5 Tips to Stay Cool on Your Commute and on Really Hot Workdays

how to stay cool on your commute2018 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to stay cool on your commute — you may also want to check out all of our best advice on what to wear to work in the summer.

Did you hear that the highest temperature in the world last week was an incredible 129°F ? Even if you’re not dealing with crazy record-breaking temperatures like that, you’ve likely been dealing with a hellish commute if you walk, bike, or take public transportation to work. Aside from reveling in the frigid air conditioning once you get to your office, here are a few tips to stay cool on really hot workdays:

1. Use your drink for something other than drinking. Bring a cold can of soda (put it in the freezer for a while) or a frozen bottle of water and roll it on your wrists and other pulse points (here’s a picture pointing them out) when you want to stay cool. Once you’re at work, stop by the restroom to run cold water over your wrists.

2. Hack your commute. If you take public transportation, try to improve the most melty, disgusting portion of your commute. In most of NYC that’s the wait on the subway platform — not the subway ride itself. This may mean making yourself an iced coffee or a frozen bottle of water to take into the subway with you instead of grabbing one at your usual spot near the office; it may mean avoiding the subway entirely and taking the bus. If you can time it right (either with the help of an app or some of the newer MTA stops that tell you how far away your train is) you can wait to descend the subway until a minute or two before your train. (Try MoovitNextStop, or Transit App.) Wear as little makeup as possible so that you don’t smudge it when you’re wiping the sweat off your face, and if you have to/want to wear pantyhose in the summer, pop them in the freezer first, or just put them on at your office.

3. Pack a fan in your bag. It’s funny how a little breeze can make a big difference and help you stay cool when it’s hot, humid, and gross — so get a little battery-operated fan or a paper/wooden folding one (you know, the kind you can get in Chinatown). This one looks like a good bet, while this wearable one is intriguing… This model even has a misting feature — nice! (If the A/C at your office just can’t keep up, you can buy a small one like this for the top of your desk, too.)

4. Wear your hair up. On hot days you know your hair will end up off your neck, so you may as well plan ahead and make it look nice. Check out our roundup of easy office updos for inspiration.

5. Layer, layer, layer. Especially if you’re going from a hot, sweltering summer day into frigid air conditioning, you need layers. Outside: wear a skirt or dress (possibly layered with slipshorts for comfort), or lightweight pants like linen or cotton pique, with a simple t-shirt or shell. When you get inside, add the cardigan, blazer (keep one or more at work if you like), a scarf, or (if you must) pantyhose. Note that if you’re looking for a good sweater to put on at the office, a silk cardigan is going to retain its shape and wrinkle less in your bag than a cotton or poly-blend cardigan will. (If you absolutely need to wear a blazer when outside, check out our recent roundup of lightweight summer blazers.)

Ladies, what are your best tips that help you stay cool during your commute and in general in the dog days of summer? 

Current images via Deposit Photos /boggy22. Original images (2016) via Pixabay and Flickr (Canal Street subway, originally uploaded to Flickr by m01229.)how to stay cool on your commute - image of a stylish young professional waiting for her subway

Wondering how to stay cool on your commute and still arrive at work looking polished, professional, and not a hot sticky mess? We've got five crucial tips to help working women even if you're dealing with sweltering temperatures (hooray for subway commutes).


  1. If you walk — give yourself an extra few minutes so that you can walk more slowly and/or take the route with the best breezes / the most shade. This kills me as a normally-efficient walker (deterred from otherwise-advantageous street-crossing only by known horrendous dumpster alleys) but it’s so worth it.

    • Cat, you are so right. I walk on the SHADEY side of the street b/c it makes alot of difference. Of course around MID-DAY, there is NOT any shadey side of the street. I also know places where I can cut thru buildeings, and save a whole block. I some times do this even if it is out of the way b/c I can sit inside with AIR condition and cool off for a minute. Dad insist’s I walk all summer b/c I need to lose 5 pounds (primarly in my tuchus), so I know all the inside stops. For those of you who walk in NYC between the UPPER EAST SIDE and MIDTOWN, you know what I am talking about! Now if I could ONLEY find a guy to MARRY me with a place in the Hamton’s I could forget all of this walking stuff! YAY!!!!

    • Anonymous :

      Agreed. I also have been known to duck into a lobby or shop for a minute or two just to cool off in the AC. And while they’re not stylish and I want to wash my feet once I get to work, I prefer to commute in sandals (chaco or similar, not flip flops) when it’s super hot. Somehow air on my toes makes a big difference.

      • Anonymous :

        +100! I thought I was the only person in business casual rocking chacos on the commute in NYC.

  2. I just bought one of those little handheld battery operated fans. I almost didn’t, because it felt a bit affected, and my fiance made fun of me for it, and it makes me feel like a menopausal woman, but DAMN if I don’t love it for those days when the subway platform is 8 million degrees.

    • I carry a gorgeous paper Japanese folding fan that I picked up in San Francisco (Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms) and I swear I’m the only person on the Chicago L who uses a fan. I DON’T CARE. It’s way too hot and I’m way too sweaty.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I can’t believe that it’s never even crossed my mind to buy one. I’m a complete mess in the heat. Off to Amazon!

      Luckily I get to work way before anyone else so even though I’m a red, sweaty mess when I get in, it’s highly unlikely anyone will ever see it. At least on the way home it doesn’t matter since I can jump straight into the shower.

    • Shopaholic :

      I bought my mom a folding fan when she was going through menopause (hello hot flashes) and she said it was actually helpful for when the hot flashes hit. I think it would be just as useful in this insane weather, especially on transit when there’s no air circulation.

      • Anonymous :

        Is the weather really insane? I’m in TExas, and it’s about normal. My iPhone says it’s a high of 90 and then 80s all week in NYC. Is that really higher than usual?

        • Today/the rest of this week is the first “normal” summer day for us in Philly in awhile — highs near 100 are not at all normal, particularly when they last for 2-3 weeks.

        • Anonymous :

          Yes. It’s been very sunny and in the mid to upper 90s in DC for almost a week now, with oppressive humidity to boot, so heat index well into triple digits. I almost punched my radio when the DJ said in a chipper voice “high of only 96 today, folks!”

          Texas is “dry heat” right? :) It makes a huge difference. I know Houston can get muggy, but yes, this is as bad or worse than anything I’ve ever experienced in TX. Plus, people use public transit where there are big crowds and not much air flow, and walk a couple blocks in the heat island of the city where every building, street and sidewalk is radiating heat at you from all sides — in Texas, you mostly get to go from your air conditioned house to your air conditioned car to your air conditioned office with minimal time outside.

  3. anon a mouse :

    For layers: I almost always wear a thin cotton tank top under my regular clothes in the summer. It doesn’t add any heat and has the added bonus of absorbing a good bit of sweat so it doesn’t show through my clothes.

    Side note, how come as soon as I turned 30 I became a dripping sweaty mess as soon as it’s hotter than 80? (I am well past 30 now and really tired of it.)

  4. purplesneakers :

    I grew up in a city so hot the tarmec literally melts in the summer.

    my tips:

    – water, water, water. No, I don’t care you don’t like it. suck it up and drink, soda and juice are not good for you. Dump in one of those gatorade packets or the little flavour drops if that helps, but get your 8 glasses minimum.

    – when i was in school, we had to wear polyester uniforms. Not kidding. The only thing that helped was a cotton slip inside that soaked up sweat. Try and wear natural fabrics as much as possible.

    – keep a towel/cotton rounds and a spray bottle with you to wipe your face. I like rose water because it’s cooling and good for your skin, but normal water will also do.

    – Keep a parasol in your handbag. One of those little travel umbrellas can be dead useful when the sun decides it wants to boil you from the inside out.

  5. Aunt Jamesina :

    I love the tips to bring a small fan and a parasol! Here are mine:
    -I freeze a big thermos of iced green tea with a bit of honey in it and sip throughout the day as it melts. I stick it back in the freezer at work for the last hour or so so it’s still cold on my commute home.

    -Salads and other cold food for lunch.

    -I patently refuse to wear anything (including underwear) that isn’t made of natural fibers during the summer. Bras are harder to find, but I’ve found my Natori Feathers bra to be light enough even though it’s synthetic.

    -I turn into a sweaty, stinky greasemonster really fast, so I have facial wipes, antiperspirant, and hand sanitizer at the ready at work. I actually use a bit of hand sanitizer on a paper towel on my underarms to kill the stink, then reapply my antiperspirant (we have single-person bathrooms, so I don’t feel weird about doing this).

    -I’ll bring loose-fitting linen pants and open-toed shoes that are comfortable to walk in if it’s really hot. My workplace is FREEZING, but I melt if I have to wear trousers and closed-toe heels for even a few blocks outside. I also tie my hair back (obvious, but makes a difference!).

    • I’m surprised you prefer natural fabrics. In the hiking world, people say cotton kills. I try to wear sweat wicking under layers like running underwear in the heat.

      • Anonymous :

        The only thing I can think of is that when cotton gets wet, it stays wet. So: cooling if it is a white t-shirt. [BAD in winter though — then you need wicking if things are damp at all.] And I think it launders better.

        But for workwear, I think that lightweight synthetic dresses are the way to go. It is the one time I prefer sleeveless (with a cardigan to throw in a purse for when the A/C is <70).

      • Aunt Jamesina :

        I think there’s a difference between sports/ outdoor gear textiles and the synthetics used in other clothing. My dri-fit running tanks feel a lot lighter than synthetic blouses I have by a mile. But one instance of wearing a synthetic maxi dress to a barbecue in high humidity with resultant swamp @ss was enough to cure me– my woven cotton dresses are definitely more pleasant to wear in the heat.

      • Aunt Jamesina :

        And I’ve also always heard “cotton kills” when talking about cold weather. Cotton holds your sweat and could lower your body temperature to dangerous levels if it’s cold. Cotton and linen are worn by people in hot climates the world over!

        • +1. Cotton might look less “neat” in hot weather due to wrinkling and water retention if you sweat a lot, and still might not be a great choice for hiking in summer (you never want wet feet in boots!) but there’s nothing better than lightweight cotton for breathability!

      • Senior Attorney :

        Yeah, I took all natural fibers on my first trip to Southeast Asia and felt completely wilted the whole time. This last time I got a bunch of synthetic, breathable, quick-drying travel clothing and looked and felt about 100% better. Space-age clothing for the win!

  6. I like hats or handheld paper fans for shielding the sun when not in the shade. I also duck into the bathroom when I get to the office to wipe away some of the sweat!

  7. Is it that I’m getting a bit used to it 0r is it actually a tiny bit better in DC today? Everyone always complains my office is cold and yesterday my body was so warm that I barely felt the AC. Today though it feels more normal — i.e. on the cold side. Cold enough that I stood outside for 5 min at lunch (under a covered part of the building that gets no sun all day).

    I am missing NYC right now. Just moved here last yr and the weather is unbearable despite only 225 miles south. NYC gets heat but not like this and even during this stretch, they’re 2-5 degrees cooler and 5-10 degrees lower heat index which are marginally HUGE.

  8. I walk 2 miles to work each day, and while I can get away with walking in my work clothes most mornings when the temperature is cooler, I carry a large bag with a change of clothes for after work. I usually will duck into a bathroom closest to the exit and change into a pair of shorts and tank top so that my work clothes aren’t completely gross after walking home 2 miles in 100+ weather.

    I also have been wearing my curly hair in a bun a lot more often lately because otherwise it had been turning into a mess. (Someone actually had the gall to comment on this the other day with “Your hair looks nice that way, but it’s even prettier when you wear it down. I know it’s hot out, but maybe you should consider that.”) I appreciate the new style ideas! One of my go-tos is a French braid tucked underneath itself. (Tutorial here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSBAqxQCNKk . I’ve found I can do just a regular French braid on slightly wet hair and achieve a nice look.)