High and dry: The quest to stay hydrated in the airport and in the air

Dec 21, 2019

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional medical information. This post was originally published on July 28, 2019.

As the world wakes up to just how wasteful plastic water bottles are, many of us are carrying our own refillable bottles on our travels. Despite our good intentions, it feels like airports are conspiring against us.

After drinking my last drop before going through airport security, my next step is to find a way to refill my water bottle: a water fountain, refilling station, or even a bathroom tap.

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Many airports either have no place to top up a water bottle or the water fountains deliver such a pathetic dribble that there’s no way to angle the bottle for a refill. Depending on the size of the sink, it can also be impossible to fit a water bottle under a tap in the restroom — or the water might be warm.

When an airport fails to provide a water source, you find BYOB (bottle) people in the galley of the plane, asking to refill from large plastic bottles. This defeats the primary environmental purpose but at least reduces the need for plastic cups when we want to hydrate.

What airports should do

Give us the gift of H2O: Provide a tap option so that we can refill, or better yet, have separate water refilling stations. And give us more than one. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve joined a slow queue at a refill station with fellow empty bottle holders.

Just copy Changi Airport and provide water refill stations with cold, warm and hot options. It’s little touches like this, not to mention butterfly gardens and indoor waterfalls, that helped Changi take TPG’s prize for the world’s best airport in 2018.

Iceland’s Keflavik airport is another standout. Here the water fountains come with an invitation to enjoy a melted Icelandic glacier that has been naturally filtered through bedrock. Although that level of pure, cool water is out of reach for most airports, we’ll still give bonus points for filtering drinking water rather than just hooking us up to the city supply.

The app to find a tap

Paying $5 for a bottle of Evian at the airport is enough to make some people grumble. But in the case of Samuel Ian Rosen, whose mission is to eliminate single-use plastic bottles, it was the light-bulb moment that led to creation of a new water lover’s app.

The Tap app shows the nearest location of free public drinking fountains and water refill stations, and also identifies cafes, restaurants and other businesses that will refill your bottle. The app even lets users search for water that is filtered, sparkling or flavored.

So far, New York City has the most refill spots with more than 600 stations. The Tap app is available in 30 countries, with the goal of expanding to 100 countries by the end of 2020.

How much water we need

For travelers, it’s important to avoid dehydration, which can happen faster on an airplane because of the low humidity levels.

Some newer planes, including Airbus A350s and Boeing 787 Dreamliners maintain higher humidity levels, but the World Health Organization says humidity in aircraft cabins is usually less than 20%. (Humidity in the home is normally over 30%.) It’s the reason your eyes get scratchy and your skin feels pinched on a long flight.

Apart from discomfort, dehydration leads to fatigue, so it’s important to help our bodies out when we’re in the air.

Dr. Rajiv Narula, medical director at International Travel Health Consultants, says there’s no exact amount that we should drink before or during a flight but one easy way to tell if you’re getting enough is to think about the last time you needed to go to the bathroom.

“We should be urinating every few hours,” Dr. Narula explains. “So it’s a good idea to drink throughout the flight.”

But before you order up Bloody Marys, Dr. Narula points out not all liquids are the same.

 Alcohol and caffeine work as a diuretic so you need to minimize both. It’s best to avoid alcohol on the plane, but if you do have a drink, follow it with water,” says Narula.

Bringing your own water bottle will help you stay hydrated even if the service isn’t up to scratch on your flight, but if you don’t get enough to drink, Dr. Narula says it’s important to push some fluids into your body when you land. Water or coconut water is best; avoid soda, alcohol and caffeine.

Coconut water has natural electrolytes, according to Dr. Narula, who says you shouldn’t worry about popping an electrolyte tablet into your water bottle on the plane.

“These are useful when in exertional activities like marathon and hikes. On the plane it may be overkill,” says Narula.

Taking your water supply to the next level

If you want to do your bit to reduce plastic waste but find plain water a bit boring there are a few things you can try.

After hearing of a travel writer who puts slices of lemon and lime in his water bottle before going to the airport, I decided to add a sprig of mint to mine. So simple, so refreshing, and the taste stayed with me throughout the flight. If you don’t have fresh ingredients, some cold-brew tea bags transform tap water into tea.

Bottom Line

Drinking water is key during air travel, but airports don’t always make that easy. Water in plastic bottles is expensive and hurts the environment; water stations for refillable bottles aren’t available in all locations. But by carrying a refillable bottle, you have a better shot at staying hydrated both on the ground and in the air.

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