Career

How to Live Out of a Suitcase Without Losing Your Mind

Lessons from a professional traveler

I travel for a living. A lot. (I’m a travel writer, so it’s an occupational prerequisite). This year alone I have visited Mexico, South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, The Maldives, Rwanda and Scotland, as well as multiple cities within the United States. Sometimes I have a film crew with me or am with friends, but more often than not, I am alone. And I prefer that; it relieves the stress of having to look after others (their happiness, well-being and schedules) as well as myself.

People look at my Instagram (@pfro) and I get a lot of positive reactions: “You are living the dream!” “Your life is so glamorous!” But if you peel back the glossy veneer, what I do involves a lot of lugging baggage, checking into and out of questionable hotels, eating sometimes-dodgy food, and the dreaded WWJL (working while jet lagged).

If you pull back the glossy veneer, what I do involves a lot of lugging baggage.

Let me be clear: I’m not complaining about my job. I love my life. Travel fulfills me in a way nothing else ever has. I am supremely thankful for the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had and the places I’ve seen. But with the good comes the frustration of logistics, lack of sleep, and the disorientation inherent in being out of my home base. I have to systematize what I do, in order to make everything work and ensure that my relationships don’t suffer in the process.

So here’s my tip sheet:

Always have a “go bag”

I often buy two of every essential — make up, deodorant, sunscreen — so my toiletry kit is always ready and in my suitcase. It makes packing easier and less stressful.

Understand your pressure/anxiety points (and avoid them at all costs)

I have a thing about punctuality. I am never, ever late. I loathe a last minute dash, a huge line or anything that will set off the panicked voice in my head saying, “you’re going to miss the flight … you will be stuck here … you will be out a lot of money, (etc.).” Therefore, I’m always early to the airport in order to avoid a panic attack. If you know you have a travel-related trigger, make plans to elude it, even if that means waiting around in the airport for an extra hour.

Eat well

I am a connoisseur of airports and sadly, many airports and most airlines have lousy food, at least at the convenience and economy traveler levels, which is not great if you get to an airport three hours early for a 15-hour flight. So, I bring my own sustenance. I also make sure that while traveling, I stick to a strict schedule for breakfast, lunch and light dinner to keep from getting hungry, then angry, then generally hangry. Diet is an important part of managing my mood on stressful trips.

Exercise, if possible

This is important. Not only is exercise an important way to keep your endorphins flowing and calories burning, but it helps with stress and depression. If you don’t have time to hit a gym, then book a hotel within walking distance of where you will be working, or join a local walking food tour. Something is better than nothing.  

Drink a lot of water and lay off the booze

This is a big one. Work drinks may be a necessity, but they don’t have to be alcoholic drinks. As we age, alcohol affects us all differently than when we were younger. It exacerbates depression and dehydrates us, both of which can affect judgment — not something we want to happen in an unfamiliar environment. My personal rule is two glasses of water for every drink and no more than three drinks. Which is still a lot. One drink or no drinks is always better.

If you’re on a plane, do not drink alcohol at all, which is admittedly difficult for a lot of anxious flyers. But the effects of alcohol at 30,000 feet are more pronounced, and dehydration is worse. So if you can stay away from the booze on flights, you will feel 100 times better when you land, and jet lag will be much more manageable.

Learn to let go

Here’s the thing about travel: Things will go wrong. At some point, the plane will be late, the luggage will get lost, the flight will be missed. Take a deep breath, imagine your life in a week when all is sorted, and keep it moving. And always keep your cool.  Being polite to people when things are bad is key.

Prioritize mental health and rely on your community

This is the hardest part of my job. The biggest risk of the road is loneliness and disconnection, which, no matter how exciting your life is on paper (Diving in the Maldives! Trekking for gorillas in Rwanda!), can lead to depression. And sometimes you feel like you’re losing some aspects of your identity as defined by your personal connections and life back home. Waking up and not remembering which city you are in or which hotel you’re staying at can be discombobulating.

For me, this means I have to go to great lengths to stay connected to my community in New York. I am not married, my family is dispersed across the United States, and I am not a huge phone person, so this is extremely important to me. The area of Soho I live in is a small village with a Cheers-like atmosphere, where everybody knows your name (whether you want them to or not). When I travel, my neighbors watch my dog, my dry cleaner takes in my packages, and the people in my building look after my apartment. If I can’t make it home for the holidays, I have three families on my street, whose children I have known since birth, that I sing holiday carols with.

My dog, Karl, has even developed his own local network: When he broke his back, the Chinese laundry owner hired a translator to find out what happened and ask if he could help. The dry cleaner massaged Karl’s back. The priest at St. Francis blessed him — twice — and sent me home with holy water and holy oil. My downstairs neighbor offered to give my dog water therapy in his bathtub (I only have a shower), and my next door neighbor cooked me dinner for three days because “I know you probably aren’t eating right now.” When Karl walked for the first time after his surgery, the drag queens at the hair salon downstairs gave him a standing ovation.

All of these people cared about my dog and me, and our well-being, both while we were at home and while we were away. Every one of us who travels for a living needs a network like this when we come home, who can make us feel connected and needed.

I had to work to build these relationships, even if a lot of the times I didn’t realize I was doing it. You cannot live out of a suitcase if you don’t have a supportive network back home, and sometimes you need to doubly invest in those friendships while you’re not on the road to sustain yourself when you are. In my neighborhood, I stopped in the stores, spoke to neighbors, helped people when I could, shopped locally and attended neighborhood events. 

You cannot live out of a suitcase if you don’t have a supportive network back home.

I make sure to check in with people as soon as I get back, especially the ones who have become as close as actual family. 

That may sound a little earnest, but it is my single biggest travel hack for managing my sense of being unmoored while I’m away. I very specifically and intentionally “moor” myself in my community back home.  If you don’t have a community like that, now’s the time to build one.

You’ll need them when you land.

Paula Froelich is the global head of travel and strategy for NOW//with Network. She is the former Travel Editor in Chief for Yahoo and Newsweek.