Traveling can create lifelong memories and be the perfect antidote to feeling overworked or worn out. Unfortunately, it can also be a major challenge for people like me with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). New foods, unknown environments, and travel-related stress can all aggravate my IBS. But that doesn’t mean I don’t travel, I just am more careful when I’m away from home.
Traveling with IBS takes a little extra consideration, but it’s well worth it. Don’t let your IBS stand in the way of seeing the world. Here are my top tips for traveling if you have IBS.
1. Pick an aisle seat
We all know the best seat is the window seat. As much as I love to view the world from above, and get an early glimpse of my destination, I’ve come to love an aisle seat for long flights. It gives me peace of mind that I can get up and go to the bathroom whenever I need to, and it prevents me from alerting the entire row that I am (yet again) going to the bathroom.
2. BYOF: Bring your own food
Plane food is risky in general, but add in IBS, and it’s a recipe for travel disaster. I always bring snacks in my carry-on for short flights. I’ll also bring meals if it’s a longer flight or I’m flying during my usual mealtime.
Once I land, I keep snacks on hand throughout the trip. Having snacks while I’m out can keep hunger at bay and prevent me from eating something I shouldn’t out of desperation. When traveling abroad, I typically pack a few favorites that will last me the entire trip and then stop by a local grocery store at my destination to shore up my supplies.
3. Pack a reusable water bottle
I fill up my water bottle as soon as I go through security and again before boarding so I can stay hydrated throughout the entire flight. Once I land I take it with me everywhere. Staying hydrated is especially important when traveling with IBS, and carrying a bottle is an easy reminder to drink it more often.
4. Stay calm
Anxiety is notorious for causing an upset stomach, and it can also be a trigger for IBS. Traveling is inherently stressful, especially when you are going somewhere foreign. I am especially prone to travel anxiety. Journaling and talking about my anxieties with my travel partner(s) makes it easier for me to manage my travel anxiety and prevent my IBS from going off the rails. It also helps set expectations and keeps the people you are traveling with aware of what you need.
Meditation apps can also be helpful to settle down the mind, but one of the best tricks for me is shifting my focus. Instead of worrying about being far from home or what I’ll be able to eat for dinner, I focus on the best parts of the trip, or the places I can’t wait to explore.
5. Keep a routine
Just because you aren’t at home doesn’t mean you should completely ditch your normal routine. Keep your normal eating schedule, even if you are on a different time zone. Adjust for where you are so you still eat your meals like you would at home.
This is especially important for me when jet lag is involved. Eating at my usual intervals helps keep my stomach on a regular pattern, and it means I don’t go to bed overly full or with a roiling stomach. I felt better all day when I bucked the cultural norms in Spain and ate dinner earlier in the evening like I would at home. As a bonus, I was able to get reservations at popular restaurants because no one else wanted to eat so early.
6. Stay somewhere with a kitchen
Being able to make your own food while traveling is invaluable. I love exploring new areas and getting to know a place through food, but it’s difficult when you are on a strict diet with serious consequences for “cheating.”
A kitchen gives me peace of mind and allows me to make as many meals ‘at home’ as necessary. I typically make at least two meals a day when traveling for more than a weekend. Airbnb, hostels, and even some budget hotels make this easy.
7. Know what you can’t eat and how to explain it
Eating in a restaurant can be challenging anywhere with IBS, but in a foreign country it can be especially daunting. Asking for what you need often feels more embarrassing than empowering. But knowing what you can’t eat and being able to explain it in any language is key to comfortable travel with IBS.
Do a little research into the local food before you leave to get an idea of what you can eat. Memorize how to say what you need to avoid or swipe phrases from allergy cards and make your own to show waiters when you don’t trust your language skills. Have a native speaker look them over before you try them out, even if it’s someone in the local visitor’s center or the concierge at your hotel. This will prevent you from asking every waiter for food “without little penises” for days before a waiter finally heartily laughs and tells you how to actually say “onions.”
8. Order off-menu
Can’t eat anything on the menu? Make your own meal instead. Look at the sides and other components of meals or ask for something basic that every restaurant should be able to make like rice and steamed vegetables, or a simple salad with your favorite toppings.
9. Be able to find the bathroom
Know how to ask for the bathroom and be familiar with the signs so you know where to go. Always carry change in city centers. I desperately needed to use the bathroom at a train station in Spain, and the unexpected pay-for-entry made for an awkward, dire hunt for change.
10. Don’t ignore symptoms
If you feel your IBS acting up, don’t ignore it and continue on as normal. Adjust your diet if you need to, take the day a bit slower, stay closer to a bathroom, or get a little extra sleep. Treat yourself well and be kind to yourself.
11. Be strict
It’s so tempting to let yourself eat whatever you want when you travel. But it’s not worth feeling miserable all night or running to the bathroom every 20 minutes the next day. Be smart. Trust me, don’t eat the delicious deep fried churros con chocolate for lunch when you are already nauseous from jet lag. (I’m speaking from experience!)
I’m particularly careful when I’m on trips that involve exercise like a 5k or triathlon, extended periods of time away from a bathroom, or a swimsuit. I am much better at sticking to low-FODMAP foods when I know I’ll look four months pregnant on the beach the next day from bloating, or that I’ll spend more time in the bathroom than walking the museum.
At the same time, a bite or two won’t kill you, and you’ll know what the regional delicacy tastes like. Worrying about every bite can make your symptoms worse, even if you aren’t eating anything you shouldn’t. Bottom line: Remember, your vacation should be relaxing!
Mandy Ferreira is a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is passionate about health, fitness, and sustainable living. She’s currently obsessed with running, Olympic lifting, and yoga, but she also swims, cycles, and does just about everything else she can. You can keep up with her on her blog (treading-lightly.com) and on Twitter (@mandyfer1).