CPAP on the go: Travel smart with a CPAP machine

Traveling with a CPAP machine can be tricky, but there are simple ways to make it easier. While I wish I could just toss a few carefully chosen items into a Tom Bihn synapse 19 and go when I travel, I can’t safely leave my device at home. So, I have had to figure out how to be both travel savvy and medically compliant.

What is CPAP?

CPAP stands for “continuous positive airway pressure.” People with sleep apnea use them when they sleep to keep their airway open. Without one I snore like a dying rhino. My trachea is structured wrong – instead of being the usual circular tube, mine is an oval which collapses more easily. Without CPAP my airway closes like a straw pinched shut from suction, and my oxygen drops into the 60-something-percents while I sleep. This puts me at risk for problems like heart attack and stroke.

The fix is a CPAP machine, which is a machine about the size of a loaf of bread that generates a regular gust of air to keep my airway open.

How can CPAP complicate travel?

Two main ways:  roommates, and baggage.  Roommate-wise, if you are going to be sharing a room or crash space with someone who isn’t a partner (and thus isn’t used to the sounds of a CPAP machine), it can be an issue.  CPAP machines make a rhythmic blowing sound as the air is inhaled and then there is resistance and a pause in the sound during the exhale.  It isn’t loud, but for someone sensitive to noise it can be annoying.  If your mask slips during the night or you need to adjust it and break the seal, the sound of blowing is much louder and can wake a light sleeper.  Of course, these sounds are easier to tolerate than wall-rattling snoring that is common with apnea, but try telling that to an annoyed roommate who thinks you sound like a sketchy aquarium.

Baggage can also be an issue.  A standard CPAP machine isn’t huge but it isn’t tiny either.  Next month I am traveling on the cheap for ten days, and the flights booked allow for ONE eleven-pound bag.  ONE.  Not a purse plus carryon, or a carryon plus personal item.  Between the unit itself, the power cord, the air tube, and the mask, all in its padded carrying bag? It is fairly bulky and would use up maybe five pounds of my weight allotment – and maybe ALL of my ‘one bag’ allowance!

I say “maybe” because, officially, a CPAP is not supposed to count as a ‘bag’ for baggage allowance. With proper documentation it is a medical device. Not all carriers and screeners know this, though, and for this trip I decided it isn’t worth the fight.  Even if you do have an allowance that gives you a personal item plus carryon, theoretically allowing you a carryon PLUS a personal item PLUS your CPAP, juggling one extra bulky bag can be a pain.

Tips for better CPAP travel

Over time I’ve figured out a few things that make traveling with a CPAP easier.  Here are my tips for minimizing annoyance and complications while traveling with CPAP:

On the roommate issue
  • If at all possible, avoid sharing a room with someone you don’t know.  I find that dorm-style hostels, or shared hotel rooms for conferences or training programs where participants are paired by organizers, are awkward for me.  Often if I contact the organizer who does the pairing and explain the situation, they can assign a single room to me.  (Caveat: I have several medical conditions, not just apnea, which probably increases my success with this.  But it can’t hurt for you to ask.)
  • If you do have to share a room with someone you don’t know (or don’t know well), explain about the CPAP in advance rather than leaving them to wonder WTF as you unpack your device and start hooking up your tube to your mask.  Generally people are gracious, but if you have a difficult roommate the advance notice gives them enough time to request to be moved.
  • Bring two sets of earplugs.  One is for your roomate, and one is for you in case they complain loudly every time you stir and they realize again they can hear your machine.
On the baggage issue
  • Get a letter from your sleep doctor noting that the machine is a medical device that you need.  Sounds silly but it is crucial – if your doctor doesn’t offer to write one, ask.  Store the letter in the carrying case for the machine so that whenever you pack it up you have it automatically.  There’s no reason to take it out between trips, or for non-air-travel. With the letter from your sleep doctor letter, your device now is officially a medically necessary device purposes of travel.
  • Contact the airline or carrier and clarify their medical device policy.  Generally, a medical device won’t count as a bag, carryon, or personal device.  I’ve been stopped before for being over the carryon limit while carrying my CPAP bag, and one mention of ‘medical device’ shut the objection down immediately.  I was glad I had the letter on me though in case I had been challenged.  You can be asked to prove that the device is medically necessary and is yours.  I *could* press the carrier for my upcoming flight on their one-bag rule because of the letter and medical device policy, but I’m traveling internationally and if I’m delayed the stakes are high so I’m doing a workaround instead.
  • For travel where I have space or weight limits I carry my Z1 Travel CPAP machine.  I cannot recommend this machine enough!  It isn’t cheap – around $600, and the purchase wasn’t covered by insurance I already have a standard machine – but I decided it was worth it to not risk my only machine when traveling.  Also, the Z1 has an optional battery backup, making it perfect for those of us whose apnea is scary enough that a bad storm and power outage means being afraid to go to sleep at home.  There are some small possible downsides with the Z1 though:  no water reservoir (not an issue for me since I don’t use the humidifier function on my standard CPAP, but I could see how it would be bothersome if I were used to moist air), a shorter air hose for travel (good and bad, if you are a flailer you may come unattached and have to reconnect), and a little bit more noise from the unit itself.  I find the limitations minimal and the unit well worth it.  More information on the Z1 is here.  I was able to use flexible spending funds for my purchase, if you have a medical spending account check to see if it might be covered.
Two more tricks I wish someone had told me
  • Pack a small roll of medical tape, preferably silicon tape, in your CPAP bag.  If your mask or air tube cracks on the road, or your velcro mask attachment fails, you can do a makeshift airtight repair that will get you through until you can get a replacement.
  • Pack a large ziplock freezer bag and store your air hose in there during the day while you are out.  If you can’t do this, disconnect the hose from the body of the machine during the day and hang it over the closet door or over the shower curtain bar.  Before you hook the hose back up to the machine in the evening, put it up to your mouth and blow HARD three times.  Not to be icky, but the last thing you want is to discover there was a spider or bed bug or some other creepy crawly in the air tube by having it blown into your mouth or nose when you turn on the machine.  Don’t ask me how I know this.  :::shudder:::

Travel safe – and rested!


Photo credit: Ryan McGuire



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