Self care for the work traveller
May 13, 2015 7:27 PM   Subscribe

I travel a lot for work - mostly short domestic trips. Mostly I enjoy it but sometimes the exhaustion and disruption to my usual routine becomes overwhelming. My fridge has nothing but condiments in it, my laundry pile is sky high, all my usual habits around diet, exercise and sleep are upended. I am tired of talking and tired of meeting new people and oh god, tired of sitting in cramped plane seats. If you also travel a lot for work, what do you do to take care of yourself and create a sense of continuity, wellbeing and peace wherever you happen to be?

Possibly relevant details: I work for a nonprofit, so "spoiling myself" with airport lounges and fancy meals is not really sustainable. I live alone. I am not homesick, save for the fact that home is full of useful things like a kitchen. I don't get to choose my own accommodation but I am usually booked into comfortable mid-range hotel rooms. I enjoy my job and the travel is not a factor that would cause me to leave it.
posted by embrangled to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
What I do on trips is make sure I don't work as much as I wouldn't if I was at home. It is tempting to sit in my hotel room and bang out some code or write some emails, but if I was at home, I would be out doing stuff. So that's what I do.

I also find places to eat that are predictable and consistent and healthy. I tend to explore only for about 1/4 of my food away from home. I start each trip with a trip to a Trader Joe's (or similar) for healthy breakfasts and snacks. I haven't been to a hotel that wouldn't deliver a minifridge if they didn't already have them.

I also immediately unpack *everything* when I reach a destination and pack as I dirty things. When I return home, the suitcase goes into the laundry or to the cleaners. I pack only exactly what I need, knowing I can buy what I may need in an emergency, which never happens. Less stuff means less to worry about.

I never ever ever take flights that require me to leave for the airport before 6am - if I am required to be somewhere for an early morning meeting, I go the night before. This is a luxury, but my company endorses it fully.

I am polite, but short, with service people, unless they are simpatico. I tip well, beyond what is expensable and ask them to help me. They always do.

In the evenings, I take long walks, listening to audiobooks. Two or three miles in a night is good exercise and controls a lot of wandering mind restlessness that happens on the road.

Find what you like to do at home, and do it out. Don't work too hard because there isn't anything else to do - and remember sometimes that doing nothing is part of being comfortable both at home and on the road.
posted by bensherman at 7:44 PM on May 13, 2015 [9 favorites]

I understand. I travel enough for work - once every month or so, sometimes more - and it's exhausting and discombobulating.

First, I never take red eye flights anymore. It's just not worth it. Same goes for non-direct flights. If it's incredibly expensive or my only option I'll do it but I have found that flight timing makes a huge difference.

Second, I have a little routine when I leave and another when I get home. Leaving is: clean the bathroom, take out trash, throw out old food, make the bed. Coming home I light a few candles, open the windows, and I also now have a habit of stopping by the grocery store on my way home. Sucks but having fresh flowers and something to eat is worth it to me. I'm already tired and traveled out; a grocery store trip won't break me.

I unpack my suitcase that day or the next day and put it away. Having it out is just a way of implicitly being aware of the next trip.

As far as the trips I always bring a box of granola bars, trail mix, a nice bar of chocolate, and my empty Sigg water bottle so I can stay hydrated. That is vital! Travel dehydrates. I also have a travel bag with toothpaste, shampoo, etc. that lives in my suitcase so that part is easy. I even have a spare phone charger in there so I never think about it when packing.

I have a friend who brings a silk robe and smooshy slippers and wears them in her hotel room. Heaven! I need to implement this.

I have a small portable hobby and do it on trips as much as I do it at home. I knit but many hobbies work. This makes hotel nights not just a weird semi work time where I feel like there's nothing to do but work or watch terrible television.

As far as the routine home stuff: can you have laundry sent out? Wash and fold may not be as expensive as you think. Alternatively, can you hire a cleaner that can come do your laundry and keep your place tidy? Look into those options. You might be surprised at the cost.

Food-wise, that's tougher. Living alone already makes food difficult I've found. Lots of stuff goes bad or unused. Try keeping stuff in the freezer in meal sized portions. Lots of meals can be made with stuff that is in cans or frozen. Frozen shrimp can be heated up on the stove in oil and garlic and thrown onto pasta. Frozen veggies are surprisingly better than you'd expect. A can of whole tomatoes cooked with butter and an onion is delicious on pasta. I have the same issue as you food-wise all the time because I live alone and food in America is not really sold for single people.

Traveling a lot is tough! Good luck finding better balance.
posted by sockermom at 7:50 PM on May 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

I agree with NEVER travelling early in the morning for a full day of work. I always travel the night before.

As soon as I arrive, I go to the supermarket and get my "staples" - milk, bananas, yoghurt. This goes a long way to not disrupting my routine.

I always bring Earl Grey teabags with me, so it feels more "at home" too.

I always get a window seat, because I like curling up and facing the nothingness of the wall next to me. In particular, I like the window seat on the left side of the plane, because that's the side that's more comfortable for my neck/back. Find out what you like, and always choose that seat on a plane.

Always unpack everything and repack at the end of a trip.

If you find yourself travelling a LOT, you can do what I do - have specific clothes and items you ONLY take to travel with. For example, I have for travel: a jacket, toiletries kit, makeup bag, underwear, a scarf, certain pants, certain outfits, electronic chargers, 2 handbags. These ONLY get used when I travel. When I come home, they get laundered and placed in a "travel drawer". When I pack, I basically empty what I need from the drawer, into the bag. When I get back, it's a return to my "regular" clothing. I never am scrambling for something because I took it travelling with me. Laundry doesn't pile up as bad anymore. When I'm on the road, it really helps too because, routine!
posted by shazzam! at 7:57 PM on May 13, 2015 [9 favorites]

Oh and my final favourite - have some groceries delivered for your return!
posted by shazzam! at 7:58 PM on May 13, 2015

Business travel is usually nothing but stress for me, maybe because I don't have to do it too often. As of my last trip, I decided I would take a half day for myself and use Uber to see the city. I made it to a small show of an indie band I had never heard of in a packed house on a Tuesday night, chatted with a friendly local, and then the afternoon before leaving I caught an amazing exhibit at the city art museum, in its final days before it moved to its next destination (and it wasn't coming anywhere near where I live). This totally recharged my batteries. Going to events and sight-seeing on your own is a nice way of reconnecting with yourself if, like me, you never normally do this alone.

I'm not suggesting you should do this on every trip, just once in a while, for a change.
posted by Dragonness at 8:41 PM on May 13, 2015

Routines are excellent. Lots of people have talked about their system above, and I have mine. You need to develop yours, so you don't need to stress about what's in your bag, what you need for tomorrow for clothes and other things, how you set-up your workspace, how you pack when you leave so you don't forget anything.

What you eat and how you eat is important too. It's too easy to fall in the trap of eating badly when we travel, and figuring out how to manage that was a major key to improving my well-being on the road. It's too easy to over eat and over drink.

Time-outs for me are also important. My schedules are usually packed. I have prep the night before and catching up on work from the office. There are tons of side meetings. Look for ways to play hookey, either solo or with folks you are with. One of my tricks in urban settings is to get a hotel a decent (and fun) walk away from the event site or office I'm visiting. I may not walk every time, but it makes for a great way to unwind, particularly at the end of the day. And you get to see somewhere you may not know well.

Routines, eating and relaxation/exercise are all personal, but everyone I knows who travels a lot has a way they deal with all of these things.
posted by bonehead at 9:48 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't travel that much anymore, but when I used to be in a job that had a heavier travel component, I adopted a lot of the tactics that sockermom alluded to: always clean before you leave for a trip because there's nothing more depressing than coming home to a messy apartment. Always have some meals frozen that you can reheat after you get home, because you never know when you're going to be getting home late and what takeout places will be open. Where at all possible, just have a travel set of everything that you always bring on a trip. Keep a separate set of chargers, headphones, pens, and toiletries always in your bag so you never worry about whether you remembered to pack them or not. Bring snacks and an empty water bottle. Stock fresh sets of earplugs and eyeshades if your flights are long.

Where at all possible, don't overlap your travel day with work. Don't do red-eyes either there or back. If you do red-eyes, be kind about your expectations of what you're going to accomplish. At most, treat it like a half day.

If you have some continuity in your lodgings and you won't be gone that long between trips, ask your hotel if they're willing to hold your bags for you. I would sometimes have client engagements in another city that lasted for a month, but I was able to go home on weekends. I would just check out on Fridays, leave my bags with the hotel, come back on a Sunday, do my laundry and only have to travel with my laptop bag.

Use the need to maintain an exercise routine as a reason to avoid working late. Go for a jog instead of opening your laptop. If you swim, always pack a swimsuit and if your hotel doesn't have a pool, check to see if there's a gym or a high school that has day passes for their pools.

I also have a few tokens and mementos of home that I bring with me on trips. It's a nice way of making hotels room seem less anonymous. Even something as simple as a familiar picture from a trip or of a loved one that you're used to seeing at home can be a comfort.

If your work has any kind of reciprocal arrangements where sometimes you're traveling to a colleague's or customer's city, and then they're traveling to yours; consider inviting them to your home for a home cooked meal and possibly set up the idea that they can reciprocate the favor. I've been lucky in that a lot of my work travel brought me to cities with friends or generous hosts, and I found that a meal cooked at home was infinitely more enjoyable and memorable than the fanciest expense account dinner.
posted by bl1nk at 10:55 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

My travelling life was much improved after learning these five yoga poses to heal/prevent back pain. Especially good after a flight. They say do "Legs Up The Wall" after every flight, and it has definitely worked well for me.
posted by seasparrow at 11:01 PM on May 13, 2015 [7 favorites]

I was on a heavy work travel schedule for a while, though not anymore, thankfully. Some things that helped me:

If you're traveling to a certain city a number of times a year, find a hotel you like and only stay at that hotel. It's nice to rack up points at one property, and it becomes comforting to know where the rec center is, where the good restaurants are, and you'll eventually become familiar to the staff and earn unexpected perks that way.

Rack up points if you can. The first class trip my wife and I took to Peru offset lots of bad travel.

As mentioned above, take side trips when you can. Some of my best trips involved staying an extra weekend somewhere to see friends somewhere.

Keep as much of your bag packed as possible when at home to minimize packing stress.

Drink more water than you think you need to.

Work outside your hotel room if you can. I had some nice afternoons getting ready for meetings while on the beach.

Develop an interest you can indulge in allover the country. For me it was microbrew beer, but for others its BBQ, jazz, whatever.

Netflix was nice on the road. I liked the ability to keep binge watching a show rather than watching whatever is on TV.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:10 AM on May 14, 2015

At one point in my life I was traveling every week for work, sometimes part of the week, sometimes getting on a plane Sunday evening and coming home late Friday night for weeks on end.

To reiterate advice from other posters
- routines are really important: for example, I did my laundry early Saturday morning if I was home, no matter whether I'd gotten home on the last flight the night before.
- I kept easily reheated foods in the freezer, including frozen vegetables, and a supply of shelf-stable foods in my cupboard, such as cereal and milk in tetrapak containers, so that there would always be something to eat when I was home. (If I managed to fly in in time for dinner, I would call ahead for pickup food from a restaurant on the way home)
- I always exercised if the hotel had gym facilities - if the hotel had no gym, I would do stretches and calisthenics in my room.
- I took bath oils and salts with me to pamper myself.
- I made sure I blocked out time in the evening for household tasks; when staying in hotels this meant working out detailed to-do lists and schedules of things that needed to be done when I was next home. This way I could proceed through my weekend at home on automatic pilot, just checking off things on my list.
- I kept a part of my bedroom as my 'packing zone' where my travel bag and anything travel-related was kept.

I have to say I am glad I am not living that life any more, though. When I look back that was the one period in my life when I probably overindulged in retail therapy - it's amazing how much clothing, shoes, and makeup I acquired from malls near airports and airport duty free stores.
posted by needled at 8:16 AM on May 14, 2015

Short domestic trips can be an exhausting pain. Last year I was taking two to three trips a week, between one and three days each, so I understand. Sorry for the long list. Some of these may be obvious to you, but I was starting from scratch.

Think about what small routines, habits, food, or objects make you feel most at home and at peace. Make it a priority to have those things available to you on every single trip. If you like good coffee, bring it and an Aeropress with you. If you like snuggling up in a chair with a blanket and reading, bring a light (small for packing!) blanket that you like so you have an object you love and so you don’t have to rely on whatever scratchy questionable spare at the hotel. If you like going for runs outside, get an app that will help plan runs for you and pack running gear. If you like lifting but you can’t be sure of having a gym with weights, maybe try out exercise bands to tide you over.

Before traveling:
- Set an appropriate amount of time aside to pack and clean your house/apartment. If that means you have to leave work early the day before so you have time to do laundry so you will have underwear either for your trip or when you get back, do it. I sometimes sabotaged my sleep at home trying to do these tasks late at night, and then I couldn’t pack until midnight or later, and it made traveling the next day that much worse.
- Have travel kits you never unpack, in packing cubes or something similar. (Packing cubes in general are awesome.) Toiletries and simple First-Aid kit are obvious, but also a kit for chargers for phone and laptop, and a kit for rental cars if your trips require it (with something to hold your phone for navigation, wet wipes, sunglasses). If you’re a food snob like me, you can get some food-grade 3 oz. containers for liquids like olive oil and vinegar for salads on the road. You can bring a real spoon and fork on your carryon so you can eat real food you bring with you.
- Pack things so you’re prepared if something minor goes wrong – liquids (even pens) in Ziploc bags in case they leak, an extra pair of socks and underwear – but remember you’re not camping. Most things can be bought at your destination if you forget them or lose them, and it’s not the end of the world if you spill something on a shirt and have to buy a new one.
- Pack a laundry bag. Having a place to stuff dirty clothes in a hotel made everything feel more normal and less, well, gross than just packing dirty things directly into my bag.
- Make sure your travel information is all in one place. Either a dedicated travel folder with printouts, or use an app like Passbook or TripIt so you don’t have to fumble for confirmation numbers or directions.

While flying:
- Don’t shortchange your comfort during the travel itself. Pack an empty water bottle and some snacks (even on short flights in case of delays), bring a book or Kindle, wear layers and leave enough space in your carryon so you can take some of those layers off if necessary, wear comfortable shoes even if those are different from your work shoes. If you've got back or neck pains, bring a pillow if necessary.
- I bought an iPad several months in to my constant traveling, and it is amazing for travel. It’s a good size for watching movies or TV shows on the plane, it’s less cumbersome than a laptop for when you want to futz with the tray table, and it doesn’t have to be packed away for takeoff and landing.
- If you can afford it and don’t feel too much guilt about buying your way to being treated better, PreCheck is worth not having to take off shoes and unpack laptops.
- Although you sometimes can’t avoid working on the plane, try not to make that the norm. The traveling itself is work. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself plenty of buffer for pleasure reading, or watching TV, or a nap, or chatting with your neighbor, or just staring out the window.
- Don’t be shy about asking for two drinks when they come around – flying makes you dehydrated, and the tiny cups they have are generally insufficient for me.
- Also don't be shy about getting up and stretching in the aisle. Most people don't do it, and you might feel a bit weird with everyone around to watch you, but if your flight is more than an hour or so, it's so much better for you.

At your destination:
- After you check in to your hotel, go buy a few things either at a grocery store or drug store. Some fruit, some single-serving cereal. I like buying some simple salad fixins if I’m there for more than a day – I can get through small clamshell pack of spinach with a couple of lunches or dinners and then I’m not feeling gross from restaurants out all the time.
- You say you don’t choose accommodations, but can you request certain attributes from whoever does? Ask for ones with gyms or pools or whatever kind of exercise you like or at least will actually do. I don’t know if you’re traveling to places with Club Quarters, but I really like them for business travel and they are not expensive for their locations – they have things like water bottles at their water fountains, free fruit and other snacks at all hours, free Wi-fi in the rooms, and they will help with getting delivery food or grocery shopping rather than room service. If you really have no say in the matter, look up the hotel before you go to try to get a sense of the place and the neighborhood. It’s easier for me to actually exercise, for example, if I already have a plan of how I’m going to do that before I get there. It’s too easy to avoid when you’re tired from traveling AND you have to spend the energy to figure out where and how to do it.
- Don’t feel pressured to spend time with people outside working hours if you are an introvert in need of alone time. You mention getting tired of meeting new people, and part of my problem was the “we’re all away from home, so we should hang out all the time” mentality. Make an excuse if you have to – you’re seeing a friend who lives nearby, you have to catch up on work, or even just there’s a TV show you really love that you want to watch.
- Remember that you don't have to do all errands at home. While traveling, I've bought new shoes, new non-liquid makeup, re-stocked my travel toiletries, and bought birthday cards and sent them (I keep stamps at all times in my wallet). Set up your bills so you can pay them easily online while travelling if you don't have them on autopay already.

Taking care of home and getting home:
- It is absolutely worth having a neighbor or friend with a key who can pick up mail, water plants, or just be available if there is an emergency (or if you freak out about whether you turned off the stove).
- On the plant note, I highly recommend having a basil or mint plant or other spices you like. They are pretty hardy and having fresh herbs can make all the difference for a sad frozen meal or plain pasta because you have no other food in the house.
- Unpack when you get home or the next morning at the latest, but your packing should make it pretty simple: laundry bag dumped in the hamper, travel kits stay where they are, and things like shoes, electronics, and medications back where they belong.
- A lot more food freezes well than I realized, and are a lifesaver when you’ve been traveling and can’t buy perishables. You can freeze sliced bread and make sandwiches on the frozen bread that will be thawed by lunchtime. Frozen veggies are good and easy to cook. Also, carrots, apples, and bell peppers last a really long time (multiple weeks) in the fridge, so you can stock up and have at least something fresh to come home to.
-Make an effort to see friends when you are home. It's really easy to get swamped by just keeping up with life tasks when you get home, but my constant traveling got progressively more tiring when I let my social ties at home fade too much. I kept putting off going out because I needed to sleep or work or do laundry or run errands. Good friends will understand you are busy, and it is OK to invite a friend to go grocery shopping with you or to just hang out at your place and watch TV if you need to recharge.
posted by alligatorpear at 9:11 AM on May 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm in a similar position, especially on the non-profit side, so I'm reading some of these suggestions with a bit of incredulity through the non-profit lens (e.g. paying extra for direct flights when multi-stop flights are cheaper is out of org policy and functionally impossible). My approach thus far has been to cut down on the time I take to prepare for trips so that I can reliably open the Travel Drawer and pull out a bunch of readymade "kits" so I don't have to overthink the night before and be nervous that I left something essential out of my bag.

In said drawer I have:
-permanently packed pan-toiletries bag, which is a durable and transparent waterproof plastic. I'm a big fan of those reusable silicone squirt tubes to carry liquids, so I have SPF face lotion, hair goop, nice toothpaste (hooray for small tubes of Tom's), floss, and my pharmacopeia (Tums, aspirin, Alka Seltzer, benadryl). I also bought one of those inexpensive, refillable cologne travel bottles a couple years ago and I love it.
-a baggie with a few ginger chews, sleepytime-type teabags, and some individually wrapped dark chocolate squares.
-a baggie with two rolled neckties and tie pin that match every shirt I wear.
-a wad of dress socks held together with the belt I travel with, since it also matches every tie I wear.
-a baggie with a USB charger and headphones.

Before my trips, I put my suit and shirts and dress shoes in a garment bag, grab my travel drawer kit, and toss a couple tee shirts and casual pants/socks/undies in my carry-on along with my laptop and whatnot. Packing as light as possible on clothes is a wonderful relief, and I've learned to launder items as needed at the hotel or a nearby laundromat as needed instead of packing for everything.

So those are my solutions--things that speed up the process of preparing for travel, ease my mind about the process, and reduce the burden of existing in airports and airplanes.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:23 AM on May 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Maximising sleep and eating reasonably well are critical. Buy/bring healthy snacks with you and skip some of the restaurant meals. Go for healthy options eating out and make sure you have a healthy snack you can eat when you get back. The temptation is huge just to pick up something unhealthy so resist that. If travel time v travel cost always results in longer travel time with layovers make sure that this time comes out of your work hours. Once every blue moon travel coming partially out of your time may be acceptable but regular travel comes out of work time. So arrange your travel, office presence accordingly. As others have said use evenings in the hotel to exercise or for hobbies, not to work. And maximise sleep. For example, I find hotel breakfasts to be a massive waist of time. I'd rather pick up a coffee and a piece of fruit on the go.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:25 AM on May 14, 2015

I used to travel a lot too. The following tip is not for everyone and obviously standard safety tips apply, but depending how single you are check out ok cupid (or similar or tinder when you're there) for whatever city you're visiting and have a date or fling planned. I know people who've done this and I had a lot of fun with someone who was in my city on business. Again, this tip is clearly not for everyone but i'm a woman and have had fun with this.
posted by biggreenplant at 12:21 PM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to travel a lot for work as well. My tips are more for your time at home.

- Use packing cubes. It is much easier to dump contents of a whole packing cube into the washing machine than it is to fish out and find all of my dirty clothes.

- After your laundry is done, repack the clothes directly into the packing cube. This is the same concept as having dedicated toiletries only for traveling, as others have mentioned above.

- Have an extremely detailed packing list. When I pack for travel, I pack directly off of the list. Then I never need to think about whether I remembered to pack something.

- Be OK with the fact that your home life will not be perfect. My fridge currently does not have fresh produce in it because I am so busy at work, even though I usually cook. I do what I can to keep healthy eating habits, so dinner consists of a salad I buy at the deli or pre-chopped veggies that I dump into a bowl at home.
posted by xmts at 4:09 PM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Love everything people said above. If you miss your kitchen, and it's possible at your work, stay at an airbnb when you travel. In a lot of places they are cheaper/nicer than a hotel and you can cook whatever you want. Also homier! You said you don't book your accommodations but you could ask about this and if it's cheaper, they'll probably be happy about this. Also at my work someone booked stuff for us for a while and I just asked if I could do my own and they said fine. Most people will jump at the chance to do less work. :)

Personally I travel a week a month (all at once) and I notice that Thursday afternoon is when I flag. So I plan a fun thing for Thursday night that I can get excited about. I almost always travel to the same city, so I like to think of it more like I live in NYC 1/4 of the time and my home 3/4 of the time. As such I get newsletters for events there and plan social outings in that city in the same way I would at home. If you always travel to the same place, stay at the same hotel and then you now know people in that city.

I also just need a lot of alone time so I try to carve out sitting in the hotel room watching tv and eating takeout time.

Another useful thing for your friends/family at home is being SUPER clear about what dates you will be out of town. I have noticed a significant dropoff in requests to hangout because my friends think I am "always away." So email everyone with dates and remind them when you will be home so you will leave the house. Last time I traveled I also made sure to hang out with someone right after I flew home, which prevented my usually 2 days of hermiting in my apt.

I separate my to do list into things I can do anywhere (pay bills, pick up allergy medicine, call insurance agent) and ones I have to do physically at home (repair window in bedroom). I find I can get a lot of the location optional chores I don't love done while out of town, leaving the time I have at home just for fun stuff.

I generally crock pot some meal before I leave and freeze it in single servings that way when I get home I am not only eating nuts and noodles.

I agree with having at least a toiletries case that you never unpack. As much stuff as you can have that always stays in your bag the better.

If you're flying a lot, try to do it on the same airline so you can get status for upgrades. There's a lot of frequent flyer mile travel hacking you can do with minimal monetary spending to get free access to better seats and airplane lounges for free.
posted by jennybento at 12:24 PM on May 15, 2015

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