How to Travel Healthy and Avoid Weight Gain

Whether you’re traveling for business or heading to a relaxing getaway, it’s a challenge to stay healthy while away from home.

Long hours in the airport and the lack of kitchens in many short-term accommodations mean that it’s often easier to fill up on indulgent or fast food options instead of healthier choices, while fighting jet lag and a packed schedule often push exercise to last on your list of priorities.

But with a little creative thinking, it’s possible to eat well and be active during your travels. Here’s how to travel healthy and avoid weight gain during your next getaway:

1. Take Steps to Stay Hydrated

Hopping on an airplane might be the most convenient way to reach your destination, but it does have some drawbacks. The air inside the cabin of a plane usually has a humidity level of 10 to 20 percent—less than half of the typical indoor humidity of 30 to 65 percent.

Dehydration can lead to fatigue, cause mild discomfort from dry skin and itchy eyes, or even induce an asthma flare-up. Additionally, being in a low-humidity environment puts you at a greater risk of catching a respiratory virus—which is why the cold commonly affects travelers more frequently than folks on the ground.

Dehydration can be avoided by drinking fluids throughout the flight. During my time as a flight attendant, we were encouraged to drink one 8oz bottle for every hour on the plane to help counteract the dry environment.

Related: 7 Strategies to Stay Comfortable on a Long Flight

Travelers should stay away from dehydrating liquids, including coffee, tea, sodas, and alcohol. Sports drinks designed to replace electrolytes can be a great option after working out, but they’re not necessary for simple hydration and will just pack on extra calories.

Keeping comfortable in the air also means preparing with a few extra products to stave off the itchy effects of low humidity. Consider packing the following into a small carry-on pouch to keep at your seat:

  • A good moisturizer. The air inside the plane’s cabin can do a number on your skin, causing it to become dry, flaky, and itchy. While drinking plenty of water can hydrate your skin from the inside, applying a moisturizer to your face and hands helps you retain moisture and stay comfortable. Stow a travel-size stash of a favorite lotion in your purse or carry-on and apply it often during the flight to protect your skin from moisture loss. You can also buy a small water spritzer to keep your face dewy and prevent it from drying out during the flight.

  • Bring eye drops. Whether they are saline drops or medicated eye drops suggested by your doctor, eye drops can be a lifesaver in dry cabin air, especially if you wear contact lenses.

  • Consider nasal sprays. Dry cabin air can cause nasal discomfort and even nosebleeds in some people. If your nose gets dry because of the low cabin humidity when you’re flying, consider packing a saline nose spray or drops.

  • Check your asthma medication. If you use steroid inhalers, speak with your doctor to see if the medication will be enough for the trip, or if your prescription should be increased or changed.

Learn more about our favorite items to carry on by reading the “How to Prepare an Inflight Care Package” section in Essential Steps to Prep for a Perfect Flight.

Once you reach your destination, the importance of staying hydrated can slip your mind—especially if you’re traveling to a location that lacks potable water. Plus, we tend to indulge in more alcoholic beverages than we would at home, which up your risk of dehydrating.

Simple steps like emptying your water glass from lunch into your reusable bottle or drinking a big glass when you wake up will help you stay hydrated and refreshed, especially if you find yourself indulging in alcohol or rich foods when traveling.

2. Be Conscious of Your Food Choices and Commit to at Least Two Servings of Fresh Food Each Day

Early in my experience as a flight attendant, I learned that one of the biggest struggles flight crews faced was eating healthy on the road.

Crews often spend three to four days away from home each trip, with each of those nights spent in a hotel room that rarely (if ever) offers a space for cooking. To help keep options interesting, they lug around a hefty amount of food in large, insulated lunch boxes—often bringing enough to last all four days. Even then, you rely heavily on canned goods—though I once successfully scrambled eggs in tin foil heated over an iron.

Eating as flight attendantFour days worth of baked veggies. Hyatt breakfast.

While it’s unlikely that you’ll be confined to such limited options for preparing your own food, it’s far easier to eat out when traveling. After all, there are so many options to choose from. But having several heavy meals a day can be hard on your body.

Finding Healthy Food Options for Your Flight

To help counteract vacation-spread from the start, consider bringing your own meal, such as a packed sandwich and dried fruit, onto the airplane. Airport security rules prohibit passengers from taking liquids and gels more than 3.4 ounces through airport security checkpoints, but solid snacks like bananas, apples, trail mix, nuts, carrots, celery sticks and energy bars will pass muster. Pack a few of these in your carry-on and skip the airline's salty snacks.

If you didn’t have time to pack a lunch, you’re not out of luck yet. Once you’ve passed through security, anything you buy at the airport may be brought onto your flight. Use this chance to stock up on bottled water and buy a salad or sandwich to eat on the plane. Over the last few years, many airports have begun adding more healthy dining options to their standard array of fast food; look for dishes with lots of vegetables and fiber, and skip the fried stuff.

Eat Fresh Foods at Least Once a Day During Your Trip

Keep an eye out for opportunities to buy fresh food. Many places you visit will have outstanding local markets where you can pick up fresh local produce, meats, grains, and seafood. If you’re staying in an apartment, an Airbnb, or even a hotel with a small kitchen, try to prepare fresh dishes with ingredients from a local market for a night or two.

When you’re shopping, don’t forget to grab healthy snacks to keep on hand. Beyond the obvious that you’ll avoid becoming starving while exploring on your trip, buying local snacks allows you to get a unique sense of the place you’re in.

Of course, cooking isn’t an option on every trip so for those times when you’ll be eating in restaurants regularly, try to opt for vegetable-heavy meals, choose grilled options over fried, and work in the occasional salad. This can all make a big difference—even if it’s just one meal a day.

3. Stay Active Even During Down-Time Days

Neglecting exercise can be tempting depending on the type of trip you have planned—who wants to bother with working out during a beach vacation? But, not only does daily exercise help stave off unwanted pounds, breaking a sweat helps to keep you in a good mood (all the better to enjoy your vacation), and helps your body control blood sugar.

While the benefits of remaining physically active during your trip are clear, how to find the motivation depends on your preferred exercise and itinerary.

Even if you enjoy brisk runs at home, some locations don’t offer great trails or pathways. Instead, good old-fashioned walking is a fine substitute. After all, there's no better way to experience a city than on foot, so take the time to walk between major attractions rather than jumping on a bus or a subway. You'll experience the flavor of different neighborhoods, and be able to duck into any cafe or shop that strikes your fancy along the way.

If your vacation plans are centered around activities, such as hiking, bike riding, or boating, you’re not off the hook. Performing physical activities that are more strenuous than your normal workout can lead to cramped and pulled muscles, so be sure to take the time to stretch. Youtube offers plenty of easy-peasy 10-minute yoga routine that can be performed even in tiny hotel rooms.

If you love traveling and enjoy doing it often, finding a workout routine that is easy and adaptable for you to do in a hotel room, on a beach, or in a small hotel gym is a game changer—commit to it each time you travel. Doing so prevents the “How can I exercise while traveling?” conundrum, and simplifies the entire process.

Currently at couch-potato status and unsure which routine to choose? This routine, provide great options to consider. 

4. Give Yourself a Pep Talk When Needed

If you’re heading somewhere new or traveling for several weeks, you might find yourself starting to feel overwhelmed by simpler tasks like finding fresh food, navigating streets, or standing in line for yet another attraction.

Traveling can overload the senses, and as much as we feel pressured to pack in as much as possible, it’s also important to know when to schedule a timeout.

Take a break from sightseeing by catching a movie at a local theater—several hours in a dark, air-conditioned room can help you wind down. If you’re feeling culture shock, most large cities have embassies that allow you to drop in and catch up on news from home. Or, my favorite, schedule at least one night at a world-class hotel, where any hint of the hubbub outside has been subdued by an intercontinental whitewash—it can do wonders to revive your spirit.

5. Don’t Forget the Little Things That Make Up Your Routine

Traveling healthy and avoiding weight gain isn’t just about eating well and working out. Make sure you enjoy the duration of your trip by scheduling eight hours a night for sleep and plenty of downtime.

Don’t forget the importance of the little things, like your skincare routine. Though skin and hair care products can come in large bottles, pack them in leak proof, TSA friendly bottles to make sure you have everything you need.

It’s easy to consider travel time as off-time from taking care of yourself in the usual way, but practicing total health during your trip will make your vacation all the more enjoyable.

Keeping up on vitamins and medication are equally important—especially since you’ll likely be eating lots of unfamiliar foods. Be sure to pack them in a travel container so that you can take them with you without taking up precious space in your suitcase.

It’s easy to consider travel time as off-time from taking care of yourself in the usual way, but practicing total health during your trip will make your vacation all the more enjoyable. While you might think that keeping up with these routines adds undue structure to your trip, doing so actually allows you to feel your best while traveling—and once you arrive back home.

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Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.