Frequent business travelers tend to have this look about them: pasty skin, bags under their eyes, a spare tire around the middle. There are definitely exceptions, but it’s easy to get unhealthy fast while traveling. And we’ve been there, eating the same unhealthy food, getting insufficient exercise, sleeping too little, never seeing the sun. But now we make a big effort to stick to some healthier habits because doing so makes us feel a thousand times better. That’s only a tiny exaggeration.
Today we’re deviating from the finance stuff and even the retirement emotions to share our very best life hacks: everything we’ve learned about staying healthy and happy while traveling, earned the hard way over years of frequent work and fun travel. We could go on and on and on with the lessons we’ve picked up over the years, but in the interest of brevity, we’re focusing on the tips that we think are most important. But if you have a question we haven’t addressed here, feel free to ask us in the comments. Like any good frequent traveler, we loooooovvvve talking about this stuff. :-)
Caveat: In a few places here, I suggest bits of gear that I use and love, but let’s first make sure this is crystal clear: Staying healthy while traveling does not require you to buy a thing. Virtually every tip here is more about mindset than it is about having some bit of stuff. But I’ve also tested out just about every travel gadget and gizmo, and so if you just happen to be in the market for something of the sort I’m talking about, feel free to consider my recommendations. (Links aren’t affiliate links, in case you were wondering. Not that we have any problem with them. We just don’t use them ourselves because we don’t want to create confusion about why we’re recommending a particular product. We earn $0 whether or not you buy something!)
With all of that out of the way, let’s dive in!
Think beyond convenience food
Eating poorly is the fastest way to hurt your health while traveling. Even if you think, “Well, travel is a small slice of my life, so who cares what I eat?” how well you eat directly affects how you feel, which could affect how well you do in a key presentation, or how hard the jetlag hits you.
Unfortunately, most airport and hotel food options are pretty abysmal in terms of both health value and cost. But it’s not actually hard to eat healthily while traveling if you make up your mind to do it. Here are some tips that help:
Don’t eat like you’re on vacation — Okay, so you very well might be on vacation, and you might want to splurge on unhealthy but oh-so-delicious food. That’s fine in small quantities, but if you’re traveling often for work, or you’re doing fun travel for an extended period, it’s important to get out of the vacation eating mindset. Try to eat as close to “normally” as possible. The exception might be if you keep to a super frugal food budget at home, you could splurge a little on more fresh produce while traveling for work, since someone else is picking up the tab. For example, I never ever buy cold-pressed juice when it’s on our dime, but it’s a nice treat while traveling for work. (Yeah, I totally know how to party.)
Pack healthy snacks — I find that I make my worst food choices when I let myself get too hungry, so I try to stay prepared to stave that off. I always carry dried fruit and nuts with me, and usually a KIND bar or two. If I’m feeling especially organized before a trip, I’ll throw in a banana, a cut up apple, and some snack-sized veggies. With this stuff handy, it’s easy to pass up the chips and cookies that airport newsstands put right within easy reach.
Make the grocery store your friend — Whenever I land in a city where I’m staying over, instead of finding a restaurant to eat at or heading straight to the hotel and ordering room service, I seek out the closest healthy grocery store. I’m a big fan of Whole Foods because of their prepared food selection, which requires no prep (kinda hard to actually cook in a hotel room, unless it’s a Residence Inn with a full kitchen). I’ll usually make a big salad from the salad bar, and stock up on other healthy options like sushi, cut up fruit and veggies, hummus and yogurt. But you can find decent options at really any grocery store. When all else fails, I’ll grab a bag of snow peas and a tub of hummus to dip them in, a big fruit salad and some green juices or smoothies. Bonus: This approach is waaay cheaper than buying hotel or restaurant food. I’ll usually spend less on two or three days of food than one room service meal would cost.
Get a fridge in your hotel room — Many hotels give you a fridge in your room nowadays, and lots of budget hotels even include a microwave. But here’s a pro tip: every hotel will bring a fridge to your room if there isn’t one — all you have to do is ask. There are all kinds of reasons why people might need them — diabetics storing insulin, nursing mothers storing breast milk, people with food allergies, etc. — so you won’t even have to explain why you need it. Put the request in your reservation, and chances are it will be in your room before you arrive. If you’re at a super high end hotel and there’s a fridge but it’s filled with mini bar items, you can ask to have it cleared out, but most of the time they’ll just bring you another fridge for your stuff. Now you have a place to store your healthier food options.
Make the best choices when you have no good options — Sometimes you get in late, the grocery stores are too far away from your hotel or they’re already closed, and the only options you have in front of you are KFC or Cheetos from the vending machine. Or you ran out of time to pack snacks, and you’re stuck buying food at the airport. Just do your best, and remind yourself that you’ll never regret making the healthiest choice. Many vending machines stock baked chips or popcorn instead of all the fried stuff, most hotel mini markets will at least offer you fresh fruit, every airport newsstand sells bananas, and most fast food places offer marginally healthier options. And if you end up eating badly one meal, just move on and do better the next day.
Pack light and ditch the rolling bag
I’m going to assert something controversial here: rolling bags are terrible for you. I know, I know. They’re so handy, but they have a bunch of bad side effects, such as:
- They cause asymmetrical muscle use and strain when you’re pulling or pushing them, which leads to back and neck pain
- They hold you back from walking up escalators, robbing you of valuable exercise
- They add unnecessary weight to your load (that bulky frame and the wheels often weigh upward of five pounds), which increases the chances you’ll pull something lifting the bag into the overhead bin
- They encourage overpacking
Our recommendation instead: Go with a backpack.
This may sound hard to believe, but it’s true: I know a bunch of frequent travelers who developed back pain during their travels, and had it improve or disappear when they switched from a rolling bag to a backpack. And I’m one of them! (Of course, if you have serious back pain, consult your doctor.)
Backpacks encourage you to pack lighter, they let you carry your stuff more symmetrically, they strengthen your back and core, they allow you to climb those escalators triumphantly, and they’re easier to get into the overhead bins without tweaking anything.
Related post: My travel packing list (What Work Travel Has Taught Us About Minimalism and Life)
Almost any backpack works for travel, so there’s really no need to go out and buy a new one. And more and more business travelers are carrying them these days, so you won’t look out of place. If you want to buy a new one, I recommend a “travel pack” instead of a backpacker-style pack, since travel packs are often specifically sized to fit as carry-on luggage, and they zip open suitcase-style, which makes it so much easier to pack and find something quickly.
After having tested just about every travel pack out there, my favorite is the Gregory Compass 40, which has by far the best system I’ve seen for letting you get your laptop in and out quickly while boarding the plane, and lets you get into the pack without having to loosen the compression straps, which no other pack does. (It was recently discontinued, so if you want one, get it soon — bonus: it’s on clearance.) Con: It doesn’t have a hipbelt or water bottle pocket, but I carry my water bottle in a purse anyway. If you don’t care about getting a laptop out at top speed, and the uselessness of their water bottle pockets doesn’t bother you, the Osprey Farpoint 40 gets top marks for comfort (great suspension, straps and hipbelt), and will always fit as a carry-on.
Look for unexpected exercise opportunities
When you get to your hotel late at night, I know how much easier it is to crawl into that freshly made bed than it is to hit the gym. Or maybe you have an early morning meeting, and it just feels impossible to sacrifice sleep to go for a run before your meeting. If you’re a natural exerciser, then you don’t need this section, but for the rest of us, our philosophy is this: While traveling, we don’t need to aim for fitness perfection. Instead, just aim to be active generally.
Being active is pretty natural while doing fun travel. You want to be out and about seeing things, so you might as well walk to as many places as possible, or rent a bike to get there. That’s way more fun than taking a cab or the subway everywhere. Dedicate yourself to self-powered travel and you’ll be fine.
It’s definitely harder with work travel, and you may not want to walk to a meeting, for example, if doing so will mean that you arrive sweaty and disheveled. Instead, look for unexpected exercise opportunities, like:
- Killing time at the airport by walking up and down the corridors (bonus: if you carry a backpack instead of pulling a rolling bag, it’s kind of like training for a backpacking trip) — if you see someone doing this the next time you’re at an airport, say hi! It might be me! I walked almost six miles around a major airport during a long layover earlier this week. :-)
- Getting in the habit of taking stairs at hotels instead of elevators
- Always walking up escalators instead of standing still
- Doing a few minutes of yoga or stretching at the beginning or end of each day (most hotels have mats they’ll lend you now, and more and more airports have yoga rooms)
- Going for sightseeing walks, which business travelers should all do more of
Related post: 10 Ways to Make Work Travel Feel Like Real Travel
It’s another product you definitely don’t need, but if you’re dedicated to exercising while traveling, minimalist sneakers can be a worthwhile purchase. I have a super lightweight pair from Asics that take up almost no space in my backpack, so I have no excuse not to pack them. I got them for more than 50 percent off on Sierra Trading Post.
Make hydration your job
Staying hydrated while traveling is tougher than it used to be before the no-liquids-through-security rule. But it’s worthwhile to make sure you’re getting enough water since dehydration makes most people cranky and headachy, which make travel far less pleasant. I try hard to arrive at the airport with a full bottle of water (in my insulated Klean Kanteen bottle that comes everywhere with me), and I chug that bottle right before I go through security. Then, as soon as I’m through, I find a water fountain or bottle filler and get more water, which I take on the plane. I’ve also found that most flight attendants will give you water in your own bottle if it’s not too narrow-mouthed, which both saves disposable cups and lets you get more water than just one dinky cupful — especially useful on longer flights. I also find that alcohol dehydrates me like crazy in the air, so I avoid it for the most part — your mileage may vary.
In hotels, the tap water is usually fine, and less wasteful than bottled water. But if you have to use a glass the hotel provides, rinse it well before using it. Rumor has it that housekeepers clean those glasses with something a lot more like Windex than like dish soap…
Related post: Our Bottled Water Manifesto — Thinking About Frugality More Broadly // A Call to Action
Prioritize quality sleep
If you’re only traveling for a day or two every once in a while, then sleep is less important. But if you travel regularly, or for an extended period, then good sleep is crucial. It keeps your spirits high, your immune system strong and your energy up. While we don’t stay in fancy pants hotels when we’re paying for them, we also don’t stay in the cheapest of the cheap. We want to know that we’re going to get a halfway decent mattress most of all, and that we’ll have a room that’s not crazy hot or crazy cold.
To make sure I get good sleep on the road, I do a few key things:
- Avoid flying the redeye unless absolutely necessary, because even the longest ones are less than six hours, and not good quality sleep even in first class
- When I get to a hotel room, adjust the thermostat right away to a good sleeping temp (or, preferably, turn it off so it doesn’t waste energy, and so the noisy blower doesn’t wake me up)
- Carry eyeshades and earplugs so I can get good sleep even if the room is bright or noisy (especially around airports)
- Schedule flights so that I’m not forcing myself into short nights of sleep
Mind the germs
We’ll end this monster list on a topic that’s super important to keep in mind when traveling, but often overlooked. No one wants to get sick ever, but especially while traveling. And airplanes and hotel rooms are basically germ pits. I won’t go into details (Google and YouTube can do that for you if you really want to ruin your day), but treating everything you touch while traveling as though it could make you sick will spare you many bugs over time.
I’m not suggesting you wear a mask or swab down everything in sight when you get to your seat. Just do two simple things: 1. Don’t touch your nose or mouth while traveling (because they’ve been touching germy things), which includes not eating with your hands, and 2. Wash your hands as often as you can. I travel with folding chopsticks so that I can always eat finger foods without directly touching them, and I suds up as often as possible (I’m not a fan of triclosan, the active ingredient in most hand sanitizers — see this article for more info if you’re curious — but in a pinch, I’ll use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer).
Anything we missed?
This is quite possibly our longest post ever, even longer than our first monster how-to post on learning to camp. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have missed something! Let us know what other questions you have in the comments — and let us know if you do any of these things to stay healthy when you travel. Bon voyage!