My first ever long-distance trip was at age 18 when I was studying languages at the University of Bath and selling popcorn at one of the local cinemas, which has since closed down. It was around this time that I was introduced to the fascinations of being able to converse with someone on the other side of the globe by means of chat pages and programs, which were still in their infancy. Back then, I simply couldn’t conceive how this was possible and now so many people are using programs such as Skype to make Internet phone calls. We even have a US Skype phone and a Skype number so that our US friends and relatives can call us at local rates. Such inventions weren’t even on the cards in what must have been around the summer of 1995.
I had been invited to visit two of my chat friends – one in Monterrey, Mexico and another in Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas. In hindsight, one was a weirdo and the other was a wanker, but I was so intent on traveling the world back then that against my parents’ wishes I saved up my wages from the cinema job and flew out to spend some time with them. It was a huge risk and I could have ended up raped or killed, but luckily I survived and am here to tell the tale. I always have been inquisitive and interested in experiencing new people and places and that remains the same today, except that I hopefully have a healthier portion of common sense.
What actually inspired me to write this article and share my travel tips with you is the fact that in a few days we are flying to Ireland, which is not a long flight for us, but we are meeting up with Corey’s cousin Laura and her teenage daughter Cheyenna in Dublin. For them, it is their first ever transatlantic flight (they are flying from Phoenix, AZ) and the first time you fly, I think such tips really come in handy, so essentially this article is dedicated to my friend Laura (who reads my column every week) and her daughter Cheyenna, as well as any first-time flyers.
Let’s start off with booking your flights. As I’m sure you know, it pays to shop around and sites such as Expedia may come in handy when comparing prices, as they present you with a selection of flights from various airlines, saving you the hassle of visiting each of their pages separately. Expedia and similar sites can also come in handy if you want to book rental cars and hotels along with your flights.
If you are packing medicines, make sure you put them in your carry-on/hand luggage in case your luggage is delayed or misplaced (something that does happen, but tends to be temporary) and consider packing extra in case your return trip is delayed. A repeat prescription might also come in handy to show to a local doctor who could then prescribe a local equivalent.
Because illness makes travel so unpredictable for us, as do traffic and tight security regulations, allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and pass through security. Also, consider giving a copy of your passport to someone you trust in case it is lost or stolen while you are away. My jet-setting fiancé Corey advises arriving at least one and a half hours before your flight, although stipulations vary for each airline. I have traveled with other airlines that will let you on the plane if you arrive up to 30 minutes before the flight, but experience shows that this is cutting it a bit short.
Once you have booked your flight, don’t forget to select your seat online. Most flights allow you to do this and personally we tend to prefer the exit row seats because they have more legroom, which is a precious commodity if you don’t have the luck or the money to travel business class. Bear in mind, however, that you may be required to help your fellow passengers in the event of an emergency and usually have to be at least age 12 (which should apply to most of us here on Dear Thyroid!) Furthermore, unless you are a frequent flyer, you might not be able to select these seats online. It’s also useful to know that many airlines allow you to check in online, which you might actually have to do in order to select your seats ahead of time.
Talking about frequent flyer programs, it really pays to enroll with them if you travel a lot with a particular airline. When I first met Corey, his job as a technical manager involved tons of travel. Generally he’d be jetting off somewhere new every two weeks – whether the US, South America, Asia or elsewhere in Europe, he was an expert when it came to long-distance travel. His US-based company even kindly allowed him to use the air miles he had collected to pay for personal travel. The company even paid for my flights in economy if Corey agreed to fly economy instead of business class because two economy seats save the company money compared to one business class seat. Incidentally, if you are a frequent flyer like Corey (he had platinum cards for many airlines!), you get to use the express check-in and also get the occasional upgrade. That was the first time I flew business class and personally I think it is overrated. They have nice plush leather seats, but the food is still just as shitty. That said, comfy seats and legroom are worth a lot when taking long-distance flights.
Another thing that’s worth checking out as a business traveler is a membership to the executive lounges. When you are flying every few weeks, as Corey was, such memberships can prove invaluable for recharging your batteries and resting your legs while you are waiting for your next plane. Plus, of course, there is free booze, which can help you get to sleep on the flight, although we sometimes take sleeping pills too. It makes a long-distance flight go by so much faster.
Another new thing we discovered on our last trip to America is the express beauty lounges that seem to be popping up at certain airports. I had a facial on the way to Mississippi and a massage on the way back. Because they are catering for people passing through the airport who are bound to a certain flight schedule, these treatments really are express and they tend to be rather relaxing – the massage was great!
Talking of relaxation – there are many things that can help you do just this on the plane. First, I’d start off by purchasing one of those flight kits you can get at places such as Brookstone or SkyMall (http://bit.ly/dvHxOc) – you’ll find their magazines on most US flights, but you can also order online. Such kits usually include an eye mask to block out light on the plane and help you sleep, as well as a neck bolster, a pillow and a blanket. It’s true that most airlines tend to provide you with one pillow and a blanket, but in our experience these aren’t usually as cozy as the ones you can buy. To save space, you might prefer the deflatable pillows. Furthermore, noise-canceling earphones are very useful for masking the noise around you and, of course, for listening to relaxing tunes on your iPod to help you get to sleep. I do try and sleep on the aircraft so that I arrive at my destination rejuvenated.
When it comes to sleep, avoiding jetlag can be really tough. To be honest, Corey has tried several remedies without much success. One of the main ones seems to be melatonin. This hormone is responsible for telling your body when it is time to sleep because your body produces it when it gets dark. When you are in a different time zone, it takes your body time to adjust – supposedly, one day for each hour of time difference. It helps to make yourself stay up until it is time to go to bed and, when it is bedtime, you might want to consider taking sleeping pills or melatonin for the first few days until your body has adjusted (However, I should mention that some people with active autoimmune disease might experience flares in their symptoms or even wake up groggy. As with any supplement, use with caution and as everyone is an individual, everyone will have different experiences. My antibodies are not active and melatonin has worked fine for me without any problems whatsoever). This is what has helped us the most, although jetlag is always worse for me when returning from the US to Europe.
On the plane itself, it’s important to note that flying puts you at greater risk of deep vein thrombosis. As a result, my doctor advised us to take an Aspirin Protect (100 mg) or a low-dosage aspirin prior to flying to thin our blood and reduce our risk of thrombosis. Thrombosis occurs when a blood clot forms inside a blood vessel and blocks the blood flow through the circulatory system. I’m pretty sure that people with thyroid disease are at a greater risk of this anyway because hypothyroidism is often associated with circulation problems. Right now my thrombocytes – cells that play a key role in blood clotting – are elevated so I’m taking one Aspirin Protect a day. However, I know that there are also other factors that put us at risk of thrombosis, such as taking the birth control pill, which I am currently doing. Other ways to reduce this risk when flying are to move around whenever possible and to exercise your calf muscles.
Another thing that helps prevent thrombosis is to ensure you are sufficiently hydrated. I would caution against drinking carbonated beverages on the plane because these tend to cause bloating and this is something that I have noticed is also a frequent occurrence on long-distance flights. We already know that hypothyroid patients are at a greater risk of this anyway. I tend to drink as much water as possible and it might even be worth considering buying a bottle at the airport. You might also notice that your skin becomes dehydrated, something that can be remedied by applying lotion or a water spray such as Thermal Spring Water by Eau Thermale Avène (http://bit.ly/a8wVh9), which is a very popular spa water range here in Europe that is renowned for soothing sensitive skin. For similar reasons, it might be useful to take lip balm and eye drops with you on the flight and I often apply a moisturizing face mask once I arrive at my destination.
To return to the topic of bloating, this makes it doubly important to dress comfortably. I’d avoid tight trousers or waistbands because I sometimes come off the plane feeling preggers. A cozy pair of socks can also come in handy, as well as a loose pair of shoes that is easy to remove. In the US, at least, you have to remove your shoes every time you go through security and you’ll find that your feet may swell on the plane, so you may want to remove your shoes. However, the air-conditioning may make you want to put on a pair of cozy socks to prevent you from freezing off your tootsies.
One of the things that drives me crazy about the US is the overuse of air-conditioning. I once read a book by Bill Bryson who mentioned that in the US it is often colder inside than outside. In the peak of summer, I’ll go out for lunch without a jacket or cardigan and it’ll be scorching hot, only for me to freeze my arms off as soon as we enter the restaurant. This air-conditioning has frequently been the cause of me catching cold every time we visit the US, although my body seems to be acclimatizing to it (excuse the pun!) Air-conditioning also abounds on many planes and I’m sure it does a nice job of swirling around people’s germs. Because autoimmune (thyroid) disease gives you the gift of a weakened immune system, you might want to give it a boost by taking Airborne, which was originally invented in the 1990s by an elementary school teacher to boost her immune system and stop her from catching her students’ colds. I know that Walgreen’s also has a knock-off version called Walborne. Like many vitamins I have taken in the past, I have no idea whether this actually works, but I figure it can’t hurt to take it and hope that it does.
If you are bringing electronics with you, be sure to check the power requirements of the voltages in the country you will be visiting. Standard voltages of the electrical outlets in the USA and Europe are 110V and 220V, respectively, and to convert the voltage, you will need a transformer, unless one is integrated in the device. Adapters make the various plugs compatible with other outlets, as electrical outlets also differ between countries. See the two links below to find out more about the voltage and adapter requirements in various countries.
Last but not least, choosing your luggage can be like choosing a partner for life because good luggage can withstand the stress of travel and remains reliable no matter what. It also features a lot of useful compartments and I particularly like those 360-degree swivel wheels – luggage is heavy, so good wheels that make it easy to maneuver are truly a godsend. I have also seen some people mark their luggage with stickers or dots to make it easier to find when it comes off the conveyor belt. I have even given our luggage names. Corey bought the Eddie Bauer series from Target, which I have dubbed “the Bauer family” (I even have a little song for them): as each case comes off the belt, we call it by its name so that we know which ones we are still waiting for (it may seem like a no-brainer but it also helps to keep count of how many items you have in tow): there’s Momma Bauer, Poppa Bauer, Junior Bauer and Baby Bauer, who were later joined by Uncle Bauer. I am a great believer of injecting humor into everyday life.
One last tip: for those of you non-Americans travelling to the USA, make sure you take a copy of your return ticket and dates with you. In my experience, they like you to have this because you may be subjected to the Spanish Inquisition by some of the customs officials, NYC – for obvious reasons – being one of the most rigorous customs stations. I’m quite an expert when it comes to going through Newark Airport.
All that remains is for me to wish you happy travels wherever your destination!