I wouldn’t say I’m a road warrior, but I travel by plane every 4 to 6 weeks on average. And as we all know, flying is not as pleasant as it used to be. There’s increased security, awful (or no) food, no liquids or water allowed, and increasingly smaller seats.
So here are some tips for staying healthy while traveling.
First and foremost, let’s clarify why many of my tips have nothing to do with food. When traveling, your primary concern is to avoid or reduce stress. Stress takes a huge toll on the body and adds to the fatigue of traveling. If you’re crossing time zones, you’re putting your body under even more stress.
My goal when traveling by plane is to lower my stress as much as possible. Every tip I provide here has something to do with that goal. If you make flying a pleasant experience, your digestion and overall health will improve, too.
1) Access the Lounge
Airport terminals are chaotic and loud, with screaming children and uncomfortable seats. But the business lounge is an oasis of peace and quiet in the midst of this madness. You can relax in very comfortable seats and sometimes have a view of the planes preparing for departure. The lounges offer food and drinks; I’ve often found really healthy stuff there.
Technically speaking, the lounges are reserved for those who are lucky enough to travel in business or first class. But did you know that if you own certain credit cards, you can access these lounges as well? Amex has that benefit with several cards, but there are others. Depending on which airline you use most often, you should investigate how to obtain lounge access. The company “Priority Pass” gives lounge access to its subscribers for a reasonable fee. And many credit cards offer a free subscription to this service.
With lounge access, you can arrive at the airport early. That will already reduce stress, especially if you show up outside of peak flying times. Then you can go and have a seat and relax!
2) Get a 9 a.m. Flight if You Can
This is a tip I picked up years ago from an Air Canada employee. During weekdays, 9 a.m. is the best time to fly. Why? Rush hour is over. Business travel passengers must arrive at their destination BY 9 a.m. or 10 a.m, so they take the 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. flights. The airport is practically empty for any flights booked between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. You will breeze through security and into the lounge to relax much sooner!
3) Decide in Advance what you’ll do About the Body Scanners
Body scanners are currently used in the United States, though I heard rumors that they will be phased out. Some people are concerned about the privacy or radiation from the machine. Your alternative is the pat down, which is not very private or comfortable.
Because I fly out of Canada most of the time, I only have to go through one of those machines when I’m on my way back from the US. I go through them instead of the manual pat down. That’s just my preference.
My philosophy is to focus on the things that make the most difference in my health and not worry about the little details. I’m not concerned about the health hazards associated with the machines from the research I’ve done thus far. And if we’re lucky, they’ll be eliminated soon!
Decide in advance what you will do about that, to eliminate the stress of having to decide on the spot and perhaps regretting your decision.
4) Bring Snacks
I always bring healthy snacks to the airport and onto the plane. Most people don’t realize they can bring fresh fruit and produce as long as they are “prepared,” even when fruit is otherwise forbidden. For example, you can’t leave Hawaii with a fresh pineapple, but you can cut up the pineapple for a fruit salad and bring that in a container.
Fresh fruit is king for flying. It’s truly the best food you can eat, along with water-rich vegetables like bell peppers, celery, and cucumbers (yes, I realize that two of those vegetables are technically fruits, but give me a break! We eat them like vegetables).
You don’t want to bring too much and then be burdened by excess weight. I typically bring the following:
• Ginger chews to avoid motion sickness; they’re available in health food stores.
• A big bowl of fruit salad, with plastic utensils and napkins (don’t forget that part!)
• 2-3 healthy snack bars
• A small bag of nuts, dried fruit, or both
5) Buy Water
Once you’ve crossed security, buy some water, but don’t start drinking it until you’re on the plane. I often sneak out a bottle of water from the lounge. They don’t really mind and it’s free!
Water will be useful on the flight, because they never give you enough.
6) Drink water
Drink plenty of water on the plane. But don’t go crazy and drink so much that you have to keep using the bathroom. If you’re taking a night flight and trying to get some rest, it can impair your ability to sleep.
There’s no set formula for how much you should drink, although some people suggest certain amounts by hours of flying. Essentially, you want to prevent dehydration. As long as your urine remains relatively clear and abundant, you’re doing a good job. If it gets very yellow, you’re becoming dehydrated.
7) Avoid Dehydrating Junk Food
Avoid the pretzels and other dry snacks they give you. Not only are they dehydrating, they’re also unhealthy.
8) Consider Eating Only Fruit
If you have a flight that’s only a few hours long, consider eating only fruit during your entire travel time. My digestion always gets messed up when I travel by plane. It’s probably due to stress related to a fear of flying. But fruit is the one food I can handle no matter what. Fruit is also water-rich, which helps keep you hydrated. You can also consume celery and other cut-up, water-rich vegetables (but not a big salad with avocado, nuts, and dressing!).
If you’re flying for longer, you may get hungry and need to eat something more than fruit. In this case, stick with foods that are easy to digest. Personally, I can’t handle a big salad when I travel by plane, but nuts and seeds work well. And I only eat airplane food when I’m sitting in business class (see more tips about business class below).
9) Avoid Germs
Don’t worry about the air on the plane: it’s probably cleaner than the air you breathe outside due to the filtering system. However, you risk contracting viruses during your trip because of the close contact with other travelers. So here are few tips taken from Colleen Story’s great article:
• Carry disinfectant wipes.
• Protect your hands. Use gloves if necessary.
• Don’t touch your face—ever!
• Try to sit near the front.
• Avoid coffee and tea.
• Don’t touch the magazines (full of germs).
• Bring your own pillows or blankets.
10) Drink Green Tea
If you need a “pick me up” while flying, drink green tea instead of other caffeinated beverages. Green tea is full of antioxidants that are good for your health. Bring your own tea bags and ask for hot water. If you’re in business class, they can make green tea for you.
Tips for Crossing Time Zones and Avoiding Jet Lag
Finally, I need to give you a few tips for avoiding jet lag, which is the biggest source of stress on the body when flying. Jet lag creates a deep fatigue that takes days to recover from if you’re not prepared. This puts tremendous stress on your body, which is much worse than eating airplane food!
Here are a few tips:
1) Use Light Therapy
This is my biggest breakthrough. I use a website called “Jet Lag Rooster” to create a plan to follow before leaving or after arriving at my destination.
Essentially, the plan involves resetting the circadian cycles by exposing yourself to light. The website explains everything, and they even have an iPhone app.
You will need a few pieces of gear if you want this to work:
- An inexpensive travel light box (like this one)
- Dark sunglasses or shades
- A night mask
This program really works. I’ve used it a few times and then traveled again without it; the difference was amazing! It’s not always easy to follow, because you have to wake up at inconvenient times to expose yourself to light, but if you can, do the program as explained on the website. It will save you from huge amounts of stress and unpleasantness on your next international or cross-country trip.
2) Take Melatonin
If you’re taking a night flight, you can take 2 mg of melatonin to help you sleep and train your body to “think” in the new time zone. Make sure you take the melatonin at a time when you should be starting to sleep in the new time zone.
For example, let’s say you’re flying from New York to Paris at 8 p.m. There’s a six hour difference between the two cities. So take the melatonin around 1 a.m. of your destination time, which would be 7 p.m. your time.
It’s not valium and won’t put you to sleep immediately. You might not even sleep at all, but your brain will react to the change and the adaptation will be easier when you arrive at your destination.
You shouldn’t take melatonin more than two days in a row, because it can make you feel too tired.
3) Fly Business Class Using Points
There’s a reason why business travelers fly in business or first class: it’s more restful! You can sleep on a fully reclined seat or “bed” and be treated to a royal experience. But business class seats are not cheap, especially international ones.
I always fly business class when going international, but I never pay for it. I use points to upgrade my regular seat to business class, or get the entire ticket with points. I use the system I teach in the course “How to Travel the World for Free“.
This is a more advanced tip that I rarely implement, but it works. Your body is governed by circadian rhythms, which are triggered by both light exposure and meal times.
If you start shifting your meal times one day in advance to the meal times of your destination, your body will start thinking that it’s already in the new time zone. The worst thing you can do is eat a meal in your time zone when it would be the middle of the night in the destination zone.
That’s why when I fly internationally, I try to eat as early as possible on the plane, or I skip the meal entirely if it’s too late in the new time zone. For example, if you fly from New York to Paris at 8 p.m. and the meal is served on the plane at 9 p.m. (one hour after departure), that’s like eating a meal at 3 a.m. in the morning in Paris! If you don’t have the courage to fast, simply replace that meal with a fruit snack and experience nearly all the same benefits as skipping the meal entirely.
Finally, the trick to remaining healthy while traveling by plane is lowering your level of stress. Sure, you can boost your immune system marginally by consuming some supplements and superfoods, but none of those things will have as powerful an effect on your health as lowering stress will.
Whatever you do, try to make flying a pleasant experience, and enjoy your trip!
Question of the day: What tips do you have for staying healthy when traveling by plane?