You’re going on a big adventure! You’ve selected your destination, you’ve booked your hotel, and you have some fun sightseeing excursions lined up. Now, just one thing remains between you and your dream vacation: the flight there.
For some, plane travel is a necessary evil, while for others, it can be downright scary. Whether you’re concerned about navigating the security lines, avoiding germs, dealing with jet lag, or handling motion sickness, just thinking about flying can leave you drained before you even set foot in the airport.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Although some aspects of the flying experience are out of your control, there are many steps you can take to be prepared and stay healthy and calm in the air so you arrive feeling ready to take on the world.
Selecting a flight
The planning can start long before you even set foot in the airport.
When choosing your flight, consider which options will allow you to be rested and relaxed in the lead-up to your trip. Although it isn’t always possible, it’s best to avoid red-eye flights and very early-morning departures, which can leave you exhausted before your vacation has even begun. And red-eye flights have even been linked to a variety of negative health impacts, including weakened immune systems, heart attacks, and depression, because of how they interfere with the body’s natural rhythms.
Whenever possible, also try to book a direct flight, rather than an itinerary requiring connections. This can significantly reduce the stress factor, since you won’t have to worry about the possibility of sprinting through the airport with your luggage in tow to make the next plane or missing a connection.
Once you’ve settled on your flight, give some thought to your seat. Are you planning to snooze a significant portion of the way? Consider a window seat, which will allow you to rest your head against the wall and will prevent you from being disturbed by seatmates needing to get in and out of the row.
Concerned about access to the restroom or just being able to get up and stretch your legs? Opt for the aisle. It’s also wise to avoid the last row of the economy section on the plane if you’re hoping to rest: these seats don’t recline and are located near the galley and lavatories, which can be active and noisy areas.
If you will need to make a connecting flight, try to secure a seat toward the front of the plane, which will allow for a quicker exit and reduce the stress of waiting for passengers ahead of you to disembark.
And if you’re prone to motion sickness, you’ll also want to opt for a seat closer to the front of the plane or between the wings, where the ride will be more stable.
Before your flight
In the days and weeks leading up
Schedule a doctor’s visit. At least a month before your trip, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends having an appointment with your doctor. They can ensure you’re up to date on all your routine vaccines (plus any that may be recommended for your destination), as well as go over any special precautions you may need to take for your health conditions.
Get rest. In the days leading up to your flight, make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep (to the extent that you can with all the pre-trip excitement). Don’t leave packing to the last minute, which can have you running around in a frazzled rush at a time when you should be in bed (and make you more likely to forget something, to boot). Experts recommend that adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night for good health.
Adjust your schedule. If you’ll be changing time zones, take steps to minimize jet lag such as gradually adjusting your sleep schedule beforehand to match your destination’s time zone. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you’re traveling east, you should go to bed 1 hour earlier each night before your trip. If you’re traveling west, go to bed 1 hour later for several nights before leaving. Also try to eat meals closer to the times you’ll be eating them at your destination.
Pack carefully. Pack any essentials you’ll need during the flight in your carry-on bag. This can include items such as a reusable water bottle, hand sanitizer, prescription medications (with labels attached to facilitate the screening process, per the Transportation Security Administration [TSA]), healthy snacks, a travel pillow, moisturizer, earplugs, and an eye mask.
Also consider including some flight-friendly healthy snack options. The Cleveland Clinic recommends options such as applesauce, veggie chips, unsalted nuts, air-popped popcorn, and homemade trail mix.
Although most airlines have first aid kits on board, you may also want to consider packing some of your own basic supplies, such as bandages, gauze, adhesive tape, wristbands or medicines for motion sickness, and a list of emergency contacts for everyone traveling in your party.
On departure day
Eat healthy. Once departure day has arrived, you’ll want to eat a small, healthy meal to keep hunger pangs at bay and prevent last-minute dashes to the vending machines or fast-food joints in the terminal. Don’t overdo it with a heavy meal or with foods that can cause stomach upset, like very spicy or greasy meals. Instead, experts recommend sticking to healthy, satisfying items like nut butters, hummus, sandwiches on whole-grain bread or wraps, and tuna packets.
Stay hydrated. And in the hustle and bustle, don’t forget to stay hydrated. Drinking enough water is critical for overall health, helping to regulate your body temperature, keep your joints lubricated, prevent infections, deliver nutrients to body cells, keep organs functioning, and improve sleep quality and mood, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, this is about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids each day for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids each day for women from both food and beverages.
Dress for comfort. As you’re getting ready to hit the road, pick a comfortable outfit for your flight. This means avoiding anything too tight or restrictive and having layers available to accommodate different temperatures. Good walking shoes are important, since you’ll likely be getting your steps in just getting to and from your gate, and compression socks are something to consider (with feedback from your doctor) for helping improve circulation and reduce the risk of blood clots.
Leave enough time. Ensure you’re leaving plenty of time for all the necessary tasks to avoid starting your journey off on a stressful foot. That means allowing plenty of time for transportation to the airport and arriving at least 2 hours ahead of domestic flights and 3 hours ahead of international flights to provide ample opportunity to check in, pass off any checked bags, and make your way through security and to your gate.
In the terminal
Avoid germs. You’ve arrived at the airport! As you make your way through the crowds, it’s important to take precautions to avoid germs so that you don’t come down with a sickness just as the fun is almost ready to start. Maintain good hygiene by frequently washing your hands using soap and running water. When these aren’t available (and if your hands aren’t visibly dirty or greasy), opt for a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, says the CDC. Keep your hands away from your face, and use sanitizing wipes to clean off any shared surfaces (such as waiting room armrests) before touching them.
Get some light exercise. While you’re waiting for your flight to board, consider working in some light physical activity to keep your blood pumping. This can include walking through the airport terminal — carrying rather than rolling your luggage if you want to up the intensity, suggests FitDay — or doing some resistance exercises using resistance bands or your body weight. Squats and pushups off waiting room chairs are some favorite options, according to Foreign Service officer Ken Seifert. Simple stretches are another option.
Manage pre-flight jitters. If you’re feeling nervous about your upcoming flight, there are a number of strategies you can try to calm down. Deep breathing exercises can be done discreetly almost anywhere and are a tried-and-true method for relaxation. Spending a couple of minutes focusing on your in- and out-breaths is one approach, and this easy exercise from the NHS is another breathwork option. Listening to some favorite songs on your phone or reading a favorite book can help distract you from the worry. And if all else fails, focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel — a fun trip! — can help put you in a better frame of mind.
During your flight
You’ve made your way onboard. Now nothing but the flight itself stands between you and your destination. Here are some strategies to employ to help ensure smooth, calm, and healthy sailing from this point forward.
Get some movement. As in the airport terminal, it’s important to work in some physical activity on the flight itself. This is particularly important for helping to reduce the risk of blood clots, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT). According to the American Society of Hematology, this serious condition is caused by sitting immobile for prolonged periods, and it is potentially fatal if not caught and treated.
To help reduce your risk of DVT, store your carry-on luggage in the overhead compartment, keeping the space under the seat in front of you clear so you can stretch your legs. Perform leg exercises while seated, such as raising and lowering your toes while keeping your heels on the floor (and vice versa), and make a point to get up and stroll through the aisles every so often. Also wear comfortable shoes and loose and comfortable clothing, and discuss the use of compression stockings (which help support circulation in the lower legs) with your doctor.
Care for your skin. The air in plane cabins is notoriously dry. To help combat the effects of this climate on your skin, be sure to stay adequately hydrated throughout your flight. (This may also help you get some additional movement by increasing trips to the restroom.) Also avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can be dehydrating, instead opting for herbal tea if you need something with a bit more zip than plain water.
Use a lip balm and a hand cream as needed, recommends skincare.com, and apply sunscreen every two hours — you’re closer to the sun’s ultraviolet rays when flying. (Research has found an increased risk of melanoma skin cancer among pilots and flight crew.)
Make time for rest and sleep. You’ll likely be hitting the ground running once you arrive at your destination, so use the opportunity on the plane to rest and relax. Pull out your earplugs or noise-canceling headphones (listen to some white noise if you’ve downloaded it to your phone), travel pillow, and eye mask to block the light. Lean your seat back (being mindful of the passenger behind you) and make use of any footrests, if available. Once you’re comfortable, see if you can catch some z’s, or at least rest for a while with your eyes closed.
Manage stress and anxiety. If you’re dealing with flying-induced anxiety, getting relaxed enough to sleep is going to be difficult. To help calm your nerves, try the deep breathing exercise outlined above (focusing on your in- and out-breaths for about 2 minutes). Or try listening to a visualization or guided meditation program on your phone. Chatting with one of the flight attendants about anything that concerns you can also help quell your fears.
Make healthy food selections. If you’ve packed nutritious snacks in your carry-on, munch on them throughout your flight to keep hunger at bay. To make healthy in-flight selections, website Expatica recommends steering clear of options covered in sauce (which is often high in fat and sugar); avoiding white bread, white rice, and refined pasta; skipping the in-flight drink; and selecting a meal that’s high in lean protein (such as white meat chicken or turkey, sirloin steak, or beans).
Maintain good hygiene. The crowded, enclosed areas of a plane cabin can be a breeding ground for germs. To reduce your risk of catching a bug en route, continue the practice of frequently washing your hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer. Avoid touching your face, as germs can enter through your eyes, nose, and mouth, and use disinfectant wipes to sanitize commonly touched areas such as tray tables and armrests.
Dealing with motion sickness. If you find yourself experiencing motion sickness on your flight, the CDC recommends lying down, shutting your eyes, sleeping, or looking at a fixed point such as the horizon. Stay hydrated and try sucking on a ginger lozenge or eating a small amount of bland food, such as plain crackers. If you received any prescriptions or advice for using motion sickness medication prior to your travel, use these as directed.
After your flight
You’ve arrived! Once you’re at your destination, there are steps you can take to keep up the healthy momentum you’ve established and feel at your best for the duration of your trip.
Adjust to the new time zone. If you’ve crossed time zones, you’ll likely have some adjusting to do, even if you began shifting your schedule in the days leading up to your trip. One of the main ways to do this is by getting exposure to natural light, which can help reset your circadian rhythm to the new time zone. Even something as simple as sitting by a window while you eat your meals can help.
Exercise. Getting some light exercise can also help anchor your body’s circadian rhythm in the new time zone and will help you sleep better at night. Bonus points if the exercise takes place outdoors, providing additional exposure to that important natural light. Go for a morning walk, explore a nearby park, or arrange some sightseeing to explore the area.
Rest. On the other side of the coin is ensuring you get adequate rest. To the extent possible, keep a lighter schedule for a day or two after you arrive at your destination to give your body time to adjust. And try to adopt and stick to a regular sleep schedule in your new locale, since varying sleep patterns can have an effect similar to jet lag. It’s best, according to Margaret Mike, MD, an MU Health Care neurologist specializing in sleep medicine, to stay within an hour in either direction of your established sleep and wake times.
Continue to stay hydrated and eat nutritious foods. To feel your best, this advice applies no matter where you are. So keep drinking that water, and use some of the principles of healthy eating on the road:
- Research restaurant options in advance and see what healthy selections are available on the menu.
- Don’t go out to eat when you’re overly hungry, says Kaiser Permanente, as this may lead to overeating.
- Avoid “supersizing” meals and consider splitting a meal with one of your dining companions.
- Ask for extra vegetables.
- Have sauces and dressings held on the side so you can control how much goes into your food.
- Opt for lower-fat preparation methods, such as boiling, poaching, grilling, baking, or steaming.
(Balance these tips with allowing room for some treats and exploration of local cuisines.)
Final approach: landing on a healthier journey
As we make our final descent, remember that a healthy flight isn’t just about reaching your destination; it’s about enjoying the journey in the best of health. By selecting the right flight, preparing thoughtfully before takeoff, staying active and mindful during the flight, and giving yourself time to acclimate after landing, you’re setting the stage for a travel experience that’s both enjoyable and beneficial to your overall health.
So, next time you’re jet-setting to your dream destination, keep this guide handy. With these tips in your travel toolkit, you’re well-equipped to soar through your journey with ease and health. Here’s to smooth skies and a healthier horizon on all your future travels!
Disclaimer of Medical Advice: This information does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified healthcare professionals to meet your individual needs.