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Eating well and staying active on the road

You may not have access to your local grocery story or favorite Pilates DVD, but that doesn't mean you need to subside on greasy fast food and abandon your workouts on your next trip.
Image: McDonalds restaurant
Looking to stay healthy on your next road trip? First thing you should do is take McDonald's and other fast food restaurants off your menu.David McNew / Getty Images file
/ Source: Independent Traveler

Without access to their local supermarket or their favorite Pilates DVD, travelers often find themselves subsisting on greasy fast food and abandoning their usual exercise routines to sit for long hours on planes or buses. Vegetarian, organic, low carb, low cal, low fat — no matter what diet you're on, there's a good chance that it went down the tubes on your last vacation.

But believe it or not, it is possible to eat well on a cross-country road trip, to stay active without access to a gym and even to go on a cruise without gaining 5 or 10 pounds. You can eat healthy and stay active no matter what kind of trip you're taking.

On the plane
There's no more captive audience than a plane full of air travelers, particularly those on long international flights. But just because you're stuck on a plane doesn't mean you're stuck eating the congealed meat and starchy sides the airlines call food. (That's if your airline serves meals at all — check out Which Airlines Still Serve Meals? to learn more.)

Your first line of defense against unhealthy airline menus is to bring what food you can from home. TSA security rules prohibit passengers from taking liquids and gels in excess of three ounces through airport security checkpoints, but solid snacks like bananas, apples, trail mix, nuts, carrots, celery sticks and energy bars should pass muster. Pack a few of these in your carry-on and skip the airline's salty snacks.

Once you've passed through security, anything you buy at the airport may be brought on your flight, so this is your chance to stock up on bottled water and buy a salad or sandwich to eat for dinner on the plane. Airports have begun adding more healthy dining options to their standard array of fast food, according to a recent survey by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Susan Levin, a PCRM dietician, recommends seeking out vegetarian dishes that are “low in fat and high in fiber" — like a bean burrito or a veggie sandwich.

In flight, skip the alcohol and soft drinks — both can dehydrate you. Water is always your best bet for staying hydrated and sticking to your diet.

On the road
Long hours of sitting in the car and eating fast food at every rest stop can derail a diet faster than you can say “road trip.” How can you break the cycle? First, take McDonald's off the menu. Before you set forth on your journey, fill a cooler with healthy snacks like fruit, raw veggies and sandwiches from home, and then restock your stash along the way with offerings from local grocery stores. Don't forget the bottled water! (Save money and the environment by purchasing gallon jugs of water to use to refill your bottles.)

Bypass rest stops and seek out independent cafes and restaurants — not only will you eat better, but you'll also meet locals and get a better flavor of the town you're in. For help finding local eateries, we recommend “Healthy Highways: The Traveler's Guide to Healthy Eating,” which lists health food stores and vegetarian restaurants across the country — it's especially helpful for those in search of organic options. California Healthy is a similar resource for the Golden State. If all else fails and you find yourself at a fast food restaurant, use our Rest Stop Survival Guide to choose the healthiest options from the menu.

On particularly long car trips, be sure to stop at least once a day for an exercise break. Check your road map for nearby national, state or local parks where you can go for a hike, or spend some time exploring a new town or city by foot.

At the hotel
When choosing a hotel, look for one that offers a fitness center or pool — and then use them once you get there! Many major booking sites, including Travelocity and Orbitz, allow you to customize your search to show only hotels that offer certain fitness amenities.

If your hotel doesn't have a gym, why not bring your own? We don't advise trying to squeeze a set of dumbbells into your suitcase, but it's easy enough to pack a resistance band or to download an exercise program onto your MP3 player so that you can work out in your room. (iTRAIN is one of several companies providing downloadable workouts.) As a lower-tech option, you can always jog in place in front of the TV for half an hour, make your own exercise routine of jumping jacks and squats, or do some early-morning stretches or stomach crunches before heading out for the day.

You may also want to consider booking a hotel room with a kitchenette or even renting a house or apartment so that you can do your own cooking. This will save you money on food and give you more control over your diet. If you choose to eat at the hotel instead, be sure to take a careful look at what kind of dining options are available. Several hotel chains eliminated trans fats from all menus in the past year or two, including Loews and Omni.

At sea
Cruise ships have a well-deserved reputation as bastions of gluttony, with food, food and more food available all day long from breakfast to the midnight buffet. Luckily, amid all the pizza, creamy pastas and self-serve ice cream, most cruise lines also offer lighter and healthier options with reduced fat, sodium and/or carbs. For example, Carnival has a fleetwide "spa menu,” while Princess offers “spa options” in its main dining rooms for cruisers watching their calories. Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean eliminated trans fats from all its menus in 2007.

Along with overeating, cruisers have also traditionally faced the temptation to laze around by the pool instead of staying active — but on today's ships, there's no reason not to exercise if you have the motivation. Nearly all modern vessels have a gym and jogging track at the bare minimum, and most also offer a number of fitness classes (yoga, aerobics, etc.) that passengers can take throughout their cruise.

Newer ships, particularly those in the Royal Caribbean fleet, have everything from ice skating rinks and rock-climbing walls to bowling alleys and boxing rings. But here's perhaps the simplest way to get in a little extra exercise: don't take the elevator. Most modern-day mega-ships have so many decks that jogging up or down the stairs every time you need to get somewhere will easily help you burn a few extra calories.

Off the ship, choose active shore excursions — like hiking or kayaking around a Caribbean island rather than touring it by motorcoach, or snorkeling instead of lying on the beach all day. Do enough physical activity during the day, and maybe you can even treat yourself to one night at the midnight buffet!

At your destination
The possibilities for active getaways around the world are almost limitless — think skiing in the Alps, horseback riding in Montana or canoeing down the Amazon River. But even if you're not up for that much outdoor adventure, there's a lot more you can do than just sit on a bus and passively take in the scenery.

For example, you can see Europe by bicycle with BikeToursDirect, which offers both guided and self-guided tours through 30 countries, including Italy, France, Austria and Portugal. You'll cycle along scenic river banks, past vineyards and through medieval towns, combining all-day exercise with a more intimate look at the European countryside than you could ever get from the seat of a bus. For more, see Bike Tours and Trips.

A similar opportunity is available for joggers in cities across the U.S. with American Running Guides and NYC RUN. Personalized routes take runners through Greenwich Village, across the Golden Gate Bridge or through Red Rock Canyon (a 15-mile drive outside Las Vegas), to name just a few.

Jogging and biking aside, you can't go wrong with good old-fashioned walking. There's no better way to experience a city than on foot, so take time to walk between major attractions rather than jumping on a bus or a subway. You'll experience the flavor of different neighborhoods and be able to duck into any cafe or shop that strikes your fancy along the way.

A note on eating internationally
We've mentioned salads as a great healthy option when you're on the road, but if you're in a developing country where your risk of food- or water-borne illness is high, you'll want to pass on raw fruits and vegetables. Instead, try to find dishes that feature cooked vegetables, and make sure they're served piping hot. Similarly, while water remains your healthiest beverage option, you'll want to be sure that your drinking supply is safe, particularly if you're traveling in a third world country. For more information, check out Food Safety and Drinking Water Safety.