3 Simple Rules to Avoid Getting Sick While Traveling

Whether traveling for the holidays or any other time of year, follow these three easy-to-remember cardinal rules to staying in tip-top shape.


I flew home from Hawaii with more than macadamia nuts and memories this summer.

Pain pierced my ears, my joints ached, and I couldn’t breathe through my nose or stop coughing. I certainly couldn’t sleep in that cramped airplane seat.

I swore I’d never do it again — get sick while traveling, that is, not Hawaii.

To help you avoid suffering the same fate on your next trip, let’s break down your travel regimen to three easy-to-remember cardinal rules:

  1. Watch what you touch.
  2. Watch what you eat.
  3. Watch how you sleep.

1. Watch what you touch

Common surfaces: Whether you travel by plane, train, cruise ship, cab or rental car, you’re probably one of many people to sit in that space on any given day. It’s probably harboring a lot of germs, including germs from other regions to which your immune system is less resistant.

So be mindful of common surfaces such as:

  • Door handles and locks
  • Toilet flush buttons
  • Seat belts
  • Tray tables
  • Arm rests and any buttons on them
  • Drinking fountain buttons
  • Other types of buttons and knobs, such as overhead airplane vents and lights

A recent study by TravelMath.com found that tray tables are the most germ-ridden surfaces on airplanes, and drinking fountain buttons are the germiest surfaces at airports.

Your hands: After touching common surfaces, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls hand hygiene “one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.”

Your face: When you’re unable to immediately wash or sanitize your hands, be especially careful to avoid touching your face — or letting someone else do so — and therefore transferring any germs from hand to face.

Germs often enter the body through the mucous membranes that line the eyes, nose and mouth.

2. Watch what you eat

Hydration: Bring and consume ample water on plane flights.

Staying hydrated while flying helps prevent irritation of the nasal passages and the pharynx, where your nasal passages meet the back of your mouth and your throat, according to the CDC. It will also help Eustachian tubes in your ears to function better during the pressure changes that are part of flying.

Staying hydrated is also especially important for avoiding heat exhaustion in hot climates.

Filtered water: When traveling abroad, stick to bottled beverages and avoid ice that might have been made with tap or well water. The same goes for foods that might have been washed or otherwise prepared with tap or well water.

Unclean food and water can cause diseases like travelers’ diarrhea, according to the CDC.

For more tips to prevent food-borne illnesses, check out “7 Keys to Dodging Deadly Bacteria That Lurk in Your Food.”

3. Watch how you sleep

Quantity: Lack of sleep has long been linked to sickness, whether you’re trying to avoid it or recover from it.

Earlier this year, for example, a study found that people who get six hours or less of sleep nightly are four times more likely to catch a cold they’re exposed to than people who get more than seven hours of sleep.

Lead author Aric Prather, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, said of the findings:

“Short sleep was more important than any other factor in predicting subjects’ likelihood of catching [a] cold. It didn’t matter how old people were, their stress levels, their race, education or income. It didn’t matter if they were a smoker.”

Quality: I always travel with ear plugs in case of loud-mouthed passengers or thin-walled hotel rooms, because sometimes I struggle to fall asleep again after being awakened.

Travel presents more challenges to sound sleeping. So before you leave home, think about which aids you’d want in the worst-case scenario. A sleeping mask to block light? A travel pillow to prevent a sore neck? Headphones and relaxing music?

What’s the best way you’ve found to avoid getting sick while traveling? Share your ideas in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

Stacy Johnson

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