How I Stay Healthy When I Travel

Rick Steves: On pacing yourself and being pro-active in Europe

12.29.09 | 12:05 PM ET

Photo by jul89 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

It was my last day in Athens after spending several weeks producing two exciting television shows on Greece. My brain was fried. I was concerned I was getting a cold, and I felt that getting sick was God’s way of telling me to slow down. Instead of heading out on a shoot, I ditched work and spent the day lounging poolside on the rooftop of my hotel. Thankfully, it worked. The next day, I felt recharged.

After 30 years of travel, I’ve figured out what I need to do to stay healthy when traveling. For me, wellness starts at home. An early-trip cold used to be a given until I learned this trick: Plan as if you’re leaving two days before you really are. Keep that last 48-hour period sacred (apart from your normal work schedule), even if it means being frenzied before your false departure date. You’ll fly away well-rested—and 100 percent capable of enjoying the bombardment of your senses that will follow.

Anyone who flies through multiple time zones has to grapple with jet lag. It’s simple to spring your wristwatch six to nine hours forward, but body clocks don’t reset so easily. After crossing the Atlantic, your body wants to eat when you tell it to sleep and sleep when you force it to go to the Louvre. You can’t avoid jet lag, but you don’t have to condemn yourself to zombiedom either. On the flight over, I eat lightly, drink lots of water, avoid coffee and alcohol, and minimize sugar. The in-flight movies are good for one thing—nap time. With two or three hours’ sleep during the flight, you’ll be functional the day you land.

On arrival, plan a good walk. Jet lag hates fresh air, daylight, and exercise. Stay awake at least until the early evening. You’ll probably awaken very early on your first morning. Get out and enjoy a “pinch me, I’m in Europe” walk, as merchants set up in the marketplace and the town slowly comes to life. This will probably be the only sunrise you’ll see in Europe.

To stay healthy, it’s crucial to get enough sleep. Most people need seven to eight hours a night. It’s tempting to go, go, go while you’re in Europe. As if channel-surfing on a great TV with an infinite number of channels, there’s always something enticing beyond what you can comfortably experience. The best way to stay healthy is to pace yourself and know your limits. Rather than a marathon of museum-going, I punctuate my sightseeing with café stops.

Now, a word about European water. I drink tap water and any water served in restaurants. Read signs carefully, however: Some taps, including those on trains and airplanes, are not for drinking. Look for a decal showing a glass with a red “X” over it, or a skull and crossbones. Even with safe drinking water, you may still get sick. Our bodily systems—raised on bread that rips in a straight line—are the most pampered on earth. Some travelers struggle with the bacteria in European water, which are different from those in American water.

If you do get sick, be proactive. Get help to get better quickly. For minor ailments, a good first stop is the neighborhood pharmacy. European pharmacists diagnose and prescribe remedies for most simple problems. They are usually friendly and speak English, and some medications that are by prescription only in the US are available over the counter (surprisingly cheaply) in Europe. For more serious problems, ask about local clinics. Visits are usually free, covered by the national health care. If you’re unable to leave your room, the hotel receptionist can usually summon a doctor who makes “house calls”—for less than you might expect.

Don’t let the fear of getting sick paralyze your travels. Once I flew to Europe—a bit nervously—a week after a hernia operation. My doctor said there was no hurry to get it fixed, but I didn’t want to travel feeling like bits of my guts were popping out like chicks in a basket. So I got the operation and packed even lighter than usual (20 pounds was about all I could hoist). After a month on the treadmill of Iberia, I felt as fit as a flamenco guitar. Turns out Europe was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

6 Comments for How I Stay Healthy When I Travel

Rebecca 12.30.09 | 11:05 AM ET

Great tips on how to stay healthy while you travel.  Travelers could do some research before they leave.  They can find out information about the water, neighborhoods, restaurants, banks, and other pertinent information.  Most people are tempted to go to sleep when they arrive at their hotel.  Like you said, it’s best to walk around and breathe the fresh air.  Besides, who wants to sleep straightaway when you arrive at your destination?  Get out there and mingle!

Caitlin 12.30.09 | 7:11 PM ET

Good tips though you seem to be mainly talking about Europe. It’s far easier to stay healthy in Europe than, say, India. In fact, I have never been sick travelling in Europe.

@Travelblggr 12.30.09 | 9:27 PM ET

Love the line, “enjoying the bombardment of your senses.”  That is exactly what travel does to you ... and what makes it fun.  I load up on vitamins and water when I travel, that seems to help a lot.  There are also these great little lavender essential oil wipes that I get at Whole Foods to take with me on the plane.  They’re a great way to freshen up and the lavender puts me right to sleep.

@enchantedtravel 12.31.09 | 1:38 AM ET

Great tips, Rick.  I never thought I could sleep on a plane, but with your eyeshade, ear plugs, inflatable neck pillow, and comfy socks, I can snooze for several hours.  You’re right about keeping hydrated by drinking lots of water.  It was great to meet you recently in Minneapolis.
Mary Ann G.

Kathy 01.03.10 | 5:38 PM ET

I want to travel and get healthy at the same time. I am 57 and I have always wanted to go to Ireland; really I want to travel the world. I have just had back surgery but that should in no way stop me from walking and with some exceptions (budgie jumping is not in my future), climbing stairs, (not mountains), I would love to come home in better shape than when I left it. Anyone know of say a cruise that was set up for dieters?

Pete 01.04.10 | 7:40 PM ET

Nothing beats running in a new and exciting city… great way to keep fit and to see the city. Just make sure you run with a well marked pocket map and do a little research too.

And whether you are running or walking around while travelling always add music, ideally new music that you haven’t listened to before. When you hear these songs in the future, you will get these beautiful flashbacks to where you were when you first listened to the particular tracks.

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