When I think of traveling, the scene from Home Alone where the McCallister clan is racing through the airport to catch their flight immediately comes to mind. Travel is stressful, plus the worrying about getting sick, letting healthy habits fall by the wayside, the all-too-familiar jet lag, and the nagging AF travel fatigue. Traveling can do a number on your well-being. While that may be true, it doesn’t have to be; vacationing is about letting loose and giving your mind and body a respite after all. Thanks to the doctors I spoke with, I’ve got all of the must-have on-the-go health tips, wherever your travel plans take you. Spoiler alert: You won’t ever leave home without them again.
Why do our immune systems suffer while traveling?
Between the environmental changes, deviation from normal routines (think: sleep, diet, and exercise), and being exposed to more people, it’s no wonder our immunity takes a beating when we’re away from home. “Jet lag, dehydration, grabbing food on the go can decrease our immune response,” explained Dr. Jenny Yu, Head of Medical Affairs at Healthline. “Also, transiting through crowded public spaces exposes our immune system to many germs. The clash of the immune system being down and exposure to more germs cause the entire system to be a bit out of balance.”
Dr. Austin Perlmutter, a board-certified internal medicine physician, New York Times bestselling author, and senior director of science and clinical innovation at Big Bold Health, pointed out that one of the most powerful influences on our immune health is stress, followed by sleep quality, exercise, and diet. The stress we put on our bodies, poor sleep, lack of exercise, and limited access to healthy foods when we’re on the road can compound to weaken immune wellness.
Doctor-approved tips for staying healthy while traveling
Book your flights wisely
So you booked a red-eye to get the most out of your trip, and you get to your destination without so much as a wink of shuteye, your digestion is off, and you’re disoriented. By now you know that the act of traveling itself can take a toll on your health, but add in a thrown-off sleep schedule, poor eating patterns, and changing time zones to the mix, and you could be compromising your health (and sanity).
“The connection between proper sleep and immune function is well established in science, so it’s best to opt for travel plans that minimize how many Zzzs you’ll have to forgo,” conveyed Dr. Yael Cooperman, a physician and senior manager of medical content and education at Ro. “Pick a flight that gives you a full night’s rest at either end of your journey, and skip the red-eyes or the wacky layovers whenever possible.” When you go to book your trip, set yourself up for success by choosing the timing of your flights wisely. It’ll pay off in the long run.
Regulate your sleep schedule
Speaking of sleep, catching flights and keeping up with a packed itinerary often means a significant disruption in our circadian rhythms when we travel. “It’s easy to let sleep fall by the wayside when traveling, but getting 7-9 hours of sleep is arguably the most important thing you can do to prevent sickness,” agreed Dr. Abby Kramer, a holistic physician. “To promote sleep, keep your room cool (around 67 degrees) and as dark as possible (I travel with black electrical tape to black out any blinking lights in hotels), and do your best to avoid screens one to two hours before bed.”
Dr. Kramer also suggested bringing your favorite pillow or pillow case and your most comfortable pajamas to mimic your normal bedtime routine as much as possible. To prevent further compromising your sleep, Dr. Perlmutter stressed minimizing caffeine consumption after 2 p.m. at the latest, as well as avoiding excessive alcohol, especially in the afternoon and evening.
Mind your hygiene
TSA security bins, airplane tray tables, and toilet handles in hotel rooms are breeding grounds for germs. While you can’t avoid touching every surface or object you encounter en route to and at your final stop, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from picking up and transmitting germs (speaking as a true germophobe), because the last thing you want on vacation is to be stuck in bed sick. “Wash hands often and don’t touch your face—the T-zone, your eyes, nose, and mouth are all ways for germs to enter the body,” Dr. Yu recommended. Dr. Cooperman agreed: “Wash your hands well with soap and warm water, especially before you eat or drink and after (and even before!) you use the restroom. Keep your hands out of your mouth and keep some hand sanitizer on hand just in case.”
Nourish your body
One of the first good-for-you rituals to go when globe-trotting is maintaining a well-rounded, nutritious diet, but good news: There are simple tricks to help you keep it up. “Planning ahead and bringing healthy snacks on your trip can dramatically reduce the chances that you eat the junk food which is so prevalent in airports and on planes,” Dr. Perlmutter suggested. His go-tos? Nuts, dark chocolate, and blueberries. “Consider traveling with protein powders and electrolytes to help keep you full and hydrated (and decrease your chances of buying soda or other sugary junk that may damage immune wellness), and bring your own reusable water bottle so all you have to do is fill up at a water fountain.”
Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C and zinc while avoiding processed foods before and during your trip can not only help fight off viruses and also reduce inflammation and your risk of illness. Whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, Dr. Yu encouraged exploring local cuisine that fits your lifestyle and diet preferences, rather than eating processed snacks. To fill in any nutritional gaps, she advised having supplements such as probiotics and vitamin C, vitamin D3, and zinc handy (all good for immune support!).
You’ve heard it time and time again, but it bears repeating: Water is your best friend, especially when you’re adventure hopping. And there’s nothing worse than the low-humidity airplane cabin air to dehydrate you. “Dehydration affects many systems in your body, but particularly important are your mucous membranes (the delicate tissues in your nose and mouth that act as an important barrier to viruses and bacteria),” Dr. Cooperman explained. “When your mucous membranes dry out (which is more common when you’re being blasted with airplane air conditioning), they’re more likely to be permeable to germs.”
So before you order that wine, soda, or coffee when the drink service comes around, think twice. Instead, opt for water or herbal teas like peppermint and ginger which are good for digestion. And remember to put the reusable water bottle you packed to good use and fill it up once you’ve gone through security.
There’s no getting around it: Working out is essential for your well-being. Dr. Kramer added that exercise not only helps boost your mood, but also regulates your circadian rhythms and increases your immune function. Sure, you’re out of your normal workout regimen, and a yoga mat–much less a gym–may be hard to come by while you’re traveling, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get movement in. “If you’re waiting for your plane, train, or automobile, try some simple stretches, lunges, or squats (you’ll get some weird looks but it’s definitely worth it!),” Dr. Perlmutter suggested. “Bring movement onto the plane by doing ankle circles, foot pumps, and neck rolls.”
Once you’ve reached your vacay or work spot, make sure you get moving to balance out the sedentary time you spent on the way. Whether it’s a 15-minute stretch, bodyweight exercises, or yoga poses, getting your heart pumping is just what Dr. Kramer ordered. Bonus points if you can take it outside (think: a long stroll taking in the sights), because vitamin D does your body and immune defenses good. And don’t forget to listen to your body, do what feels good, and go easy on yourself as your body adjusts to a new environment.
Boost your mental health
Let’s be real: Traveling is an additional stress on the mind and body (travel anxiety is real), and your immune system bears the brunt of it. Dr. Kramer recommended adopting a regular stress relief practice, especially while traveling. Her personal favorite? Guided meditation. Download a meditation app pre-flight and pull it up during the day for a quick mental reset or at night to promote deep sleep. Start out with 2-5 minutes per day and build up from there. Whatever is on tap for your trip, Dr. Cooperman emphasizes making room for yourself and fitting in activities that make you feel good. Try out a workout class at a local studio, drop in for a mani-pedi, walk to a nearby coffee shop and treat yourself to a matcha, read the book you’ve been dying to get to, or take a catnap. That’s what we like to call jet-setting stress-free.
It’s worth noting that getting away, and even just looking forward to an excursion, also relieves stress and builds up your mental health. Swapping the daily grind and mundane to-dos back home for new sights, food, and people can give us a fresh perspective and make us more present.