When the world’s best winter athletes flood into Pyeongchang, South Korea’s Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony, over 240 Team USA members will be in attendance. And while there’s no doubt that each athlete worked hard to get there, few ever really talk about how they got there: I don’t mean the long days of training or strict eating regimens, but how all these athletes actually fly themselves and all their necessities across the globe, often for competition after competition.
How Olympic Athletes Travel
I interviewed four athletes (Paralympic and Olympic) participating in the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang to learn what it takes to travel as a world-class athlete. They might fly on commercial planes just like the rest of us, but traveling the world for competitions every few weeks, all with equipment like skis or a giant luge sled, means you pick up a few tricks along the way.
Choose the Window Seat
Which seat someone selects can tell you a lot about what they value most when it comes to surviving a long-haul flight. Many athletes actually prefer the window seat in order to get as much sleep as possible.
“I’ll take the window, because I know I’m going to sleep the whole time,” three-time Olympic luger Chris Mazder says.
The average person might not be resting their body for a big competition, but getting more sleep on a long flight is always a good idea. All four Paralympic and Olympic athletes I talked to said they prefer the window seat.
Eat a Salty Meal to Hydrate
Travelers often struggle to find the right balance between getting enough sleep and drinking lots of water on the plane: Nobody wants to spend half their flight waiting in line for the bathroom. Stacey Cook, a four-time Olympic alpine skiier, swears by something that might sound counterintuitive: salt.
Before her flight, Stacey likes to eat a salty meal or to drink seltzer water (which has sodium). By filling up on a big meal, Stacey says she can skip the unhealthy airplane food and the salt helps her body retain water, so she can sleep. But Stacey adds that you don’t need to go crazy on the salt: Opting for a curry dish or just adding a bit of salt to a salad can be all you need to help your body stay hydrated.
Ship Things Over Packing
Olympic athletes are usually traveling with lots of equipment, especially when it comes to the winter sports: If anyone has experience traveling with awkward and bulky items, like luge sleds and rifle cases, it’s them. If there’s a lot of time in between competitions, most athletes told me they ship what they need. If you’re going on a trip where you’ll need to bring a lot with you and are worried about lugging it all through the airport, consider if there’s anything you can ship.
Anticipate Returning with More Than You Brought
They’re not just talking about the medals. By the time athletes finish their events and head home they have gained a lot of swag, including official Team USA uniforms. Cross-country Paralympian skier Dan Cnossen, who has competed in both winter and summer events, says he expects to return home with a full suitcase just for his Team USA clothing. The average traveler might not come home from a trip with a whole closet’s worth of memorabilia, but leaving extra space for your return trip a good mindset to keep as you pack for a trip.
Never Check What You Can’t Afford to Lose
Whether it’s your laptop, camera, or even just your favorite scarf, everybody has something that they can’t bear the thought of losing. For athletes, it’s their gear, which is often personalized to them and can make or break their performance. Athletes told me they’ll carry on even the bulkiest gear items just to avoid the separation anxiety.
Speaking about her ski boots, Stacey Cook says: “They’re heavy and they’re bulky. When you pull them out of the overhead bins they’ve hit people in the head before. It’s not a very fun item to bring but it’s kind of necessary.” Take a tip from the Olympic athletes and consider carrying on valuable items for the most peace of mind.
Pack Jackets Last
Between ski poles and snow jackets, Winter Olympians and Paralympians face no easy task when it comes to packing for places like St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Chamonix, France. Alpine skier and Paralympian Jamie Stanton recommends packing bulky winter jackets last. Folding and stacking them at the top of your suitcase makes it easier to sit on the bag to finally zip it shut.
Elite Airline Status Helps
When Olympic athlete Chris Mazder has a short travel window between competitions, having elite airline status makes all the difference in making sure he can bring everything he needs. United Airlines, which sponsors Team USA, has a standard per-bag weight limit of 50 pounds—Chris, however, can bring up to 70 pounds per bag, which is just enough for his luge sled.
Have a Game Plan for Jet Lag
When you approach the dilemma of jet lag from an athlete’s point of view, overcoming it can actually seem easy.
“It’s important to execute a strategy designed to minimize jet lag upon arriving at the destination so that we can perform at our peak during the competition,” says Dan Cnossen. This can be anything from figuring out exactly how many of hours of sleep you’ll need, to calculating the best time to fall asleep on the plane.
When fighting the urge to stay up all night, Stacey Cook suggests that you visualize yourself sleeping through the night, the same way a skier might visualize their path before a race. “I used to succumb to [jet lag] but started telling myself it doesn’t have to be part of the process.”
Take Time to Get Adjusted
Just because you’re not competing on the world stage every time you fly doesn’t mean you can’t travel like an athlete for better health. Part of traveling like an athlete is giving your body and mind plenty of time to get adjusted in order to be ready for competition day.
Olympic athlete Jamie Stanton typically gives himself three days to adjust to an extreme time zone change and fuel his body with the proper nutrients before he competes. For us regular travelers, our “competition day” is more likely a jam-packed first day of sightseeing, or that bucket-list hike you’ve always dreamt of conquering. If you’re planning an activity that could be physically or mentally straining, make sure you give yourself some time to adjust to your new surroundings.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Winter Olympics 2018: Here’s What Travelers Need to Know
- 2018 Olympics Travel: Is South Korea Safe to Visit for the Games?
- 8 Crazy-Fun Sports to Mix Up Your Winter
Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.