the airport itself.)

Detection machines

Don’t go through those newfangled millimeter wave detection machines

Okay, this is my personal thing. When it comes to my body and my precious brain, I am pretty protective. The machines at most U.S. airports that have you raise your arms above your head while the machine tracks your body (and potential weapons or illegal substances hidden there) has not been thoroughly studied. While no adverse health effects have been reported, there isn’t clear reason to rule out the possibility that the machine may affect us negatively. I have some medical expert friends who advise against going through the machine, and that’s enough argument for me. Keep in mind that you have to tell the security agent that you are “opting out,” and by saying so you will be subjected to a somewhat demeaning pat-down process by someone of your gender. You can opt for a private screening. If you are someone who doesn’t like to be touched, this is not the option for you (though it’s a risk when you travel via plane, even if you don’t opt out of the screening machine). I show up a little early to allow time for the 2-4 minutes the pat-down takes.

Feeling prepared with a plan

Have a general plan of what will happen once you reach your destination.

This rule is one I didn’t follow until I began traveling with my husband, who doesn’t necessarily love “just figuring it out” once we land. I have found that it helps me relax as well. Renting a car once you reach the next place? Book in advance (it’ll be cheaper that way). It helps to sign up for a rental company’s free customer reward program—you can often skip the line and get your keys to your vehicle right away. If you’re landing and then switching planes, look up a map of the airport where the layover is so you have a general lay of the land just in case you have to book it from one plane to the next. Traveling to a foreign country? Ease your worry a bit by looking up the destination airport, being prepared to wait in a long line to show your passport, and have some foreign currency in advance so you don’t have to scramble to find an overpriced currency exchange stand in the airport.

All right, you’re ready to fly! Be sure to read Part II of this post, “The Migraine Girl’s Tips for Air Travel, Part II: In the Air.”

What tips do you want to share with your fellow migraineurs? Please post below!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Hadit
    2 years ago

    My neurologist told me that he has found larger airplanes to help with the altitude changes. I cannot remember which plane in particular but larger than the 747’s. It makes sense when you think about it. We do not always have control over the type of plane but if you do this could be the answer. I, too, have a sensitivity to altitude and barometric pressure changes.

  • Kpandes
    2 years ago

    Can folks please address how they cope with altitude-related migraine when traveling (both from plane or high altitude locations), and different time zones / sleep disruption? These are killers for me….

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    2 years ago

    I’m afraid I don’t have any altitude-specific tips, though the dramatic change in altitude is definitely one of my triggers. What I can advise is that you try to minimize exposure to all of your other triggers–the ones you have more control over–for at least a week leading up to your high altitude travel. For me, that means skipping that glass of wine, remembering to take my preventive meds every day, and not missing my 30-50 minutes of gentle exercise. Right before a trip, I get anxious about all that must be done before I leave, and I let basic migraine self-care lag a little, which means my reservoir for battling potential migraine triggers like altitude is way too low. If I can stay as healthy as possible in relation to the triggers I can somewhat control, I am less likely to react negatively to the change in altitude.

    As far as time zone issues go, I haven’t traveled more than 3 hours out of my home zone in about a decade. I go to California at least once a year, and they’re 3 hours behind where I am in Georgia. In the two or three weeks before the trip, I go to bed a little bit later and later night by night so that, by the time I get to California, my body is ready to go to bed at 10pm California time. I’m not sure if that’s helpful or relevant to your situation or not, but I’ll try to come up with better tips for a future article.

    If you have any tips you discover along the way, please share! I hope you’re feeling as well as possible today.


  • cknowles72
    2 years ago

    Hi! Great article. I posted my trips tips on my blog here:

  • The Migraine Girl moderator author
    2 years ago

    Thanks so much!

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