We asked a podiatrist to help us find the sandals that won't wreck your feet on vacation.
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 13 pairs of sandals — from slingbacks to supportive slides to strappy wedges — that are designed to stay comfy for hours of walking.