By Elizabeth Preske
September 06, 2019
Credit: Enes Evren/Getty Images

Last week, I woke up in Oaxaca, Mexico at 4 A.M. with severe abdominal cramps. Montezuma's revenge. All I wanted to do was hide away in my hotel room for the rest of the day, but with a 6:50 A.M. flight on the horizon, I knew that wasn't an option. I was going to have to push through and make it home to New York City one way or the other. The road to the airport was bumpy, and with every single jolt and turn I clutched my stomach in pain — and tried to ignore the gurgling sounds emitting from my GI tract. When my group of three got to the airport, I curled up on the floor next to a closed up shop and waited while the other two girls checked their luggage.

I had previously written a story about what to do if you get food poisoning when you travel — but the research I did hadn't prepared me for flying with food poisoning.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, your initial inclination might be to reschedule your flight — and you should if you can. However, if you absolutely cannot book new tickets, I’m here to tell you how to survive what will admittedly seem like the longest flight you’ve ever been on. Brace yourself.

Pack medicine in your carry-on

If you can, stop by the store before your flight and pick up some Pepto-Bismol (or a Pepto-Bismol alternative if it’s not available in the country you’re visiting). Imodium will also help with a particularly bad case of diarrhea. However, as Julie Devinsky M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Hospital, previously advised Travel + Leisure: “Drugs that help control diarrhea can treat the symptom (partially) but are working against the body’s natural defense of expelling the toxin or infection agent.” So if you want to let the diarrhea run its course, you might want to pick up a pack of adult diapers.

Tell a flight attendant

Flight attendants will be your biggest allies when you’re suffering an unquestionably hellish travel day. A third of the way into a five-hour flight from Mexico City to New York City, my stomach started kicking. I frantically rummaged through the seat-back pocket for a barf bag, but came up empty. I called over a flight attendant. “Excuse me, do you have a bag I can throw up into?” The woman in the aisle seat immediately stood up. “Go,” she motioned with her hands. I followed the flight attendant down the aisle. She handed me a couple of paper sacks and sent me into the bathroom.

After I hurled up the contents of that day’s lunch, the flight attendant asked me to sit with her in the back.

“What did you eat?” she wanted to know. “When did you start feeling sick?” She thought I had gotten ill from something I ate on the plane. “No,” I assured her. “I woke up feeling sick."

She gave me some sparkling water and hot water with lime, and told me that’s what she always drinks when her stomach feels upset. For the rest of the excruciatingly long flight, she and the other flight attendants let me cut the line to the bathroom. “Sorry,” they’d hold up their hands to the pressing queue whenever they saw me rushing towards the back of the plane. “She needs to go first.”

The flight attendants helped make a nightmarish trip as bearable as it could possibly be under the circumstances. Anytime they walked past my seat, they asked me how I felt. When I started getting chills, they gave me a blanket to keep me warm. They even offered to find out if there was a doctor on board. Even though there wasn't much the flight attendants could do while we were 30,000 feet up in the air, they were able to give me priority access to the bathroom — and that was truly the key to surviving the flight incident-free.

Get a cup of ice

Because of all the vomiting and nausea, your body is becoming dehydrated. Try to drink as much water, Sprite, and ginger ale as you can — but if you can’t hold down fluids, ask a flight attendant for a cup of ice. You can suck the ice chips to stay hydrated while you’re fighting grumbling stomach cramps.

Skip the in-flight meal

Devinsky said that your GI tract cannot digest food when food poisoning first hits. Clearly, I forgot this when a flight attendant asked me if I wanted a crepe or eggs for breakfast. Within thirty minutes of finishing my in-flight meal, I was on an express track to the bathroom.

Even if it’s been a couple of days since you came down with food poisoning, you still might want to skip the in-flight meal unless you are absolutely sure that whatever you are eating is dairy-free, low in fiber, and non-greasy. It’s best to stick to the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast), and avoid the complimentary nuts.