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The Four Pillars for Travel Guide

Prefer to listen? Check out the audio recording of this lesson.

Planes, trains, and automobiles factor into all of our lives in one way or another—and whether you travel a little or a lot, maintaining healthy habits in new environments can take some effort. The key is to have a plan, and to help you with that, we’ve gathered essential strategies from our Calibrate Expert Council. From how to get to sleep anywhere, to what to do about jet lag, we’ve got your next trip covered. 

Pro tip: Make the tactics that resonate with you easy to incorporate by setting them as calendar reminders; cutting and pasting them into the notes app on your phone (or even into a goal on your Calibrate app); or put them on a sticky note on your hotel bathroom mirror, in your suitcase, or on your car dashboard.

Keep hydrating

Proper hydration helps your cells to better absorb nutrients and burn calories. But drinking water is one often one of the first things to fly out the window when you’re away from your regular routine. And even when you do remember, it doesn’t mean you’ll be near a good water source. This is why taking a water bottle along can be a lifesaver (we love Pogo, S’well, and Contigo). Get in the habit of checking how full your bottle is every time you change environments, and whenever you are somewhere you can fill up, take that opportunity. Also, note that if you’re flying, the pressurized air and low humidity can contribute to dehydration so be sure to hydrate before you board, and to drink at least 8 oz. per hour of flight. 

Shift your meals along with your timezones

If you’re switching time zones—even by just a few hours—account for your hunger signals being off. If the time shift is three hours or less, moving your meals by 1-1.5 hours (so you’re eating closer to when you do in your regular timezone) can make a big difference. If it’s a bigger time change, make sure that you’ve always got a healthy snack in your bag (more on that below) and keep lunch, in particular, well-balanced with protein, healthy fat, and fiber. 

Pack snacks (and make them single serving)

Even if it’s a short trip, don’t count on gas stations, airports, or even local stores to deliver something healthy; always carry some snacks of your own. Because it’s easy to eat mindlessly when you’re on the road, rather than relying on your ability to eyeball portions in the moment, buy single serving packages or divide your snacks up in separate ziplock bags (or eco-conscious reusable silicone Stasher bags). For maximum satiety, always choose something with protein, healthy fat, and fiber (check out the Calibrate Food Finds, the Healthy Snacks Guide, and the More Healthy Snacks Guide from our Food Expert Stephanie Middleberg, MS, RD, CDN for inspiration). If you’re short on time, nuts or individual packs of unsweetened nut butter check all the boxes and are great for those fatty, carb-heavy cravings you can get when you’re a bit tired and frazzled. If you have more prep time and are planning to eat what you make that day, try packing hard boiled eggs, sliced vegetables with hummus, or our quinoa salad (see recipe below). And for your hotel room, steel cut oats (Nature’s Path sells these as single-serve options), nuts, fruit, and whole avocados are easy to pack and keep. 

Health-ify your hotel

Call the hotel a few days ahead and have them clear out the mini-bar/fridge to remove temptation and make space. Also ask if there’s a health-food or grocery store nearby. If you have time, swing by and stock up on some go-to items like cut-up vegetables, fresh fruit, and plain whole-milk yogurt. Extra tip: On your last day, if your hotel has a restaurant, have them prepare a healthy meal for you to take on the plane or drive home. Or plan enough time to grab something at the grocery store or another healthier option en route so you’re not left starving by the airport pizza place or feeling your tummy rumble as you pass a long line of fast food signs.. 

Plan your day

Focus on the events you can control like snacks and portions. In some cases, breakfast can fall into this category, too, as you’ll typically be able to find something like an omelet, full fat yogurt, or steel cut oats on most menus. If you’re eating out a lot, keep in mind that restaurant portions are almost always larger than recommended portion sizes, so aim to leave ¼-½  of the food on your plate (you can take it with and cut back on costs by eating leftovers). Also always opt for a side veggie or a salad. (For more tips, check out the Dining Out Guide.)

Stock your home fridge/pantry before you leave

Make sure you have enough food on hand (that will stay good while you are gone) to whip up something super-quick, light, and delicious when you return. You can also schedule a food delivery from a service like Amazon Prime Now, FreshDirect, or Instacart to coincide with when you get back (note that if you’re staying in an AirBnB, you can also use meal deliveries for your trip).

Have a sleep kit

Even if you sleep well at home, new environments can bring with them a host of new variables—from different light to unfamiliar noise patterns. Here’s what to pack that can help.

  • If you haven’t used ear plugs before, don’t worry, they don’t block out noise completely—you’ll still hear your alarm loud and clear. What they do achieve is softening noises and tuning out the most extreme pitches. Mack’s is a particularly effective brand. 
  • Another clinically-proven approach is white noise, which will override new and unfamiliar sounds with noises that occur at a low, consistent tone that our bodies associate with calm (air conditioner, rain, ocean waves, etc). Some research has even shown that these sounds can promote a deeper and more stable state of sleep than no noise at all. Free apps such as mynoise and Sleep Aid Fan are great for time on the road.
  • If your hotel or on-the-road lodging has blackout curtains, use them. But be sure to pack a sleep mask to keep out unwanted light at bedtime. Nidra and Bucky are good quality and don’t press on your eyes. A good quality sleep mask will also come in handy if you’re planning to sleep en route.
  • Blue light glasses can be a gamechanger for working on the plane if you intend to nap at some point as well. Uvex is a brand we particularly like.
  • When you’re in a new place, it’s not always possible to recreate the wind-down rituals you may have been relying on, so you may want to bring something else relaxing just in case. Caffeine-free tea can be a good take-anywhere tool. Yogi, Traditional Medicinals, Tulsi, and Good Earth are all brands we love. For some additional support, you can also download Calibrate’s Sleep and Emotional Health Expert Emily Fletcher’s wind-down meditation. (And for even more inspiration, don’t forget our Bedtime Wind-down Guide.)

Check all the boxes in a new environment

Scan your new bedroom for tiny lights (hotel rooms in particular tend to be full of them!) and cover them with a sock or hand towel. If you can adjust the room temperature, bring it down to 68 degrees or below (65 has often been shown in studies to be ideal). Remember, too, that each hotel has its own idea of when the day starts, and if you happen to be on vacation and are not prepared to be up first thing in the morning, make use of the Do Not Disturb sign. (For more tips on optimizing your sleep environment—no matter where you are—check out the Good Sleep 101 Guide).

Use light and exercise to your advantage

Sunlight and movement are great energy builders—the former tells your circadian clock it’s daytime, and the latter gets your heart rate going. If you’ve arrived at your destination in the middle of the day, take a quick walk around the block to give your body a good dose of both. Get out and get moving again  first thing the next day, as well as any time you’re feeling sluggish.

Have a jet lag strategy

Jetlag flips your body clock so you’re trying to sleep when your body is programmed to be getting up. While there’s no foolproof strategy that works for everyone, there are some things that can help. If the timeshift is slight—three hours or under—slowly adjust your schedule a few days before your trip by pushing your bedtime later or pulling it earlier by about 30 minutes at a time. Aim for an hour to an hour-and-a-half shift in total. For bigger time changes, Jet Lag Rooster (developed by a PhD candidate at McGill University) lets you enter your departure and arrival cities and times and will give you a tailored plan for you. The significantly glossier Timeshifter app (endorsed by NASA astronauts) has an even more detailed intake/output to give you a tailored plan and tips along the way. 

Take a nap

If you’re really dragging, a nap around 2 PM in your new local time zone lets you take advantage of a drop in cortisol and rise in melatonin that occurs at this point during the day as part of your natural circadian rhythm (the Mayo Clinic recommends no naps after 3, so if possible stick to that early afternoon timeframe). As for length, 20-30 minutes is the right amount of time, according to research. This gives your body a chance to rest and reap benefits from the lightest phases of sleep. But it’s not long enough for you to go into the Stage 3 (Delta) sleep phase that can cause you to wake up feeling groggy and less rested than you did before your nap. Note that while naps work well if you’re sticking to the same time zone, they can be trickier if you’re in a brand new one, since they can further confuse the body as it’s trying to adjust.

Test out melatonin, valerian root, or magnesium

For short-term insomnia or sleep challenges associated with jet lag, you can try pure melatonin, but limit your intake to less than one mg (or less), not the five you see in some over-the-counter products. That much can make you groggy in the morning. Valerian root (400-900 mg) is another standby. It’s a clinically proven natural sedative that works by stimulating your body’s process of making melatonin. Magnesium (400-800 mg), for its part, is a muscle relaxant that can be very helpful for getting to sleep. Metagenics, and NOW are brands we trust for all of these supplements, and for more information, take a look at our Sleep Supplements Guide.

Plan ahead

Travel not only disrupts your routine, it also often means you’re busier than normal. Before your trip—or if things are looking unpredictable, each night while on it—add your post-meal walks and any other movement you intend to get into your calendar. If you’re traveling with family or friends, ask one of them to hold you accountable for your exercise plan. And for some ideas for fun ways to work in some movement when you’re in a new environment (along with some motivation tips for making it happen) check out the Making Time for Exercise Guide.

Do something first thing in the morning

The jury is still out when it comes to the science on the "best" time to work out. But one thing’s for sure—doing it first thing in the morning prevents you from getting derailed later in the day, and this can be important when you’re on the road with an unpredictable schedule. Bonus points if you also get outside, so you can boost your mood and wake yourself up with some sunlight (and help your internal clock readjust if you’ve switched time zones). One easy way to make this a seamless part of your morning is to walk part of the way to your first destination (if you’re driving, you can still reap this benefit by parking just a little farther away).

Check ahead on how to use available equipment

If you're traveling and staying at a hotel that has a gym you’re comfortable using, they may require you to make a reservation, so don't leave it to the last minute and get shut out. If they don't have one—or if you're not comfortable using it—they may still be able to provide tools like a yoga mat or weights.

Turn exercise into a fun way to enjoy your destination

Research hiking or sightseeing routes before you get to your new destination. Or just get out and explore on foot. If your family, friends, or work colleagues are with you, invite them to come along or to do one of your Calibrate strength training sessions together.

Use an app

If you’re used to taking classes or going to the gym, apps can help fill in the gaps:

  • Seven Minute Workout (No app, free): The New York Times has done your homework for you and created a simple, science-based workout.
  • Fitbod (Apple/Android; paid): Great for beginners and uses an algorithm to build a custom program based on your fitness level.
  • Sworkit (Apple/Android; paid): Ideal for parents, frequent travelers, and others who are limited in terms of time, space, and equipment.
  • Jefit (Apple/Android; free): Offers tracking technology as well as a range of exercises for all levels.
  • Peloton (Apple/Android; paid): The bike company has expanded its format to every workout imaginable, from movement to strength.
  • Yoga with Adriene (YouTube; free): Free, high-quality yoga practices from Adriene Mischler.
  • Pocket Yoga (Apple/Android; paid): Yoga practices designed for anywhere, anytime.
  • Glo (Apple/Android; paid): Yoga, meditation, pilates, and fitness—all in one app.
  • Cosmic Kids (Apple/Android; paid): Simple yoga that’s fun for the whole family.

Have a Plan B 

Be honest with yourself about what you're able to realistically accomplish during this time. If you can crush a full strength training session, great! But if time is tight, it's great to have a backup. This is where your walks come in handy. You can always add a few minutes there to make sure you’re meeting your goals.

Schedule time to unplug 

Travel disrupts normal patterns, which includes the ebbs and flows of busyness that we can ride to regulate our energy. This means that it’s all the more important to make sure each day includes a little “me time.” Book it into your calendar each day (so it doesn’t drop off, and so you know it’s there to look forward to) and use this window to do something familiar that you enjoy, be it reading a book, watching part of a show, or reaching out to a friend or family member. (The familiar voice of someone you care about can be particularly grounding, and recounting your experiences as stories can give you a sense of control over what might otherwise feel like unruly days.)

Get outside

According to Calibrate’s Sleep and Emotional Health Expert, Ellen Vora, MD, one of the best things you can do in a new place is to get out and explore. The new sights and sounds are mood-boosting because they stimulate new neural pathways (using the same ones over and over is associated with depression and stress). If you’re able to get to a park or a body of water, even better. Research shows that being near trees and even more so, water, can reduce stress hormones. (For more tips like this, check out the Stress Buster Add-Ons Guide.)

Curate a travel playlist

Studies have shown that music can be an extremely effective stressbuster and mood lifter. That’s because when we listen to music, we have a natural tendency to sync our breathing and movements to the beat of the song, and when that beat is slow and relaxing, it can slow your breathing, heart rate, and brainwaves. For an app that does the work for you, we love Spiritune, which draws on research to curate playlists. 

Bump up your mindfulness practice

Long flights and late nights can be good times to add some extra tools to your existing mindfulness mix. Calibrate’s Sleep and Emotional Health Expert Emily Fletcher has developed a downloadable ~12 minute meditation that was specifically designed to combat stress. In addition, here are some apps we love (and you can find even more suggestions and exercises in the Mindfulness Techniques Guide):

  • Breathing Zone (Apple/Android; paid): Choose a background sound on the app, then pace your breathing to a slowly expanding and contracting circle. Or opt for a guided breath session—all under 5 minutes.
  • Breathe2Relax (Apple/Android; free): Learn to relax as you monitor your breath with this app that syncs with your Apple Watch, Fitbit, etc.
  • Calm (Apple/Android; paid): Try walking meditations, body scans, masterclasses, and Sleep Stories (some with celebrity narrators).
  • Headspace (Apple/Android; paid): Billed as “your gym membership for the mind,” you’ll find a wide variety of guided meditations to choose from.
  • Aura (Apple/Android; freemium): Experiment with a wide range of options, including a collection of three-minute sessions and 30-second anxiety busters.
  • Insight Timer (Apple/Android; free): Access 30,000 meditations from leading meditation teachers.