What You Need to Know About Airline Rules on Prescription Medications

As if travellers didn’t have enough to think about this summer, airline passengers have been dealt a nasty surprise about apparent changes to rules on carrying prescription medicines.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has issued a warning after it said it had been made aware of passengers being asked to produce GPs letters at airport security to explain why they were carrying medication in their hand luggage.

EasyJet has been named as one airline enforcing such rules. It has also come to light that British Airways also states in its terms and conditions that passengers should have a “doctor’s certificate” for prescription medicines, whether they are carried in hand luggage or put in the hold.

It’s not known whether these are changes to policy, or whether the likes of EasyJet have decided to enforce existing little-known terms more forcefully. Either way, it seems a strange decision in the current climate when airlines are facing huge issues with cancellations and staff shortages.

Surely something else to add to the disruption at airports is the last thing anyone needs?

The risk for passengers who arrive at the airport unaware of these rules is that they could be left with the impossible choice of either leaving their prescription medicines behind or being refused boarding. So what is going on, and what should you do if you do need to take medication with you on holiday?

Prescription vs doctor’s letter

The idea that you should take documentation with you if you need to travel with prescription medicines is not entirely new. People with long-term medical conditions have long been advised to take a prescription with them when they travel, not just as proof of what the medications are, but also so they can get more should they need it.

It’s also the case that different countries have different rules when it comes to medications. Places like India, Pakistan and the UAE, for example, have strict regulations on the type and quantities of various drugs that visitors can bring with them. Some medications are banned outright. Especially with things like opioid-based painkillers and antidepressants, trying to take them into certain countries could land you in trouble with the law.

In these cases, the advice has always been to take a doctor’s letter with you along with your prescription to prove your medical need for them. And of course make sure you know the rules for the country you are travelling to.

Mixed signals

What does feel new, whether it has been buried in airlines’ Ts and Cs for years or not, is this directive that you have to produce a doctor’s note at airport security otherwise you won’t be allowed to take your medication on the plane.

It also feels like there is a lack of clarity about what the rules or advice are, with different signals coming from different places. According to NHS advice on taking prescription medicines abroad, you should always carry them in your hand luggage along with a prescription – no mention of doctor’s certificates – with a back up supply in hold luggage.

But then the NHS Fit for Travel website advises that putting medication in the hold is risky because “suitcases in the hold can become delayed or lost in transit”. This is very relevant advice at the moment with baggage handling problems at airports the world over causing massive issues with lost luggage.

Some travellers are choosing not to even bother with hold luggage as a result. But if you need to take liquid medicines with you, that raises the whole other issue of the 100ml security limits for hand luggage. Exceptions can be made to this rule, but you would need to speak to your airline in advance for advice.

So what can you do?

If you have a pre-existing medical condition and are on prescribed medication for it, you should really be speaking to your doctor before you travel anyway. At very least this should be to get a script to dispense all the medication you will need for the duration of your trip, plus a back up prescription to take with you.

Your GP can also help you with information about the medications you can and can’t take with you to your intended destination, how to carry them, precautions to take etc. Depending on your state of health, you might also want to talk to your doctor more generally about looking after yourself when you travel, during the course of your holiday etc.

Given the warning issued by the BMA, it seems sensible to take the advice and ask your doctor for a written explanation of what your medications are and why you need them. However, your GP will charge you for writing a letter.

A free alternative suggested by the BMA is to download your medical records from the NHS app. The app is already widely used by travellers to prove their COVID-19 status, so that seems like a handy solution. However, it’s yet to be tested whether that would be accepted as a ‘doctor’s letter’ or not.

This is also a good opportunity to remind anyone who does have a pre-existing condition of the importance of taking out medical travel insurance cover. Medical travel insurance differs from standard travel insurance in that it will cover the costs of any treatments specifically linked to a stated condition, not just unforeseen medical emergencies.

This matters because you have to pay for medical treatment abroad. This includes purchasing medications at their full market price, which can be extremely expensive. Prescribed medications for specific conditions are not covered by standard policies.

By taking out medical travel insurance tailored to your condition, you have an extra safety net should you have any issues with medication you are carrying. If you are challenged when boarding a plane or trying to get through border control on arrival, you have the option of leaving it behind. As long as you have a prescription, you can get replacements and claim back the cost on your insurance.

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