Ed Hewitt started traveling with his family at the age of 10 and has since visited dozens of countries on six continents. He wrote for IndependentTraveler.com for more than 20 years, producing hundreds of columns on travel and offering his expertise on radio and television. He is now a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.
An avid surfer and rower, Ed has written about and photographed rowing competitions around the world, including the last five Olympic Games.
He's passing his love of travel on to the next generation; his 10-year-old son has flown some 200,000 miles already.
When it comes to travel, I am overall anti-gadget; like many independent travelers, I’d rather pack light than lug tons of stuff around in an attempt to carry every convenience of home with me on the road. That said, some travel gadgets are essential to just about every packing list. Besides your smartphone—which is a given for just about all of us—I’ve come up with the 12 best travel gadgets that deserve inclusion in your carry-on.
Universal (All-in-One) Plug Adapter
After years of thrashing through a bag of adapters before every international trip, I was thrilled when all-in-one adapters started appearing on the market—that is, until I tried to use one in actual wall outlets.
Some outlets are recessed, requiring an extender that seemed not to be included in most adapter sets. Some adapters didn’t seem to correspond to the shape that you found in the guidebooks for the country you were visiting. Others were poorly made and came apart after a few days’ use.
That is mostly over, as today’s all-in-one adapters address most of these issues with a built-in extender on the European adapter plugs. Most have enough options that you will never be out of luck, and they tend to be better made to boot.
A couple of well-reviewed choices include offerings from NEWVANGA and Unidapt.
“Noise-canceling headphones were probably the best travel investment I have made,” says pro photographer Erik Dresser, who logs tens of thousands of air miles each year for his work. Dresser notes that the headphones let him shut out the general din of the aircraft so he can relax more easily, permit him to sleep in flight without getting woken up by chatting passengers and crying babies, and signal to others that he is not up for socializing.
A USB flash drive (also known as a thumb drive) can come in handy on any number of occasions while traveling, such as sharing a document with the hotel front desk so they can print it for you or accessing a photo of your passport if it’s lost or stolen.
On two separate occasions in the past few years (a company party and a fundraiser), the “party favor” was a small, rechargeable USB phone charger, probably the most useful and welcome party favor in history. The only thing about “party favor” quality chargers is that they tend to fail pretty quickly, so purchasing a good one is probably worth the money.
This one from Anker will give you a heap of charges, which beats buying drinks you don’t need at a coffee shop just to be able to plug in.
If you will be renting a car or driving your own vehicle on a road trip, bring a car charger/adapter. Recharging your stuff while driving helps combat the “not enough accessible outlets in the hotel” factor and allows you to use your device to map your route, play a podcast, or distract your kids in the back seat without running down the battery.
Some car chargers are designed to charge your phone very quickly; the PowerBear Fast Car Charger seems to be the leader in this realm.
In my informal gadget survey of friends who travel frequently, the one thing that few of them owned but many were thinking of getting was a weatherproof phone case. At home, such cases often seem overly bulky, but when traveling they’ve found it more common to get caught out in bad weather.
“Ziploc bags work to protect the phone, but actually using the phone through a wet plastic bag is a mess,” one noted.
LifeProof cases are the go-to for many hardcore travelers, while PunkCase is a well-regarded option at a lower price point.
Bringing a tablet as well as a phone had always seemed like just too much stuff to me—until newspaper and magazine apps started getting good. I used to leave home with more than five pounds of paper reading material, which I left behind for other potential readers in airplane seatback pockets, gate areas or hotel lobbies; now I download magazines and books to a tablet.
Tablets come in a wide range of price points; click here to browse.
For heavy vacation/travel reading, many hardcore readers swear by the Kindle because it’s so easy to read outside in strong light. If you read a ton while traveling, and in all kinds of places, a branded Kindle e-reader is probably the way to go in lieu of a tablet.
For hardcore travelers who might spend long periods of time away from plugs of any kind—such as backcountry hikers, climbers, and campers—solar chargers are a useful addition to a packing list. Sure, part of the point of heading into the backcountry is getting away from connectivity, but that doesn’t mean that GPS devices, cameras, or even smartphones are completely verboten.
Depending on which cell phone plan you use, a mobile hotspot can save you money on international plans and data charges. These devices broadcast a secure, dependable Wi-Fi signal you can use in any country, without having to rely on sketchy public Wi-Fi signals or use your own pricey data. Well-reviewed options include devices from Huawei, GlocalMe, and MightyWifi.
This isn’t exactly a gadget, but clothing has become quite technical in nature and can provide more than just routine cover. Many companies make pants, socks, and shirts that provide specific protection from both sun and insects, including measurable UV protection as well as EPA-certified insect repellent properties. Many are lightweight and breathable as well, making this a “tech” purchase perfectly suited to travel.
We’re in the early days of smart suitcases, but the idea is extremely compelling—being able to check on your smartphone where your bag is, how heavy it is, and whether it has been opened. Many smart suitcases even provide the ability to charge devices through a USB connection.
There are also simple tracking devices you can put into your luggage, so that might be another way to tap into this type of tech without going all in on an expensive bag. As this tech comes into its own, soon enough tracking our own bags might seem almost routine.
When you purchase travel insurance, it’s not unreasonable to assume that you are, well, insured for all aspects of your trip. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Travelers are frequently frustrated to find that their travel insurance coverage is full of holes—with exclusions that are typically stated in the fine print but nonetheless confusing and sometimes counterintuitive.
For example, whether there’s a pandemic or a natural disaster out of your control, trip cancellation insurance doesn’t cover cancellation under every possible circumstance: To qualify for those, you must purchase a “cancel for any reason” add-on.
If there’s ever a time to read the fine print, purchasing travel insurance is it. Don’t take my word for any of the following, or the word of the person selling you the policy, or the sales page of the insurance company’s website—read the contract for yourself. It will be an enlightening experience.
The old adage “you get what you pay for” tends to apply here. Less expensive insurance packages typically include less comprehensive coverage.
Below are 18 things travel insurance coverage usually doesn’t include. For purposes of clarity, most apply to the highest tiers offered by most insurance companies; that is, most of these travel insurance exclusions apply to even the most comprehensive policies. In some cases you can purchase special add-ons to cover these exclusions. Ask when purchasing.
Health Crises (Like Pandemics) That Begin Before You Purchase
As with natural disasters, trip insurance may generally cover losses due to global health emergencies, but you must make the purchase before the crisis is a “known event.” According to SmarterTravel’s Ed Perkins: “Your best bet for recouping costs is ‘cancel for any reason’ insurance purchased before [the pandemic] was a known event.” The date from which the event is “known” varies depending on the insurance company; for COVID-19 it’s largely been January 21 through 27. Most travel insurance policies won’t cover cancellation due to fear of a pandemic, so if you want to use insurance to protect your payments—particularly nonrefundable airfares—make sure it’s a “cancel for any reason” policy.
With nonrefundable air tickets, your recourse is either to rely on the airline’s generosity (some do waive fees in times of emergency) or buying cancel-for-any-reason insurance. Most policies exclude “foreseeable” contingencies, or existing threats like already-known pandemics.
Losses Due to Pre-Existing Conditions
Travel insurance coverage does not extend to most pre-existing medical conditions, and the definition of “pre-existing” often depends on the timing of when you are diagnosed and when you purchase your travel insurance—with a so-called “look-back period” that is usually 60, 90, or 180 days prior to the day you purchase your insurance.
In short, your travel insurance does not cover losses due to conditions for which there were either symptoms or treatment during the look-back period. You will be covered for losses due to so-called “stable” conditions for which no change in treatment or symptoms has occurred.
Say you’ve had arthritis for several years, with no major flare-ups or medication changes in the past six months. In this case you would likely be covered if you had an intense, debilitating flare-up during your trip. But if you had been having trouble with the condition in the months leading up to your vacation, your trip insurance would be unlikely to cover any losses related to your arthritis unless you purchased a specific add-on.
Natural Disasters That Begin Before You Purchase Insurance
Trip insurance generally covers losses due to hurricanes or tropical storms, but you must make the purchase before the storm is named. Similar conditions typically apply to other natural disasters; if you buy a policy after a volcano starts erupting, for example, you won’t be covered for any losses related to that volcano’s activity.
Routine dental care is not included in travel insurance coverage, although dental trauma may be under some circumstances. One policy I reviewed provides coverage only for damage to “sound natural teeth,” for example.
Losses Due to Mental or Emotional Disorders
Most travel insurance policies do not cover claims involving psychiatric or emotional disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. (In rare cases policies may cover these conditions if hospitalization is required.)
Most trip insurance will not cover issues that arise for those traveling specifically to get medical treatment (such as procedures available overseas that are not available or are too expensive at home).
Pregnancy and Childbirth
If you are pregnant and give birth while traveling, your travel insurance coverage generally will not include childbirth expenses. You might, however, have coverage for complications associated with pregnancy or childbirth. This is one to check carefully in advance if you’re planning to travel while pregnant.
Risky Activities and Sports
Active travelers, take note: Many travel insurance policies exclude losses due to adventure sports such as bungee jumping, backcountry skiing, snowboarding, rafting, caving, sky diving, scuba diving … you get the idea. Some policies take this even further, applying exemptions for any sports involving bodily contact. (That means your kid’s football tournament might not be covered.) If you’re planning an active vacation, carefully check the terms of your policy before committing.
Some of Your Favorite Stuff
Baggage delay, damage, and loss policies don’t cover everything in your bags. Common travel insurance exclusions include glasses, hearing aids, dental bridges, tickets, passports, keys, cash, and cell phones. In some cases these items are covered but only up to a certain dollar limit, so if you have multiple expensive electronic items (such as a laptop, a tablet, and a cell phone), you might not have enough coverage to pay for the loss of all such items.
Travel insurance tends not to cover weather that limits your activities on a trip. For example, you’re covered if the weather is bad enough to delay or cancel your flight, but not if it pours during a jungle hike. And unless you bought a “cancel for any reason” rider, you can’t call off your beach vacation just because the forecast calls for rain and clouds.
Flights Purchased with Miles
Most policies do not cover flights purchased with miles or points. They may cover associated fees if you decide to cancel or change an award fare, however.
According to travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth, your policy typically won’t protect you if you miss a flight due to long airport security lines, or if you’re bumped from an overbooked flight and miss a subsequent connection or cruise departure.
Lost Reservations or Double-Booked Accommodations
Squaremouth also notes that travel insurance coverage doesn’t include certain lodging snafus. A lost hotel reservation will have to be taken up with the company or travel agent that lost it. And if you find someone else in the vacation rental you reserved, you’ll have to take it up with the site through which you booked.
An accommodation that’s a lot less desirable when you arrive than it looked to be online generally isn’t covered by travel insurance. Researching accommodations on review sites like TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) falls on you. The exception is if your hotel or vacation rental is uninhabitable due to a natural disaster, structural damage, or the like.
If you find your event or sightseeing excursion ticket turns out to be fake, typical travel insurance won’t cover you, says Squaremouth. Make sure you’re using a trusted ticket or tour outlet.
If your cruise line or tour operator makes a last-minute itinerary or excursion change, travel insurance typically won’t cover any travel issues caused by it, unless it involves complete curtailment. You can try contacting the operator responsible for the changes about compensation.
Anything for Which You Lack Documentation
If you don’t have a solid paper trail for all causes and costs involved in your claim, your chances of reimbursement plummet. Keep records like your wallet depends on it.
Anything NOT in the List of Covered Items
Travel insurance works largely by inclusion of items specifically noted to be covered, and anything not mentioned is likely not covered. If you have a concern that you don’t see listed in the fine print, contact the travel insurance company to see if you can purchase an appropriate add-on.
Did I skip other important things travel insurance coverage doesn’t include? Post your thoughts in the comments.
Not enough legroom. People climbing over you. Noise from movies and video games and screaming children. Sunlight pouring in your neighbor’s window at 35,000 feet. With all the distractions and hassles of air travel, sleeping on planes can sometimes feel impossible.
If you struggle to get some shuteye each time you take to the air, you’re not alone—but choosing the right seat, bringing the right gear, and making a few small changes in your flying habits could help you sleep better on your next flight. Read on for our travel-tested tips for sleeping on planes.
Choose Your Seat Wisely
Your seat location could be one of the most important factors in how well—or how poorly—you sleep on a plane. Try to get a window seat if possible; it will give you something to lean against and get you out of the way of other folks in your row, who won’t have to scramble over you each time they need to use the bathroom. You’ll also have some control over the window shade.
Think twice about bulkhead or exit row seats. Sure, the extra legroom is great, but some exit row seats do not recline (so that they won’t be an obstruction in case of emergency), and some bulkhead seats have armrests that can’t be raised. Sleeping in one of these is like sleeping in a straitjacket, especially if the seat next to you is unoccupied, or worse, the entire row is empty (as happened to me on a flight from Australia—14 hours in the air, an empty row, and the worst flight I’ve ever had). What could have been a nice sleep nook is now more like, well, an airplane seat.
Travel writer Andrea Rotondo also cautions against bulkhead seats because they “are often reserved for families traveling with babies or young kids, [and] can be noisy.”
Another area to avoid is the last row of the plane. Again, the seats may not recline, and they’re often located right near the lavatories—where both noise and odor could be an issue. See The Worst Seats on a Plane (and How to Avoid Them) for more info.
Aside from the very last row, there are pros and cons to sitting near the front of the plane vs. sitting near the back. Seats near the rear of the plane may be noisier due to the planes’ engines and clink-clanking from the galley, but it’s also more likely that you’ll have a couple of seats (or even a whole row) to yourself back there—and the extra space could make up for the extra noise.
To help you choose your seat, check out SmarterTravel’s sister site, SeatGuru.com, which offers color-coded seating charts for nearly every plane on every airline.
Cut Down on Your Carry-Ons
If you have two full-size carry-ons, one might end up under your feet, limiting your legroom and making it harder to sleep. Instead, pack lighter so you can fit everything into a single bag. Keep a few small necessities near the top of the bag—a book or magazine, a snack, a bottle of water. Before you stow your bag in the overhead compartment, pull out the important items that you’ll need during the flight and put them in the back of the seat in front of you.
Editor’s note: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cautions against the stowage of personal items in the seatback pocket for safety reasons, but states, “If small, lightweight items, such as eyeglasses or a cell phone, can be placed in the seat pocket without exceeding the total designed weight limitation of the seat pocket or so that the seat pocket does not block anyone from evacuating the row of seats, it may be safe to do so.” Keep the items you stow in the seatback pocket to a minimum, and be aware that flight attendants may ask you to put the items back into your carry-on bag.
Skip the Caffeine
Especially on a daytime flight, where even the view out the window can be a distraction, you’ll find it much harder to sleep if you have caffeine coursing through your veins. Avoid the temptation to have a cup of coffee or a soda before boarding, and stick to water or juice when the drink cart comes around.
Try a Sleep Aid
I am not a doctor and will not attempt to advise you on which drugs you should take as sleep aids. Consider asking your own physician about the following medications.
Over-the-counter options include Dramamine (bonus: it will also help if you have motion sickness), melatonin (a hormone that can help with sleep and prevent jet lag), any antihistamine containing diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl), and medicines designed for insomnia, like Unisom or ZzzQuil. One editor at SmarterTravel’s sister site, What to Pack, swears by valerian tea.
Be sure to test-drive any pills you’ve never taken at least a few nights prior to your flight—medicines can have the opposite effect for some people.
If you’re truly desperate, ask your doctor for a prescription sleep aid. Be warned, though, that medicines such as Ambien have side effects that include memory loss, hallucinations, “sleep-driving,” “sleep-eating,” and other adverse reactions—something to think about before you pop one at 30,000 feet.
Stake Your Claim on Blankets and Pillows—or Bring Your Own
There never seem to be enough blankets and pillows to go around. Board early and stake your claim. If there isn’t a set in your seat, immediately ask the flight attendant for one.
Better yet, bring your own. Even if you are offered a blanket, it may not be a clean one, as many airlines reuse them without washing them between flights. I recommend packing a travel blanket. You’ll feel toasty warm and be able to rest comfortably. If your plane is overheated, rolled-up blankets can double as lumbar support, pillows, or even a footrest.
Bring a Neck Pillow
Many travelers swear by their supportive neck pillows. Personally, I’ve found few neck pillows that really work the way they’re designed. They are too big in the back, which tilts my head forward, and then offer no support under my chin to hold up my noggin that has just been pushed forward. I turn them around; this works like a charm.
Are you a stomach, side, or back sleeper? Pick a travel pillow that allows you to most closely recreate your sleeping style in a limited space. For example, if you’re a stomach sleeper who has no shame, you might want to consider the Skyrest Travel pillow, which should let you sleep peacefully, perhaps unaware of the mocking laughter from other passengers. Side sleeper? Try the unique Travelrest pillow. And back sleepers can try the Travelon First Class Sleeper.
Free Your Feet
This is a controversial subject. Some people slip their shoes off as soon as they get on a plane; others wouldn’t dream of it. Further, there’s the issue of keeping your circulation flowing; going barefoot permits your feet to swell.
Take care of your dogs and wear clean socks. Opt for shoes you can slip on and off easily—this way you’re not pulling at shoelaces and flinging elbows mid-flight. On long overseas flights, consider wearing compression socks to encourage circulation.
Use Headphones with Discretion
Save yourself the five bucks and catch some more winks by passing on the airline’s headphones. TV and movies can keep you up the entire flight. On one transatlantic flight a few years back, I sat awake until three in the morning watching Man on the Moon; I laughed out loud and definitely enjoyed myself, but the next day in Europe, I yearned deeply for the two hours of sleep I lost to Jim Carrey’s depictions of Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton.
On the other hand, listening to soothing music can help tune out distractions and lull you into a peaceful sleep. For best results, try Bose’s popular noise-canceling headphones; they’re pricey, but they’re the best product on the market for frequent flyers looking to escape engine noise and other in-flight distractions. (Ear plugs are a less effective but much cheaper alternative.)
Make Sure You Won’t Be Disturbed
Jayne Bailey Holland, a former airline staffer, recommends notifying your flight attendant that you want to sleep—that way he or she will know not to disturb you when the drink or snack cart comes around. If you’re under a blanket, be sure your seat belt is buckled over top of it so the belt is visible at all times.
Will your flight be hot or cold? It’s impossible to predict, so wear layers. Don’t wear anything tight, as that can restrict your circulation (which is already at risk in a tight airplane seat). If you’re on a long-haul flight, consider bringing pajamas to change into—you might find it easier to fall asleep in your usual jammies than a business suit.
Recline Your Seat—But Be Courteous
On a night flight, expecting someone not to sleep is like asking them to put down their window shade during a flight over the Grand Canyon or Haleakala. Ideally, everyone has the same idea and seats will tip backward soon into your flight.
However, you should always look behind you to make sure the coast is clear before pushing the button to put your seat back. It gives the person behind you a heads up if they have coffee in front of them or have their head down on the tray table.
Simple common courtesy applies here.
Stay Away from the Light
The animated flash of movie screens, reading lights, cabin lights, sunlight bursting in on an eastbound flight—all can disturb your slumber. Get yourself an eye mask. Some airlines provide them, but it’s best to keep one in your traveling kit just to be safe.
When It’s Time to Wake Up …
The worst part of sleeping is waking up, I always say. It’s even worse on a plane, when you’re waking up to fluorescent lights, luggage carousels, and sunshine so bright you can practically hear it.
If it’s a long flight, consider setting a watch or cell phone alarm for 45 minutes before you have to land. That gives you time to go to the restroom, gather your gear, tie your shoes, watch the approach to your destination, drink a cup of coffee, and walk off the plane fully awake.
Reaching your destination fully rested, whether you indulge in a short and sweet nap or a full rack en route, always beats lurching around an airport tired and crabby. Grab your 40 winks (and then some) in flight, and you’ll be a happier traveler.
Must-Buy Items for Catching Some Z’s
For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.
Whether you’re headed across the country or around the world, don’t forget to pack these essentials for a restful in-flight snooze.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Caroline Morse Teel contributed to this story. A previous version of this story had the incorrect title of a 1999 film about Andy Kaufman. It has been corrected.
As aircraft seats become harder, closer together, and more likely to be full, getting comfortable in coach has grown into a nearly impossible challenge. Fortunately, there are little ways you can take control of your in-flight experience, from choosing the right seat to bringing the right gear. The 18 tips and tactics below will help you maximize your comfort and have a better flight.
The first step in having a better flight is having a better seat. Keep in mind that a window or aisle seat isn’t guaranteed to be comfortable; there might be something blocking the leg space, or the seat might not recline, or there might be no window in that row. Check SeatGuru, SmarterTravel’s sister site, to make sure your sweet seat isn’t actually a lemon.
Reserve One Aisle and One Window Seat
This is an old travel trick. When you are traveling with another person on a flight that places most seats together in groups of three, book one person in the window seat and one in the aisle seat, leaving the middle seat open. Subsequent passengers will try to avoid middle seats, so if the flight isn’t full you might get the row to yourselves. If someone does book the middle seat and you prefer to sit together, the other passenger will almost always happily surrender the middle seat to either of you.
Think Hard Before Booking the Bulkhead
Bulkhead seats, with their additional legroom and option to pin your feet against the wall to stretch, can seem attractive. But the absence of underseat space means that you can’t have a personal item at your feet during takeoff and landing (as well as time spent taxiing, which can be considerable). This means keeping everything in the overhead bins (if there is room), and getting up after takeoff and before landing to retrieve and restow them.
Choose a Window Seat if You Plan to Sleep
Most people find it easier to sleep in the window seat; you have something to lean on, less risk of falling over onto someone, and no one asking you to get up so they can get out of the row.
Block Noise to Make Your Food Taste Better
Noise-canceling headphones can help you avoid the chatter of your annoying neighbor, but they can also improve the way your meal tastes, according to an Oxford University professor. It turns out that the drone of engine noise can actually make travelers less sensitive to the taste and smell of their food.
A neck pillow can make your in-flight experience significantly more comfortable—but don’t leave it up to chance. Before a recent trip to Europe I purchased a self-inflating, collapsible neck pillow at the airport. It was pretty much useless from the moment I opened it up; maybe a rhino’s neck would have been supported by the giant and overly flexible opening, but for me it was just a waste of space. Try out your new travel pillow in advance to be sure it’s worth the packing space in your carry-on.
Some airplanes are hot, some are cold, and some go back and forth. Dressing in layers you can add or shed easily will give you more control over your comfort.
Bring a Portable Charger
Bringing a device with a depleted battery onto a plane is setting yourself up for a miserable in-flight experience. A small, fully powered portable charger in your carry-on can help get you through even the longest flights with enough juice to spare for phone calls on arrival.
Avoid Carbonated Drinks
According to flight attendants, drinking carbonated soda or other beverages can lead to bloating and discomfort in the pressurized air of an airplane cabin. Your best bet for staying hydrated (and comfortable) is always water.
Fly in the Morning
Planes generally encounter more turbulence as the day goes on and the ground warms up, according to Reader’s Digest. You’re also more likely to encounter thunderstorms in the afternoon. Take a morning flight for a gentler, better flight.
Sit Over the Wing
Similarly, the least bumpy seats in the plane are those over the wing; as pilot and author Patrick Smith notes in the Reader’s Digest story above, “A plane is like a seesaw. If you’re in the middle, you don’t move as much.”
To stay hydrated as well as enjoy the limited refreshments available, ask your flight attendant politely if you can have the whole can instead of just a cup of your preferred beverage; many will oblige.
What little things do you do to have a better flight? Let us know in the comments.
While we’re nowhere near where we should be in helping the planet, awareness of the negative impact that traveling has on the environment is increasing. So much that many travelers are increasingly investing in ways to neutralize the carbon emissions from their flights. A whole host of companies exist to help travelers go “carbon neutral.”
A Mile Is a Mile: Quick and Dirty Look at the Science
Air travel has a particularly negative impact on the atmosphere due to two factors, expressed herein as close to lay terms as I can muster: 1) planes emit a stew of other harmful gases in addition to carbon dioxide, and 2) gases released in the upper atmosphere where planes cruise have a much greater impact than gases released on the ground due to something called the “radiative forcing” effect. The sum total of the damage is about 1.9 times that of driving a relatively fuel-efficient car.
Radiative forcing notwithstanding, it’s much easier simply to call a mile a mile. Since most of us are doing so little about the problem already, to quibble over the exact radiative forcing effect is a bit like working inside the Beltway, where people would rather argue over how to do something than actually do it. As convenient as it would be out here in the real world to live that way, we can’t, so let’s use the mile = mile metric.
Thus, if the average American drives 10,000 to 15,000 miles each year, it takes only a trip to Europe for a West Coaster, a trip to Hawaii for an East Coaster or a couple of cross-country flights to do as much damage (or more) as you do during an entire year of commuting and cruising in your car.
Politics Cedes to Science (Finally)
While climate change has considerable staying power as a hot-button topic among politicians, virtually no reputable scientists and increasingly few citizens see it merely as a political issue any longer. After years in the political wilderness, climate change has come to be accepted as scientific fact by most Americans, or close enough to fact to act.
As “flight-shaming” becomes a thing in travel, many travelers are willing to do something about it, but are we willing to stop traveling? In this global economy, and in a country where extended families might live all over the country, forgoing air travel entirely isn’t going to happen. And the greater benefits of global travel are multifold and diverse, whether you focus on cultural, political or economic factors. So what can we do about it?
Carbon Offsetting: Solution or Panacea?
For better or worse, the concept of “carbon offsetting” has gained considerable currency in the media as one way to mitigate the environmental impact of many facets of modern living. The concept is fairly simple: for every mile you travel, or rather every ton of carbon dioxide your mode of travel causes to be released into the atmosphere, you pay a small fee to enable other folks to work on solutions to mitigate the damaging ecological effect of your travel.
There are some great things about carbon offsetting:
Unlike a lot of environmental science, the concept is extremely easy to grasp. Spew a bunch of gases into the atmosphere + plant a tree that can chew up those gases = zero-sum total.
To let the market help solve some of its own problems is a promising long-term approach; several companies mentioned below are making it very easy to participate, which is a critical component of any popular movement.
For insanely busy working Americans who simply do not have the resources to plant 40 trees every time they fly to Chicago, paying a very reasonable amount to have someone else do this work is both effective and realistic.
But there are also some problems:
For one, the majority of online carbon calculators are standard, and as airlines do more in minimizing their carbon footprint, “No account is taken of the airline and whether it is an airline that has taken more measures to reduce emissions, or not. Aircraft type is also not being taken into account, yet we know that one aircraft can be massively more efficient than another,” reports the OAG (Official Aviation Guide). We need new, industry-wide metrics to help travelers understand what their actual impact is and how to make appropriate decisions whether it’s to fly at all or to choose a different airline or route.
Considerable debate remains on how best to spend the funds: wind farms or tree farms? Solar solutions or “manure into methane”? Indigenous reforestation or “tree cultures”? While tree planting is one of the most popular options for carbon offsets—not to mention one of the easiest for average people to understand—many experts point out that trees only sequester carbon until they die, at which point the carbon will be re-released into the atmosphere. Other debates center around questions of whether the companies and agencies doing the work are actually delivering on their promises.
As of late, many airlines, and other travel-industry providers, are taking their impact on the environment more seriously and participating in programs that help make their business models more sustainable. One of these ways is by offering carbon-neutral flights (read more on that, here) that use biofuel, other airlines are forming industry “eco-partnerships”, like Etihad and Boeing for example, as well as investing in newer, more efficient aircraft fleets. The good news here is that these major corporations are taking responsibility, but the reality is, both travelers and providers need to do their part to have an impact.
(The issue of whether a nonprofit is better than a commercial company for this type of work is also a divisive issue in the world of general do-gooding; many believe that adding a profit motive to what has typically been “charity work” is the best way to improve and sustain these efforts. On the other hand, one obvious upside of using the nonprofit is that you can deduct the expense at tax time.)
We’ll walk you through an example of how carbon offsets work with Expedia: When booking a flight on Expedia, the last screen you see before confirming the purchase of your trip to Knoxville is the option to “Customize your trip to Knoxville,” which includes such “Featured Activities and Services” as the Expedia Flight Protection Plan, an airport lounge pass, a subscription to a glossy travel magazine and, sure enough, the option to “Fly Green with TerraPass,” one of the leading travel carbon-offsetting companies.
Based on calculations of the carbon footprint of your trip (typically measured in cubic tons, which you can calculate on the TerraPass site), Expedia and TerraPass offer multiple contribution levels to account for the length of your flight.
International and Domestic Airlines’ Carbon Offset Programs
There are numerous sites that offer carbon offsets, and a few airlines that offer the option to offset air travel.
Some of the stand out programs from international airlines include the following: EasyJet now offsets the carbon from the fuel used on every single flight by investing in selected projects, like forest regeneration and solar energy. Qantas allows its Frequent Flyer and Business Rewards customers to earn 10 Qantas Points for every dollar spent on offsetting, plus, the airline matches every customer’s contribution to carbon offsetting, dollar for dollar. Cathay Pacific’s FLY Greener program helps customers calculate their carbon offset and purchase plans on their site when booking. Other international airlines that offer customer-facing carbon offset purchasing options include: Air New Zealand, Austrian, China Airlines, EVA Air, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, and more.
Point is, no matter where you’re flying, you can probably find an airline offering offsets. You can also access these sites without going through the airlines. Your other options include The Conservation Fund and TerraPass. Or, to simply calculate your carbon impact and learn more about ways you can reduce it rather than purchasing offsets, visitCOTAP.org. It’s also worth noting that just because an airline isn’t listed here, doesn’t mean that it’s not participating in other environmental-friendly initiatives.
If you prefer not to mingle your travel booking with your charitable and environmental efforts, or if you want to extend your carbon offsetting donations to other parts of your life, you can visit the Web sites of any number of competing carbon offsetting outfits to calculate your carbon consumption and make your contribution directly. See our comprehensive list of carbon offset companies.
FAQs on Carbon Offsetts for Flights
How much does carbon offsetting cost?
Most websites allow you to offset in two ways. The first is to donate a preselected amount ($5, $10, $20). The second is to calculate your carbon emissions based on your travel and/or activities to determine a specific donation amount. When you purchase carbon offsets through an airline, you often only get the option of offsetting travel, but sites such as Carbonfund.org offer the option of offsetting air travel, car travel, your home, or any combination.
When offsetting air travel, some sites give you the option of offsetting the effects of radiative forcing as well. Radiative forcing occurs at higher altitudes when an aircraft’s contrails form cirrus clouds, which more than double the emissions’ effect on global warming. Naturally, opting to offset radiative forcing costs more.
How is carbon offsetting calculated?
The way emissions are calculated varies by site, and most give an explanation as to how they generate the cost of an offset. Carbonfund.org uses statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, while Cathay Pacific uses historic fuel consumption data to determine carbon dioxide emissions, then divides this number by the total passengers on the plane (based on historical averages) and the distance flown to determine the amount of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometer. Qantas takes it a step further and factors in emissions from ground operations such as catering centers, terminals, ground vehicles, and engineering facilities. There is no industry standard as to how emissions are calculated, so there is potential for variation.
Where does my money go and can I choose where it goes?
Once you purchase a carbon offset, your donation supports renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and/or reforestation projects. Some sites allow you to choose what types of projects your money goes toward, while others choose for you. For example, both Carbonfund.org and Sustainable Travel International allow you to choose whether your donation goes toward reforestation/preventing deforestation, renewable energy, or energy efficiency projects.
How do I know my money is going to a reputable project?
Do your research. Before you purchase offsets, review the organization and its projects.
Look for nonprofit organizations and Gold Standard certified projects.
Make sure the organization and its projects meet third-party certification standards and are verified and audited by third parties.
Check that the organization retires carbon offsets instead of reselling them.
Other Ways to Offset Your Environmental Impact While Traveling
Reducing your environmental impact while traveling can be almost absurdly easy (and I’m not talking about driving without air-conditioning during summer, wearing down coats in your hotel room or other such unpleasantries):
When you leave your hotel room, turn down the heat or air-conditioning until you return, and turn off the lights.
Use the “no room service needed” option offered at many hotels. At home, you don’t change your bedsheets, use a different towel, vacuum perfectly tidy rugs or scrub your sink every single day, as is the case at even the most modest hotels. If everyone in every hotel in the U.S. were to use this option, the amount of water and energy saved on washing machines alone would have an impact.
Use public transportation when traveling. In many cities riding the subway, the Underground, the El trains and the like can be a wholly satisfying way to get to know your surroundings. Folks who zip from one tourist attraction to another in a taxi learn about exactly those things: taxis and tourist attractions. It’s all the actual living in between that makes a great city great.
You Tell Us: Have you ever purchased a carbon offset? Do you think they are a good idea? Share your thoughts and advice with us on social media and tag (@SmarterTravel) so we can see it!
Attending the Olympic Games can be both thrilling and challenging, with all of the usual travel logistics ratcheted up to an Olympic level. Here are the essential Olympic travel guidelines and tips you need to know as you’re planning your trip.
Note that most of the following tips apply to both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, which tend to occur about two weeks apart. The two-week break makes it very tough to attend both, but the Paralympic Games are typically less crowded and even more exciting and inspiring, so they’re worth consideration in and of themselves.
Event tickets tend to be released in waves; in 2020, CoSport released tickets on the following schedule, according to spokesman Michael Clyne: “Past sales were on July 9, October 10, January 16, and February 6. Additionally, on October 17, CoSport debuted hospitality pass package sales, which combine high-demand tickets with access to a cultural hospitality experience at Japan’s National Theatre, where entertainment, fine food, and beverage combine into a world-class Olympic experience (these are still available).
“For tickets closer to and during Games-time, CoSport.com will continue to sell tickets for Americans via the website.”
Additionally, once you arrive in the host city, you can purchase tickets locally at event venues and other official Olympic locations
When choosing events, I have found this strategy to work well: First get something you really care about, and then choose something that seems interesting but you know very little about. For example, at one recent Olympic Games my family went to a tae kwon do event when our son was involved in the sport, and we even saw his teacher there working as a judge. The next day we went to mountain biking, which was wild and very cool, with attendees all running around the fields that connected one obstacle to the next.
Tickets to many events may officially sell out up to a year in advance, but are often still available through package deals from the official ticket vendors. A visit to those vendors’ websites will tell you a lot about what is on offer.
Lodging is likely to be your biggest challenge and is the trip component you should research and lock down first. You can use your favorite search engines to get started, comparing your options to the venues you hope to attend. The venues are set years in advance, so you can start searching fairly early on. Brace yourself, as there is quite a bit of speculative pricing that can go on, and availability can be hard to come by; in fact, one 2020 Olympic hopeful I know booked their entire family into double rooms at a Tokyo “love hotel,” yikes.
The sanctioned ticket sellers also offer Olympics travel packages that include a certain number of nights’ lodging with a certain number of event tickets—but those tend to be somewhat pricey compared to DIY lodging options. That said, purchasing from the official outlets does tend to ensure some level of quality as well as a centralized location, so it is always worth a look.
Finding Olympic Flights
Many Olympic host cities have more than one airport, and it is worth your while to research airfares to all of them. For the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, for example, you can choose between Narita and Haneda. Narita is the much larger airport and has many more flights, but is far away from the city center, while Haneda is smaller and has fewer flights, but is less than 10 miles from the Olympic Village and numerous event venues.
You’ll want to prepare for extreme weather no matter which Olympics you’re attending—pack plenty of warm layers for the winter Games, and prepare for heat if you’re attending a summer event.
Transport to venues varies tremendously depending on the host city and the location of a given venue. As you get farther from the main venues, transport connections can become more tricky. Public transportation in Tokyo is superb, and should be running at full strength; the same was the case for London. Rio was a different story, but taxis were so affordable that they were actually a preferable option in many cases (just be careful to use sanctioned taxi services).
It almost goes without saying that you should give yourself some extra time whenever you are headed to a competition; if you miss a bus, end up on a long security line, need some time to find the correct entrance, or can’t quite figure out where you are supposed to go, you could miss the most dramatic moments of the competition.
You should also be prepared to walk a bit; entrances may not be right in front of transportation spots, security might be purposely far from the competition area, and the venue itself may be spread out.
Find the Free Events
Even before you start attending competitions, every Olympic host city has some kind of massive public space for exhibitors and sponsors to put on shows, display wares, and more. These are often (although not always) right outside the main Olympic Stadium and have the host mascots running around, interactive games and exhibits, giant jumbotrons showing live events and highlights, and the like. These are worth seeing just to get the overall vibe of the Games, to people-watch, and to pick up (often free) souvenirs.
Additionally, at every Olympics there are a number of events that take place in semi-public places, allowing you to see significant parts of the event at no cost whatsoever. You might not get to see the athletes at the starting line, or celebrating up close, or receiving their medals, but you can still see the heart of the competition at no charge.
These are usually distance events of some kind in which the venue is huge and can’t be entirely closed off, or even runs through the streets and public spaces of the host city. These typically include the following:
Rowing, canoeing, and kayaking
I’d also throw in surfing; this is the first year of surfing at the Games, so there is no history of how it is set up, but it seems like a candidate for being able to watch from near the event.
Then there are venues that back up to public spaces; in both Rio and reportedly Tokyo, rowing was one of these; in Rio, the lake on which the event took place was right in the middle of Ipanema, and you could see athletes competing from all over the place. The finish line was right next to a small skateboarding spot, and the crews headed right toward the kids skating there, while the start line was against the ring road around the lake at a spot where a small playground and picnic area remained open throughout the Games. The starting tower was surrounded by picnickers, and the local spectators were perhaps 50 to 80 meters from the athletes at the starting line.
In Tokyo, the rowing can be seen from a couple of interesting vantage points; the starting line is again up against a public road that is supposed to remain open (although it is fairly industrial and hardly a picnic spot). Farther away but more interesting is the public walkway on the giant Gate Bridge, which looks directly down at the course along its entire span.
These can be a bit tricky to figure out—for example, in London, you could not see rowing at all because the venue was surrounded by a huge moat (English enough?) that prevented anyone but ticket holders from getting anywhere near the course—but if you survey the venues and racecourses, you can usually figure out where you might hang out to see the athletes zoom past.
I have found that folks trickle in to the Olympic host city over time, but everyone leaves over the same day or two. Leaving the day before the closing ceremonies, or staying on a few days afterward, can often help avoid the stampede as well as keep airfare prices down a bit.
More Olympic Travel Tips
Travel light to each event. The biggest slowdown you will encounter will almost always be bag check lines when entering (this is a rule at almost all large events these days). If you can avoid backpacks and bags, you can save time and aggravation.
Add in some “regular” tourism. Most host cities are exceptional destinations with or without the Games, and can be even better during the Olympics when even the non-sports attractions will get caught up in Olympic fever and put their best foot forward. Definitely visit some non-Olympic events to get a feel for the host city and country while you are there.
Get into the spirit of it all. The volunteers at most Olympics really bring it when they are out interacting with all of us visiting the Games, and the overall vibe on the ground can be exhilarating. Give yourself over to the whole thing and you can be a true part of the Olympic spirit.
Ed Hewitt has covered the last five Olympic Games as the publisher and founder of row2k.com. His writing and photography have appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, websites, films, and other media.
With vacation days so precious—especially in the U.S., where people take an average of just 16.2 days off each year, according to the U.S. Travel Association—getting sick while traveling can be an incredibly frustrating experience.[st_content_ad]
Don’t want to lose half your vacation to an illness? The best remedy for travel sicknesses is prevention. To that end, here are 18 surefire ways to get sick while traveling; avoid them and you will feel like a champ on your next trip.
Guzzle a Lot of Tap Water
Most tap water is perfectly fine to drink—if you are a local. For travelers, however, the bacteria found in tap water around the world varies considerably, and your own belly biome may not stand up well to the local bacteria, even if you like the locals themselves.
The best approach here is to buy and drink bottled water only; in most cases bottled water has been filtered sufficiently not to cause trouble even for weaker stomachs. Beware, however, establishments that reuse old water bottles by refilling them at the tap. You will want to open your new water bottle yourself to be sure. If you want to avoid single-use plastic, bring your own water purification system such as the LARQ bottle or the SteriPEN.
And don’t forget that ice cubes are typically made from tap water; this is an easy one to forget. Unless you know the ice was made with bottled or disinfected water, skip it.
It may be obvious, but this tip applies mostly to international travel; water standards throughout most of the U.S. allow you to ignore this advice stateside (as well as in Canada, Western Europe, and other developed countries).
Eat Food Washed in Tap Water
Similarly, if you eat food that was rinsed or washed in tap water (or worse, such as in a washing basin filled with water in which other food was also washed), you are vulnerable to the same bacteria as if you guzzled the water down yourself. This tends to happen most frequently with things like lettuce, onions, and other vegetables that come from the ground, need washing, and are typically served raw.
Rummage Around in the Seatback Pockets
Airplanes are notoriously filthy, and they’re cleaned far less frequently than you might think; there is certainly no deep cleaning going on during the short period of deboarding and reboarding that goes on at most airline gates. While I do recommend checking out the emergency information at the beginning of your flight, avoid too much rummaging around in the seatback pocket if you can help it.
The same goes for pretty much all surfaces on the plane (and in the airport waiting areas and bathrooms, etc.), but the seatback pockets seem to be particularly troublesome areas. Some travelers immediately come and wipe down everything around their seats with an alcohol wipe, which may be going overboard a bit, but it sure can’t hurt. If that isn’t your style, try to keep your hands away from your face until you have had a chance to clean up after your flight.
Drink from Unclean or Unwrapped Glasses in Hotel Rooms
By now most folks have seen the hotel sanitation exposes where the cleaning staff merely wipes out a used glass with a towel, or, even worse, sprays some kind of cleaning agent in a glass, wipes it with a dirty rag, and puts it back on the counter. Germs, chemicals, leftover toothpaste; none of these are good for you. The rule of thumb here: If the glass is not wrapped in a sealed plastic bag, wash it yourself using very hot water, or simply don’t use it.
Your body needs water to do pretty much everything, and hydration only gets more important when you are tired, run down, and under siege by unfamiliar germs. Dehydration not only makes you more vulnerable to invading bugs (sometimes in unexpected ways, as described in Avoiding the Airplane Cold), but also makes it harder for you to recover once infected in some way. Some of the other tips here are open to interpretation and may vary greatly by destination and by the individual traveler as well, but this one is a lot less negotiable.
Keep in mind that drinks like alcohol and coffee don’t really count as good choices for hydration. They are not terrible—the hydration effect of coffee is a net positive, for example—but they aren’t going to get the job done well under tough conditions.
Alter Your Diet Radically
Eating and drinking like the locals is an essential and satisfying part of travel, and to skip this experience is a non-starter for a lot of travelers. But switching up your diet too drastically can topple all but the hardiest constitutions; for example, if you eat mostly fruit and vegetables at home, jumping into having barbecue or other meat three times a day might not be a great idea. Dig in on the local stuff, but maybe have a meal or two each day that is a bit more like your home fare.
As you spend more time in a place, you can often shift gradually to eating like a local around the clock, but we recommend giving your gut a couple of days to get ready.
Eat at a Deserted Restaurant
Spoiled or tainted food can cripple travelers for a few days, or worse; a good indicator of the freshness and edibility at any given restaurant is how many people are eating there and how many of them are locals. Establishments favored by the hordes and by the locals are less likely to have a reputation for tainted food. Even if the flora differs a bit from that at home, the fact that heaps of folks are eating the food is almost always a good sign (and high turnover means the food is probably fresher, too).
Don’t Eat Boiled or Peeled Food
This is an old traveler’s standby; when in doubt, eat only food that is either boiled or peeled. Germs will be killed off pretty much universally by boiling, and germs can’t get into food that has a peelable skin in most cases.
Get Jacked up on Caffeine
Jet lag, the availability of great local coffee and a bit of extra leisure time to enjoy a refill can tempt travelers into noticeably upping their coffee intake. Your belly might not agree with this tactic; big increases in your daily caffeine intake can cause you some really uncomfortable hours just when you don’t want them. Keep your caffeine consumption within the range of your normal levels at home to avoid problems.
Try to Quit Caffeine Cold Turkey Because You Are on Vacation
Conversely, if you have a fairly regular caffeine habit, you will want to figure out a way to slake your appetite for it during your trip. Anyone who has tried to go cold turkey on caffeine understands how miserable the withdrawal can be; it can also last from a couple of days to a week and a half, the full length of many trips.
Miss a Lot of Sleep
Along with hydration, sleep is your most effective weapon against becoming ill or fighting it off once you are already infected; in fact, sleep and hydration together are your best tools both for prevention and recovery from illness on the road. Don’t shortchange yourself on shuteye.
Don’t Pack Your Medications
If you have go-to medications when you get ill—or, even more critically, have prescription medications you need—you will want to bring them on your trip so you have the right medication at the right time. When traveling abroad, buying something even as simple as DayQuil can be difficult, as language barriers, availability, and even different formulas in different parts of the world can make it tricky to know exactly what you’re buying. A lot of folks have remedies that just seem to work best for them, and if this is the case, bring them from home. To learn more, see Traveling with Medication: Everything You Need to Know.
Skip Hand Sanitizers
I am not a fan of constantly pouring hand sanitizers every time your hand touches something new, but while overseas there are different bugs all around you, so this can help. I recommend you pick and choose when to use these—on airplanes, in questionable restrooms, after your kids go in a McDonald’s playground, that kind of thing—and otherwise don’t worry about it all the time. You don’t need your hands to be as clean as an operating room—just clean enough not to wreck your trip.
Most cases of traveler’s tummy are caused by strong or unfamiliar bacteria, and the cure for a bacterial infection is to take an antibiotic. You might think to let your body fight off the bacteria for a while, and only if you don’t recover quickly to go see a doctor, but it may be better to get to a doctor more quickly so you don’t give the bacteria time to thrive.
In some cases, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic before your trip for use in case you get traveler’s stomach; the choice of antibiotic differs by destination, so check with your doctor directly on this one.
Don’t Use Sun Protection
Any number of discomforting conditions can be caused by too much sun, and it doesn’t take that much exposure to bring on symptoms that can range from itchy skin to fairly serious stomach problems, all potential symptoms of sunstroke or excessive sun exposure. Pack a serious sunblock and a wide-brimmed hat, and you are set.
Swim in Polluted Water
There is a fantastic lake near my home, and the temptation to swim in it would be quite high—if I didn’t know what was in there. The water is beautiful, giving no hint of the heavy metals, goose bacteria, and annual algae blooms that abound in it. There’s a reason you don’t ever see anyone swimming in that lake.
The presence of people in the water isn’t necessarily proof that the water quality is acceptable; there are lots of places where locals go swimming (and catch fish and the like) even though health officials advise against it. Before diving in, look around for signs, pipes emptying into the water, scum on the surface, and other common-sense indicators that the water isn’t safe for swimming.
Skip Recommended Vaccinations
Before you travel, check the CDC and State Department websites to find out if any specific vaccinations are recommended in the regions to which you’re traveling. If so, make an appointment at a travel clinic to get them done well before your trip.
Don’t Do Any Research on Health Risks in Your Destination
While you can’t safeguard against every possible malady, following all of the above recommendations will significantly reduce the likelihood of getting sick while traveling. If you have any tips we missed, please add them in the comments.
Traveling? Consider Bringing These:
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Traveling with family and friends can be incredibly rewarding, offering experiences and laughs that can bind us for a lifetime. So it might seem that going on vacation alone would be a less enriching experience; without our favorite people to share it with, how could it compare?
And yet many veteran travelers have memories of extraordinary, eye-opening solo trips, of glorious days when they set out alone and found and saw and noticed things they might never have done otherwise.
Why travel alone? Consider finding out for yourself. Here are 11 reasons why you should travel alone at least once in your life.
You’ll Focus More on the Destination
When you’re on vacation alone, the lack of familiar people to interact with forces you to engage much more directly with your surroundings—on where you are rather than who you’re with. This is probably why many travelers report more vivid memories from solo trips; their attention is absolutely focused on their surroundings.
You’ll Meet More Locals
Unable to rely on your traveling partners to buy breakfast, use their better language skills to get things done, or distract you during a boring train ride, you’ll have to turn to the locals—whether you’re looking for human interaction or not.
A solo traveler can also seem more approachable. If you’re with a partner or friend, it’s tempting to talk mostly with each other, and outsiders might not want to impose. But if you’re by yourself, it’s often easier for someone else to strike up a conversation with you (or vice versa).
When traveling with others, we are often selective about suggesting activities that we hope everyone will enjoy and find a good use of precious vacation time. If one of these activities doesn’t work out, it can be a source of guilt and conflict.
If you make the wrong choice on a solo trip, there’s no one to worry about other than yourself, and you won’t feel guilty for ruining someone else’s travel day. Plus, it’s easier to ditch your itinerary and move on, which brings us to…
You Can Change Plans on a Dime
When traveling in a group, changing plans can be rife with interpersonal, financial, and other concerns. When on a vacation alone, you can simply make a decision and move on. This can apply to decisions both small and large, from deciding where to eat to choosing whether to rent a car and leave town.
You Have Complete Financial Control
Want to blow a ton of money on a waterfront room? Go for it. Want to spend next to nothing on food? Fine. Want to go only to free museums, events, and attractions? Keep your money. As a solo traveler, you have the last (and only) word on every dollar you spend.
When we are with friends and family, much of our experience is a shared one, which can offer rich rewards but can also create a buffer between us and the world around us. Traveling alone makes remaining in the bubble of your own comfort zone nigh on impossible—which can lead to more intense travel experiences.
You Can Find Your Own Rhythm
Perhaps the most striking thing about traveling alone is that your schedule is entirely yours to decide. Our everyday lives can be a tyrannical grind of accommodating other people’s schedules, and this can easily carry over to leisure time as we try to pace our vacation days to adapt to the preferences of the group.
Traveling alone, you can walk out of a movie you don’t like, stay for hours in a museum no one else you know would care about, ride an elevated subway to the last stop just for the sights, read a book in your hotel room, or whatever you can come up with that would seem a waste of time to almost anyone else. Following your own rhythm without compromise might not be possible in daily life, but it’s great, indulgent fun on a solo vacation.
Traveling Alone Builds Confidence
SmarterTravel Senior Editor Sarah Schlichter notes that her first solo trip, originally a source of trepidation, ultimately offered a wellspring of confidence.
“I remember how scared I was the first time I traveled by myself—and sometimes I still am,” she says. “It can be lonely and unsettling not to have anyone else around for backup. But being able to get yourself out of a jam or figure out where you are when you’re lost can give you a new sense of confidence and faith in your own resourcefulness. For me this carried into not only other trips but also into my life at home.”
Schlichter found her newfound abilities liberating, especially when deciding if and where to travel.
“When I was younger I thought that if I couldn’t find someone who wanted to visit a place with me, I couldn’t go,” she says. “Now, if no one else is interested or available, I just shrug and go anyway, knowing that traveling by myself isn’t a big deal.”
Some Sensations Seem Unique to Solo Travel
Solo travelers often report instances of mundane happenstance offering up strong and memorable emotions. Imagine waking up in an empty hotel, where nearly no one knows you are there, with the hours ahead lying entirely unscripted and your sense of possibilities is nearly exploding. As Freya Stark once noted, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” It is a unique and heady experience.
When you venture out into the world on your own, you eventually need to face who you are, what you care about, and what you want to do with your time. Certainly the literature of our species bears this out, with a journey at the center of many of our greatest and most significant myths, novels, and memoirs. Traveling with others you will find great friendship, diversion, and fun—but traveling alone you might find yourself.
Have you ever gone on vacation alone? Share your experience in the comments.
Outfits for Any Solo Travel Excursion
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Women’s Comfortable Outfit for Traveling to Warm Countries
Not such a long time ago—and a very good time it was, some say—a “surprise” flight upgrade wasn’t the rare thing it is today. In fact, if you traveled enough, it was just a matter of time before a check-in or gate agent slipped you a boarding pass with a very low row number—a golden ticket of sorts for many travelers.
But these days, when everything flight-related has a price tag, you’ll pay $99 for an “upgrade” to the front section of coach, just for the right to get off the plane more quickly (although in some cases it does also buy you an inch or two of extra legroom). Many factors have created the present “zero upgrade” environment—like the airlines’ love of fees and surcharges, computerized seat assignments (which make it much easier to know where everyone is well before flight time), very full flights, and increased competition for upgrades due to the degraded state of flying coach.
But just because your chances of getting an upgrade have gone down, you don’t necessarily have to give up. To learn how to get upgraded to first class for free, check out the tactics below. But first, let’s realize that, for many domestic flights…
First Class Ain’t What It Used to Be
Don’t get me wrong—when I am filing past the first few rows of seats on my way to the back of the plane, those big leather seats with folks already drinking wine in them have a strong allure. But those seats come with a cost, whether in cash or in miles, and on shorter domestic flights you don’t get all that much more than the folks in coach—wider seats, a little more legroom, free drinks, and the chance to board a little earlier.
That said, some airlines have upped the ante in their first-class cabins on longer domestic routes. American Airlines offers lie-flat seats in first class on some transcontinental routes, while Hawaiian Airlines has lie-flat options on its first-class service to Hawaii. On these types of domestic flights, an upgrade is definitely worth trying for.
The same goes for longer international flights. Much more critically than better food and drinks, first- and business-class seats in most international aircraft convert into beds that are pretty darn comfortable. On a flight back from Tokyo in first class a few years ago, I was actually disappointed when we began our final descent; when is the last time that happened in coach?
Why It’s So Hard to Get a Free Upgrade
David Rowell, who writes The Travel Insider, notes that “it is enormously harder to get upgrades these days than it used to be. Well, correction, it is harder to get undeserved upgrades these days. The procedure for getting upgrades that one is entitled to has become almost 100 percent automatic and hands-off, and with all flights being full in both cabins, there isn’t much ‘wiggle room’ for people to exploit.”
And it is not just a combination of luck and automation that will shut you out of upgrades—at some airlines, it may be a matter of policy. “Most airlines state, in no uncertain terms, that their policies prohibit arbitrary upgrading, both at check-in and onboard,” says Randy Petersen of InsideFlyer. “It’s a firm rule, with no room for negotiation or interpretation.” Petersen agrees about the root cause: “This becomes understandable when you consider that upgrading is now often done electronically, rather than by queuing up at the check-in counter.”
These electronically issued upgrades are doled out by a number of metrics, whether to the highest-ranking elite flyer, or the person who purchased an upgrade-eligible coach fare, or the person who cashed in her miles.
We commonly think of just two to five main classes on airplanes, including first, business, and economy, plus the recent emergence of premium and basic economy. But the fact is that economy class can have numerous sub-classes, as outlined in this Points Guy article—and each of these class levels carries eligibility (or lack thereof) for various amenities, including upgrades. The very lowest levels of economy class will rarely be prompted to upgrade, or even eligible to upgrade.
That said, since stories and rumors of free upgrades persist, here are some tactics to get you into that privileged group that seems to snag upgrades—or at least says they do.
How to Get Upgraded to First Class: 14 Tactics to Try
These tricks and ground rules are worth keeping in mind as you try to land that elusive free upgrade.
Be a seriously loyal customer.
If you fly a lot on the same airline, your options for getting upgrades soar. High-mile/point travelers are the first eligible and first chosen for most upgrades, so despite the fact that airline experts have been bemoaning the devaluing of airline miles for years, if you are a high-mileage and high-dollar flyer, you will see greatly increased upgrade offers, often at no cost.
Get an airline credit card.
Using an airline credit card allows you to rack up miles, including sign-up bonuses, that you can apply toward upgrades. To see some of the best options, check out this list of airline credit cards.
Dressing well is not the ticket to ride some hope it is, but even so, you are not getting an escort to the front of the plane if you are wearing cargo shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops. Most people don’t even want to sit next to you in this case, let alone upgrade you.
Check in online at the earliest possible time.
Online check-in is available beginning 24 hours before your flight, and the early bird has the best chance of nabbing an upgrade—though you’ll usually have to pay for it. As the minutes pass and more travelers check in, some of those folks will be looking and paying for upgrades, and once those seats are gone, they’re gone.
Be on time, and have good timing.
Showing up late to request an upgrade when an agent is just trying to get everyone in the air isn’t going to work. Do agents the courtesy of making your request with plenty of time to spare before the flight, and when no one else is competing for their attention.
Ask politely and directly.
Randy Petersen recommends something as simple as “If you are upgrading passengers on this flight, I would like to be considered.” Inserting the word “please” won’t hurt you either.
Being overly demanding or demeaning just inspires agents to pick someone else to upgrade if the opportunity arises. And don’t waste everyone’s time and good will if you know that you are a poor candidate. If you are traveling with your whole family, have a pet lobster in a cage as your carry-on, or purchased a ticket for an extremely low fare, you probably don’t want to spend your energy demanding upgrades.
If the flight is relatively empty, your chances are slim.
Even though seats in business class may also be empty, the airlines don’t usually upgrade people for no reason. If the flight is full, your chances are better. Airlines carefully plan how much they oversell flights, and their inventory departments are not upset if people need to be upgraded to accommodate everybody on the flight. Therefore, on a full flight the airlines sometimes are forced to upgrade people. In this scenario, if you have a good story, you may be lucky. Remember, of course, that business or first class may already be full from prebooked elite-level upgrades.
Tracy Stewart, content editor at Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, notes, “The odds are best for those traveling solo who are sometimes reseated up front in business to accommodate families sitting together in economy.”
Volunteer to give up your seat if the flight is oversold.
Whenever airlines overbook flights and need folks to give up a seat, that is when you have the most leverage for getting concessions and upgrades from the airline. Most of us have been in airports listening to increasingly urgent announcements looking for volunteers to give up their seats; in that situation, you can go up to the gate, set your conditions and then let the airline decide if it can meet those conditions.
You might say, “I can volunteer to give up my seat for X hundred dollars in flight credit or an upgrade on my replacement flight, as long as I still get there by Y o’clock.” This may not work on the first round of volunteer requests, but when the gate agents come up on departure time and still need empty seats, they can often deliver quite a bit.
If you have been inconvenienced by the airline, don’t hesitate to ask for an upgrade.
Again, airlines don’t generally upgrade people for no reason, but if they have caused you a problem, that may be reason enough.
If your itinerary is botched or implodes for some reason, particularly if it affects only you and no one else (such that the airline is not trying to accommodate lots of folks in the same situation), your case for an upgrade on a subsequent flight becomes more compelling. The airline is not obligated to upgrade you, but if this happens, pleasantly but firmly let the gate agents know that if an upgraded seat is available on your rebooked flight, you would greatly appreciate getting that seat.
If you have been extremely inconvenienced—maybe you were sent back to your hotel a couple of times, or you slept on the airport floor all night—let the gate folks know, as they may have some sympathy for you.
Ask your travel agent.
My travel agent has a relationship with certain airlines that lets her book her customers into preferred seats that are not released to everyone (usually toward the front of the plane, in exit rows and the like). She can also see upgrade availability fairly quickly, and many agents can add comments to your reservation that increase your chances of being chosen for an upgrade. Ask about these the next time you talk to your travel agent.
Watch for business-class sales.
Most leisure travelers ignore advertised business-class fare sales entirely. I have occasionally seen transatlantic business-class sale fares for around $1,100 at a time when it costs that much to fly coach. This will take some persistence and sleuthing, but you can sometimes fly in the front of the plane for less than the folks crammed into the back of the plane.
Look for two-for-one sales.
If you are traveling with family or a companion, a two-for-one sale on first- or business-class fares could cut the cost of upgrading, well, in two. At current coach prices, these could result in a wash with respect to price, if certainly not with respect to pleasure.
Buy an extra seat.
One interesting tactic to find yourself some breathing room offered by Petersen might appeal to folks traveling on very cheap sale fares: buy two coach tickets. Say you find one of these $100 roundtrip fares to Florida or the like; the airlines that offer these usually make up the difference in fees for checked bags, movies, food, and other extras. However, if you don’t need headphones or to check a second bag, you can skip all those charges, and get yourself a heap of legroom for $50—less than the cost of most premium seats.
If you use this tactic, it will be important for you to check in your second seat, as well as present the boarding pass at the gate—otherwise, your seat could be given to a standby passenger.
In all honesty, your chance of falling into one of these free upgrades is slimmer all the time—even Rowell has stopped trying entirely. That doesn’t mean you have to; if you have had a recent experience with surprise or unpaid upgrades, let us know in the comments below.
What to Pack
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Few travelers think to contact the hotel concierge for much more than directions or restaurant recommendations—but if you don’t, you’re missing out on a wealth of local expertise. A good hotel concierge has impressive powers and can assist with almost any travel problem you might face, so you shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage.[st_content_ad]
That said, a concierge is not a magician. Below are 14 things your hotel concierge can do for you, six more they can’t, and four tips for maximizing your moments at the hotel lobby.
What a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You
Save You Money
The concierge can tell you how to get to the airport for less, where to find nearby happy hours, what the best free sights and activities are, and how much is a fair price for a taxi.
Recommend Fitness Facilities
If your hotel doesn’t have a gym or lacks the equipment you want, the concierge can usually point you to an affiliated hotel with better facilities, recommend a good running trail, or give you a list of nearby fitness centers that offer daily or weekly passes.
Get You a Ride When There Seems to Be None Available
If it is rush hour, raining, or really late, finding a taxi or Uber ride can be tough. The concierge can make this happen with a phone call in many cases. This can even work if you’re not staying at the hotel in question. I once saw a friend walk into the lobby of a New York hotel and offer the concierge a tip; within seconds, we had a ride.
Get Tickets for You
Many concierges are careful to say they can’t get tickets for sold-out shows, but the truth is they sometimes can. They may have relationships with brokers, or know season ticket holders who may not be using their seats, or even have tickets themselves; Michael Fazio, author of Concierge Confidential, started to purchase tickets to certain shows that he would then sell to guests, usually at a markup that matched the secondary market.
Keep You Safe
A concierge can offer advice on whether a neighborhood, park, or activity is safe to visit, and what you can do instead if your idea is iffy.
Are you proposing to your partner or celebrating a landmark birthday? Your hotel concierge can help with anything from filling your hotel room with flowers and balloons to organizing a rooftop proposal, complete with a photographer to document the occasion.
Help You Do Your Job
A concierge can assist with all kinds of work-related tasks, such as getting materials to a printer, setting up a courier service, mailing packages, and setting up a meeting space.
Help You Look Good
A concierge can get you an appointment with a barber or hairdresser, get clothes pressed, and more.
Fix Sticky Travel Problems
A concierge can help you find an expeditor or make an embassy appointment if your passport is stolen, or facilitate repairs if your smartphone goes on the fritz. They can also accept overnight mail or late-arriving luggage.
Get You a Table
Restaurants will often find a way to fit in customers who are recommended by their preferred concierge contacts. If the restaurant is truly full, the concierge can often get you to the front of a waiting list.
Recommend Local Service Folks
Need a babysitter, an auto repair shop, or a dog walker? Your concierge can help.
Create a Custom Itinerary
If you have a bunch of stuff you definitely want to do but are uncertain how to make it all fit together, the concierge can take your list of attractions and put together a coherent and achievable plan. He or she can also help you avoid pitfalls such as road construction or closed subway stations.
Help with Special Needs
If you are disabled, aren’t feeling well, or have other special needs, a hotel concierge can offer considerable assistance—like calling wheelchair-accessible taxis, finding English-speaking doctors, and recommending restaurants that can accommodate certain food allergies.
Provide Assistance Before You Arrive
The concierge can be a resource not just once you’re at the hotel but beforehand as well. For instance, he or she could help you plan out your first day, including a restaurant reservation for dinner.
Discretion is an integral part of a concierge’s job, so they tend not to talk about other guests, including which celebrities might be staying in the hotel.
Illegal or Immoral Activities
You shouldn’t expose a concierge to risk by asking him or her to help with illegal—or dubiously legal—activities such as obtaining drugs, forging signatures, finding “companions,” or the like.
A concierge can help you find someone else to look after your child, but he or she can’t actually do the babysitting while on duty.
Float You a Loan
They’ll help you with money concerns, but concierges are not banks; don’t ask them to dig into their pockets for you.
Sell Stuff for You
Concierges are also not your personal eBay or Craigslist; they can’t sell tickets you no longer need or items you don’t want to take home. However, he or she may be able to recommend a place where you can do the sale yourself.
Book Tickets to Sold-Out Shows
Truly sold-out shows tend to be just that; however, you can ask if the concierge has any ideas or contacts to help get you tickets, and he or she might have a strategy for you. If there is truly no way to get certain tickets, the concierge will tell you so.
You might feel as though the concierge is only there for the folks in the penthouse suite, but this isn’t the case; he or she is there to help all guests, so feel free to ask.
Give Them Some Time
Concierges can often pull off difficult tasks, but to do so on very short notice is tricky, and it distracts them from helping other guests. Give the concierge some notice if you need something beyond simple advice.
Present the Concierge’s Card
When a concierge sends you to a restaurant or other establishment, it is often his or her name, not yours, that is the attraction for the proprietor. So if a concierge asks you to show his or her card, do it; these relationships are what makes concierges able to help you now and in the future.
Not All Concierges Are the Same
Concierges at the very best (and most expensive) hotels are notorious for pulling off near-miracles; those at less prestigious establishments typically don’t have the same pull.
Hearing a recent discussion concerning the world’s longest flights made me remember my first true long-haul flight to Sydney, Australia. About six hours into the 15-hour flight, I was feeling strong and confident. I clearly remember thinking, “Six hours down, nine to go. No sweat, I got this.”
Four long, boring hours later, it was a different story; you could have poured me into a bucket. “Five hours to go? I don’t got this.”
However, not all long-haul flights have to be miserable; on one direct flight from Tokyo to New York City, I was nearing the end of a book I was enjoying immensely, and remember distinctly thinking, “No, no, just a little more time!” when the pilot told us over the in-flight PA that we had started our final descent.
Below are 10 long flight tips for preventing boredom, dehydration, deep-vein thrombosis, sleep deprivation, and more—so you can confidently say “I got this” the next time you are imprisoned in a metal tube for an entire waking day of your life.
Use Your Frequent Flyer Miles
When traveling long-haul, you have no better friend on the planet than your frequent flyer miles. On the Tokyo-Newark flight I was disappointed to see come to an end, I enlisted the help of my travel agent to find flights on which I could burn up all of my miles to upgrade my entire trip. It meant catching puddle jumpers to my final destination in Japan (Gifu), but a couple of short extra flights were a small price to pay for 27 hours of first-class legroom, fully reclining chairs, edible meals, entertainment, and breathing space.
Bid For an Upgrade
Don’t have miles to burn? Consider bidding on an upgrade. Instead of giving empty front-cabin seats to elite frequent flyers, more and more airlines are selling upgrades to travelers on regular economy tickets. And there are a number of ways to do it more affordably than you might think.
Plusgrade is the current market leader in upgrade bidding systems. First, you buy an economy class ticket as you normally do. The airline notifies you, either at the time of purchase or by email or text, that your flight is open for a bid on an upgrade. You log onto your airline’s website and enter the amount you’re willing to pay for an upgrade, along with your credit card details. A few days before the flight, the airline notifies you whether or not it accepted your bid. If it did, it gives you a confirmed reservation and charges your credit card for the price of your bid. If not, you pay nothing more but remain in the cattle car.
Airline agents sometimes offer ad-hoc upgrades at check-in or even at the departure gate. On a trip from Los Angeles to London two years ago, a gate agent was selling upgrades to premium economy for $400. Even if no agent is actively touting upgrades, you can sometimes get a reasonably good deal by asking, “How much would it cost up upgrade?” at the check-in counter or departure gate. On an intercontinental trip you can expect to pay at least several hundred dollars.
You will want to have a rock-solid plan for frittering away several hours of your flight, and I don’t mean working; staring at spreadsheets and writing proposals may burn up hours, but it does not make them vanish. You want these hours to disappear almost without a trace. Think headphones and Hollywood blockbusters. Getting a lot of work done is fine—rarely do you have 15 consecutive hours without phone calls or texts to disrupt you, so I encourage bringing some work—but work will fail you when you get to the brutal middle hours of this ordeal. Headphones and Hollywood; don’t stray from this.
Fun things to do on a long flight include watching every movie, playing the games on your seatback TV, binging on your favorite shows, or listening to music or podcasts (download them onto your phone in advance). See also SmarterTravel’s list of the best airplane books; these page-turners can definitely kill a few hours.
Don’t Carry on Too Much Stuff
While checked baggage fees are inspiring travelers to carry on more and more stuff, on a long-haul flight this could burn you; anything that is under the seat in front of you just means less legroom and a more cramped living space for 15 or 16 hours. Don’t bring so much on that you compete for your own sleeping space. However, you do want to carry the essentials that will make the trip more comfortable, so don’t go so minimalist you forget key long-haul items.
Bring Your Go-to Gear
In general, I am not a gear guy. I can’t be bothered to lug around neck pillows, sleep masks, earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, etc.—except on a long-haul flight. As I noted above, your total carry-on haul should be limited, but you may want to consider some of these in-flight essentials. Your body and brain will thank you for every small comfort you can provide, and the inconvenience of packing and carrying these around is dwarfed by the misery of 15 hours in flight with crying children, pilot announcements, engine noise, and a major crick in your neck. Gear up.
Wear the Right Clothing
Unless you’re walking off the plane right into a business meeting, a long-haul flight is not the time to prioritize fashion over comfort. You’ll want breathable, loose-fitting clothes that let you move freely, shoes you can easily slip off, and an extra layer (such as a hoodie or pashmina) in case the plane is chilly. For more advice, see 18 Things You Should Always Wear on a Plane.
Another tip: Don’t wear contacts for the duration of a long-haul flight; instead, wear glasses. (Wearing contacts for 14 hours straight is unsafe, according to my ophthalmologist.)
Secure Your Stuff
A long-haul flight gives unscrupulous travelers plenty of time to size up the location of your wallet, wait until you fall asleep, and make a move on your luggage. Secure your valuables deep inside your bags where it would take a TSA X-ray machine to find them. And even if you don’t usually use a money belt for travel, for long-haul flights, you might consider keeping items like your passport, credit cards, and cash in a money belt under your clothes.
Consider a Sleep Aid
If you are planning to use sleep aids (including “natural” methods such as melatonin, over-the-counter sleeping pills such as Unisom, or prescription drugs such as Ambien), try them before you fly with them. A few years ago a friend gave me an Ambien pill for a red-eye flight from Honolulu to New York City, and the drug acted more like a stimulant than a sleep aid. I was awake the entire flight and felt wretched to boot. These drugs can vary greatly in how they affect individuals, so you will want to try them at home before you rely on them on the plane.
Dr. Timothy Hosea, team physician and Chair of the Sports Medicine and Research Committee for the United States national rowing teams, sometimes prescribes sleep aids for his athletes, but notes, “If you feel you need a sleep aid but haven’t used those drugs before, you should probably try taking Tylenol PM or Benadryl. A prescription is fine with your doctor’s approval, but don’t experiment on a long flight; [the plane won’t] stop for you!”
Dr. Hosea also says that, as the team doctor, he does not take any medication while flying with the squad in case someone needs care. “I bring a book, watch the movies, and try to let the flight pass,” he says. His approach is appropriate for other travelers who need to have their wits about them, such as folks flying with children, for example. If someone could potentially need you to be 100 percent during the flight, you should forgo any sleep medication. For more advice, see Sleeping on Planes: 13 Tips for Travelers.
A couple of hard-earned tips: First, don’t deprive yourself of sleep the night before a flight, hoping to sleep the entire way. As attractive and intuitive an idea as this seems, you are in for a world of hurt if you can’t sleep for any reason. You will be on the plane long enough to catch a few winks even if you are somewhat rested, and my advice is to take it when it comes; if your eyes start to droop, get out the eye covers and earplugs, and go with it. If you throw away a solid two-hour nap on a few extra rounds of Angry Birds, you might be angry at yourself later.
On the flight back from Sydney mentioned above, I called ahead to get my seat reassigned to an exit row—big mistake. Unbeknownst to me, the exit row seat I chose was a window seat at one of the big, thick exit doors, which encroached on my leg area such that I had to sit sideways in the seat for the entire flight. It was also more like an “exit aisle,” located right at a restroom, so there was endless and noisy foot traffic the entire flight. I was lucky that the rest of the row was empty, but it wasn’t much help; the armrests did not go up, so I couldn’t lie across the three seats in the aisle.
Needless to say, mine would have been a “yellow” or even “red” seat on the SeatGuru seating chart if it had existed back then (the site, SmarterTravel’s sister site, launched soon after that flight). Eventually I went around the aircraft collecting all the unused pillows and blankets I could find, piled them up in each of the three seats, and created a workable (but in truth not very comfortable) platform across all three seats—and got a very few winks of sleep during the flight. I guess it was comical, as friends all took pictures of me during the flight for their amusement. Glad you had a fun flight, guys.
Before you choose, think hard about your usual preference of exit vs. aisle seat; it may be different on a long-haul flight than on a shorter flight. If you usually choose an aisle seat, consider whether you want your long, Ambien-enhanced sleep to be interrupted by others in your row; similarly, if you usually choose a window, you could get trapped in there by a snoring person in a prescription drug-induced stupor. To learn more, see 10 Ways to Get the Best Airplane Seat.
Ask About Seats at the Gate
Failing the ability to choose great seats before your flight, try again at the gate. If the flight is not full, the gate agent may be able to see an empty row or put you and a traveling partner in a “window and aisle” configuration that reduces the likelihood of having someone sit in the middle seat, thereby getting you a seat and a half, at least. In general, if you’re worried about your seat selection, it’s never a bad idea to ask (politely) at the gate. Even if you aren’t able to move seats, you’ll have the peace-of-mind of knowing you tried.
Take Care of Your Health
Hydration: If you think hydration is a concern on a cross-country flight, try tripling or quadrupling your time in the air; you might as well spend 15 hours lying on the desert floor. Imagine you are going to walk from Flagstaff to Winona, Arizona. How much water would you bring? Try to drink about that much on a lengthy transpacific or transatlantic flight.
Dr. Hosea recommends drinking “electrolyte solutions, Gatorade being the best known, instead of solely water.” Hosea says that maintaining electrolyte balance is important and that you don’t want to become completely diluted with water, particularly for older folks or people with other medical problems.
Deep vein thrombosis: DVT, the formation of blood clots in deep veins, is a known (if occasionally overstated) risk on longer flights. According to the National Institutes of Health, the risk of developing DVT increases when flights go longer than four hours. The NIH’s tips include walking up and down the aisles of the plane; moving, flexing, and stretching your legs to encourage blood flow, especially in your calves; wearing loose and comfortable clothing; drinking plenty of fluids; and avoiding alcohol. Also, if you’re at increased risk for DVT, your doctor may recommend wearing compression socks while traveling or taking a blood-thinning medicine before you fly.
Dr. Hosea notes that the combination of being immobile along with the effects of dehydration increases the risk of DVT on long flights. He strongly recommends the following during long trips:
Hydrate well the night before the flight, preferably with electrolyte drinks.
Don’t drink alcohol the night before the flight.
Avoid diuretics such as coffee, soft drinks, and even chocolate (all of which contain caffeine).
If you have no issue with ulcers, take a baby aspirin the night before and day of your flight.
Get an aisle seat or exit row so you can get up and walk around whenever possible.
Susan Francia, an Olympic gold medalist in rowing, has taken to wearing compression socks on long flights to competitions, although she has stopped short of wearing a full body suit. (Hosea discounts the need for the body suit as well: “You are really worried only about your ankles and calves.”) Francia has noticed a positive effect from the compression socks, which Hosea notes can be simple “support hose.”
Colds, the flu, bacteria, etc.: As I wrote in Avoiding the Airplane Cold, it isn’t “air quality” that is of concern when you are flying, or recycled air, or anything of the sort—it is your body’s compromised ability to deal with normal bacteria and viruses that puts you in danger of getting sick after a flight.
That is not to say that the general environment on a plane doesn’t add to your risk of getting sick. Recent studies have found that the water coming out of aircraft sink faucets is often rife with bacteria from sitting in murky holding bins; that the seats, pillows, and blankets on planes are more germ-ridden than your laundry basket; that your tray table is probably dirtier than your own bathroom floor; and that the seatback pockets—well, you don’t even want to know, apparently.
Francia recalls a flight on the way to the Rowing World Championships last year where she considered wearing a face mask; the entire U.S. rowing team had contracted the swine flu on a World Cup trip earlier that summer, and she was being cautious. Francia asked a flight attendant what she thought. “Good idea, but it won’t help,” was the verdict. There is just too much stuff all around you to win that war. In the end, your best strategy is to bring along some bacteria-killing wipes, clean up your seat area as best you can, wash your hands regularly, and relax; there’s not much more you can do.
Let’s face it: electrolytes, compression socks, movie after movie, and aspirin don’t change the fact that you are stuck inside a metal can for a whole day. Just keep reminding yourself that this too shall pass—although I recommend saving your “I got this” until the wheels touch the ground.
What to Wear on a Long-Haul Flight
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Comb the web for a bit, and it’s not hard to find horror stories of overseas cell phone usage gone wrong, with people paying more for data than they did for their airfare or accidentally spending a month’s rent on background app refreshes. Data download fee disasters seem almost to be a rite of passage for many modern travelers. And with public Wi-Fi networks becoming riskier and riskier, you want to make sure you are also safely connected abroad now too.
Mobile hotspots are a way to beat these fees outright—but if renting still another piece of metal is going too far, or if you think a basic roaming plan will cover you, I’ve gathered details and pricing information about the best international phone plans from five major providers.
International Phone Plans: What You Need to Know
[st_content_ad]When you travel abroad, you will usually be connecting to the cell towers of third-party providers other than your own cell phone company. This means that your cellular provider must pay an access or connection fee to that third-party network, a cost it will pass on to you, usually at a markup. These fees typically show up on your phone bill as “international roaming data” fees.
These costs apply to everything you do with your phone—phone calls, text messages, and, importantly, data usage of all kinds. On this last item of data usage, it is crucial to understand that, unless you are connected to Wi-Fi, every use of your phone incurs a data toll.
That means that viewing and downloading email, browsing the web, viewing social media, and mapping all incur data charges, as do applications that we sometimes assume to be “free,” such as Skype and WhatsApp.
A simple example: While traveling without an international phone plan, you know that making calls while overseas costs extra, so instead you use your WhatsApp number to make calls. Unless you are connected to Wi-Fi, however, WhatsApp is using cellular data, so you are getting charged at your provider’s international roaming data rate. How much does that cost?
On AT&T, international usage costs with no plan in Europe are as follows:
Phone calls: $2.00/minute (no charge for incoming calls)
Texts: $0.50 per text and $2.05/MB (no charge for incoming texts)
WhatsApp’s data use depends on whether you are on a 2G, 3G, or 4G network, but on 4G this study by AndroidAuthority puts WhatsApp calling data use at about 750 kilobytes per minute, so a one-minute call using WhatsApp will cost you about $1.50.
Of its several international phone plans, AT&T’s simplest offering is the International Day Pass, which is available in more than 100 countries and costs $10/day for unlimited calling and texting as well as whatever data plan you have at home. One nice feature of AT&T’s plan is that you are charged only for days on which you use the package, so if you are on Wi-Fi all day or never turn on your phone, you save the $10.
Note that Mexico and Canada are included in some AT&T plans, so you don’t need an international package in those countries.
For longer trips, AT&T has two Passport plans. One offers 2GB of data for $70/month and the other offers 6GB for $140/month, including unlimited texting and phone calls for 35 cents a minute.
International Phone Plans with Google Fi
Google Fi is a newcomer to the wireless market, and isn’t for everyone; you won’t get the full benefits of the plan unless you have one of six compatible phone models, including Pixels and select Moto and LG phones. Currently, Google Fi is in beta testing for iPhones and works in part with many Android models.
Google Fi’s international phone plan, the main draw for many customers, is extremely straightforward: “Data abroad costs the same as at home.”
Google Fi offers both an unlimited plan, starting at $70 for one line, and a flexible plan, which costs $20/month for unlimited domestic calls and texts, $10/GB per month for data, and $15/month for an extra person to share your data plan. Internationally, the only substantive difference is that voice calls cost 20 cents per minute; otherwise, your international plan is the same as your domestic plan.
An important caveat is that if you are outside the 200 destinations where Google Fi is available, you will have to get a local SIM card; otherwise, you will not be able to use your device unless you’re on Wi-Fi.
Sprint is among the companies that include international connectivity in their standard plans. All Sprint plans that have Sprint Global Roaming enabled include free basic data and unlimited texting in 200 destinations; calls cost 25 cents per minute.
Note that while there is no extra charge for Sprint Global Roaming, you must take the step of adding it to your plan to qualify for the benefits.
The free data comes at up to 2G speeds, which may seem slow compared to what you are used to at home. For faster data speeds, Sprint’s Global Roaming package offers 4G LTE data for $5/day or $25/week in most destinations (it’s $2/day or $10/week in Mexico and Canada, and $10/day or $50/week in China).
International Phone Plans with T-Mobile
T-Mobile has carved out a niche for itself by offering only unlimited plans at fixed prices depending on how many phone numbers you have, starting at $30/line for four lines. T-Mobile also piles on some unexpected benefits with the Magenta plan, including unlimited streaming, in-flight texting, and one hour of data on Gogo-enabled flights.
For travelers, the most interesting element is that texting and data in more than 210 countries are wholly included in the Magenta or Magenta Plus plan.
Even the Essentials plan includes texting abroad as well as 2GB of data outside of coverage areas in Mexico and Canada. The downside, though, is that the standard overseas speed on the Essentials plan is much, much slower than normal connectivity at home. For faster speeds, T-Mobile has two options. The Magenta plan gives you data and texting abroad and an hour of in-flight Wi-Fi, for $5 more per month. Magenta Plus costs $13 extra per month and gives you double the data speed and unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi, as well as 5GB of 4G data in Mexico and Canada, HD streaming, and some other features such as voicemail to text. See T-Mobile’s website for more details on its phone plans.
Verizon’s Unlimited Together – North America plan includes unlimited calls, texts, and data in Mexico and Canada—one catch being that after you download 512 MB of data, speeds will be reduced to 2G levels. Otherwise, Verizon’s TravelPass plan is very similar to AT&T’s, with a $10 charge per day, per device to get the same plan you have at home. If you are not on one of the unlimited plans at home, Verizon charges $5/day for coverage in Mexico and Canada.
Verizon also offers monthly international travel plans ranging from $70/month for 100 minutes, 100 sent texts, and 0.5GB of data to $130/month for 250 minutes, 1,000 sent texts, and 2GB of data in more than 185 countries. Pay-as-you-go rates vary for texting and calling, but the standard data charge is $2.05/MB. See this page for all options.
Alternatives to International Phone Plans
If you are going abroad for an extended period of time, you may want to consider some other options to an international phone plan.
Using Your Own Phone with an International SIM Card
If you would still like to use your personal phone abroad, then consider purchasing a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM card) to use in your own cell phone while you’re traveling internationally. A SIM card is the part of a cell phone that holds the identity information and other personal data; if you switch your own SIM card for one that you purchase in another country, you can have all the benefits of a local phone (such as low in-country calling rates and a local phone number) without having to buy a whole new phone.
You can also purchase an international SIM card that can be used in many different countries. This is a good bet for multi-country trips or for travelers who travel regularly to many different regions around the world. However, the option of replacing the SIM card is only available on unlocked phones. Ask your phone company if your phone’s SIM card can be unlocked.
You can purchase prepaid international and country-specific SIM cards from websites such as Cellular Abroad, Telestial, or OneSimCard. As always, you’ll want to do some comparison shopping before you purchase to find the best rates for the country or countries you’ll be visiting.
Rather than buying a whole new phone, you can simply buy a SIM card for your existing phone — which is cheaper and takes up less space in your luggage. You’ll enjoy low local rates for calls, texts, and data within whichever country you’re visiting.
Purchasing an International Cell Phone
Depending on your destination country, you may be able to purchase a local phone with a domestic calling plan. Local plans are often similar to the one you have on your current cell phone; domestic rates are cheap, and the most basic cell phone models are quite affordable.
Research cell phone companies in the country you will visit or look for a local cell phone store. Just make sure that the carrier you choose is popular and well known. Do not buy a cell phone from someone on the street just because you think you’re getting a “deal.”
Frequent travelers who spend a lot of time in one international location will be best served by purchasing a phone in their destination. Students studying abroad and travelers with international vacation homes or family in another country should also consider purchasing an international cell phone.
You’ll enjoy low rates for calling within a foreign country.
Fees may be quite high for calling the United States.
You may run into a language barrier when trying to buy a phone. If you don’t fully understand the contract you are signing, do not sign your name.
Renting a Cell Phone
If your phone doesn’t work abroad or you don’t want the hassle of adding and removing a pricey international plan, you may want to look into renting a cell phone through a service such as Cellular Abroad, TravelCell, or TripTel. The company mails you a phone, and your rental includes a return shipping label so you can return the phone after your trip.
The phone you’ll receive will be a local phone, good for making calls in the country in which you are traveling. However, if you are spending more than a week or two in one destination overseas, you may save money by purchasing a local phone and subscribing to a local phone plan, as rates for renting a phone can quickly surpass the cost of a cheap cell phone in a few weeks. Also, domestic calling rates for rental phones may be higher than rates offered by local cell phone service providers.
Rates for rental phones are typically twofold; renters pay a daily, weekly or monthly fee for the cell phone rental and an additional fee for calling minutes. This means that even if you’re not using your phone, you can still be charged the minimum fee for the rental unit. Some rental phone plans have higher rates for calls outside the country, and some don’t—compare plans to see which is best for you. Incoming calls and texts on rental phones are your cheapest option, as they are often less expensive than outgoing calls (or even free). If you are using your rental phone to call home, have your friends and family call you at a designated time and you will save some cash.
Renting a cell phone is best if you’re making a lot of calls but not going on a lot of trips. On a single trip where you make just one or two calls, you may end up paying more for the actual cell phone rental than for the calling minutes.
If your usual cell phone won’t work overseas and you’re an infrequent traveler, you save money by renting a phone instead of buying one.
Beware of hidden charges. Minimum minute stipulations, charges for incoming calls, or steep roaming rates may apply to your rental. Always make sure you read and understand the fine print.
To avoid charges if you lose a rental phone, you may want to purchase rental insurance at an additional cost.
Top-Rated Travel Gear for Traveling Abroad
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Favorite Smartphone Accessories
These five smartphone essentials will protect and improve how you use your precious phone on the road. Never lose it, break it, or run out of battery life again!
If you read travel publications and trawl the web for packing tips, you can find millions of words of sometimes commonsensical, sometimes scolding, and generally somewhat vague advice on how to pack for a winter vacation. Don’t pack too much stuff, dress in layers, pack a hat and gloves—but you know all that stuff already.[st_content_ad]
To help convert general packing advice into a usable packing list, I have some tricks you can use to help figure out where to start. We’re not talking about packing for a ski trip—that is its own special challenge—but most travelers should find these winter travel packing tactics simple, straightforward, and useful for a more general vacation.
Hats—the Secret to Staying Warm
Back when I used to go to concerts that weren’t scheduled on Saturday mornings at 11:00 a.m., I went to a lot of concerts, year-round, mostly in the northeastern U.S. Wearing bulky clothes into a music bar, concert hall, or jazz club isn’t that different than doing the same on an airplane. I learned that a light fleece and a warm hat were all I needed to get from car to club, through the line, and back again without freezing on a city street in February—the same goes for sprints through airports, short walks for breakfast in the morning cold, and more. If you don’t want to freeze your bum off, wear a good hat.
Requirements for a good travel hat:
Covers your ears
At least partly covers the back of your neck
Has no flaps, fluffballs, or other wasted mass
Is made of thin, modern materials for maximum warmth
Given that your feet are on the front line of most weather you will encounter, this is the one area that I recommend you be unafraid to go big. A solid, decent-looking pair of low-frills winter boots that you wear right onto the airplane will come through for you again and again during a winter trip.
Requirements for good winter travel shoes:
Weatherproof—Gore-Tex gear can be pretty styling these days
Light on lacing—you still need to get through security, so a pair of shoes or boots that can be worn loosely and don’t require a lot of tying and untying will help
Dark, so they won’t show stains from mud, slush, or getting thrown on filthy security belts
There are plenty of decent boots that hold up well enough to hike through snow in, but look good enough to wear to dinner; find them and wear them when you walk out the door for the airport. Examples include this option for women and this pair for men.
The days of massive mittens and wool gloves are gone, at least for smart travelers; you can get a great pair of warm, waterproof, yet very thin gloves that weigh only a few ounces and take up only a few square inches of your luggage. The breathability makes them wearable across a wide temperature range, the waterproofing makes them useful in the worst weather, and the tight packaging makes them very low impact both when packing and when carrying them around.
Requirements for travel gloves:
Extremely light and low bulk
Have some type of grip
Consider this option from Glacier Glove. Between your hat, boots, and gloves, your vulnerable extremities are covered.
Almost every collection of tips on how to dress/pack/stay warm/etc. in winter includes advice to dress in layers—which sounds great, but how do you go about it? Where do you start, and where do you stop? Without a plan, you could layer yourself up until you look like the Michelin man. To get a handle on how to pick and choose from the clothes you already own, try this trick.
When traveling during winter, use a “morning paper” approach to figure out what to pack:
Fleece (or sweater, though wool tends to be bulky) over that for getting the paper from the curb
Light wind- and waterproof outer shell over that for getting the paper from the curb in the rain
If you pack such that you can get the paper in any weather, and then add and remove items as you go in and out of doors, you will have enough and the right clothes to layer up for pretty much any weather you will encounter, indoors or out.
Polarized sunglasses: Even weaker winter sunlight, when reflected off snow, can be rough on your eyes. In addition, the sun is lower in the sky, so is more likely to be in your line of sight or become a problem when driving during the short daylight hours. In those conditions, polarized glasses perform extremely well.
Sunscreen: Sunscreen in winter? Absolutely. A sunburn from reflection off of snow or ice is every bit a rival of a summer sunburn.
Lower-body base layer: If you are going to be spending extended time outdoors, consider packing a base layer to keep your legs comfortable in the cold. They are harder to shed than a top layer, but don’t take up much packing space and are essential if you’ll be outside for hours at a time.
In harsher weather, a scarf can be a small and light but very effective addition.
I have an oversized black wool jacket that I would take around the world if it didn’t weigh about eight pounds and take up enough space to half-fill a suitcase. Every winter trip I look at it and think, yeah, it won’t be that bad if I carry it on … then I wise up.
The urge to pack your favorite stuff is a strong one; maybe look at those items last during the packing process, not first, and by then you will likely have made them unnecessary through your other, more logically considered choices.
Have any nuts-and-bolts winter packing tricks to add? Let us know in the comments.
Some of Our Favorite Winter Fashion
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Solo travel is a growing and compelling mode of travel in the 21st century. As our daily lives become more fragmented and sometimes isolated, it may seem counterintuitive that solo travel can be an antidote to how alone we find ourselves in many ways. But the very fact of being alone forces solo travelers to burst their own solitude to find companionship among strangers in a foreign and exhilarating land.
When travelers talk about solo travel mistakes, it’s usually to cover important safety considerations, as well as advice for saving money, finding deals and eating alone without feeling awkward. But solo travel can offer rich rewards that are both different and sometimes more expansive than those found when traveling with other people; with a little thought and care, it can be a life-defining or life-changing event. To help you get the most out of your solo trip, check out these 15 mistakes to avoid.
It seems that the most common advice you will find when researching solo travel online is to stay in a hostel or other communal living establishment, as these lend themselves to meeting people quickly and relatively easily. I agree to an extent, but also find value in the occasional more traditional lodging. These can offer a safe zone when needed, a bit more comfort when you are tired, and a place to unwind and desensitize from hard travels or constant sensory input. It can also be a more secure place to leave your belongings while you’re out exploring.
What hostels and guesthouses are great for is meeting other folks doing the same thing that you are—true fellow travelers. But you don’t have to commit to them unrelentingly; your choice of lodging is just another tool in your solo traveler bag. When in need of comfort, safety and convenience, choose a reputable hotel; when in need of companionship, think about hostels and other alternative lodging options.
Don’t Get Too Ambitious at the Beginning or End of a Trip
A lesson I have learned after many years of travel is to reel in my ambitions on the first and last nights of my trips. At these times, you need things to go well; you are at your most vulnerable when you are just arriving in a place (and most laden down with luggage and stuff), and at your most stressed when you are trying to get on a plane or train on time. On these nights, take it easy on yourself; you might stay near the airport or train station, or splurge on a well-known hotel, or take a cab when you might otherwise save money by taking public transit.
Having no money in your pocket and no way to get any is a problem for any traveler, but even more so when traveling solo. Asking strangers for help, sleeping on a bench or any number of last-ditch tactics may be doable when traveling with others; traveling solo, you definitely don’t want to be asking for free rides and crash pads with no one to watch your back. I used to put a $100 bill under the sole of my shoe on all my trips; I used it only once, but man, did it save me.
Don’t Avoid Your Own Company
Many solo travel tips focus on how to meet people, but this can be counterproductive—there was a reason you chose to travel alone, after all. Many folks who travel in big groups yearn for a moment or two by themselves; you don’t have that problem, so enjoy it!
Don’t Forget to Figure out What You Really Want to Do Alone
As an extension of the item above, even if you have met some great people, there still may be things best done on your own. These might be things that relate to niche interests of yours that not everyone will appreciate (an extended visit to a specialty museum, perhaps), or physically demanding outings on which not everyone may be as goal-oriented as you might be (such as surfing lessons).
One tremendous benefit of traveling alone is that you can change your plans without consulting anyone else about anything. This is a luxury you should not resist, as it is almost non-existent in regular day-to-day life; if you like an idea, go for it.
Don’t Get Over-Intoxicated
Similar to keeping some cash on you, keeping tabs on your bar tab is probably a good idea as well. If you are not in control of yourself, you become a mark for thieves and other bad people, and with no wing person to help you out, you could get in trouble. Teetotaling is not required, but getting hammered might not be your best option.
Don’t Ignore Potential Danger
As is becoming clear, there are potential risks when traveling alone that might not be as prevalent when traveling with other people. A good rule of thumb: If your internal alarms are going off, listen to them.
Over-scheduling can be a trip killer under almost any conditions, but as a solo traveler this can really leave you wrung out. You are responsible for all the planning, all the execution, and all the mundane and tedious tasks as well—finding a store to buy a razor and toothpaste, figuring out train schedules, searching for an ATM, waiting out a bout of traveler’s tummy. Even without considering these small hassles, the ability to go with the flow is part of the reason to travel alone, and over-scheduling can make that impossible.
Don’t Skip Reservations
Standing in long lines is a drag, but standing in long lines alone is almost unendurable. If you are going to popular attractions, museums or anywhere else that will require some waiting, get online ahead of time to see if you can make reservations or purchase tickets in advance to avoid a long wait. This goes for trips that aren’t solo as well, but it can be particularly rough to wait in a long line without a friend.
Another great benefit of traveling solo is that you alone set the pace and schedule. This might be one of very few times that you decide what time to get up, what time to eat, what time to go to sleep, when to hustle and when to dally. Get up early, get up late, take a nap midday—whatever. Your time is yours; make sure you make it yours.
Don’t Be Hard on Yourself
Traveling alone can be as grueling as it is exhilarating, so I recommend choosing your battles well. Some simple but carefully chosen times to take the easy way out might be to get a rental car upon arrival at the airport to avoid hauling your stuff around on multiple shuttles; to go for hotels that don’t require long commutes to your preferred attractions; to book direct flights or at least avoid tight connections; and to take some of the tips mentioned above like the occasional hotel upgrade and unscheduled afternoon.
Don’t Be Shy
If you want to meet and talk to people, to find out who they are and how they live, traveling alone is going to require some courage. Most people have a bit of a shy streak, and in many of the types of people inclined to travel alone, this trait might be even more pronounced. To get the most out of your encounters, you are going to have to suppress your shyness once in a while.
One way to get started on this might be to refrain from ending casual conversations that spring up in shops, when asking directions, in a restaurant, in a line. Instead of cutting short these unexpected exchanges, ask a simple question about someone’s family, or the neighborhood, or almost anything really; this can often lead to a longer conversation, and you are under way and getting some practice talking to strangers. As you go along, it will become easier all the time.
Many big cities have expat bars or even folks offering lodging who might have an accent like your own. Don’t feel like you need to avoid anyone from back home, as sometimes these brief interludes with the relatively familiar can energize you as you venture back out to find folks and customs very different from your own. CouchSurfing.com is a good place to start on these, and many guidebooks offer information about where the local “American bar” can be found.
Don’t Fail to Have a Plan B
Having a fallback plan if things go sideways is a good idea in general, but an even better one when traveling alone. Most importantly, it can be helpful to have someone who knows where you are, where you are headed and what you are up to. Smartphones, email and social media make this very easy to do today; leave some breadcrumbs as you go along to let folks know when to start worrying—and when just to be jealous at the great adventures you are having while they are stuck at home staring at Facebook.
Traveling? Consider Some Favorite Carry-On Options
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Many travelers would swear that they get sick after every trip or vacation. They wonder if it was the food, the water, the piña coladas—or, like me, the airplane ride. While I don’t think you can count out the piña coladas (or that burrito you bought on the street), it turns out you could be right about getting sick after flying.
Studies vary, but most show that airline carriers are formidable carriers of the common cold. The Wall Street Journal cited a study that found an increased risk of catching the cold by as high as 20 percent, while another study in the Journal of Environmental Health Research found that colds may be 113 times more likely to be transmitted on a plane than during normal daily life on the ground.
The publishers of the second study investigate a panoply of possible causes for the increased chances of getting sick after flying, including close quarters, shared air, and, as I will explain, the most likely culprit: extremely low cabin humidity.
What Causes Airplane Colds: Low Cabin Humidity
The Journal of Environmental Health Research study runs through several potential sources of higher transmission, but settles primarily on a single likely cause: extremely low cabin humidity caused by low humidity at high elevations. (A review of the study reveals the conclusion that aircraft that actively recirculated air showed slightly lower transmission rates than those that did not.)
Most commercial airlines fly in an elevation range of 30,000 to 35,000 feet, where humidity typically runs at 10 percent or lower. At such low levels of humidity, the “natural defense system” of mucus in our noses and throats dries up and is crippled, creating a much more tolerant environment for cold and flu germs to infect us.
This protective system, called the mucociliary clearance system, is your first line of defense against harmful germs and bacteria. To wit, if the common cold is pounced on by a sufficiently moist and percolating proboscis and throttled by your throat, you remain uninfected. Shut down those systems, and you’ll be suffering within days.
Tips to Avoid Getting Sick After Flying
1. Stay hydrated. It turns out that drinking plenty of water will not only counter the overall dehydrating effects of air travel, which can lead to headaches, stomach problems, cramps, fatigue, and more, but can actually fortify your preemptive natural immune mechanisms to function considerably better. Of course, this is the case in normal daily life—when exercising, during prolonged sun exposure, etc. However, in an airplane, where your nose and throat are on the front lines of the war with exceedingly dry air, these are the first places to suffer.
Sipping water regularly throughout the flight may be more effective than drinking a lot of water at one time before or during the flight; this will keep your protective system from long dry spells. (And I do mean to single out water here—alcohol and caffeinated drinks such as coffee or sodas are less hydrating.)
Nasal mists have been found to be very effective in keeping this system working in your nose. (I like the ones from Ayr.) Additionally, hot drinks are a good way to keep your protective mucous membranes working—first, to assist in keeping you generally hydrated; second, by triggering the system into gear; and third, by directly providing moisture in the form of steam. Note that this is not a treatment per se. Rather, it just keeps your defenses strong and functioning to prevent you from getting sick after flying.
Other options for keeping your mucous membranes moist include misting your face and breathing through a damp washcloth, as recommended by USA Today.
The compact design of these collapsible water bottles makes it the perfect bottle to bring along with you and a loved one to stay hydrated during trips. Not only are these water bottles beautiful, but they are also environmentally friendly and reusable.
2. Keep your hands clean. Your hands are the most consistent point of first contact with cold, flu, and other germs on planes and elsewhere. It is a direct line from armrest/seatback to fingers to fork to mouth to full-blown fever a few days later. Scientists report that the viruses that cause colds and flu can survive for hours on your skin or on solid objects and surfaces. According to Travelmath, the dirtiest surfaces on airplanes include tray tables, overhead air vents, lavatory flush buttons, and seatbelt buckles.
Fortunately, the simple act of washing your hands with hot water and soap is a formidable rampart against this transfer of harmful microorganisms. If possible, wash your hands before any in-flight meals, and after your flight as well. Keep in mind that the water on planes isn’t typically potable, so you might want to combine hand washing with hand sanitizer, such as this travel-size option from Purell.
Given that tray tables are known to carry a high volume of germs, you might want to wipe yours down with a sanitizing cloth before any meal or snack.
Keep yourself, your loved ones, and your family protected from germs. This TSA-compliant kit makes the perfect companion to your getaway. The compact reusable bag contains antibacterial wet wipes, hand sanitizer facial tissues, four face masks, and a pair of foot covers.
3. Don’t forget dental hygiene. Just as keeping your hands clean can prevent transmission of germs, using a germ-killing mouthwash in-flight may add another layer of protection while simultaneously helping to keep your throat moist. Just make sure your mouthwash bottle is 3.4 ounces or smaller to comply with the latest carry-on rules for liquids and gels.
These portable, charcoal-activated toothbrushes fit comfortably in toiletry bags and any carry-on bags. Paired with travel-size toothpaste, you can kiss that travel cold goodbye and say hello to fresh-smelling breath.
4. Take your vitamins. The rapid response effect of vitamins is unproven, but many travelers swear by them. Charles Westover, a retired VP of fleet management for a major shipping company, starts taking vitamins two days before flying. “I have no idea if it helps at all, but of the hundreds or thousands of flights I have taken, I rarely get colds,” he said. “I just take a standard multivitamin, and it has never let me down.” The NIH concurs, sort of, stating that no conclusive data has shown that large doses of vitamin C will prevent colds, although it may reduce the severity or duration of symptoms.
The recirculated air and the presence of constant coughing and sneezing of passengers on planes can make flights breeding grounds for colds. Fight back against the germs by arming yourself with a dose of vitamin C.
5. Prevent airborne germs. The NIH cites airborne germs as one of the top two sources of cold virus infection; some travelers have taken to wearing face masks either to prevent infection or to protect others when they themselves are already infected. Personally, I wouldn’t last more than a half-hour or so behind a hot mask, but this may be an effective way for some travelers to prevent getting sick after flying.
If you’re not up for wearing a mask, avoiding germs might be as easy as choosing the window seat. One study found that people sitting on the aisle are more likely to contract norovirus, according to TIME.
Finally, no matter where you’re sitting, you can use your overhead air vent to steer germs away from your face. Aviation medicine specialist Dr. Mark Gendreau told NPR that to blow germs away from your mouth and nose, you should angle the flow of air so you can feel it on your hands when they’re in your lap.
As the proverb goes, an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure—or perhaps 113 cures—when it comes to getting sick after flying.
The Ultimate Cozy Cardigan Airport Outfit
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