happy feet … how to choose shoes for travel

shoe styles for travel

It’s a lesson often learned the hard way: footwear is the most important part of your travel wardrobe and can be the most difficult part to get right. If your feet hurt or your footwear doesn’t suit the climate or the rest of your wardrobe, you will NOT be a Happy Traveler. That’s why I always recommend to start with the shoes when planning a travel wardrobe.

shown above: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

If you’re trying to pack light, 2-3 pairs (including the one you wear on the plane or in transit) should be all you need. Of course some outdoor activities or special occasions may require more specialized footwear, but otherwise just as with your clothing, choosing “multi-purpose” shoes will help reduce the number needed.

Unless you will have door-to-door chauffeur service everywhere you go, comfort should be your top priority, and that doesn’t have to mean settling for ugly shoes. While everyone’s feet and fit preferences are unique, there are a few common denominators that I’ve found apply to comfortable travel footwear.

  • Cushioning. While I understand that there are people out there who can run around (comfortably) all day in thin-soled ballet flats, I am not one of them. Especially as we age we can lose padding on the soles of the feet, and a bit of cushion in the insole plus a shock-absorbing outer sole is ideal. For leather soled shoes I always recommend having a cobbler add rubber half-soles and heel tips; not only will this help preserve your shoes and improve traction on slick surfaces, but can also add a little bit of shock absorption. If the shoe’s fit allows, or if your shoes have removable insoles, adding a cushioning insole may also help.
  • Support. There are a few components to this, but if your shoes do not have sufficient support, you may find that your feet and legs tire more quickly. I need good arch support, and find that shoes with a low heel or wedge provide a little more support than a completely flat shoe. You may find the opposite; it’s really about sticking with what works best for your feet.
  • Fit and stability. You will want shoes to fit snugly, not tightly. Shoes that are too loose will cause your muscles to work harder for stability and you may tire faster. A wedge or low heel that is narrow may be more difficult to walk in over time or irregular surfaces; a wider heel and sole will be more stable. If your feet swell over the course of a day, lace-up styles or shoes with adjustable buckles might be your best options. When considering loafers or other slip-on shoes, remember that the higher the vamp, the more stable the shoe will be for walking. If you find yourself having to grip with your toes as you walk or the heel slips, look for another pair. And be sure any shoes you travel with are either broken in or have at least been “road tested” for several hours on your feet. There should be no “hot spots” or any areas that pinch or rub.

Those guidelines above apply to footwear no matter what season you’re traveling. For Spring and Summer travel, here are the 5 styles of footwear that I’ve found work best. As with clothing, unless you have a special occasion (e.g. a wedding or a state dinner) on your itinerary, “smart casual” is the most dressed up you’ll need to be, and you can leave the dressy heels at home. Most of the styles of shoes below can be selected so that they transition from day to evening. Also as with clothing, a darker neutral shoe will provide the most day-to-evening versatility. But metallics can also be a fun choice especially for summer, and are very much on trend now.

  1. Ankle boots. Yes, even during warmer seasons I often travel with a pair of ankle boots. I find that for “in transit” days they provide a bit of extra protection for my feet in crowds and around wheeled luggage, and when worn with moisture wicking shoe liners are comfortable even in heat. If you’re traveling during shoulder seasons when rain is a possibility, they will keep your feet drier and warmer than shoes with less coverage.
  2. Loafers/slip-ons. A higher vamp loafer with a well-cushioned sole can be one of the most versatile travel shoes. Depending on your style preferences, you can go with a classic look, or something a bit more funky. Some people like a  driving moccasin as a travel shoe due to the traction and cushioning provided by the rubber nubs on the sole, though I find them less comfortable for all-day walking than a smoother rubber sole. Leather slip-on sneakers are another option, though they will read as more casual.
  3. Mary Janes. Especially if you wear dresses and skirts, these can be a good option. The strap over the instep gives them more walking stability than a standard ballet or pump, just be sure it’s either elastic or adjustable. A more tapered toe and a little bit of wedge or heel will look more sophisticated, but there are options to suit almost any style. They’ll look good with pants too, including this season’s popular cropped pants.
  4. Lace-ups/sneakers. For many, these may be the most comfortable option. Menswear-inspired leather oxfords/brogues will have the most day-to-evening wearability. Sneakers in all colors and iterations are still on trend, though for travel I still prefer something a bit more understated and sleek. Not all sneakers have good arch support, so keep trying until you find one that does.
  5. Sandals. Some prefer not to wear sandals or open-toe shoes when traveling, especially in cities, but I couldn’t get by without them in warmer weather. (Leave the flip-flops at home, though, or relegate them to use at the pool or spa.) Adjustable straps, supportive soles, and moisture-wicking insoles are all plusses. If you are traveling in summer heat and will want to wear your sandals out in the evenings, look for sleeker and more polished styles. A note about espadrilles: while some may find them comfortable for warm weather wear, many styles may not have enough cushioning or support for all-day walking.

This post is getting quite long 😉 so I’ll schedule a follow-up post to share some of my favorite brands for comfortable and stylish travel shoes. In the meantime, here are a few selections to consider…

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Affiliate links in posts may generate commissions for unefemme.net. See my complete disclosure policy here.

34 Comments

  1. Melissa
    April 4, 2016 / 3:11 am

    Good morning Susan,

    Great post. This is exactly what I am working on now. My newly discovered flat feet with bunions plus I received this winter my ortho soles is making shoes shopping a real challenge. Winter is covered, but now I am working on a pair of spring shoes that are dressy enough for work, comfy yet not a sneaker and I could take on vacation and walk all day. The key was to get something that the soles can be removed and my ortho sole inserted. There are a lot of fashions now that are doing this, but I am finding if it isn’t a boot type shoe, once I put my sole in the heel is too short, even with the special removable sole shoes.

    I found this one “Gabor Instapper 42 560” yesterday and am hoping it will do the trick. With the new soles my foot is pushed higher in shoes so laces and things put pressure on my foot and is extremely painful but these have that stretch. Yes they look like a sneaker but they are a bit shiny so I can get away with them at work and the shape is very streamlined. The color looks gorgeous with grey outfits, white, black, beige, pinks, blues, just everything. Heck I may even wear them with knit style dresses or skirts, maxis and so forth.
    I am really hoping they work out.
    We go on vacation in May and I am not sure we will get a warm enough day for me to test any of the sandals I bought last year before my broken foot and now problem feet discovery. I bought quite a few pairs but all flat very flat.

    Support I get that through the new soles, but I can’t put them in a pair of sandals and I refuse to freaking spend an entire summer vacation in closed shoes:(
    My issue is the bottom of the shoe has to be hard, no flexing, because then it hurts the bunions, all those things that are normally nice for feet, cushiony or heels that shock absorb are not good for my feet. I am thinking a pair of sandals that create an exaggerated arch and are shaped like a foot should be good.

    I am not sure if Gabor can be found in the US but they have such nice fashionable comfort shoes in all kinds of styles.

    • April 4, 2016 / 7:18 am

      That Gabor Instapper is a super cute shoe. You’ll have to let us know how that works.

      • Melissa
        April 4, 2016 / 1:51 pm

        I will definately let you all know cause they are super cute on. But this weeks temps are dropping so it may not be till next week cause i won’t go bare ankles in cold weatther brrrrrr.
        Haha well looks like Susan picked a great subject! We all got crazy feet at this age…

    • Liz in Paris
      April 4, 2016 / 9:28 am

      Melissa – I have difficult feet too (bunions and arthritis) and find Gabor generally very comfortable. They have a selection of extra width shoes with more space in the toe box and removeable insoles that you can swap out for your own. Go for the Gabor Comfort range in width G or H (not sure where you’re based but these are German widths; F is “normal”) and the removeable isoles. The great thing about Gabor is they’re not frumpy, even if you have awkward feet! You may have shops locally (not sure where you’re based) but they’re available on Amazon too. Hope this helps.

      • Melissa
        April 4, 2016 / 1:47 pm

        Hi Liz,
        To add to all this foot drama I have very narrow feet…. can you imagine? But insert is wider to build up the insert heck it doesn’t fit most shoe beds. Is creati g quite the adventure. The shoe stores are sick of seeing me I think cause I just keep tryng different models different sizes.
        Yes Gabor does have cute options. I have a pair of sneakers from them a pair of boots and now these. Fingers crossed and glad to hear they are available there also.

  2. Susan D.
    April 4, 2016 / 4:04 am

    I love Gabor shoes and currently have about four pairs of them–all flats. They ARE available in the United States–Nordstrom, E G. Geller, and even Zappos. I’m sure there are other retailers who also carry them. I do find them the MOST comfortable shoes I own.

    I’m not a huge fan of Mary Janes. Something about them always seems just a bit dowdy to me. I DO have a pair of Naot Mary Janes that I loved wearing a couple of years ago.

    My favorite all time travel shoes for warm weather are my Mephisto fisherman sandals. Unlike typical open toe sandals, the toe area has a lot of protection.

  3. Melissa
    April 4, 2016 / 4:47 am

    Thanks for you comment Susan D. I follow so many nice things on this site and others, but being in NL now I can’t always get things, while I can have things shipped to me overseas it is a nightmare, imagine when it doesn’t fit returning it…. internationally. Not all brands shown are sold here or very limited selection or way higher price for importing.
    So I mostly go for the ideas and work from there. Even here, I almost never ever shop online. It is a pain in the **** to return things bought online and I am such a difficult size being short living in the land of the giants. It also seems that sizing is particular to each company.
    I also need to shop live, touchy feely, gotta see touch it feel it to know if I want to buy it. Also, is about the quest and the shopping experience:)
    I looked at the Mephisto, is just a bit too, hmmmmm just not my style. Gabor I like but not all their stuff. Problem is I like fitted shoes that are very narrow looking I think also cause I am smaller, but those are the worst for my feet now:(

    • Susan D.
      April 4, 2016 / 7:12 am

      Melissa, I understand about Mephisto not being your style. I’ve had my fisherman sandals for over 15 years now (resoled by Mephisto once) and they are not very feminine–but the best thing ever for walking all day and night in a foreign place when it is hot.

      • Pamela
        April 5, 2016 / 6:10 am

        Try the French Arche sandals if you can get them where you live. They come in flats or different height heels. Designed for comfort and support but in an attractive range of colours and styles. I always buy a new pair every time I visit Paris but you can also buy a limited selection here in Oz so probably they’re available in the US too.
        I had a pair of Mephisto sandals bought on the Cinque Terra one holiday. They started out being comfortable but the leather stretched so much they became too big and my feet just walked right through the toes so I had to give them away.

        Best wishes, Pamela

  4. Liz
    April 4, 2016 / 5:55 am

    These are such great tips Susan! It makes so much sense to start with the shoes when planning a travel wardrobe. I look forward to the “part 2” post.

  5. Betsy Thompson
    April 4, 2016 / 5:56 am

    We visit Italy often and I’m partial to San Miguel sandals for navigating the cobblestones. They have a block heel, rubber soles, and straps for ankle support. I have black and beige ones which I alternate for day and night. Never am aware of my feet when I’m wearing them, they are that comfortable. Think Zappos now carries them.

  6. April 4, 2016 / 6:04 am

    I adore those Taos sneakers. I bought the metallic gray on your suggestion, and I wear them all the time. That insole is so comfortable, and they are quite stylish. Thank you. I also love loafers. They are so comfortable for walking. Have a beautiful Monday. ~~Dee

  7. April 4, 2016 / 6:41 am

    Wearing socks (especially the low-cut kind, since socks and stockings of all kinds seem to be considered old school these days) helps prevent blisters.
    I also have/had bunions and they can really hurt. Then, to keep pressure off them, you end up hurting your back. I had one removed about 8 years ago (the other was a lot smaller) and it changed my life. I wish I’d done both at the same time.

  8. April 4, 2016 / 6:44 am

    Oh how I needed this blog! Last year we went to New Orleans with some friends and I bought a pair of Alegria sandals specifically to walk all over the town in. They worked great (except for that annoying squeak that I have discovered Alegrias have). Since then (and with other “walking” trips) I have discovered that great walking shoes, no matter how they look, are worth their weight in gold.

    I learned a couple of years ago on a trip to Philadelphia, I had purchased a cute pair of Sketcher mary janes that would go with most everything I packed. I “saved” them for the trip. By the time I arrived at the Philly airport, I knew the first thing I was going to have to do was go buy a pair of walking shoes! And I did. I marched right over to Macy’s downtown and spent about an hour looking and trying on shoes. Ugh. I finally got a pair of Easy Spirit mary jane-ish shoes that I wore everywhere. I didn’t love the look but I was able to walk all over Philly. Lesson learned.

    Great insight on what to wear and why!

  9. elisabetta
    April 4, 2016 / 7:26 am

    This is one of the best posts I have seen of the “ladies of a certain age” blogs. Feet have everything to do with our alignment, movement and overall comfort. If our feet aren’t comfortable, not only do they hurt, but this can lead to back/knee and other chronic problems. As much as I want to wear higher heels and think they really slim and lengthen my legs, I no longer can’t. I am very very familiar with shoes that are attractive and supportive. You have done the PH.D. level of addressing this subject. I really don’t see it addressed that much and it has been a big issue in my life. Thanks for the excellent job!

    • April 4, 2016 / 7:35 am

      You said it, Elisabetta! I completely agree. It was just about 2 years ago that I had to leave my beloved high heels behind because my feet could no longer take it. I have since replaced most all my shoes with a type of euro-comfort (mostly Clarks) shoes. I think I can stuff my foot into a nice heel for date night or to church and back… beyond that.. no. I am forever checking out what women are wearing on their feet. I can still do a wedge and good cushioney platforms will have to do for my fashion statement.

  10. Melissa
    April 4, 2016 / 7:47 am

    When you at look at blogs geared towards younger women, they almost never deal with the shoe issue. They show gorgeous heels and so forth. Now I know when these girls are being photographed on Italian cobbled streets there is no way they wore them the whole evening. Gotta be a photo op. I mean stilettos, come on that is a death trap on European streets!

    I will let ya’ll know how the Gabor slip on shoes work out that I mentioned because they are so so super cute and if you have specials soles you can change them out. Much better than just a typical sneaker or some of the other ortho type looking shoes out there. If they don’t work for me all walking around an old European city they won’t work anywhere!
    It has been a bit of a trauma for me I have a super shoe addiction (I like had to get rid of over 50 pair of shoes…. and more to come as summer hits and I try ones I had before the ortho soles:(

    Yes is totally the best idea actually, plan the trip around the shoe, then you aren’t tempted to take uncomfortable shoes just cause they look good with an outfit.

    • Susan D.
      April 4, 2016 / 3:54 pm

      Melissa, I totally understand what you are going through. Fourteen years ago, I was diagnosed with idiopathic lymphedema and had to come to terms with wearing heavy duty compression stockings (pantyhose style) for the rest of my life. This rules out sandals and any open toed or open heeled shoe. I was devastated. I ranted. I raved. I had to come to terms with it. Now, I search out the best flats I can find. It’s not fun, but necessary.

  11. Tracy
    April 4, 2016 / 8:07 am

    I have always had fussy feet so I’ve never been able to wear cute little shoes. I learned long ago (in my 20s) to embrace the comfort shoe. If it’s okay for me to suggest another blog, your readers might like to look at Barking Dog Shoes https://www.barkingdogshoes.com/ She has suggestions for a whole host of foot problems, and I’ve found many cute and comfy shoes there.

  12. April 4, 2016 / 8:12 am

    3 and a half weeks in Europe with plantar fasciitis (which hurts so badly one forgets any metatarsal bone on bone pain) and here is what I took: Clarks boots with a 2 inch heel as the doctor said I have to have a 1-2 inch heel on my shoes (sorry bunion that prefers not to flex), Taos sneakers, Fly London Mary Jane’s with a more platform heel. I interchanged these shoes every day to give my feet variety and rest. I did use heel cups from the doctor which helped…now I just use plain old Dr. Scholl’s heel cushions. And while I do not appreciate the slow shipping and high price and bad customer service (the trifecta), I do find that Alice Bow shoe bed liners are an added comfort.
    Great topic….I just bought some cute Vionic flip flops and 3 pairs of Eileen Fisher shoe/sandals and one is an espadrille. All extremely comfy and one will come on my next trip.

    • April 4, 2016 / 1:58 pm

      Those Fly London MJs are edgy! I like those! They do look comfy, too.

      Some 10 years go, working what I call “hard retail” at a Chico’s boutique, a treasured secret I learned from a coworker well into her 60s, change your shoes every 4 hours if you’re active. Made all the difference in the world! I give that advice because I know how well it has worked for me.

  13. horopito
    April 4, 2016 / 11:35 pm

    I’ve had great success with Ziera footwear for my problem feet. http://zierashoes.com Excellent cushioning for the European cobbles!

  14. Mary
    April 5, 2016 / 5:18 am

    I found a great brand of comfortable shoes at Nordstrom – L’Amour Des Pieds – with wonderful cushioning and great arch support.

    Not crazy about Mary Janes on anyone over 8 years of age.

  15. Jenniferanne
    April 5, 2016 / 10:19 am

    Walked all today through the beautiful cobblestones city of Seville in my flat laced metallic memphisto shoes and my problem feet are still happy! I’ve been alternating them with my black laced, light as a feather, Rockports, also really comfortable throughout Madrid.

  16. April 6, 2016 / 4:05 am

    Thank you for such an informative post . I find that a small stacked heel or wedge helps if I am going to be on my feet for a long time.

  17. Kris
    April 7, 2016 / 5:57 am

    Great post. I am planning a trip to Italy in September and am considering purchasing the Eileen Fisher booties you feature in several of your posts. Would that be a good option in your opinion to add to my travel wardrobe for that time of the year? Thank you!

    • Susan B
      April 7, 2016 / 6:09 am

      Hi Kris, if you’re referring to the open toe booties I’m wearing in today’s post, I think the heel might be a bit high for all-day walking. They are quite comfortable for every day wear, but travel IMO demands extra comfort. If you like that look, give the lower heeled Dansko sandal I’ve included in the widget at the bottom of the post a try.

  18. Nancy
    April 9, 2016 / 4:59 am

    I have what may be the most troubled feet in the world..headed to Italy for the first time and very excited but worried about all the walking. Need to find shoes (some style PLEASE) that could accommodate my 9.5 wide custom orthotics. All I can find in wide width with removable insoles are athletic shoes..so few options in W with removable insoles…any recommendations would be so so much appreciated. I wear Munros to work but they will not be enough (for my feet) for hours of walking. Thanks in advance.

    • Susan B
      April 9, 2016 / 6:39 am

      Nancy, what about something like these? They’re available in wide widths, have a removable insole, and come in three colors: black, blue and leopard print.

      Or something like these, which have a more substantial sole and are available in wide sizes and come in several colors and finishes.

      • Nancy
        April 17, 2016 / 7:45 am

        I ended up …choking at the price…ordering some Finn Comfort athletic shoes…more stylish than my New Balance and Brooks…if I can wear them comfortably both on our upcoming trip (first time abroad, heading to Italy) and though out the summer, then will say cost per wear makes me feel better about the price. Fingers crossed they work.

  19. Melissa
    April 26, 2016 / 11:17 am

    Hi Ladies,

    Update… well I made a huge mistake, I went at the end of the day when I bought the Gabor shoes with swollen feet. I figured if they are comfortable then when wearing all day they would work out. They were just a wee bit loose in the back but now beginning of daft means they flop flop all day: try to hold onto the foot creates pain. I am so upset between 100 euro down the toilet not to mention all the beautiful shoes I had but couldn’the wear and had to get rid of, it is really upsetting me.
    So I found a pair of xsensible (yes correct spelling of name)sneakers they are cute but yeah sneakers. I bought black with suede and patent leather so a bit dressy and changed laces to silver/black. I found a store here that sold those and also sandals that you can change with your own ortho sole. Anyway not only were most ugly but even with sole in the bottoms were very flexible and that is what gives me a lot of pain, when the big toe area of the bunion flexs the whole day.
    So I thought try without the sole, yes I have a lot of sandals but none that had a stiff bottom and kept foot from flexing.so these two cost me another frigging 279 euro for both.
    I am literally going broke trying to get something. The only way is try but problem once you buy and try you can’t return.
    I think think those Gabor could be okay in right sizer, but only as normal shoes, probably not best for ortho soles.
    So vacation I take sneakers my new wedge stiff sandals and my les tropizienne silver pair in case nothing works.

    Haven’the been able to try the new sandals yet because we got freaking snow!!!!!
    I cannot freaking wait till my vacation to Greece. 16 more days

  20. May 23, 2016 / 7:48 am

    Susan, thank you so much for the link to this post. This is so incredibly helpful. I really appreciate it!

  21. Giensie
    September 2, 2016 / 8:24 am

    Have you ever tried the FitFlop ballet flats? They are so comfortable, like walking on clouds. They have ver y good arch support and a slight heel and with my feet with arthritis very nice.
    Gina says hello form the Netherlands!

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