How to Select the Right Shoes for Travel

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shoes for travel

The importance of choosing the right shoes to wear on a trip is something I cannot stress enough. Until my recent trip to Brazil, every one of my trips involved some kind of battle with my feet because my shoes were not living up to the job of all the walking that comes with traveling — even though I thought I’d selected great, comfortable shoes.

If you’re not sure how much walking you’ll really be doing (or are in denial about it), allow me to provide some perspective: On most of my trips, it is not at all uncommon for me to walk 5 to 10 miles per day (10 miles in a single day!). Walking is almost inevitable in many places around the world. In addition to the fact that many popular tourist destinations are either compact, walkable cities, explorable ruins or geological treasures that involve a lot of hiking, it’s simply one of the best ways to experience your surroundings in an authentic way. 

All that walking is quite a shock to your system, and your feet, if you don’t walk that much at home (and if you don’t live in NYC, you probably don’t). Shoes you may consider very comfortable at home, even trainers and workout shoes, can give you an injury when worn that long. I once took a very comfortable pair of boots with me on a trip to Berlin. Halfway through the first day, I seriously regretted that decision. The lack of proper arch support (despite preemptive Dr. Scholl’s inserts) injured the side of my foot and ankle. And we’re not even talking about a sudden injury like an ankle twist (though I’ve had my fair share of those, too) — it was the repetitive impact of my foot with the ground that was to blame. Those boots went into the trash can as soon as I got back to the hostel.

RIP, stupid boots.

RIP, stupid boots.

Trust me, you don’t want to be the one slowing down your travel companions or otherwise tainting your memories of an otherwise amazing vacation. Here’s what I’ve learned about choosing the right shoes for traveling:

If you have weak ankles or knees, bring supportive gear with you.
By the end of that first day of attempting to wear those boots, I desperately sought a pharmacy to buy an ankle compression wrap. I got lucky and found one in a metro station, but you might not be so fortunate. And if you’re injured, moving around to find one becomes even more difficult. Save yourself the hassle and pack whatever orthopedic support you think you might need (including Dr. Scholl’s inserts, though I’ve found these only help slightly and, if too cushioned, may even be destabilizing — better to just buy shoes with the right support built in). They typically take up no room in your luggage, so there’s no reason not to. Now I travel with at least one or two of these supports, just in case.

Super stylish, I know.

Super stylish, I know.

If you can’t walk 5-plus miles in a pair of shoes, don’t bring them. 
Seriously. Do not bring them, because they do not deserve a spot in your luggage. I firmly believe that everything you bring on a trip needs to earn its keep. Otherwise, why are you lugging it around?

So few shoes ever make the cut, so I typically only bring two pair:

1. A pair of stylish, comfortable sneakers
2. A pair of flats with arch support if it’s a cooler climate OR Teva flip-flops for warmer weather

Remember how I mentioned that I was on the losing end of this battle with appropriate footwear… until Brazil? That’s because in Brazil, I wore a new pair of Ecco sneakers. When I first tried these on, I was concerned because the soles and structure of the shoes weren’t very soft or comfortable-looking. But the soles were very well-constructed, and the harder surface turned out to be a good thing, providing more control with each step. They weren’t cheap, but they were definitely worth it. If you’re thinking about buying an inexpensive, disposable pair of sneakers to travel in, think twice. A solid, well-constructed shoe might save your vacation.

This was my first time wearing an Ecco shoe, a brand known for comfort. I will test these again on my next trip, but so far, I am very happy with my choice. Whichever brand you choose, research reviews extensively to see if anyone else has traveled in the shoes you’re considering — often, reviewers will describe shoes as being very comfortable, but they may not doing the kind of walking you will be! 

I also selected these shoes because they were less athletic-looking than many other options. I don’t wear sneakers in my day-to-day outfits at home, so I sometimes feel a bit dorky in trainers with otherwise non-athletic clothes. These worked well because stylistically, they don’t stand out from whatever else I’m wearing.

Ecco shoes

For evenings, or nice dinners, wear comfortable flats. 
For ladies, flats are the best way to dress up outfits for nice dinners and evening activities that call for nicer attire. But don’t just bring any old flats — most offer very little or no cushioning or arch support. Be sure they have been rated as very comfortable or come from a company that is known for putting comfort and support first in the design and construction of their shoes.

Personally, I have never elected to bring a pair of heels on a trip, and I don’t advise anyone to do this. However, sometimes it’s necessary if you know you’ll be attending a very fancy black-tie event. If you choose to bring any heels, be sure you are only taking cabs to and from your evening activities. In general, think long and hard before devoting precious room in your luggage to something you’ll only wear once or twice.

Men also sometimes need to wear nicer shoes for more well-dressed occasions. The same principles apply: Look for dress shoes that are known for comfort, and read reviews carefully.

Test new shoes on a treadmill.
The best way to find out if your shoes will be comfortable on a trip is to test them on a treadmill. Most shoe stores won’t take back something that has clearly been worn outside, so a clean treadmill can be a smart way to make sure you’ll still like your shoes by mile 5. I also like to buy from Zappos because they’re very easy-going about returns in case you do decide against a pair.

The biggest barrier that initially held me back from wearing the right shoes was worrying too much about style. Trust me when I say that the shoes on your feet will almost surely be noticed by about zero people. First and foremost, worry about comfort — choose a pair that are made for the kind of walking you’ll be doing, and only then should you take style into account. When you’re traversing miles of misshaped cobblestones hundreds of years old or crumbling ruins, the last thing on your mind should be your feet — so put them first, and you won’t have to. 

All photos by Megan Van Groll.

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