Skip to main content

Travel tips: This is why your feet swell after flying (and how to prevent it)

It's annoying, but is it a problem?

Close up of young man waiting for the plane at an airport
Cunaplus / Adobe Stock

While traveling by plane is certainly convenient, it doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. Economy seats on planes can leave you locked in place (literally) with little to no room to move around. Couple this with connecting or layover flights or long flights, and an entire travel day can go by without you moving your legs at all! If you’ve noticed your feet swelling after flying — don’t panic yet.

Foot and leg swelling during travel is uncomfortable and annoying, yet quite common. But is it cause for concern or simply an annoyance? Understanding why swelling occurs during travel and what to do about it is important to prevent circulation problems. Below, we’ll dive into what you need to know about travel swelling and travel tips to help you prevent this uncomfortable sensation next time you fly.

man sleeping on a plane
Ground Picture / Shutterstock

What causes swelling after travel?

Traveling at airports can be hectic — which means you’re likely to be thinking more about checking your bags, finding your gate, and printing your boarding passes for your travel. Once you’re finally aboard your flight and taken off, you’ll quickly realize there is no move around at all. The lack of movement when flying is the most common reason your feet, ankles, or legs may swell. By sitting for prolonged periods and having your feet on the floor, blood begins to pool in the legs, which causes this swelling (also known as edema). During travel, you might feel cramping or discomfort in your legs, but usually, you won’t notice the swelling until later or the day after flying.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the seated position of your legs while sitting on an airplane can also cause increased pressure in the veins in your legs. As pressure builds, especially on longer-duration flights, swelling can worsen as blood moves into the surrounding tissues. The longer you are sitting without movement, the more gravity will begin to pull the fluid down to your ankles or feet. One study even found that nearly 97% of people who fly on flights that are longer than seven hours experienced some form of edema in the feet, legs, or ankles.

Although longer flights are usually the culprit, even short flights, such as two or three-hour flights, can cause swelling in some people.

Plane flying in the sky over mountains

Other contributing factors

  • Changes in exercise habits
  • Changes in water intake
  • Changes in food consumption

The most common reason for feet swelling after flying is simply the lack of movement. But this is not always the sole reason. During a hectic travel day, you’re off of your normal routine — which means changes in exercise habits, water intake, and food consumption. Perhaps you’re not drinking as much water as you would at home (or avoiding expensive airport bottled water) or consuming salty processed food at airport restaurants or food courts. Or maybe you’ve skipped your morning workout to catch your flight. All of these other contributing factors can cause or worsen swelling after flying as well.

Airplane aisle with passengers feet on both sides. Travel and transportation themed shot taken on board a commercial aircraft. Unrecognizable persons only. Toned image
william87 / Adobe Stock

Why you should care about swelling

Experiencing swelling in your ankles, feet, or legs after travel is usually just an annoyance and mostly harmless — yet that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to it. While uncommon, some cases of foot or leg swelling from flying could be a sign of another medical condition known as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). The lack of movement for extended periods and reduced blood flow in the veins can cause this condition to manifest.

Unlike harmless edema from long flights, a DVT often causes painful legs, redness around the ankle or foot, or skin that is warm to the touch. A DVT can also cause swelling in only one leg, whereas harmless flying edema is likely to cause swelling in both legs equally. Travel edema should resolve within a day or two at most. If you suspect your swelling may be a DVT, seek medical attention right away.

Seated man with feet propped up on luggage looks longingly out airport window at plane taking off
JESHOOTS.com / Pexels

Travel tips for preventing feet swelling after flying

Feet or leg swelling after flying is inconvenient, but it’s certainly not inevitable. There are several travel tips you can implement before, during, and after your flight to reduce the severity of your swelling. Take note for the next time you travel!

Hydration

Drinking plenty of water is one simple yet effective way to help you manage foot swelling. Swelling can cause your body to hold onto excessive fluids, which is worse when you are dehydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight to stay hydrated and prevent your body from holding onto more fluid than necessary.

Compression socks

Compression socks, often worn by healthcare workers, are also useful to help manage swelling on long travel days. These socks (also called stockings) help to improve blood flow in the lower extremities and thereby reduce edema.

Stretch legs whenever possible

Have time in between a layover? Move around and stretch your legs as much as you can in between flights. If you only have one long flight, try to book an aisle seat, which can allow you to get up and move around periodically. Standing or even walking to the bathroom throughout the flight can help get the blood in your legs moving.

Man sitting in airplane looking out window with a laptop in his lap.
nicepix / Shutterstock

Summary

All in all, feet swelling after flying is an annoyance but is usually not cause for concern. By understanding the reason it occurs in the first place, you can tweak your travel habits to help combat swelling and reduce the severity. The more you fly, the better you’ll get at remembering these edema prevention tips.

Editors' Recommendations

Emily Caldwell
Emily is a full time freelance writer with a special focus on health, fitness, lifestyle, food, and nutrition topics. She…
How to find the best street food (and other travel tips), according to YouTube megastar, The Food Ranger
The dos and don'ts of everything from street food to digital safety when traveling.
Food ranger eating noodles

Trevor James, The Food Ranger, eating a bowl of noodles in Chongqing, China. thefoodranger / Instagram

With over one million followers on Instagram and almost six million subscribers on YouTube, Trevor James (better known by his social media handle, The Food Ranger) has made a career of traveling for food. Over the years, James has traveled to over 40 countries, creating food and travel content on countries ranging from luxurious omakase sushi in Tokyo to drinking camel milk straight from the udder in Pakistan.

Read more
Travel tips: Study says these are the best (and worst) airports to catch a connecting flight
Travel tips: If you can't fly nonstop, travel through this airport
airport

Choosing a good airport for your connecting flight is essential for a smooth air travel experience. An efficient airport can significantly impact your journey, minimizing the risk of delays, missed connections, and other hassles. FinanceBuzz recently performed a study ranking the best and worst airports for a connecting flight- and some of the airports on the list may surprise you.

The best airports and worst airports for connecting flights
The study ranks these hubs as the best airports for connecting flights:

Read more
Are you a minimalist? Then here’s how to pack and travel like one
Packing hacks to lighten your load
A person packing their suitcase with dress clothing.

Minimalism is all about eschewing extra "stuff" and embracing the experience. Some travelers go to extremes, like carrying only what they can fit in their pockets and relying on their destination for everything else. But traveling like a minimalist doesn’t have to mean sacrificing comfort -- quite the opposite.

How many times have you packed a whole bunch of stuff "just in case," only to find much of it unnecessary? If you’re willing to give up the big, heavy suitcase, along with clothing and gear you don’t really need, in exchange for comfort and convenience, we can help.

Read more