Healthy Holiday Travel Tips

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When we think about holiday travel, it may seem like there are more reasons to stay home than to have an adventure. For many of us, the potential stress and possibility of getting sick during a time of year when we want to celebrate can give us pause in our planning. Don’t despair — the joys and excitement of holiday travel outweigh the negatives! While we can’t do much about the challenges of family dynamics or the busyness of airports and train stations, there are many things we can do to keep ourselves steady, thriving, and healthy while traveling during the busiest weeks of the year.

Photo by Queren King-Orozco

Stress and Susceptibility

There are two main reasons we tend to fall under the weather when we travel during the holidays. The first is the impact of cumulative and ongoing stress. Where do we see this? While there’s often a lot of joy and fun this time of year, it can be accompanied with an increase in sugar and alcohol, a change in schedule with more late nights, and increased personal interactions, especially if your holidays include family visits. The holidays can also create complex feelings for people who have mixed associations with the season, or those who find the financial aspects of gift-giving overwhelming. If you add travel on top of this, you’re looking at a reasonably high amount of holiday stress, even if everything goes perfectly.

The second reason for sickness is exposure to a greater variety of pathogens. It doesn’t take a science degree to know that sitting in close proximity to a large number of people and breathing recycled air for a long period of time can increase chances of exposure to organisms and pathogens. Our immune systems are readily prepared to deal with them, and general exposure for healthy individuals typically isn’t a problem. On an airplane, however, we might be exposed to something in greater concentration and for a longer duration, which can increase susceptibility. In a 2007 paper, one research group found that, on average, about 40 percent of airline passengers carried a pathogen after their flights. The majority of discovered pathogens were viral, and the most common were influenza and parainfluenza, followed by adenoviruses. Although this number is concerning, it’s worth noting that while 40 percent of these individuals were carriers, this study doesn’t indicate that they became ill, as being an asymptomatic carrier isn’t uncommon with respiratory infections.

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Another study emphasized how likely you are to get sick based on your proximity to someone who is ill with a viral pathogen. A 2018 study found that one of the most important factors in staying well during air travel is the passengers sitting closest to you. If you’re sitting in front of or behind a passenger who’s ill, you can have up to an 80 percent chance of acquiring their virus. But once you’re at least three rows away, the likelihood drops dramatically.

Stress and exposure to pathogens are interrelated, as stress creates a greater susceptibility to them. Their relationship creates the perfect storm for illness. If you haven’t been sick yourself during a holiday season, I’m sure you’re familiar with many who have been, and the impact this had on their families and their travel plans.

How To Stay Healthy While Traveling

Fortunately, there are ways to combat sickness amid your busy holiday plans. Staying healthy while traveling begins at the start of the holiday season as well as the times you find yourself wearing down. Of course, within these moments there are indulgences that are part of the holiday fun, so it’s important to make merry while thoughtfully pacing yourself. Supporting yourself around the holidays in preparation for travel is about economizing energy and being intentional with your health resources.

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Travel Preparations

So, it’s time for your trip, and you’re ready to go. Often, travel days involve early mornings or late nights and a lot of rushing around — and alternately, waiting around. When you’re on the road, there are two areas of health you’ll want to focus on: The first is your internal health, and the second is limiting your exposure to pathogens in your environment.

Here are some tips and tricks to create an optimal internal environment, and to stay as balanced as possible before and on the days of travel:

    • Beginning a week before your travels, as well as throughout your traveling, consider taking herbal medicines, such as elderberry or echinacea, to reduce your chances of getting sick. In a 2016 study, elderberry was shown to prevent individuals from acquiring respiratory infections during flight. Those who contracted infections while taking elderberry had fewer symptoms and a shorter duration of illness. A 2012 study with echinacea showed similar results with passengers acquiring fewer illnesses. Both herbal products are generally safe and can be taken in many different forms; however, before adding any new herbal supplements to your lifestyle, consult with a medical practitioner. There are also products specifically prepared for children that may be more palatable to them.

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  • Eat garlic the day before your travels, and even the day of. When you have eaten enough garlic, your lungs and respiratory mucosa actually exude the antimicrobial garlic volatiles, which may go a long way in preventing the acquisition of a respiratory infection. A study in 2001 demonstrated that a garlic supplement would reduce the chances of acquiring a cold during the winter — perfect for holiday travel! Eating garlic, preferably raw, is easiest in the form of guacamole, or in butter or honey, and a good goal is 1 to 2 cloves per day.
  • Get enough sleep the night before your travels begin. If you know your travel plans will cut into your sleep time, then try to nap on the flight or after arriving at your destination.
  • Have healthy snacks ready to go for your trip. Nuts, fruits and vegetables, cheese and crackers, sushi rice rolls, and other healthy favorites can make a difference when you’re running around. Limiting sugar this time of year can be a key piece of the wellness puzzle. Patients have reported that higher sugar consumption can cause negative effects on the body, including increased stress levels.


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  • Respiratory pathogens are going to enter your system on an enclosed airplane, and keeping these areas hydrated is critical for optimal functioning. Bring a water bottle with you, and fill it whenever you get a chance. Consider carrying a small hydration packet, such as Emergen-C, to add to your water bottle, too. You can find options that contain vitamin C and magnesium.
  • If you’re traveling with children, bring plenty of distractions. Have a special secret stash of something you can whip out in a flash during a moment where you need a lot of concentration.
  • Bring your own entertainment, and consider something audio-based, such as podcasts, audiobooks, or music, so you can close your eyes and rest on a long flight or as a passenger during a car trip. If you tend to get bored, choose something educational as a theme for your travels.



  • Wash your hands thoroughly each time you have an opportunity, especially before you eat anything or after touching objects that are used by many people, such as touchscreens, public transport grips, or public-use pens. Use transportable wet wipes or a natural antimicrobial thyme oil spray if you aren’t near a sink with hot water and soap. Of all of the preventative measures you can take to remain healthy, handwashing takes the cake.
  • When traveling by air, use wet wipes to clean the armrests and tray table after you’re at your seat. This is especially helpful if you have kids who tend to be all over the place.
  • If you are sick and infectious, consider delaying your trip, or at a minimum, use a respiratory mask to protect others around you. This common practice in Asian countries hasn’t caught on in many parts of the world, but it’s a socially responsible and easy action to take if you have a cold and are flying.

Maintaining Good Health During the Holidays

During both your active travel days and those spent at your destination, you can adopt some practices to help maintain your holiday health. Here are some favorite ideas and strategies for both staying well and minimizing the accumulating holiday stress burden that may bring you down during your traveling time:

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    • Consider drinking a nervine tea every day during this season. Nervines nourish your nervous system and help your body stay calm during a busy day. Combine equal parts chamomile, linden flower, lemon balm, and peppermint for a lovely addition to a hectic holiday schedule. Make a larger batch of the tea in the morning, and keep it in a thermos all day long.
    • Adaptogenic herbs can be helpful in keeping a body in balance during stressful times. Favorite adaptogens in these situations include tulsi, or holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), which makes a delicious beverage and can be added to the nervine tea above or consumed on its own. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is ideal for individuals who experience anxiety or reduced sleep quality, and is best taken in a capsule or as a powder, but can also be used in a traditional milk-based tea. (See All About Adaptogens for more information.)
    • For families with young children, ensure your kids are receiving healthful, foundational meals before they indulge in goodies. Think about your daily schedules and when they might be exposed to a lot of sugar, and try to plan how to navigate through these indulgence moments.
    • Pre-eating before an event where you know there will be a lot of tempting, sugary foods and drinks can be wise. Eat something light and healthy before you head out so you are less hungry and able to make better choices while at an event.

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  • If you are the one bringing or serving the food, consider making something healthy or even medicinal by using lots of garlic and herbs. You’ll be surprised how many people are thrilled to see a fruit plate or a garlic yogurt and vegetable platter among all of the cupcakes and cookies.
  • Create opportunities to nourish yourself in a different way by being around good friends and taking part in activities you know will make you feel stronger and happier, especially if you can do it outside. Some activities include taking woodland walks, searching for animal footprints, or stargazing.
  • Get outside and breathe fresh air every day, at least for a little while. Not only can these moments help ground you, but they may actually help prevent infection.



  • When you are doing your holiday planning, be intentional about the pace, costs, comforts, balances, and sacrifices you are making. See if you can choose dates with affordable, direct flights. Consider booking places with a kitchen so you can cook simple items when away from home. Think about whether a long drive may actually be easier than a couple of flights; and if you have young kids, think about the ways you’ll keep them entertained and happy.

Keeping a Positive Outlook During the Season

Even when you take the time to practice as many thoughtful behaviors and precautions as possible, things can go wrong and you can end up sick on your holiday. When this happens, the most important thing is to take a break if you can, and to support your body and its own healing processes. If you take a day to convalesce, curl up in bed and sleep, hydrate, and eat nourishing foods (such as soups), you might find you are ready to go the next day. If you do get sick, see if you can obtain some garlicky food, and be ready with larger doses of your elderberry and echinacea.

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Above all, keep a sense of humor and adventure about your travels. It’s easy to feel that travel these days is too mundane, but there’s always an adventure to be had, always something new to discover, and even those disastrous inconveniences can create new opportunities. As a seasoned traveler, my rule of thumb is if it’s not something I can change, the best thing I can do is change my expectations, reframe the situation, and try to have a little bit of fun! After all, memories can be made in all sorts of ways.

Bevin Clare is a clinical herbalist, nutritionist, mother, plant lover, and a professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. She is also a board member of United Plant Savers, a group working to protect at-risk medicinal plants in North America, and the president of the American Herbalists Guild.

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