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When we travel, we usually spend a lot of time on our feet. That’s why the shoes we choose to wear take on size-14 importance when we’re flying.
We asked the experts what makes for the best shoes for air travel: a foot doctor, and one of the people who knows more about flying on their feet than anyone else in the world — a flight attendant. Here’s what we learned.
The rules for shoes on land are the same in the air, except more so
The basics don’t really change just because you’re zipping around 35,000 feet up. You want shoes that fit right, provide good arch support and breathe.
“It’s the same as on the ground,” Dr. Eunice Ramsey-Parker, clinic administrator of the Foot Center of New York and a member of the faculty of the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, said in a phone interview. “You want to make sure you can wiggle your toes in the toe box when you’re wearing socks, they should support your arches and get shoes that breathe — leather and other natural materials.”
These factors are important in a shoe when you’re wearing them at sea level, but when you’re stuck in a tin tube, they become all the more vital.
Shoes are swell, and your feet will, too
As a passenger, you’re spending most of the flight time on your behind with your feet on the floor. It’s a decent enough position for eating reheated mystery chicken and watching a movie the size of a playing card, but for foot comfort, not so much.
If you want to get fancy, the 10-cent phrase for it is gravitational edema, but in essence what’s going on is that the blood in your body is pooling in your feet. The result? Swollen, uncomfortable feet.
The first solution is to get up and walk up and down the aisle regularly to recirculate the blood in your body. And second, wear shoes that aren’t too tight but also not too loose.
“Wear something that allows your feet to expand and retract,” Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said. “Sneakers are pretty good traveling shoes.”
But don’t loosen the laces, Ramsey-Parker warned: “Do the normal lacing you do on your shoes. If you loosen them too much, you’ll let them swell up and be uncomfortable.”
For the record, Ramsey-Parker is also a fan of tennis shoes for flying, especially the New Balance brand (“nice wide width and nice arch support”). Other shoe brands she’s a fan of include Naturalizer and Easy Spirit for women and Clarks for men.
Keep your shoes on, for everyone’s sake
The No. 1 rule of the airplane shoe club is to wear shoes. Sure, it’s tempting to kick off your loafers and treat the footwell like your own little living room, but there are a couple real good reasons to keep your barking dogs in their cages. For one, your feet could very well swell so much that you’ll have trouble getting them back in your shoes.
“It’ll be a struggle,” Ramsey-Parker said.
Second, you’re leaving your feet unprotected.
“You never know if something could happen, and shoes are very important if you need to evacuate the plane,” Garland said.
Third, think of all the nasty things your feet could pick up.
And finally, everyone hates people who take their shoes off on planes. Truly.
“Honestly, be considerate to the passengers around you,” Garland said. “No one wants to see or smell your feet. One of the requests we get the most from passengers is for us to ask another passenger to put their shoes back on.”
Flip-flops flop on flights
Flip-flops and sandals pretty much break all the rules we’ve established so far, so don’t wear ’em. Well, yes, they do breathe, but they offer no support and don’t really function as a shoe in anyway except technically keeping the soles of your feet above the ground by a mere butter pat’s depth of rubber. And they do nothing for the swelling.
“No, oh my goodness, no,” Ramsey-Parker said. “Maybe if you’re a 25-year-old person with good arteries and veins, flip-flops aren’t going to harm you in any way, but if you’re one of my patients at 50, 60, 70, I’ll tell them to wear their support hose and tie those laces up and wear a shoe they can walk in easily.”
Plus, the passenger who wears flip-flops on a flight is pretty much daring the gods to send a beverage cart rolling over his or her toes.
“You’re going to drop your luggage on yourself, you’re going to stub your toes against a seat and you have no protection because you’re wearing flip-flops,” Ramsey-Parker said. “The bathroom floor’s going to be slippery with water and you’re going to fall. And you’re going to have to run to Terminal C from Terminal A one day, and you’re going to break the strap on one of your flip-flops.”
But if you insist on wearing sandals or flip-flops, at least take some precautions.
“If you are going to wear them, bring socks with you,” Garland said.
Don’t knock socks
Yes, socks in sandals. She really said to do that.
“The airplane can be cold, and a lot of people’s body temperature is regulated by their feet, so if their feet are cold, their body can be colder than it needs to be,” Garland said.
Whether or not they’re stuffed into flip-flops or sensible shoes, Ramsey-Parker suggested support hose, compression socks and support knee socks to reduce the swelling and stave off the threat of deep-vein thrombosis (the dreaded blood clot). In breathable fabrics, of course. And not in wool, unless you’re a masochist.
Bring a land pair and an air pair, if you must
As a frequent flyer, you’ve probably noticed that flight attendants wear completely different shoes when they’re at the gate or other parts of the airport and when they’re in flight. Each airline has its own rules about what kind of footwear its employees must wear, but in general flight attendants are expected to wear “terminal shoes” with heels ranging from a quarter inch to as much as three inches. And then they switch to much more practical flats, or “working shoes,” at some point between the doors closing and cruising altitude. Typically, that working shoe — and again, every airline allows different things — is supportive, allows for a little bit of expansions and has a very small heel if any heel at all. Some are even more like clogs than anything else.
So take a lesson from the FAs, who know a lot more about getting mileage out of flying feet than even the most frequent flyer. If you insist on fashionable footwear when you travel, compromise by switching out for comfort and practicality after you board. Then, switch back to your landside shoes when you disembark.
“When you’re traveling on the plane, wear your covered shoes with arch support,” Ramsey-Parker said. “Change into your sandals once you get to Florida.”
Featured photo by Manuel-F-O/Getty Images
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