Traveling with Motion Sickness

Travel tips for people who get motion sickness


Motion sickness is a plague upon my life. Growing up, my Dad cleaned a lot of barf up off the side of the family station wagon on our summer road trips through the Cascade Mountains. I thought it was something I’d outgrow eventually. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Motion sickness gets worse with age. For anyone who likes to travel like I do, it can be a pretty severe handicap and ruin an otherwise great adventure.

I am determined to have many adventures involving moving boats, planes, trains, and automobiles. I have accepted that I will never be able to be on a ship or small to medium ocean-going boat for extended periods of time. I would not attempt a fishing trip, but I may take a cruise to Alaska someday. The smaller the craft, the worse it is. I even get seasick floating in an inner-tube on a wavy lake.

If you’re someone who has suffered from motion sickness your whole life like I have, I probably don’t have to tell you that reading in a moving vehicle is a bad idea. However, here are some tips based on things I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way)

1. If you are in a country where you feel comfortable renting a car, do it and be the driver

motion sickness winding roads in Ireland
Driving on a narrow road on the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

The number of countries I feel comfortable renting a car in are few, and mostly in Europe. Driving in a foreign country can be pretty stressful and scary, but if the only reason you aren’t sure about renting a car is the cost, you should go for it. Not only will you see so much more at your own pace, but you can be the driver and guarantee that you won’t be miserable the whole time through those windy coastal roads and mountain passes. It might be more expensive, but think about the overall trip experience.

In Ireland, we went on one tour bus day trip to Northern Ireland from Dublin, which was a long day on a bus. I spent most of the day being car sick despite taking Dramamine, and having to decide constantly which was worse–being nauseous or sleeping and missing the awesome scenery on the windy coastal roads. In hind sight, we should have skipped it and gone on a day trip closer to Dublin. We rented a car to explore the rest of the country, and had a fantastic rest of the trip.

2. Only sign up for short boat rides, and ALWAYS take motion sickness medicine at least an hour beforehand, even if it will make you sleepy.

Long-tail boat ride in Thailand motion sickness
Long-tail boat ride in Thailand

I’ve made the wrong decision a few times on whether or not to take a “less-drowsy” Dramamine before going on a snorkel trip, and have resolved never to go without medicine again. Bear in mind that motion sickness medicine has to have time to kick in. Be sure to take it at least an hour before you get on the boat. And regardless of your preparations, most of the time anti- motion sickness medicine will only be so effective in a small, rocking boat. Try not to plan for a long boat trip or one that involves a lot of floating instead of speeding forward, you might seriously regret it.

3. Show up early for public transportation with open seating.

If you are taking a bus or a train, show up early and try to be in the front of the line for boarding. That way you can be sure to get a window seat or seat at the front of the bus, and avoid any seats facing backwards. If you don’t make it before the crowd despite your best efforts, and the only seats left are facing backwards, try to explain to anyone in a forward facing seat nearby that you will get sick if you sit in the backward seat. They might have the same problem, but there might be someone who doesn’t get motion sick willing to switch. It’s awkward, but not as awkward as throwing up on the train. And trust me, if it’s a long ride and you’re sitting backwards, you will barf.

Bus in Thailand motion sickness
Bus in Thailand


 4. Bring music, and zone out on the passing scenery on a bus or train trip.

If you don’t plan on sleeping on your bus or train trip (sleeping not advised if you need to be alert to when your stop is or if there is a likelihood of purse/baggage theft), bring an ipod or phone with a good amount of music to listen to. Keep your brain alert and focus on the passing scenery outside. Do not focus on anything inside the vehicle.

Mountains in Tahiti motion sickness
Mountains in Tahiti


5. Always bring a thick plastic bag just in case

When we were in Costa Rica, we had to take a bus from San Jose to La Fortuna, which was a five hour bus ride. Our local friend warned us that it gets busy and to get there early to get a good seat. It gets so packed that people stand in the isles.

I figured I was doing everything right: We got in line early, I got a window seat next to a huge window that opened, I had my ipod, and I was ready to go. My biggest concern was having to pee…there are no bathrooms on the bus either, and I have a small bladder. I didn’t drink any coffee and drank minimal water. On the way out the door to the bus station, I grabbed a thick plastic shopping bag and threw it in my backpack, just in case.

Miraculously, I didn’t need to pee. I was fine for the first 2.5 hours, enjoying my ipod, keeping a grip on my backpack so no one would take it, Dramamine be damned. The scenery was great.

Unfortunately, queasiness set in. I had been too focused on the beautiful scenery to notice that we were ascending and descending a windy mountain pass. I popped a Dramamine but it was too late. I held out for as long as I could until I realized I was going to throw up, no question about it. I made use of the plastic shopping bag I’d brought and spent the rest of the bus ride holding a bag of my vomit, so thankful I had brought it. Fortunately, it didn’t leak.

I now pack extra zip lock bags when I travel….you never know. Better safe than sorry.

The Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica motion sickness
The Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica


A review of motion sickness medicines:

From everything I’ve tried, I’ve found that there is no such thing as a motion sickness medicine that doesn’t make you at least a little drowsy. Sometimes I want to be drowsy, so I’ll pop an original formula Dramamine on a long plane ride.

Most of the time, I’m having fun and want to be alert to enjoy the adventure–a snorkel trip, scenic 4 x 4 jeep safari through the Tahiti interior, a ferry ride to Phi Phi island in Thailand, or just floating on an air mattress with my besties on a hot summer day in Lake Washington, Seattle. For these activities, the two medications I use the most are Bonine (meclizine) and Less-Drowsy Dramamine (Dimenhydrinate). Both need to be taken at least an hour before your activity.

Motion sickness highly recommended before a 4 x 4 jeep safari!
Motion sickness medicine highly recommended before a 4 x 4 jeep safari!

I asked my doctor if there were any other alternatives in the prescription world. She prescribed Transderm Scop patches (scopolamine). She said you can wear them for three days (applied behind your ear) and that they hand them out to people on cruise ships and are also used by fishermen.

I was stoked. I brought it along to a camping trip on Lake Wenatchee where we planned on floating on a big raft in the lake. You are supposed to put it on three hours before your activity, so I put it on first thing in the morning. I put it on before putting in my contacts, and I later learned that you should not touch your eyes after touching the patch without several thorough hand washings. This is what happened:

transderm scop eye problems motion sickness

The same thing happened to a friend of mine on her trip to Belize but her eye was super swollen and they thought something was really wrong. It went back to normal after she took the patch off.

In addition to the weird eye thing, I lost my appetite, and felt like I was high on painkillers or some sort of downer drug. I was lethargic, and not very social. I didn’t get sick on the raft, but I wasn’t having much fun either. I had a beer after dinner and it made me super sleepy and anti social. I took the patch off and haven’t used one since. I would try it again if I was going to be on a long bus ride through the mountains or on a boat for an extended period of time, but it wasn’t a great experience. It probably effects people differently, so it might be a good solution for you. If you don’t have prescription coverage on your insurance, be warned that they are expensive.

I have another friend who says sucking on ginger or ginger pills helps him, and I’ve heard mixed reviews about that acupressure bracelet thing. I’m too afraid to try them and have them not work. If you’re someone with bad motion sickness problems who has tried that bracelet and it worked, please let me know!


3 thoughts on “Traveling with Motion Sickness”

  1. i’ve been using Bonine for over 10 years. Never failed.
    I also use the pressure point wrist bands in addition to Bonine, for extra crazy transportation.
    Cruise ships have never been a big problem if you take Bonine first thing in the morning.

    Glad I found your blog. #ChildfreeDoesEpicShit

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