I watched the planes take off in a nervous haze.
My wedding weekend was over and it was time for our honeymoon. I just wish I felt better.
I was excited, but the weekend wore heavily on me. After pushing so hard for weeks on end, it was all catching up to me. The fatigue and brain fog warped my senses and amplified my anxiety.
We had a long flight ahead of us to Barcelona from Miami, including a 90-minute layover in Paris only 3 days after the attacks.
But the flight wasn’t the only thing weighing on my mind. The previous few weeks had been chaotic. Every day, there had been so much work to finish, for my business and for the wedding, that other than booking our hotels, I had absolutely nothing planned out. No research, no restaurants, nothing.
With travel, planning has always been my secret weapon against Meniere’s disease. I find it’s the best way to have a great trip and not have to worry about what I’m going to eat or what I’m going to do. It minimizes the chances of things going wrong.
But this time, it wasn’t an option. I just didn’t have enough time.
So as I sat in the airport, and thought about this, and a million other things, I decided I would let go and try to enjoy myself as much as possible.
And I’m glad I did, because it ended up being the best trip of my entire life. I got dizzy, and I did a lot of things wrong, but I did a lot of things right, too.
In the end, I learned not only how to survive international travel with Meniere’s disease, but how to have a great time along the way.
Given how nervous I was about our flight, it really could not have gone any smoother. I have never had problems with my ears on flights, but this was the longest flight I had taken since my diagnosis.
So just to be on the safe side, I took several steps to prepare.
While most domestic flights in the US no longer serve food, international flights do.
The first thing I did to prepare was call Air France and arrange to have a no-sodium meal. Most airlines will accommodate dietary restrictions and as I discovered on our flight, the food is actually quite good.
When I first saw the salmon dinner they had prepared for me, I was skeptical. Eating fish on an airplane seems like something that just shouldn’t work out in my favor. But to my surprise, it was delicious! If I was served the same meal in a nice restaurant, I would have been impressed. It was that good.
Often times, the dietary restriction replacement meals will be higher quality than what is typically served on the flight. So not only is it a good tip for someone with Meniere’s disease, but a good thing to remember in general.
In reality, the salmon was actually my fourth meal, rather than dinner. I wasn’t sure what to expect on the plane, so Megan and I had an early dinner at the airport as we waited for our flight. There was a chance we wouldn’t get to eat after our meal on the plane for quite some time, so I wanted to get my fill just in case.
But the airplane meal ended up being wonderful. The rest of the snacks however … not so much. At one point they served small sandwiches. Radish and cream cheese on a whole wheat bun sound good to anyone? It was not my cup of tea.
Fortunately, I had planned for this as well. We brought a lot of our own snacks with us. You can’t bring water through security but food is perfectly fine. We brought all kinds of snacks, which helped quite a bit on the first leg of our trip.
I don’t have any good advice for sleeping on planes. I maybe slept for an hour total, and believe me I tried. It worked out though because we were so exhausted when we landed that we were able to fall asleep at 10pm local time (4pm to us) and sleep through the night. When we woke up the next morning, we were basically adjusted to the new time zone.
First things first: the food in Europe is incredible, or at least it was in Spain and Italy.
The average food quality is so much higher than what we see here in the US, especially the meats. This came as a pleasant surprise. The sheer quantity of processed foods we see here just doesn’t exist over there, and as a result, I didn’t have to worry as much about sodium.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still ordered everything without salt. But more often than not, something got lost in translation, and I ended up with a normal meal. Typically, if this happens in the US, the difference in sodium is enough to trigger my symptoms. In Europe though, I was generally okay.
I was even able to eat foods that I usually avoid, like pizza, gelato, and bread. I stayed away from the cured meats and cheeses, but even they had significantly less sodium than I expected.
Activated charcoal was my saving grace. I took it every night with dinner and it made a huge difference in how I felt. I got dizzy and brain fogged after several meals, but never too bad, and never for very long.
The one thing that I didn’t see coming was the situation with water. In Spain and Italy, they only serve bottled mineral water. There are hundreds of brands, both sparkling and still. The problem is that mineral water contains sodium.
When we got to our amazing hotel in Barcelona, I had two small bottles of sparkling water. And I immediately got dizzy, really dizzy. After the long (sleepless) flights, and eating all of the snacks and junk food on the plane, I suddenly realized to my horror that the brand of water I was drinking clocked in at 1100mg of sodium per liter.
It was a terrible start to our trip and needless to say I didn’t make that mistake again. If you go to Europe, stick to the still water. The highest sodium content I found across the multitude of brands of still water was only 40mg per liter.
Picking restaurants to eat at was the final challenge I had when it came to food, and at the end of the day there wasn’t much I could do to plan ahead. We relied fairly heavily on the concierge service for picking restaurants and booking reservations. Most of the time it worked out great.
Having said that, I would recommend the following tools for anyone with Meniere’s traveling through Europe:
Google Translate App – You can download language packs to translate on the go without an expensive international data plan. “I have a medical condition. Can I order this without salt?” was my go-to phrase.
Trip Advisor App – Trip Advisor is helpful for finding great restaurants and looking up reviews. It also is helpful when planning things to do. You can download the listings for whatever city you are in for offline access as well.
There is so much to do and see in Europe that it can be stressful, even if you have planned everything out ahead of time.
I worried that not planning would work against us, but in hindsight, it actually made for a better trip. Planning only a day at a time kept us from feeling like we were missing out, and allowed us to explore and get a sense of what we actually wanted to do in the first place.
At all of the hotels, the concierge and front desk were invaluable. They helped us plan out our days on a map and booked us tickets at all the attractions. I don’t know if we could have done it without them. The concierge at most hotels can be a fantastic resource. I recommend taking advantage of their advice to the fullest.
Pretty quickly we found a good rhythm. We would wake up around 8am and start getting ready for the day.
We typically would walk around and sightsee until about 3 or 4 pm, with lunch thrown in the middle. After relaxing for a few hours we would go out to eat and walk some more if we felt up to it.
It ended up being a great pace, albeit a lot of walking. We walked around 5-9 miles a day. It wasn’t easy, but I’m pretty sure all of the exercise helped considerably with managing my Meniere’s symptoms. I recommend walking as much as possible. It’s a great way to really see a city.
Pro-Tip: With the Google Maps app, you can download the city you are in for offline access. Your phone can get a close read on your location with GPS, even when your data connection is off. It’s not a perfect system, but I found it made it much easier to get around. Also if you can find a Wi-Fi connection, you can load walking directions in Google Maps, and as long as you don’t change the route, it will navigate you even after you disconnect.
When traveling internationally, especially if you are on a timeline like we were, you simply won’t have enough time to do everything. It can make it hard to enjoy yourself. We constantly worried that we would make the wrong choice and waste our limited time.
But looking back at it all, it’s clear that we had a great trip. We didn’t get to see everything, but we saw a lot and I wouldn’t change a thing. Always remember: if you are having a good time, you aren’t wasting time.
Now that I’m back, and recovered from a week of jet lag hell (It’s much more difficult traveling backward through time zones), I’m feeling good and excited to have started this new chapter of my life as a married man.
I’ll see you all next week!