Get Rid of Your Rubber Flip-flops — These Are the Comfy Walking Sandals You Need Instead
Dr. Jacqueline Sutera is on a crusade against cheap flip-flops. The New York City–based podiatrist and board-certified foot surgeon could not warn me enough of the perils of walking for an extended period of time atop flimsy rubber slabs.
When we spoke on the phone about how to choose a comfortable sandal for travel, Dr. Sutera was quick to point out what to avoid: stay away from sandals that are super thin and flat.
“We all know that they’re really bad for your feet, especially for women,” she said. “Little girls can kind of get away with [wearing thin sandals] for a while. It doesn’t start to catch up with you until later on in life, but I have 20- and 30-year-olds walking around in them all summer and they wonder why their feet hurt in August. It’s not good.”
So what does make for a good walking sandal? Dr. Sutera mentioned three main characteristics: a supportive sole, thick straps, and some sort of back.
Starting with the sole, arch support — that little bump in the center of the insole — will help you maintain better alignment. It’s all about keeping your foot as neutral as possible, Dr. Sutera explained, not pronated (rolling inward), not supinated (rolling outward), but right in the middle. “It’s normal to pronate throughout the gait cycle, but it’s overpronation that causes a lot of problems when you have a flat foot, like heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, and even stress fractures can happen. An arch support keeps you from overpronating,” she said. A thicker overall sole is best, too. And one that thickens beneath the heel is preferable to one that’s totally flat.
If you're more comfortable with a heel, a little height is totally OK to add into your packing line-up. In fact, it's healthier to switch up your shoe height and style from day to day — you’re welcome, over-packers. Even Dr. Sutera dubbed herself a "wedge girl." "In the summer, that is my go-to," she said. "Wedges are great because there’s a little heel height so they’re kind of dressy and the surface area that your body weight gets distributed across is a lot greater than a typical high-heel sandal. It has that chunky heel, so it’s also a little bit steadier."
It’s also smart to look for thicker straps — the more straps the better, because they'll hold you in — and a shoe that has a back or an ankle strap is ideal. In a slide, thong, or any other open silhouette, your toes are constantly gripping in order to keep the shoe from sliding off your foot. According to Dr. Sutera, that causes strain on the baby muscles in your feet and can also make common issues like bunions, hammer toes, and pinched nerves even worse.
Materials matter for comfort, too. Leather lasts really long, but it might not always be so forgiving unless there’s some kind of cushion on the inside. Once it's broken in, however, it can be really nice to wear. Foam is generally the most comfortable, but it doesn’t last as long. Even if a foam shoe still looks good, long-term wear can diminish its supportive qualities. And rubber — when it's well-designed — is kind of an in-between, but it might not be as easy to dress up.
If you've come all this way and still can't bear the thought of summer without flip-flops, Dr. Sutera and I can forgive you, while also pleading that you upgrade to a better version. They’re OK to wear to the pool or to protect from hot sand as you scout out a spot for your towel, although she recommends investing in a better-made pair, just in case you happen to wander from the resort and find yourself still standing in them six hours later. Dr. Sutera, who is a member of Vionic's Innovation Lab, likes the brand's "Beach Noosa" sandal, which has that thin profile you so crave but is more scientific about support.
But if you're looking for the real MVPs, we took Dr. Sutera's tips into the wilds of the internet to find 14 pairs of sandals — from slingbacks to supportive slides to strappy wedges — that are designed to stay comfy for hours of walking.
Lightweight Leather: Olukai ‘Upena’ Flat Sandal
This rubber-soled sandal has a leather upper. The footbed is anatomically molded for comfort and support, whether you’re just taking them down to the pool or walking the city in them for hours. The ankle strap provides an adjustable fit and the toe loop adds even more stability for your foot. For this pair, size up if you’re normally a half size.
To buy: nordstrom.com, $90
Comfort Classics: Birkenstock ‘Mayari’ Sandal
You almost can’t talk about comfortable sandals without Birkenstock coming up. The brand’s website claims it invented the contoured footbed in the 1930s — and it still stands behind its anatomically designed, suede-topped footbeds with deep, cradling heel cups, four posture-enhancing arches, and a raised toe bar. The buckles on both straps are adjustable so you can get a secure fit. One enthusiastic reviewer who has worn the style to Disney World and National Parks like Zion and Bryce Canyon said, “Nothing ever rubs, there is no break-in required… I can't stand a thong between my first and second toe, but with these, you can't even feel it. I hope they never get rid of this style.”
To buy: zappos.com, $100
The Espadrille 2.0: Cole Haan 'Cloudfeel' Espadrille Sandal
This brand new style from Cole Haan — which designs every shoe they make with a strong commitment to comfort — has a mini wedge heel for more support and the elastic strap fits snugly, but won't take you forever to slip back on at airport security. As for that cloudfeel promise? They actually cored out the sole and filled it with super-cushioned foam to make you feel like you’re taking each step on top of a cloud.
To buy: colehaan.com, $90
The Easy Leather Slingback: Born 'Trang' Sandal
The first pair of travel shoes I ever purchased for myself was made by Born. After years of wear, the cushioned leather footbed has molded to my feet — and the patina looks great, too. The Trang has recently become one of the brand's best-selling style and it's no wonder: the footbed is packed with cushion and the leather is super soft and supple.
To buy: nordstrom.com, $85
Sneaker Meets Strappy Sandal: Evolve 'Zen' Sandal
Easy Block Heels: Toms ‘Majorca’ Cutout Sandal
Though Toms is more widely known for its canvas alpargata-style flats, reviewers are raving about how comfortable and versatile (and compliment-worthy) this heeled sandal from the brand is. The upper comes in leather and suede and the three-inch heel is thick enough to ensure a steady step. Plus, there are eight colorways in case you want a pair to coordinate with every possible outfit this summer.
To buy: zappos.com, from $75
Sporty Support: Chaco Z/Cloud X2 Sandal
It’s practically a fact in the outdoor enthusiast community that Chaco makes some of the most comfortable hiking sandals available and the Z/Cloud series is designed specifically for travelers. The adjustable strap system will keep your foot securely fastened to the podiatrist-certified footbed, which has cushioning that measures up to the shoe’s name.
To buy: nordstrom.com, $110
Pretty Platforms: Vionic 'Tawny' Platform Sandal
Like Dr. Sutera mentioned, Vionic works with podiatrists throughout its shoe development process, but its collections rarely look orthopedic. This platform style packs in a ton of comfort features like deep heel cups, contoured footbeds, and an adjustable ankle strap. Plus, the rubber sawtooth outsole will give you extra grip.
To buy: vionicshoes.com, $100
Sole Savers: Gentle Souls 'Christa' Block Heel Sandal
This ankle-strap sandal from Kenneth Cole's collection of high-end comfort shoes has a pillow-like amount of cushion in the sole, and you can see the built-in arch support just from the photo. It comes in a black and a cognac leather.
To buy: zappos.com, $219
Walkable Wedges: Eileen Fisher ‘Willow’ Espadrille Wedge Sandal
Espadrille wedges are a quintessential summer shoe, but many options on the market are less than supportive. The thick, criss-crossing straps on this Eileen Fisher pair offer a secure fit and, as Dr. Sutera mentioned, a wedge is best for distributing your body weight when you’re standing. The deep blue will pair perfectly with all washes of denim and breezy white linens, but there are six more colorways if you’re not a navy fan.
To buy: nordstrom.com, from $198
Supported Slides: Beek ‘Finch’ Sandal
If your heart is set on a more fashion-forward slide, you don’t have to sacrifice support. Beek has figured out a way to mold a lifted arch into its all-leather sandals without the bulky look that generally comes with it. Crafted by artisans in Mexico, their shoes are made to last. We’re into the Finch silhouette because the upper strap placement is not only a unique style but one that's designed to hold your foot firmly in place when walking.
To buy: nordstrom.com, $280
Flip-flops: Olukai Kaekae
The designers at Olukai made it their mission to construct a flip-flop that's actually comfortable to wear and walk around in all day. There's an 8 mm molded arch for anatomical support.
To buy: nordstrom.com, $85
The Affordable Crowd-favorite: Plaka ‘Palm Leaf’ Sandals
Plaka Sandals — a brand born on a vacation to the Greek Isles — makes several unique sandal styles that are handcrafted with stretch-to-fit, braided rope uppers and a rubber sole that thickens beneath the heel. They’re also water-resistant, so you won’t have to worry about ruining them at the beach, and they come in 13 colors.
To buy: amazon.com, $30
Sorel 'Ella' Sandal
Sorel is known for its high-quality winter boots, but that doesn't mean they can't knock a comfortable sandal out of the park, too. The Ellas are proof; they're a top seller for the Canadian brand. The soft leather and elastic straps will hug your feet, keeping them secure, while the molded rubber soles come through on both traction and support.
To buy: nordstrom.com, $60 (originally $80)