Before we even get into this one, let me make it clear that I’m all about enjoying life, and having fun as often as you can. I believe fitness and food should compliment and enhance your life, not make you miserable. Nobody wants to be around a person who’s skipping all the good food and drinks on vacation, making themselves miserable, and leaving everyone else feeling guilty.
Don’t be that person.
It’s very possible to travel, enjoy foods and social events, and maintain your current physique. Hell, if you’re dieting, you can even lose weight on vacation. I’ve done exactly this without setting foot in a gym – more on that later.
To aid you on your quest to see the world without being a total slob and binge-eating until you can’t see straight, which only magnifies the post-vacation blues when you’re spilling out of your clothes, I put together the ultimate travel guide. This will help you navigate the great big world outside of your hometown, without the stress of undoing all of your hard work in the gym and kitchen.
This guide is going to address two types of travel.
- Vacation Mode (Special occasion designed around maximum fun and life enjoyment)
- Work Mode (Conferences, work trips, sales trips… you want to stay on plan, but have limited food access)
At the end of this, I’ll even provide a list of the easiest foods you can grab on the road and where to find them. After moving across the country several times, and driving back and forth between Maryland and California multiple times, I think I’ve got this road trip thing down, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the many flights and business trips I’ve been on while dieting.
Let us begin.
Vacation Mode Travel Guide
First of all, travel has historically been an issue for me, so everything I say is from your shoes. As soon as I flip the mental switch to vacation mode, all I want to do is eat and drink everything in sight. I’m sure you can relate.
Recently, on a 5-day trip to celebrate a family birthday in Minnesota, I decided to make a real attempt at not only not gaining weight, but actively losing weight. No special meal prep, no gym access, and I knew birthday celebrations would be a big part of the trip.
Did it work?
Well, I didn’t set foot in a gym or lift anything heavier than a sandwich, but I came home 2 pounds lighter. I also didn’t track a single macro, or go near a measuring cup or food scale.
Here are the travel rules that I suggest following on vacation. These rules are designed for maximum enjoyment, with minimal fat gain.
1. Choose healthy options every single time it’s in my control.
When you travel, you will always find yourselves in situations where eating healthy is not an option. Maybe it’s a special anniversary trip, or maybe a business dinner at a nice Italian restaurant. Maybe you’re hungover and the all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet is the closest option.
The point is, you will find yourself in situations where you couldn’t find a salad if your life depended on it, and you’ll have to just
suck it up enjoy some delicious, indulgent foods.
Due to this, anytime healthy is an option, choose it. You’ll budget some calories for when those healthy foods aren’t an option, like saving money for a rainy day. Get the chicken wrap and salad at lunch, or the egg white scramble with whole grain toast at breakfast. Once you find yourself trying to decipher an Italian menu later at dinner, healthy foods are no longer on the table.
When you do find yourself out, it’s best if your dish has a bit of protein in there, but if you can’t control it, it’s not the end of the world. I try to go for balanced meals; choosing a burger and fries over a huge bowl of fettucine alfredo will at least give you some protein to help you stay full.
2. Move just a bit more.
If you have access to a hotel gym, you can’t go wrong with a quick, 20-minute high-intensity workout while everyone else is laying in bed looking at Facebook. No gym? Go for a walk, jog, or do some pushups and squats. Just try to make an effort to move every day.
Even if this means walking around town instead of taking the Segway tour, every little bit helps.
When I dropped weight on vacation, I got up early and either did a long, 45-60 minute brisk walk around the neighborhood, or if time was limited, a 20 minute run. It’s not my usual exercise method of choice, which would pumping iron in the gym like the meathead I am, but it’s still better than nothing. Just stay active, and try your best not to let yourself turn into a couch potato.
Any time you travel, see this as a chance to do more, not less. Go for a walk, take a hike, try a new sport – do something that’s different, but still active. Chances are you’ll be somewhere interesting, and there’s no better way to experience the sights, smells, and people than by walking on foot, not looking out the window of a car.
3. Try to avoid alcohol.
There’s nothing wrong with a drink or two, but excess alcohol is a slippery slope. In addition to pumping you full of empty calories, consuming enough alcohol can stop the fat loss process dead in it’s tracks, as your body works to prioritize metabolizing and using the alcohol for energy, rather than food.
Here’s a question. When are you more likely to eat a whole pizza by yourself — when you’re sober, or when you’re 8 shots deep with your boys? I love alcohol as much as the next guy, but moderation is the key to life.
Lastly, and most importantly, nothing ruins a vacation like nursing a hangover all day. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about here. That’s all I need to say.
Work Mode Travel Guide
In part two, we’re going to look at those trips where you don’t want to stray from you plan. Maybe it’s travel for work, a road trip, or just a long, extended vacation. Regardless of the why, these are the trips when you want to do everything possible to stick to your diet with complete accuracy, which is easier said than done.
Whether you follow a flexible dieting plan with assigned macros, or a more traditional diet, with assigned meals, you can still come very close to staying on your plan with the right strategy and preparation.
There are no strict rules; rather, we have certain practices that allow you to stay on the plan regardless of where you end up. This is assuming access to grocery stores and gas stations, without a full kitchen. If you have a kitchen it’s easy, but for those trips when you’re bouncing from hotel to hotel, this is for you.
1. Bring your food with you.
This is probably the least exciting, but most accurate method of staying on plan. If you can prepare food in advance, and simply bring it with you in a high-quality cooler, you’ll be able to eat your normal foods wherever you go. I wouldn’t suggest this if you’re just trying to maintain, or follow a flexible diet, but if you’re on a strict meal plan, this is how you can stay on track.
Food safety is very important, so if you do bring food, make sure you keep it cold. There’s nothing worse than preparing a bunch of meals, only to find them spoiled when you take them out to eat them. Invest in a good cooler if you’re driving, or something like a travel cooler made specifically for meal prep if you fly. I use this one, and it works pretty well for short trips.
Note: If you fly, you can’t bring ice packs through TSA. Fill up a few gallon freezer bags with ice at home, pack it in your cooler, and dump it at the airport. When you get through security, you can refill your ice bags from a soda fountain.
2. Plan based on where you’ll be eating.
Do you know in advance where you’ll be going to lunch or dinner? If so, this is too easy.
Simply look at the menu, choose the food closest to what’s on your plan, and the work backwards to plan the rest of your day around that food. If you see that the best option is a fish and rice dish, but you aren’t sure how it’s cooked or the quantities, maybe go a little lighter on fat and carbs in an earlier meal just in case.
If you count macros, just plug that dinner in first-thing, and then plan the rest of your day with what you have left. If it’s a chain restaurant, you can usually find the nutrition information online. If it’s not a chain, simply type in the meal name anyway into your macro tracking app of choices, and try to find one from another restaurant that looks like a similar meal. Again, this isn’t perfect, but it’s better than not tracking at all.
3. Utilize my macro-friendly travel food choices.
I travel a lot, and often I just find myself out and about with no food on me, in need of a healthy meal that doesn’t taste like cardboard. Over the years I’ve found my staple foods at a variety of restaurants, fast-food places, gas stations, airports, and hotel snack bars. This is by no means a comprehensive list; I just know that if I see one of these places is nearby, I know exactly what I can eat for a healthy meal.
If you’re on a road trip and need a good meal, reference this list and look for the closest of these places for an easy way to hit your macros with some tasty food. There is some overlap of course, but 90% of the time, you’ll be able to find at least one of these places nearby, and you can grab yourself a ready-to-eat meal very quickly, no cooking required.
Gas Station/Convenience Store Foods:
- Beef jerky (any kind, I prefer the big Jack Link Beef Steaks)
- Pre-made protein shakes in the fridge
- Greek yogurt
- String cheese
- Protein bars
- Mixed nuts
- Deli meat
Best Fast Food Places:
- Chick-Fil-A (Grilled Chicken Sandwich, Grilled Chicken Nuggets)
- Chipotle (Salad or bowl with meat, fajita veggies, pico, and a little cheese)
- Del Taco (Pollo Asado Fresco Bowl, with or without avocado)
- Starbucks (Protein box, Spinach & Egg White Wrap, or Turkey & Havarti Sandwich)
- Wendy’s (Grilled Chicken Sandwich or Wrap)
- Ihop (Egg white omelette with veggies and cheese, and a side of wheat toast)
If you’re at a restaurant, you can almost always get some form of protein, with a side of veggies and a salad. You can even have some of the free bread if you skip the pasta with your meal. I can’t think of a single place what won’t serve you chicken, fish, or steak, with a substitution of veggies or fruit instead of fries, even if it’s an extra buck or two.
This is the exact approach I use when traveling, depending on my goals. Those are even the meals I get at fast food spots if I’m on a road trip, and I’ve found that I can stay on the plan pretty well for most of my travels.
It may not be perfect, but giving it your best attempt is much better than throwing in the towel entirely. With a little planning and discipline, I have no doubt you can choose healthy foods during your grand adventures, and come home looking even better than you did when you left.