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Scott McMurren: Common-sense tips help keep travelers healthy and happy

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 10, 2015

Nobody likes to get sick while traveling. The last time I was in Hawaii, for example, I spent most of the time in bed. It was a total travel fail.

It turns out, I violated rule No. 1 for traveling, according to Donna Phillips, a nurse at Providence Alaska Medical Center's intensive care unit. Phillips is a frequent traveler (Alaska Airlines MVP "Gold 75K") through her work as an advocate with the Alaska Nurses Association.

As a nurse, Phillips sees all the points where travelers can catch a cold or the flu in the air and on the ground.

"Don't travel when you're sick," she said. "It's better for you and your fellow travelers to just stay home for a day or two." This is rule No. 1. Truthfully, I thought I had kicked the bug. But after a red-eye departure to Seattle and a five-hour flight to Hawaii, my sickness returned with a vengeance.

In her portable travel kit, Phillips has a couple of packets of hand sanitizing wipes. But for our meeting, she brought out the handy gallon-size container with a squirt top, similar to what you'll see in the hospital's ICU.

"We're crazy at the hospital," she says. "In addition to the hand sanitizer, we wash our hands all the time. So, when I get on a plane, I'm going to wipe it down."

It's a real battle to clean off all of the spots — and each traveler has their own limits about how vigilant they want to be once on the airplane. Armrests, tray tables, seat backs — Phillips gives them all a once-over before she sits down.

Like me, Phillips prefers an aisle seat. Physicians have warned me those are the worst seats, since everyone touches the seat back on their way down the aisle. I'll take my chances, though, in exchange for chance to get up more often without bothering my seat mates.

In addition to the wet wipes, Phillips is a big hand-washer on the airplane, especially after using the restroom. "Travelers should also be careful about touching their face, their mouth or their eyes before they've washed your hands," she said.

Rule No. 2: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. "I am called on many flights I take," she said. "People are fainting all the time. And it's because they're dehydrated. That could be because they drank too much the night before or because they were in a hot climate before getting on the plane."

Traveling with water bottles is more common these days, but you have to dump it out before security and refill it on the other side. Phillips showed off a collapsible roll-up water bottle that's good for camping — or for your carry-on bag.

Another good tip if you're going on a long plane ride is to use compression socks, since your feet tend to swell up during the flight. That also is another reason why I am an aisle person — so I can get up and move around. "You should stand up and stretch your legs at least once an hour," said Phillips.

Since she's a frequent traveler, Phillips packs a portable safety kit. "Be sure and keep your medicine with you," she cautions. It's just not a good idea to put it in your checked luggage. "I always have some Benadryl, some epinephrine (for allergies), Rolaids, an inhaler and a mask. I save the mask in case I'm seated next to someone who's coughing or sneezing," she said. Other wellness-oriented carry-on items: Band-Aids, Tylenol, Dramamine, an extra bottle of Purell, nasal spray, hand lotion, toothpaste and a toothbrush.

"It's always a good idea to have some snacks with you at your seat," said Phillips. "That's just in case the flight is rough or if the flight attendants are busy in another part of the plane," she said.

Even before you get on the plane, it's good to pay attention at the security checkpoint. "I carry extra slip-on socks if they want me to take my shoes off," said Phillips. "Those floors are so dirty!"

Also, "Don't forget the rental car. I always wipe down the steering wheel," said Phillips. "And of course, there is the TV remote and the light switches in the hotel room," she adds.

Phillips admits she travels mostly in the U.S. Staying healthy when you're traveling internationally requires some extra attention, according to world traveler John diScala (aka "Johnny Jet").

DiScala and I both have a history of asthma, so we always keep an inhaler close by, especially on long international flights.

"When I'm traveling internationally, I check the CDC website for country-by-country reports. And I also check with my doctor," he said.

"I always drink bottled water when I'm traveling," said diScala. "And I stay away from the ice. I've talked to many travelers who got sick because of the ice in their glass."

Finally, "if you're on a long trip or a tour, get travel insurance. When I was sick in Budapest, I called my travel insurer, Allianz, and they got a doctor on the phone and found a nearby clinic for me," he said.

One personal note: A good workout can do wonders for getting adjusted to the local time zone and your overall attitude. Whether it's a brisk walk, a jog on the beach or a swim in the hotel pool, chances are good that you'll feel much better. I'm a big yoga fan, so I seek out a studio near where I'm staying. In sum, most "healthy traveler" advice is just good, common sense. Don't forget to get plenty of rest. And eat your vegetables.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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