How to Survive Long Flights

12 February 2015 · 16 comments

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.

Waiting for the bus in central Turkey
Dealing with delayed buses in central Turkey.

Be adaptable

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.

True story: 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).

Tip: 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
Flying into Ecuador. (Photo probably by Mr. Money Mustache.)

Upgrade strategically

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
In 2011, this was everything I carried for five weeks in Peru and Bolivia.

Pack wisely

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!)


The video version of how I pack for travel.

Be prepared

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:

A sample travel itinerary

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.

Your Turn

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.

1 Tyler Karaszewski February 12, 2015 at 13:12

I have less to say on this than J.D., because there’s only so much you can really do here. You’re stuck in a small, uncomfortable seat for a while regardless.

Charge your phone or iPad and load it up with games or movies or whatever ahead of time. You may not have internet on the plane, and even if you do, you have to pay for it, and it’s slow. So download a couple movies and games beforehand. Then you’re guaranteed to have something to watch/do regardless of how good or bad the inflight entertainment is. Also, don’t forget your headphones *and* charger in your carry-on. Lots of planes have USB chargers in each row now.

Bring your own snacks, even if you buy them in the terminal before you get on the plane. They’ll be better and cheaper than anything offered in-flight.

Wear a thin over-shirt over a t-shirt. This covers pretty much every temperature range you’re likely to get in a plane, which goes from “just slightly too cold” to “just slightly too warm”. If you only have a heavy jacket and a t-shirt, you might find you are either too cold or too hot. A thin shirt is easier to take off and stash in the pocket in front of you than a jacket, for times that it’s inconvenient to go to/from your stowed carry-on.

2 Jess February 12, 2015 at 13:57

My additional two cents would be to dress comfortably! I’ve taken some very long flights (LAX to Sydney, JFK to Milan, Boston to London, Dulles to Tokyo) and can’t say enough about traveling in yoga leggings/pants. I am still personally on the fence about whether leggings = pants IRL, but when I know I’m going to be sitting for that long… stretchy wins. All the time! In recent years I’ve also been wearing Ultimate frisbee jerseys – they are light, breathable, and usually a sign that the wearer is friendly! – with a sports bra.

Also, I always bring baby wipes for freshening up – a few swipes and I feel semi-human again.

Because I like making lists, I usually break my packing list down into which bags gets which item/s. I haven’t checked a bag in years* – I love the challenge of carry-on only! My “personal item” bag holds the important stuff: wallet, phone/charger, headphones, extra pair of socks, passport, itinerary, etc. My “carry on” bag has my clothes and toiletries and such.

*Only exception is our honeymoon (12 days), where we shared a carry-on size case and a matching medium suitcase. For the plane, hubby also carried a small backpack and I had a shoulder tote.

3 Linda February 12, 2015 at 14:49

I think long flights are getting harder for me as I’m getting older. I stiffen up more quickly if I don’t move frequently. Even in my late 20s when I took my longest flight (18 hours on that &^%$ plane to Johannesburg, South Africa) I found that my feet were swollen by the time I arrived. Movement is key, and airlines know this. Definitely roam the aisles if they’ll let you.

I like taking a shawl with me because I can also use it as a blanket, if needed. For women, the “pashmina” is a really useful item to have a trip, anyway, as it can be used in many different ways.

No matter how long the flight is going to be, I always fill up my water bottle (or buy one, if necessary) before boarding and carry a snack. Sometimes you get stuck at the gate or in a long take-off queue and having something to drink or eat without waiting for in-flight service removes thirst/hunger as potential frustrations. Unfortunately I’ve found that many (all?) Latin American countries do not allow you to bring liquids on flights into the US, even a sealed bottle of water. :-(

My “lower tech” option for keeping myself occupied is knitting. For a short time knitting needles were banned from all US flights and they are still banned on planes to the US from some countries. Mexico was OK with my knitting needles, they just wanted to look at my scissors. Ecuador made me check my luggage because I had knitting needles. Yeah, no water and no knitting made me VERY grumpy flying back from Ecuador; I relied on Klonopin to take the edge off. I’m now thinking I need to learn how to crochet for flights from Latin America. ;-)

My “go to” option for keeping organized for a trip is Evernote. I keep all the details in a Notebook, and can also share it with friends. Having a print copy of stuff is good, too, as you sometimes can’t keep your devices charged up enough.

I also use your same technique for jet lag and tough it out the first day in a new location. Again, as I age I find it takes me longer and longer to get settled into a new time zone, though.

4 Morgan February 12, 2015 at 17:38

-pack comfy spa socks for the flight
-bring your own klean kanteen or similar and fill it up after security
-entertainment! I have my iPad with a few new books, iPhone, and a magazine I leave behind on the plane. Make sure everything is fully charged.
-I use Xanax on flights rather than sleeping pills.
-i swear by my blow up lumbar support pillow.
-the new Bose in ear noise canceling earphones are just as effective and take up way less space
-I’ve heard fasting for 24 hours and then getting on a regular meal schedule at your destination helps with jetlag.
-I always wear a scarf on the plane. It acts as a blanket, a pillow, an eye mask, whatever I need.
-if flying virgin wear something fancy and you might get upgraded for free

5 sak February 12, 2015 at 19:18

Forcing yourself on to the destination time schedule helps a lot with jet lag. Although I followed this advice and went sightseeing in Dublin and ended up falling asleep on a public bus (fortunately not for very long).
If you are checking luggage make sure to have at least one change of clothes in a carry on. Once you check your bag you don’t know if it will arrive the same time you do.
As much as possible pack things in the order you will use them.

6 jdroth February 13, 2015 at 06:00

Comments here and by email reminded me of an important point: Dress comfortably. I like Jess’s tip about yoga pants. Good one. I tend to layer for comfort. That means I have a light t-shirt as a base layer, then a light sweater, and then I’ve got a light jacket nearby in case I need it. I usually stay at the sweater layer, but I can add or remove layers depending on how I feel. I hate traveling with more than two pairs of shoes, but sometimes I’ll take my Birkenstocks just for the plane (although they come in handy around the hotel too). And although they’re ugly, wearing my zip-off travel pants can be great for the plane too because they have lots of pockets, which means I can have all sorts of toys — iPods, pens, Spanish dictionaries — stowed around me body.

7 Jeff Sax February 13, 2015 at 07:30

good (comfortable) headphones and my laptop/iPad are my savior on long flights. I use Normal audio custom fit headphones put on a podcast and start playing games on an emulator on my laptop.

The Legend of Zelda took about SYD-YVR and Super Mario 3 took about YVR-YYZ

8 jdroth February 13, 2015 at 08:44

Oooh. I love the game emulator idea. What software do you use?

9 Adam Hagerman February 13, 2015 at 17:56

“Photo probably by Mr. Money Mustache.”

I hope so! The only other explanation would have been you awkwardly leaning over Pete on the plane. :-)

10 Karl February 14, 2015 at 02:19

I often see this discussed among americans, but never among fellow europeans, which I think has to do with the fact that we travel long distances more often (for instance, visiting the US).

The tips that is put forward by Tim in the article is spot on. Flying a long distance is basically resting and should be treated as such: sleep, stay hydrated and move around after a couple of hours.

11 Sassy February 14, 2015 at 03:46

My age is showing as my two trips in the last month (one to Thailand, one to South America) had me checking with my doctor on compression socks and all to avoid DVT. He suggested two fish oil pills before each flight and compression socks only if I wanted to.

The eye mask, ear plugs and a shawl/scarf all came in handy. I took a pillow that could change shape and get squished — can’t deflate but having the options made it much better and in one hotel it worked better for me than the provided pillow.

And from experience may I add: be carefull about taking your shoes off on a long flight — if they are remotely snug before the flight you could be getting off in your stocking feet — my feet swell even with compression socks so adjustable sandals work best for me. And never ever go to the bathroom on a plane in your stocking feet.

I seem to ajust beautifully flying west and not at all flying east so I just try to take naps and roll with the punches.

12 Kate February 14, 2015 at 05:15

One of my long flight travel must haves are compression socks. I have had one instance where my legs/feet were so swollen after the flight that it hurt to walk. I have never had this again while wearing the compression socks. I have heard others state that it helps with jet lag but I don’t think I could vouch for that.
The socks seem to work for me and after I arrive they feel good for long days on my feet.

I have not been able to travel hack the jet lag for long flights to Asia. I had one time where it was tolerable and the key on this flight was being able to sleep for a long time on the flight over. I accomplished this with two Tylenol pm. It also helps to begin shifting sleep patterns even before traveling.

13 Diane C February 18, 2015 at 13:30

I love to fly and wholeheartedly agree that attitude is everything. Another thing I try to do on every trip is to be friendly with everyone I encounter, especially the flight attendants. Finish a good book or magazine? Offer it to them. Thank them for their assistance. If they’re not too busy, make light conversation. I ask if this is their usual route, their favorite cities, places they want to visit next, recommendations, etc. Hey, on those long flights, they can be as bored as we are. Over the years, it has paid back many dividends.

I’m no germophobe, but a couple of anti-bacterial wipes tucked into a carry-on can really come in handy.

Okay, I am a travel geek and I’m going to let my freak flag fly. I actually have a tiny laundry kit. I made a clothesline from super long shoelaces and some spring clips (the kind that are often on the end of jacket drawstrings) from REI. I bring it and some powdered Woolite packets on longer trips so I can pack fewer clothes. I also include a few stain remover wipes.

I also made a picnic kit. In a bag that’s about 4×6, which lays flat when empty, I have a small table cloth (3′ x 3′) that I fold to fit exactly into the bag. Inside that, I tuck in a small baggie of condiments including salt, pepper, tiny packets of sriracha, mustard, individual drink mix pouches for when the water really tastes weird, paper napkins, hand wipes and a few mints. I also include REI’s Polycarbonite utensils. Since they’re not metal, I’ve never had trouble with security. This bag has gone all over the world with me and has come in oh, so handy. It allows me to buy food at local markets and avoid restaurants. It only weights a few ounces and takes up very little space.

Last tip, when you only need to carry a few pills and don’t want to drag along the whole bottle, a clean contact lens case works well. You can find them readily at drug or dollar stores. Note, this is not a good tactic for important prescription meds, which you should always keep in their original bottles and carry a copy of your prescription. If your meds come in a large bottle, you can ask your pharmacy for smaller, labeled containers for travel.

Okay, I need to go surf some travel sites now…

14 Dave March 27, 2015 at 06:31

Great tips. I especially like the idea of 2 people booking the window and aisle to discourage anyone from taking the middle seat!

15 ali April 26, 2015 at 01:51

Turkey is getting better with the bus transportation within the last two years. It is now forced to leave the terminal after 5 minutes of the planned time.

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