Travel hacks for allergy & asthma on planes & in hotels

If you have allergies to fragrances, if fragrances trigger your asthma, if you respond negatively to chemicals used in cleaning products, or if you have an allergic reaction to towels and bedding at hotels, this article is for you. If you have any other suggestions beyond what is listed here, feel free to leave a comment to help other travelers.

There is nothing worse than being stuck in planes or hotels that are atrociously full of fragrances or chemicals that affect your ability to breathe and sleep. Unfortunately fellow travelers on planes either don’t think their amount of fragrance is bothersome (they get really desensitized to their own smells) or they think they should use more fragrance as a courtesy to others since everybody is in such close proximity for so long. Many hotels don’t seem concerned at all about air quality, and hotels are more and more frequently constructed so that guests can’t open windows.

Personal air filtration mask

The most important thing I carry around, and I do carry this everywhere, is a mask that can filter smells and particles. Respro is a UK company that creates masks for a wide variety of purposes, but primarily focus on air pollution and allergies. The masks consists of 3 main pieces, the shell, the filter, and the exhaust valves. All 3 are interchangeable and have different properties so when you order replacement filters & valves you can choose accordingly. The initial purchase includes all 3.  I prefer the Ultralight shell with Techno filters & the Powa valves. The Ultralight makes it easier to breathe in and is more comfortable for sleep.

It’s important to get a good fit with these masks, if any air comes in around the edges of the mask, the air will take the path of least resistance and defeat the point of wearing it. They really do a good job of greatly reducing fragrances breathed in. I have slept with this on several occasions, and I’m a light sleeper. I’ll be honest, it is not the best sleep, but it’s much better than not being able to sleep at all. The best time I had wearing this was in Japan where they have a strong culture of wearing masks for a variety of reasons. There was a lot of agricultural smoke in the countryside and cigarette smoke everywhere, and the people I encountered really liked the mask.

Portable air purifiers

While filtering air at the point it enters your body is practical and efficient, it’s better to not have to wear it and get clean air. To that end a portable air filter like the Austin Air Healthmate Jr can be helpful. If you have any experience with air filters, you know that they’re not an instant fix for air quality. For hotel rooms, it will take several hours to reduce air quality issues by half, and from there improvements are slower over the next day (depending on many factors), but if you are staying in a hotel for several days, an air purifier can help a lot. There are very few air filters you can consider portable enough to pack in a suitcase, but the Austin Air Healthmate Jr is one, another alternative is AireOx which also has a model with a 12v plug you can use in your car.

Hotel attributes:

Even better than having to haul an air purifier or wear a filtration mask is finding a hotel that has good air quality. There was a small trend for some hotels to have dedicated rooms for a small fee that are asthma & allergy friendly, but I have yet to travel anywhere that has a hotel like that, and it seems to be dying off as a marketable feature. What you can do is look for specific features and query certain terms in hotel reviews.

Look for a hotel that has:

  • Hard floors – carpet cleaners can output harsh, long lasting chemicals and fragrances
  • A balcony – guaranteed ability to exchange the air in your hotel room, and a place to escape to if the indoor air is particularly bad
  • Windows that open – completely sealed hotels are becoming more common to control energy costs, and simplify maintenance but you have no control over air quality

Search hotel reviews:

Use a website like Tripadvisor to search hotel reviews for specific terms like “smell”  to instantly get a sense of air quality at the hotel and “window”  to see if the windows open or if there are other issues. Less often people will use “fragrance” or “air quality” to describe particular issues if they are keen to these issues.

Tripadvisor also has a Q&A section where you can ask fellow travelers about their experiences with air quality & fragrances at the hotel, and often times the hotels themselves will respond, but it’s ultimately more effective to speak directly to the hotel to get a timely response.

Message the hotel:

Hotels want you to have a good stay but you have to communicate your requirements up front, preferably before booking to see if they can accommodate your request, and again after the booking has been made so they can associate your room with the request. The responses will run the gamut from total ignorance about their ability to provide an allergy friendly environment for your stay to over the top reassurances and elaborate details about how they will prepare the room for your stay.

If you can get your request to the hotel manager or to housekeeping, your chances for success are much better. Front desk staff typically have no idea what the housekeeping staff do, and there is very little communication that happens between those groups. It is always okay to ask that the room be cleaned with fragrance free products, and for no fragrances to be sprayed, and for the room to be aired for a good period before your stay. If there is low demand at the hotel, you can even ask if they can leave your room unoccupied for several days (easier to be honored if you will stay there for a week or more).

Do ask if they ever spray scents onto the bedding itself – it will be there for ages – avoid a place that does that at all cost.

Also ask how they clean carpet and fabric furniture. Oftentimes the products use to clean them leave fragrances that dissipate over several weeks and are particularly harsh to breathe.

If you are allergic to down feathers, it is especially important to talk with the hotel directly before booking. Either the hotel will be able to provide hypoallergenic bedding alternatives and air the room, or they can possibly provide hypoallergenic rooms, but it may be better to avoid a specific hotel in that case.

Come to the hotel prepared for anything:

While you can ask that the linens and towels in your room are washed with fragrance & dye free detergents, and without the use of fabric softeners, I feel it’s riskier to add this on top of the other special requests, and even if you do ask, it’s best to be prepared in case housekeeping forgot, or was unable to fulfill the request.

  • King size flat sheet – fold this in half and put this between the hotel sheets and over the hotel pillow (or bring your own pillowcase as well) bring a colored sheet so it is easy to spot when you are packing so you don’t forget it
  • Microfiber quick drying towel – or get creative, don’t towel off after a shower in hot or tropical areas, just get dressed, or use a t-shirt you’ll wear the next day to get dry and hang it to dry after, or if you have the time, use the blow dryerf
  • Soap case & soap – Use this for body & hair, you never know what you will get with hotel shampoo and soaps
  • Crystal deodorant – This stuff really works but you need a good application. I find the spray to be easier and more effective than the crystal itself, but you have to get travel size, or you can just mix your own after the flight, just get some potassium alum and mix 1/2 Tbs per fluid ounce of water in a small spray bottle
  • Packing cubes – Not related to asthma & allergies, but these make living out of a suitcase and going through security inspections so much simpler.

Stay packed

Keep everything travel related that you can’t do without packed in your carry on between trips. At home my carry on always has the travel power adapter, a spare mask filter, spare usb battery power pack, usb cables, usb cable adapters, all my packing cubes, the soap case, spare nail clippers & tweezers, and a ton of other various odds and ends. When I do pack for a trip, I take out what I definitely won’t need and put it in a pile for when I get home so I can put everything back in the carry on for the next trip. Nothing’s worse than getting to a foreign country and not being able to power up your communication devices.

Final word

I hope that this has been useful. There have been many difficult lessons learned along the way. It’s a difficult, but not impossible task to travel with asthma & allergies. It’s possible to arrange for the best experience, and be prepared for any surprises.

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