Five Tips for Balancing Energy While You Travel

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I just finished watching a video about a charter yacht’s crew, on their day off in Alaska. These are pretty healthy people — they’re young, slim, used to doing a tough physical job, and they probably don’t have anything like my fibromyalgia to get in their way, or they wouldn’t be able to do a job like that in the first place. But it was what they did with their free time that caught my attention.
First, they got up early and did four or five hours of hiking, up to the top of a glacier. They had lunch when they got down, and then went off to see a grizzly bear preserve in the afternoon. When they got back to their ship, they put on their wetsuits and played around in the water for a while on paddleboards and kayaks. Then they had a pizza party on shore for dinner, and hung out in the evening playing horseshoes and beach volleyball until it got dark.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t have even made it through the hike, let alone all the rest. I love to do pretty much everything they did on that day. But it would’ve taken me three or four days to do all of them, and still get enough rest in between that I wouldn’t break down.

When I’m traveling, one of the toughest things I have to do is to balance my energy level. I want to do and see as much as I can, but not do so much that I collapse and need to waste days in my hotel room just recuperating. If you’re anything like me, you’ve calculated to a fine nuance what energy you can spend in a day, a week, a vacation of any length. You’ve probably also agonized about whether to add in one more activity or one more afternoon in your hotel room, knowing that if you’re buried under so much pain or exhaustion that you can’t even enjoy the activities you’ve scheduled, they are going to be pointless.
So here, for your benefit, are all the tricks I’ve learned for how to juggle the eternal balance between activity and rest while traveling.

1: Rest While You Move

Part of any vacation is getting from place to place. Usually, that process uses up two things: time and energy. But if you can find a way to rest effectively while you’re moving from one part of your vacation to another, you save on both: energy because you’re gaining it back, and time because you’re using your travel time effectively for additional purposes, instead of just getting from point A to point B.
So, look for ways to make the travel itself restful to you. If you’re flying and can afford to, get a flatbed seat (they’re not always hugely expensive, especially if you have loyalty member status with the airline or you have a credit card that gives you travel points), and sleep while you’re in the air. Trains usually have nice big seats that are easy to relax in, so even if you can’t sleep on a train, the long easy ride can help you recoup your strength; and you can even enjoy the scenery of your destination through the window while you’re doing it. Cruise ships — when they aren’t a pandemic hazard — are superb for this kind of thing: you can bring your entire room with you, and sleep soundly in a hotel-quality bed overnight while the ship brings you from one port of call to the next.
In my recent Africa adventure, I balanced the Uganda portion of my trip by hiring a private driver, and then alternating driving days and activity days. I had activities planned in five different areas scattered all around the edges of a country roughly the size of Oregon. So I set up my time to do one long day of activities in each place, and then perhaps a little more the next morning. Then I rested in the back seat for several hours, watching the scenery go by and recouping my strength while my driver took me to the next site. When I arrived, I didn’t have to do anything except check into my accommodation and relax for the rest of the evening… and I got to see a lot more of Uganda than I would have if I had traveled by air!

2: A Change Is As Good As A Rest (Sometimes)

Just as you can weave restful transportation time in between your activities, you can also weave restful activities in between your other activities. Most people do a little of this, even if they don’t have a disability to contend with. The young folks I saw in that video, frolicking in Alaska, didn’t go right from a several-hour hike into the water with their paddleboards. They took a few hours first and drove off in a motorboat to watch the grizzly bears, which was a quieter activity.

When you’re planning your travel schedule, make a list of everything you want to see or do on your trip, and mark them according to how strenuous they are: 1 for very sedentary activities, 2 for moderate, and 3 for those which will take some serious exertion. Then start slotting them into your time. Try not to put more than one Level 3 activity in the same day… in fact if energy is often a serious problem for you, you probably don’t want to put two consecutive days with level 3s together very often. But maybe you can do a Level 3 activity and then fill up some of the rest of the day with 1s instead of giving up and going back to your room to rest. And maybe a couple of Level 2s can go into one day.

Pro tip: it often helps if Level 3 activities are the last big thing that you do in a day. It’s a lot easier to go from a sightseeing bus ride to a hike and then just grab dinner and fall into bed than it is to do the hike in the morning and then still feel like going on the bus ride afterwards. But if you’re pretty sure that you won’t be able to do ANYTHING else in the day besides the hike, then schedule it in the morning when you’re still fresh… and then go back to bed for the afternoon.

As always, you know your own body better than anyone else does. So, make your labels based on your understanding of what’s easy or difficult for you. If you can’t walk more than a few meters and a hike is completely off the table for you, then maybe a visit to a beautiful church with a set of stairs in front is a Level 3 activity for you. Someone else might find it a Level 1. You are the expert on you.

Another thing you can sometimes do is to vary the type of energy you’re using. For example, in Uganda I visited a few social institutions such as Ride 4 A Woman, getting to know local people and learning crafts. I also rode the Aircopter up into the mountains to meet the gorillas the very next day. I could do these things without a rest day in between, even though they were both hard activities for me and I still wasn’t over the water sickness, because social energy and physical energy are pretty different things for me. If I were going from one social encounter to another and then having dinner with a group of friends, I would be exhausted by the end of that day. But after a day spent among people, going up into the mountains to watch the gorillas used a completely different kind of energy, and one that I still had enough of available.

3: Recharge Actively

Resting, in the sense of sleeping or sitting quietly in your hotel room, isn’t the only thing you can do to recharge your energy levels, and it often isn’t even the most effective. If you’ve been battling chronic illness or disability for a while, you’ve probably learned a lot about what forms of active self-care help you most in getting your energy back.

Are you traveling someplace which has a specialty massage style? How about a hot spring? Whatever you normally do for relaxation and energy recharging, look for ways to do locally… but interesting ways; variations you don’t normally get to do at home.

It doesn’t have to be a big thing, either. For example, when I was planning the Africa trip, I made sure that everywhere I had a night or two in a hotel (as distinguished from a safari camp), I got a room with a good bathtub. I take long baths at home to revitalize my energy, and I can do the same thing overseas… but just the fact that I got to try out different bathtubs, in different hotels in countries where I’ve never been before, made it more interesting than a bath in my own home.

4: Take Advantage Of Freebies

Airports, hotels, theme parks, all usually have benefits available to make the lives of their disabled patrons easier. It’s really easy, especially for those of us whose disability is invisible and not 100% incapacitating, only limiting, to think “Oh, those aren’t for me. They’re for people who are more severely disabled,” and pass on them. I did that for decades, and wasted my strength coping with things I should never have had to.

The truth is that if those forms of assistance would actually make your trip less uncomfortable, then they’re intended for you. Because if you really weren’t one of the people they were intended for, you probably wouldn’t even want them. They’d only be frustrating. If they’ll do you good, take them!!

If standing in line is exhausting and painful for you, then get a disability pass at the theme park and go to the front of the line. The people you’re passing can stand it better than you can; waiting in line doesn’t actively hurt them. Airport wheelchairs… I did a whole post on airport wheelchairs. They’re a godsend in huge facilities with endless walking to do, and it’s completely okay to request one because walking long distances hurt or exhausts you. You don’t need to be unable to walk in order to be allowed to use them. In fact, most people who use them can walk some… the people who really can’t walk at all bring their own.
So, take advantage of everything that is available to help you. If it makes you feel better, then you’re one of those it was meant for.

I am not talking about places that have legal restrictions, such as handicapped parking spaces which require a placard that you get from the state in order to let you park there. Obviously, if there are local rules saying that this form of assistance isn’t for you, then follow the rules. What I mean is, if they leave it up to you to decide whether you need help or not, and your body tells you that you do, then listen to it.

5: Throw Money At It Wisely.

I know that not everyone can pour money into their trip until it becomes a feast of luxury and personal care. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. But when you’re traveling, usually money and energy are often interchangeable… you can use one to offset a lack of the other, in either direction.

For example, strong, healthy people who are young and poor typically travel by backpacking, and get around on foot or by public transportation. That’s a great way to substitute energy, which they have, for money, which they don’t. But it’s just as possible to go the other way around, and substitute money for energy in the areas where your energy is most lacking.
I decided, a few years ago, to pay for business class flights for all intercontinental travel from now on. I’ll willingly fly up to five or six hours in a coach seat, but if I’m going to be doing ten or eleven hours overnight, I need a flat bed or I’m not going to get any sleep at all. And if I get no sleep, I’ll arrive too exhausted and miserable to enjoy the first two or three days of my trip.

That policy means that I don’t take quite as many intercontinental trips as I otherwise might. But that’s okay. I’ve got lots of other ways to travel (we’re going to be talking about some of them in future posts), so I’m not completely dependent on those long business-class flights in order to see the world. And it’s worth it to me to ensure that when I do take long, expensive trips, I’m in good enough condition to be active and enjoy myself when I arrive. You know what your own greatest needs are. Maybe what you need to pay for is babysitting, or hotels with really comfortable beds, or a private driver so you don’t have to walk any more than necessary. Plan it out in advance, and budget it into your travel plans. In general, when you’re budgeting, you want to make sure you’re able to cover the basics of your trip plus a few extras for comfort and energy savings. If you buy a trip that’s so close to your maximum budget that you can’t afford to throw in a few comfort tools, you’re much less likely to come home with a load of happy memories.

What are your favorite tips for conserving or replenishing energy when you’re traveling? Please tell me in the comments! I’m hoping to put together another post someday, exploring some of your suggestions.

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