How to Avoid Motion Sickness While Traveling
Here’s a dirty little secret I’ve mostly kept under wraps: despite being a full-time traveler, I get horrific motion sickness. You’d think being in motion so often would allow me to develop a tolerance over time, but no, it doesn’t work that way.
And yes, it’s led to some awkward moments. Like the time I puked my guts out in the majestic Tuscan countryside, pictured above, while on a press trip. (Everyone was very nice about it.)
That said, while I haven’t been able to eliminate motion sickness from my travels completely, I’ve found ways to reduce it and get from Point A to Point B with minimal cookies blown. Here are some of my top recommendations.
Douro Valley, Portugal — such a beautiful region, but I felt so sick while driving through it!
How to Prepare: Know Your Motion Sickness Triggers
Motion sickness is what happens when your eyes and inner ear receive conflicting signals — for example, if you’re on a bus and your body feels the movements but your eyes are looking at something still like your phone.
For some people, being in a car or bus is the worst. For others (myself included), boats are the worst. In time, you’ll find out where you’re hit the hardest. For now, here’s how to prepare:
Know if you have something rough ahead of you. Be prepared when you’re taking smaller roads through mountainous regions (or visiting rural mountainous regions). Be extra vigilant about boat journeys, especially smaller boats on the ocean.
Research the transportation options. If you have terrible motion sickness when on buses, is there a possibility to take a train instead? Trains often cost significantly more, depending on the route, but sometimes you’ll luck out and they’ll be similarly priced. At the same time, larger boats are often much steadier than smaller boats, as I learned on Lake Nicaragua.
If you’re on a guided tour, you may want to let your guide know in advance. If, say, whale watching is part of your day, you may want to pull the guide aside and let him or her know that you might have some motion sickness issues and ask if most people have trouble with this part of the tour. He or she will be able to advise you.
The road from Chiang Mai to Pai in Thailand famously takes 762 stomach-lurching turns. You can buy shirts that say 762 on them!
What to Pack Before Your Trip
Sea Bands. Sea Bands are acupressure bands that you put on your wrists that apply pressure to a point on your lower arms. I know it sounds a little hippie-dippie, but seriously — they only cost a few bucks, so don’t knock them until you try them!
I first got into Sea Bands when I started waitressing when I was 20. Smelling food on a constant basis made me feel nauseated throughout my shift. I tried the Sea Bands on a whim and they worked so well, they became a permanent part of my waitressing uniform.
Ginger chews. Ginger has been a remedy for nausea for thousands of years, and I find that ginger chews are the most convenient way to eat ginger while traveling. These are good to keep in your purse or day bag.
Crackers or other innocuous foods. Some people swear by Saltines; others prefer bananas, which are ubiquitous in tropical climates. Having a little bit of food in your stomach can keep nausea at bay.
Dramamine or motion sickness tablets. If you end up feeling very sick or worry about a particularly tough journey, you may want to actually take over-the-counter motion sickness medication. Keep in mind that many motion sickness tablets cause drowsiness.
Plastic bags. Plastic bags go with me everywhere — they’re easily accessible in my purse, my camera bag, and my luggage. I even take them when on excursions around home. Just in case you need to puke while in public, you have options.
One of the worst journeys of my life was the hydrofoil from Naples to Capri in 2004. They handed out barf bags to the whole boat. I managed to avoid puking, but the Japanese tourists surrounding me weren’t as lucky.
Tips for Preventing Motion Sickness During Your Trip
Don’t read or browse your phone. Seriously. I know that for bookworms, it’s so tempting to spend a four-hour car ride engrossed in your Kindle, but it’s usually the worst thing you can do.
Offer to drive if it’s an option. Being the one in control can eliminate motion sickness completely, or at least keep it at bay.
Sit facing forward. A lot of people feel much better this way, especially while on trains.
Keep your eye on the horizon. It’s a cliche and it’s true. Keep your eye on what’s ahead of you. That might mean going outside if you’re on a boat.
Get yourself to a source of fresh air if possible. Crack a window or get yourself outside.
Close your eyes and lie down if possible. Closing your eyes effectively ends the discourse between your eyes and your inner ear. (But how to make sure you have the room to do that? Sometimes when on buses, I make sure I have an extra seat to myself by getting on early then making myself look gross, shirt hitched up and covered in crumbs, and spreading out like crazy.)
Listen to something distracting. Some people like podcasts or audiobooks; I prefer having something that doesn’t require concentration. Dance music is my favorite when-I’m-feeling-nauseous music.
If you’re on a wildly pitching boat, stand up and ride it out as best you can. One morning on my Croatia cruise, we hit some rough seas and most of the boat was sick. Miraculously, I wasn’t because I got up earlier and went out to the deck. (I then ran into the boat’s resident Kiwi who toasted me with his morning beer.)
Avoid drinking heavily. The older I get, the more susceptible I am to nausea the next day, even after just a few drinks. Motion sickness is bad enough without a hangover on top of it. Keep your drinking to a minimum.
Take breaks. Are you able to pull over and take a breather? Do so if you can. It’s worth it.
If they’re handing out motion sickness tablets or plastic bags — take them. This is more common on boats. If it’s so bad that they hand that stuff out, trust me, it’s going to be a wild ride.
The seas were extremely rough on the night of my shipwreck in Indonesia. I took a Dramamine and passed out at 7:00 PM. This was a more peaceful moment in Lombok two days before.
Know that you can’t prepare for everything.
You can follow every bit of advice on this list and STILL get sick. Things happen.
Make peace with the fact that you can’t control every factor of a trip — or anything in life. Just prepare as well as you can, for motion sickness as much as everything else, and if the punches come, be ready to roll with them.
One of my favorite kindnesses shown to me while traveling was the first time I traveled from Chiang Mai to Pai in Thailand in 2010. The road is notoriously twisty and I made the mistake of browsing my phone in the minibus, and I ended up with the worst motion sickness I’ve had in years. We stopped at a rest stop and I went to a table and put my head down.
And then I heard someone come over and place a cup next to me and ask if I was okay. It was a French guy who was on my minibus — he bought me a cup of tea after seeing how sick I was. How considerate is that? I’m still touched whenever I think about it.
That being said, I’ve tried never to get to that point again — and the above tips have helped.