Regardless of where she travels, whether it's Marrakech or Maine, adventure traveler and author Marybeth Bond always begins her excursion with the same ritual. She takes a seat at a neighborhood café, teahouse or restaurant and spends at least an hour doing nothing but observing the locals — their customs, their interactions, their dress. "This is my first chance to really open up my senses to the travel experience," she says.
Bond's observation ritual is more than a clever way to get to know the natives: It's her acknowledgement that a bit of mental preparation is an essential ingredient of every successful winter vacation. "On a trip, you're bombarded with impressions, and you need time to assimilate them," she says. "This ritual lets you inhale the aroma of French bread baking and notice the click of high heels on the cobblestones. Just sit still, be quiet and take it all in."
For most of us, winter vacations and holiday excursions are a long-anticipated respite from the routine of daily life, a chance to expose ourselves to different experiences, but even the best-planned trip is bound to include occasional stresses, frustrations and health flare-up.
A little planning, however, can minimize even the biggest bump in the road. By packing a few natural remedies, smart tips for exercising and a wash-and-wear sense of humor, you'll pave the way for a healthy and rewarding trip.
Once you've planned your itinerary and purchased your tickets, your next step is to do a little body and soul maintenance. Start by making sure your medical insurance is valid in other states or countries. "If you're going to a remote area with questionable medical facilities, get additional insurance from companies such as AAA or International SOS Assistance to cover emergency medical evacuation," advises Alan Spira, M.D., medical director of the Travel Medicine Center in Beverly Hills, Calif.
He also suggests checking with your doctor to determine if you need to update vaccinations for conditions such as tetanus, polio or hepatitis.
Exercise and immune system support also need your attention. Get plenty of exercise before you leave, so you're limber and strong enough to negotiate the physical demands of travel, says Spira. And shape up your immune system by taking a daily multivitamin at least once a month before and during travel. Spira also advises taking a total of 1 gram of vitamin C in several small doses throughout the day.
"Two days before I travel, I start taking echinacea to help build my immune system," says Bond, who shares her on-the-road wisdom in her book Traveler's Tales: Gutsy Women, Travel Tips and Wisdom for the Road (O'Reilly & Associates) and on the Women's On-line Network at www.ivillage.com. "Just the stress of traveling can be enough to make someone sick."
Getting yourself in the right mindset for a change of scenery is as important as packing a coat or umbrella. Read about your destination in advance so you'll know what to expect, and be sure your itinerary matches your expectations: If you truly crave flopping ont he beach for a week, don't schedule a seven-country, six-day whirlwind tour.
Most important to your physical well-being is relaxing the day before you travel. "Most people are so drained before they get on a bus, train or airplane that they start a trip with an energy deficit," says Spira. Eat healthy, natural foods, pack in advance and get plenty of rest.
Air Travel Tips
Your suitcase is packed. You've checked in for your flight and you're on your way, only to find yourself wedged on the plane between a man who coughs incessantly and a woman who snores. Welcome to air travel: cramped quarters and dry, germ-laden, recirculated air. Though the air is filtered, you can be infected by your seat partners' coughs and sneezes before germs are filtered out, says Spira.
The greatest threat to your health in air travel is lack of humidity, which irritates the mucous membranes in your nose and mouth. Mucous membranes protect against hostile germs, but when they dry and crack from lack of moisture, the invaders move right in. The answer: a large bottle of water to drink from religiously. A saline nasal spray every half-hour will also hydrate the sinuses.
Bond offers the following safety tips for those adventurous enough to taste the local fare: Eat only in places that look clean and sanitary, choose food that's fresh or well-refrigerated and eat only salads you've prepared yourself. Drink bottled water that's opened in your presence. Decline ice cubes, which are made with tap water. And brush your teeth with bottled water. Cleanliness is key to avoiding illness. Carry antibacterial wipes for use where no water is available for washing. And prepare by taking the probiotic acidophilus — beneficial bacteria that keeps your gastrointestinal tract functioning — before and during the trip.
Bond makes a habit of eating fresh local yogurt for breakfast on the first day she's in a foreign country to introduce new bacteria into her system. If you contract diarrhea despite your best efforts to avoid it, rest and take care of yourself. "Traveler's diarrhea results from your body adapting to new germs and a different pH level in the water," says Spira. "Even just the emotional stress of travel can cause intestinal disturbance." He advises patients to eat a diet that naturally shows the intestines — the BRAT diet: bananas, rice (steamed, never fried), applesauce and toast. If your symptoms don't subside after a day or two, or if you run a fever or find blood or mucus in the stool, you could have dysentery, which needs immediate medical attention.
Take Stress in Stride
Physical illness is what we concentrate on most during travel, yet our emotional state needs attention too. "Carry a journal," says Bond. "Writing in it helps you identify or satisfy your emotional needs." If you feel frustrated or stressed, bury yourself in a book by your favorite author. Pack along some relaxing lavender bath salts for a muscle-releasing bath or light a travel-sized aromatherapy candle by your bed to help you unwind. And if the ride gets bumpy, remind yourself not to take things too seriously - this is your vacation after all.
Laurel Kallenbach's work is featured regularly in national publications including Yoga Journal and Mountain Living.