My friend Lane wrote the other day with a question:
Do you have an article somewhere talking about how to survive long flights? I’m making my first ever trip to Europe in May and have no idea what I am in for on the flight!
Unfortunately, I’ve never written about this topic before. So, I did what any blogger would do: I wrote 2500 words of advice on how to make air travel more manageable.
First of all, realize that a long flight doesn’t have to be a big deal. Though airlines do pack a bunch of people onto their planes, they’re also pretty efficient about keeping folks calm and distracted. That said, I do think it’s a good idea to be proactive.
I’m no pro traveler, but I’ve taken nine long international round-trips since 2007, and in that time I’ve developed some techniques to make the experience more comfortable.
Dealing with delayed buses in central Turkey.
My number-one rule of travel — and not just for flights — is to go with the flow. Expect the unexpected. Roll with the punches. Things will go wrong. I’ve traveled with folks for whom surprises can ruin a flight (or a day of touring). That’s a choice. When your flight is delayed or somebody steals cash from your wallet, you get to decide how to respond.
I’ve found that I’m much happier — and so are the people around me — if I just take things in stride. That’s one reason I try not to over-plan my trips. If I’m locked into a schedule or agenda, I’ll get stressed when a museum is closed or I go to the wrong train station. But if I relax and accept everything that happens as part of the experience, everything turns out fine.
True story: When Kris and I flew from Washington D.C. to South Africa, the flight carried a youth group going to do mission work. The plane stopped to refuel in Senegal. When it did, some folks got off and others got on. Unfortunately, for some reason, one of the youth volunteers had only been booked through to Senegal and not to his final destination; his seat was assigned to a man boarding the plane in Dakar. Despite vocal protests from all involved, the young man had to leave the plane. (I can’t recall if anyone got off with him, but it’d only make sense that an advisor stayed in Senegal too.) Now that is an unplanned event.
Choose your seat carefully
There’s very little you can control about where and with whom you sit. For instance, Kris and I once found ourselves in the midst of a group of Russians on holiday, all of whom were boisterously drinking and shouting and having a fine time. We, on the other hand, were miserable. It’s tough to read or sleep or watch a movie when everyone around you is laughing and pouring vodka shots.
Another time, I was seated in front of a woman who would not stop talking — even though we were on a night flight back from South America. All she did was bitch and moan and carry on with her seatmate while everyone else was trying to sleep. Turns out she owns a cake shop not far from where I live, a shop I’d never been impressed with anyhow. Now I tell everyone I know to steer clear of the place. She’s lost business because she wouldn’t keep quiet on a plane.
On my first trip to Ecuador, I met Mr. Money Mustache
at the Houston airport. We’d booked seats next to each other on the flight, he next to the window and me in the middle seat. As the plane took off, we started chatting. All the way to Quito, we got to know each other and spent time preparing our presentations. It was only a few days later that I realized nobody had ever taken the aisle seat. “What the hell was I thinking?” I asked Pete. “I should have moved over to give us both room.” Pete smiled. “Yeah,” he said, “I was wondering about that.” He’d elected to be adaptable instead, to simply accept the socially awkward geek next to him. He didn’t get tense or cranky.
Since you can’t choose the people around you, it’s important to make the most of the few things you can control. (Again, this includes controlling your attitude.)
So, for instance, do not sit next to the bathrooms. I’ve done this before, and let me tell you it’s not pleasant. On a three-hour flight to St. Louis, it might not be a big deal to sit next to the toilet. But on a trans-Atlantic flight, the toilet gets a lot of traffic, which means nearby seats contend with the folks in line — not to mention the odors. Not fun. Now I make sure to pick a spot away from the toilet.
It’s also important to know which seats are best for you. Kim, for instance, gets up and down a lot, so an aisle seat is usually best for her. I like to stay put. My bladder is a one-percenter, so I’m good with a window seat. And, to be honest, I don’t even mind a middle seat most of the time, so I’ll take one if it’s the best way to avoid problem areas (such as the bathroom).
I asked fellow traveler Tyler Tervooren
for his tips for long flights. He suggested that when you’re traveling with another person, one of you book the window seat and the other the aisle seat. “People don’t want to sit in the middle, so those are the last seats to go. If you leave a gap, there’s a better chance you’ll get all three seats. And even if you don’t, the other person will probably trade with one of you to get out of the middle, so you’ll end up next to each other.”
Flying into Ecuador. (Photo probably by Mr. Money Mustache.)
I have some friends who refuse to take long flights unless they’re in business class or first class. I never understood this until recently. On last year’s flights to and from Ecuador, I used miles to upgrade our seats to business class. Hello! The larger seating area, the better food (and service), and the access to airport lounges made the trips so much smoother. As a result, I even paid to upgrade the longer legs of my flights to and from New Orleans last fall. Would I pay to upgrade on regular domestic flights? Unlikely. But you can bet I’ll consider the option on international travel in the future.
Especially on the flights to your destination, the extra comfort and relaxation can be worth the cost. For me, the upgrade is less valuable on the return flight. Generally, I’ve budgeted a day or two to recover at home, so if I arrive exhausted, it’s no big deal. I’ll just sleep it off. But I don’t want to waste time recovering from the flight when I’m visiting an exciting new place.
Create a cocoon
Here’s one of my top tips for travel: ALWAYS TAKE AN EYEMASK AND EARPLUGS. I have no sympathy for folks who complain about noisy trafic in Lima or Rome, or who can’t sleep because there’s too much light on an 18-hour trans-oceanic flight. You know conditions will suck sometimes, so prepare. Rather than bitch about babies crying in the back of the plane, be proactive.
Carry an eyemask. These come in handy in hotels or on planes — and at home from time to time. Even a cheap eyemask is better than nothing. But a top-quality eyemask can improve your quality of sleep dramatically. Before my last trip to Ecuador, I picked up this cushioned eyemask from REI. I’ve used many masks before, and this is the most comfortable and effective model I’ve encountered. (They dye stains, though, so be warned.) This is the top-rated mask at Amazon, but I haven’t tried it myself.
Also carry earplugs. You’ll have to determine which type provide the perfect balance of comfort and noise reduction. Personally, I prefer headphones for plane travel. I use earplugs in hotels and at home, but on a plane I tend to use noise-canceling headphones. When I’m awake, they’re good for watching movies or listening to music. When I’m sleeping, I turn on some sort of looping white noise (my personal favorite is this recording of a midnight rainshower in Hawaii).
Finally, many folks — and I’m one of them — like to use an inflatable neck pillow on long flights. These look dorky but they’re so much more comfortable than airplane pillows.
Note: Before my 2013 trip to Ecuador, I visited my doctor for something unrelated. I mentioned that I have trouble sleeping on planes. “Here,” he said, and he pulled out his prescription pad. “Use Ambien. Take one as the plane pulls away from the gate and you should be ready to sleep by the time you’re able to put your seat back.” Holy cats! The dude was correct. Now I take an Ambien at the start of every long flight, and I’m out like a light, usually waking up just as we’re preparing for our descent.
In 2011, this was everything I carried for five weeks in Peru and Bolivia.
I’m an advocate of packing light. It’s my goal to never check a bag when I travel to another country. (I also try not to check a bag on return flights, but I’m less militant about it. If my traveling companions check their bags, I may do so too. And sometimes I’m returning with more than I started with, so I have no choice but to check something.) Light packing offers all sorts of advantages over traveling with too much gear, but one of them is that everything is near you on the plane.
Whether you only have carry-on baggage or choose to check your luggage, you should plan ahead for the flight. Kim likes to keep the space under the seat clear for her feet, which means she only has a few necessities in the seat pocket. (This is another reason it’s good for her to have an aisle seat: If she needs something else, she can stand up and get it out of the overhead compartment.)
I, on the other hand, don’t mind having a small bag under the seat. Sure, I have to cram my feet in around it, but this also gives me access to more options. I have my iPad handy (for movies and games and music), a book or two, and some writing tools. I even have my laptop under the seat in case I get ambitious. (Believe it or not, I’m most productive on long flights. I write like a mad man!)
Be ready for each step of the journey. You know you’re going to have to take your shoes off at security, so don’t wear complicated lace-up boots. Wear something that slips off. (Slip-off shoes come in handy again on the plane; you can easily put them on and off while seated.)
Also, you know you’ll need access to your passport and other travel documents, so keep them handy. I’m always baffled by the folks who have to search for their boarding pass or who have to spend two minutes getting things ready at the security checkpoint. Why is it a surprise that you need those things?
Maintain an itinerary
I shared this final tip in my travel packing article, but it’s worth mentioning again. I’ve learned that for a long trip, it’s vital to have a written itinerary. This document becomes the organizational backbone of the entire journey.
At the moment I start planning my trip, I create a text document (although you might prefer a spreadsheet). To start, I include my passport info and my frequent-flyer numbers. As I make my plans, every scrap of info gets placed in the itinerary.
- When I book my flights, I put the flight numbers, the schedules, the confirmation codes, and everything else into the itinerary. (I’ve developed a standard format for this info.)
- When I book my hotels, I put the address, phone number, confirmation codes, and other bits of info into the itinerary.
- When I book a tour or a shuttle, that info goes here too.
Here’s an example of my actual itinerary for our trip to Ecuador last fall:
This document is so important that I carry two printed copies with me. One lives in my pocket at all times and becomes very worn by the end of a long trip. The other lives in the document kit with the passport and my other vital info. Plus I store a digital copy in Dropbox so that I can access it from anywhere in the world.
Yesterday, I had lunch with my friend and mentor Tim Clark. Tim travels a lot for work, making regular flights to Europe and Asia. I asked him for his thoughts on making overseas trips more bearable. He said:
- Stay hydrated — but don’t eat much. If you don’t drink enough water, you can end up miserable, but the same is true if you eat normal meals. Remember that you’re not being active. You’re essentially in a resting position for eight or twelve or eighteen hours. Eat lightly.
- Get up regularly and move around. I don’t do this, and I suffer for it. When I get off the plane, I’m cramped and fatigued. Folks like Tim make a point of moving around and stretching at regular intervals.
- To avoid jetlag, stay up until normal bedtime at your destination. Resist the urge to take a nap. It may also help to get on your new meal schedule as soon as possible.
What about you? Can you offer any advice to Lane about how to survive long flights? Do you have any tips or tricks for coping with the cramped spaces or avoiding jetlag? (I’ve never been able to beat jetlag, so can’t offer any advice there.) And if you have any good travel stories, we’d love to hear them.