A Sensitive Girl's Guide to Travel
I’ve always enjoyed traveling. I love exploring new places and getting the feel for different areas and cultures. I didn’t grow up in a family that traveled much, so I’ve had to learn a lot on my own. I’ve traveled by plane, train, car, and bus. I’ve stayed in hotels, campgrounds, hostels, and Airbnb homes. I’ve traveled alone and with others. I can’t say I’ve done it all, but I’ve tried a lot of things.
There was a period of time when traveling was really hard due to my food sensitivities (you can read that story here), but I still managed to do it anyway. Thankfully I’ve healed enough that I no longer need to stress about that, but I’m still sensitive about a lot of other things. Like me, many people are sensitive to lights, sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, and a host of other sensations. The official term is Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). An HSP has a more sensitive nervous system than the average person which means they take in a lot more sensory input that has to be processed. This also means that they are easily overwhelmed and overstimulated. So, for instance, sounds may be louder, lights may be more disrupting, or smells may be nauseating. Knowing you are an HSP helps you understand why stuff irritates you that doesn’t seem to bother other people.
When I learned about HSPs, it explained quite a few things about myself and changed my expectations of the world. When I traveled I used to have trouble sleeping, I often got really cold, and smells could really bother me. Realizing that my nervous system was more reactive than most people helped me understand why I could feel really miserable while everyone around me was just fine. I recognized that I’d have to understand my own unique sensitivities and find solutions to keep myself as comfortable as possible. Now when I travel I have a lot of tricks I use to help me deal with things that most people don’t even notice.
I planned to make a list of my top 5 tips for traveling as an HSP, but quickly found that I had a lot more than that! I didn’t realize how many little things I’ve learned over the years that help me travel more comfortably. I selected my favorite tricks and have explained why they work for me. I also added some general information about how to customize that particular idea to fit your own sensitivities. Not every HSP is affected by the same things, so not every suggestion will work for you. Despite that, my hope is they will give you some ideas of how to begin making your own travel experience more comfortable.
So here is the top 10 list of my favorite travel tips for the sensitive person. This article contains no affiliate links, so feel free to take my suggestions or not knowing that it will not financially affect me in any way!
Here we go!
1. Down travel blanket and/or microfiber beach towel:
I get cold easily and have a really hard time warming up again. I need a lot more insulation on me than most people, particularly at night. If I’m camping in 50 degree weather I want a sleeping bag rated for somewhere around zero degrees. This is why I always travel with an extra down blanket. This light blanket packs down very small. I’ve used it on planes, sitting outside, sleeping, and many other ways. The last time I decided not to pack it for an overnight trip I definitely missed it.
The microfiber beach towel is also included here because this thing is seriously warm! I bought it as a light, packable beach towel, but one cold night I was looking for an extra layer over my down blanket and grabbed it out of my bag. I was amazed at how much extra warmth it provided. It easily fits in a backpack for any adventure. Now I almost always take both on trips because they give me lots of options for extra warmth.
Make it work for you: If you have a sensitive system that gets too warm or too cold then find light layers to carry with you. Even in the middle of summer I never travel without extra socks in my bag. I usually wear tank tops with options to layer on top. In the winter I dress extra warm with layers that can be removed as needed. If you tend to run hot, think of traveling with a small fan or a cooler full of cold drinks. Think about times when you have gotten too hot or cold and what would have solved that problem in the moment. That’s what you need to take with you.
2. Earplugs and white noise:
Whether you end up sleeping near a busy street, in a loud hotel, or in an apartment with a noisy fridge, a good set of earplugs can make a huge difference at night. My favorite earplugs are Mack’s, but there are all kinds. I keep a pair in my travel kit and in my camping kit, so no matter where I go I have them ready. I also use them on longer flights when the constant roar of the plane gets overwhelming or on train trips when someone is talking really loud and driving me nuts.
I also have a playlist of nature sounds on my phone. Sometimes it is better to put on nature sounds to drown out irritating background noise. One night I stayed at an Airbnb and the heating system was so loud I wore my earplugs AND had the nature sounds going at full volume so I could sleep. Having both can be really helpful in different circumstances.
Make it work for you: If you are sensitive about how things feel in your ears you may need to practice wearing a few kinds of earplugs to get used to them. If you really can’t tolerate anything in your ear, experiment with a white noise app for your phone. Noise canceling headphones are also an option. Explore different ideas that might work for you. Also, be sure that you are in a safe space before tuning out from the world
3. Cover the lights:
If you are sensitive to light, traveling can be an onslaught of all kinds of lighting during the day and night. The time I struggle most is when trying to sleep. I’ve stayed in rooms with patio lights or street lights right outside the window. Many electronics these days have LED lights so hotel rooms can often have half a dozen lights glowing all night long. It is maddening for those of use who are light sensitive. If you can wear a sleep mask, that’s probably the easiest way to go. Unfortunately, they always give me a headache, so I have to be a little more creative. I’ve unplugged electronics, rolled up towels to place along the bottom of doors, used books or washcloths to cover glowing LEDs, and one time moved an outdoor clip-on light that was shining through a window onto my bed (and then put it back in the morning). Oh, and the microfiber towel I mentioned above? If I don’t need it to stay warm it makes a great extra window curtain to block light.
Make it work for you: If you are sensitive to light during the day, get a visor, colored glasses to wear (experiment with the color that works best for you), or a cute hat that is appropriate indoors and out. I have a travel hat that folds up into my bag and goes with me everywhere.
4. Lip balm and hand cream:
I take these with me on every adventure. It’s amazing how quickly I can get dried out while traveling and how irritating that feeling can be. I used to assume that I could always pick up what I needed somewhere, but I hate the way a lot of beauty products smell, so I no longer make that assumption. If I’m going for a long trip I’ll put one balm and hand cream in my carry-on bag and another set in my toiletry bag. Then I always have one close at hand and a backup when needed. For me this solves the feeling of being dry and the scent issue at the same time. Many travel people would find having two redundant, but I’ve discovered over the years that it isn’t always easy to find what I want when I need it.
Make it work for you: Are you sensitive to smells? On shorter trips you might be able to put up with more than longer trips. Experiment and figure out what you can and cannot live with. Know what your limits are and when you need to make the extra effort to take your own products.
5. Hand soap:
In a similar vein, I’ve finally just broken down and decided to always travel with my own bar of soap. My skin doesn’t do well with harsh soaps and a lot of the free stuff in hotels/rentals stinks anyway. To me stinky soap could simply smell bad or it could smell good but be WAY too strong. I’m not sure why Americans think everything has to reek of scent, but even nice smells can make me feel sick to my stomach after a while. Particularly with over-scented hand soaps. So when I’m staying somewhere with stinky soap my bar soap doubles as a hand soap and all my problems are solved. Just like the lip balm and hand cream, the extra effort taking my own item with me is totally worth it.
Make it work for you: Ditto #4
6. Laundry detergent and a pillowcase:
I took a trip to Maine a few years ago with my family and the moment I got into bed I thought that the smell on the bed linens was a bit strong. It was late, though, and I didn’t have any other options, so I just figured I’d deal with it. I woke up a few hours later with a splitting headache that didn’t abate until the next day. In the morning I stripped the sheets and mattress pad off the bed (I also found a dryer sheet in there that probably didn’t help) and washed them twice in straight water to get the smell out. The next night I slept much better. Interestingly, my nephew didn't feel well either, so we did the same with his sheets. I don’t know what the heck they washed their linens in, but neither of us could deal with it. So ever since then, I travel with a clean pillowcase in case I’m somewhere where the bed linens smell and I don’t have access to a washer. If I am able to wash them, then I’ll throw them in with a strip of my own detergent. This liquidless detergent from Tru Earth comes in dry strips. It’s eco-friendly and very light. Now a few sheets are always in my toiletry kit along with my other must-have travel things.
Make it work for you: If you are extremely sensitive to smells or detergents, it might just be easier to take your own full set of linens along with you and save yourself the stress. Trying to explain to others why their nicely scented linens give you a headache is really not worth it. If you need to pack a little extra so you can sleep better, then just do it. If you plan to do laundry on your trip, then definitely take your own detergent.
7. Water filter:
I have water issues. First, I find I don’t drink as much if the water tastes awful. Since I live with a well at home that means that pretty much everything else tastes bad to me. Second, I’m really sensitive to water that has been treated with chlorine. That means that most municipal water makes me itch. Third, I hate buying plastic for environmental reasons and I think water shipped in plastic tastes nasty, so that’s not a great option either. So depending on where I am going and for how long, I have various strategies to deal with all this. If it is an overnight trip, I’ll just take a half gallon of water with me (in a reusable jar, of course). If I’m going to the beach or staying in a house somewhere for a week, my Brita pitcher goes with me because it filters out chlorine and often helps with the taste. Sometimes I pack a powdered flavoring just in case the water tastes really bad and I want to cover it up. If space or weight is an issue, then my lighter ceramic backpacking filter from MSR is the best choice. It takes longer to filter water through this, but it removes just about every possible bad thing and makes the water taste quite good. That was a huge help the year I stayed in a cabin in Maine. The only potable water they had was from the spring down the road. Now, I love the idea of spring water, but after having some serious bouts of parasites in my life I’m a bit suspicious of it. Thank goodness for my filter! Two years ago I also took the filter to Mexico with me, not realizing that you have to buy all your drinking water there. Again, I was really grateful to have it. So for me, these are well worth the cost and space to take them along.
Make it work for you: If there are particular things you must eat or drink, just take them with you. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress in the long run. Don’t spend your vacation time trying to find something that you could have brought with you. Also, it is really easy to get dehydrated while traveling. Don’t let the taste or cost of water keep you from staying healthy. For bonus points, consider eco-friendly options that work for you.
8. Flashlight and lantern:
My tactical flashlight and my little rechargeable lantern go almost everywhere with me these days. This is a little less about sensitivity and more about preference and safety. I can’t tell you how many places I stay don’t have a light near the bed (why?!). I hate turning off the light (after trying to make the room as dark as I can) and then groping my way to bed, often stubbing my toe in the process. Having a flashlight is so much easier! The lantern is just bright enough to read in bed if I don’t have a bedside lamp. Also, waking up in the middle of the night because I thought I heard something can be terrifying. I don’t waste time fumbling for a lightswitch or lamp. I just flip on my flashlight and do a quick scan of the room. If there is someone coming at me, I can bean them in the eye with the flashlight (the metal ones could really do some damage). Fortunately, I have no personal stories about this. I just know that the flashlight makes me feel like I have some sort of protection with me. Also, I have lost electricity while staying in rentals. Having a flashlight on hand beats banging out in a dark space I don’t know. The lantern also has a flashing light mode, which might come in handy if I ever break down somewhere and need help. So for me, these provide a lot of services in a compact bundle.
Make it work for you: Is there something you can take that makes you feel more secure and safe? Being in a new place can be anxiety-inducing even for the best of us. Find some tricks that work for you. The benefit of being able to relax is well worth it.
Whether you are highly sensitive or not, taking a few snacks with you is always a good idea. Traveling through airports or train stations can be really stressful. Waiting in lines or traffic can be irritating. If you are at all sensitive, noise and light and smells and people and heat can quickly add up to be very overwhelming. In those moments, the best thing for me is sit down, get a drink, and have a little snack. It helps me take my focus off all the sensations around me and soothes my nerves a bit. It’s basically a mindfulness technique to stop, pull my attention back toward myself, and focus on pleasant sensations. Obviously, I make sure to do this in a safe place. If I use my snack strategically, it can be a great way to take a deep breath in the middle of a stressful moment and let my nervous system calm down.
Make it work for you: If you get overwhelmed easily, think of other things that might give you a focal point to distract you from what is going on around you. You could have a favorite song on your phone or a worry bracelet that you can hold. Mindfulness techniques like mantras or breathwork can be helpful. Have a few familiar strategies you can pull out when you feel stressed. If you know that you tend to get overstimulated at a particular point in your travel, then plan ahead for a snack break just before or after that. I always have a snack once I get to my gate at the airport. It helps relax me after the stressful check-in process. This strategy will help you stop the overwhelm before it ruins your day.
10. Wear comfortable clothes:
I know this is on basically every travel list, but I really think it is worth repeating for those of us who are sensitive. Don’t wear anything you won’t be comfortable in for at least 24 hours. That includes jewelry, watches, belts, shoes, glasses, backpacks, hats or anything touching your body continually. Highly sensitive people can get overwhelmed very easily by sensations. A necklace that feels fine for a few hours at work where you are used to the lights, sounds, and smells, might be extremely irritating in a new environment where your body is being bombarded by sensory input you aren’t used to. So particularly for the travel part of your trip (plane, car, train, bus, etc.) be as comfortable as you possibly can. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a trip and realized 12 hours into it that I definitely did not wear my most comfortable pair of glasses or earrings. When my nervous system is dealing with a lot of extra input, every little thing feels more irritating than usual.
Make it work for you: The key for travel is comfortable layers. Keep a list of your most comfortable clothes and jewelry so that when it is time to take a trip you know exactly what to pack. Make sure you have a lot of mix-and-match layers. Don’t try to be a fashionista. Even little things can add up to a lot of irritation on a trip. Make yourself as comfortable as you possibly can.
I traveled a lot before I figured all this out and I just dealt with being uncomfortable a lot of the time. Now that I know more about myself, I can use the tricks I've learned to spend more time being comfortable and having fun. It might sound like I'm neurotic, but figuring this stuff out about myself has really helped a lot. If you’ve read this far it is probably because you relate to this in some way. Being sensitive can be a challenge, but it doesn’t mean you have to stop living your life or doing things you want to do. It does mean that you need to get to know yourself, understand exactly how you are sensitive, and learn tricks to deal with your own quirks. Sit down, make a list of what makes travel hard for you, brainstorm ideas of how to deal with those specific things, and then give some of your ideas a try. Don’t let the challenges keep you from exploring the world!