13 Tips on how to survive and prepare for a long haul flight

November 01, 2016

In the years before deregulation of the airlines in the U.S., air travel was a comfortable, middle-class privilege. Flying could be quite glamorous, and, before 1978, it was an experience affordable to only a few.

Today, air travel is not what it once was, especially in economy class. In modern times, although most travelers can now afford tickets, most airlines have designed seats that assume everyone must be the size of an average 9-year-old child (and, in some cases, a frail, underfed 9-year-old). Long-haul flights can be especially brutal in today’s airplanes if you’re not prepared for the trip.

Below are 13 tips to take the edge off of long hauls, from ways to amuse yourself, to sleep tricks for avoiding jet lag, to ideas on what to pack, among other things.

1. Read. Buy a magazine or two—a few meaty ones that will take time to slog through. If you have trouble concentrating, bring a few lighter magazines, which tend to require less concentration than heady magazines and books. Bring/keep on your Kindle a few of the classics that you’ve always wanted to read but never had the time. You should have more than one in case you try reading one and get bored. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment to have read a good portion, if not the entirety, of a classic.

2. Write. If you’re the type, and not everyone is, catch up on any writing you might need to do for work, or write a letter to a friend for pleasure. Write a to-do list for yourself. If you’re able to concentrate while squeezed into an unnaturally compact space, you might be able to let your mind wander and lose all sense of time when you enter the writing mode. The time will fly as fast as the aircraft. You’ll be relieved and feel accomplished to have gotten a chunk of work done, too.


Get a chunk of work done

3. Sleep or meditate. Maybe you can’t calm yourself enough to effectively sleep or meditate with two strangers spilling over onto your seat. But if you can actually sleep in a vertical position, why not take the opportunity to vegetate during this long haul?

If you do sleep and are crossing time zones, keep jet lag in mind. What time will you arrive at your destination? If you’ll get there when it’s still daytime, you might want to take a short nap and then try to tough it out; otherwise, your sleep schedule will be thrown off, and you’ll feel like a disoriented, nauseous, and unwell shift worker at quitting time. If you’ll arrive at nighttime, you could take more of a marathon nap. Once you arrive at your destination, you can go right to bed and continue your slumber.

4. Binge-watch your favorite shows and movies. Take in two movies, and you’ll kill about four hours. Not bad for your eight or ten-hour haul. Plus, if flying gives you anxiety, distracting yourself can be the perfect antidote.

5. Bring your own food and a bottle filled with your favorite beverage. Food is fuel, and you’ll need it to keep your blood sugar even and to preserve your energy. Maybe you have gluten sensitivities, food allergies, or diabetes. Maybe you’re dieting and only eating healthy food these days. Whatever the case, bringing your own snacks will increase the chances you’ll feel well. Eating airline food is always a bit of a gamble. And bringing your own bottle of filtered water or other beverage will give you peace of mind and give you the hydration you need with the dry air on the plane. You’ll also save money by bringing your own food and drink.

6. Imbibe if you must; just don’t get smashed. Alcohol in moderation will soothe your travel jitters. Just don’t overdo it and get dehydrated. It’s dry enough at 30,000 feet. Remember to hydrate with lots of water if you do drink alcohol.


Alcohol in moderation will soothe your travel jitters

7. Get a good seat.  SeatGuru is a great resource for accurate data on the size, location, and anything else you could want to know about your airline seat. You can find out exactly where you’ll be sitting, not to mention get the whole layout of the plane.

Once you see the location of your seat, you might decide to upgrade to first class if you use miles or points. If you don’t use miles or points, this is a good time to become a frequent flyer; you’ll rack up a lot of miles from the long haul you’re doing now. Get a window seat (ideally in a bunk head or an exit row) to slump against something while you sleep. Try an aisle seat if you plan to get up and walk around a lot.

8. Bring items for comfort. Especially if you plan to sleep or meditate or whatever, you’ll want to block out your surroundings as much as you can and create privacy for yourself. Bring noise-canceling headphones (airline engines make quite a racket, from a low rumble to a sustained screech). Wear a sleep mask. Bring a blanket and an inflatable neck pillow. Pack moist wipes for your hands and body wipes to take a waterless shower.

9. Prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Developing blood clots in the legs is always a risk to keep in mind when you’ll be sitting for a long transoceanic flight; we’ve written about this before.

If you know you have a tendency to get fat, bloated legs when you sit for a while, wear compression socks. Even if you don’t have a history of leg swelling and associated problems, it’s not a bad idea to wear these support stockings.

10. Get up and walk/stretch every hour or so. Walking, stretching, and doing a bit of light cardio will help improve circulation to your legs and can help prevent DVT, not to mention reduce the chances of neck aches and backaches. Get the blood flowing out of your lower extremities.

Walking up and down aisles is probably better than hopping up and down like a toddler (if the plane is empty, though, why not?). Windmill your arms if you can find a spot where you’re not swinging your arms in somebody’s face. An aisle seat will be an advantage here since you won’t feel trapped, and you can get up and move around whenever you want.

11. Stay hydrated. The air at 30,000 feet is bone dry, so be sure to drink lots of water. Gatorade is ideal because it replenishes electrolytes. A benefit of drinking lots of liquids is that you’ll be visiting the restroom frequently—a good excuse to get up, walk and stretch.


Stay hydrated

12. Research what sleep/anxiety aids might be best for you. Some people are chronic insomniacs for whom a nightly sleeping pill is a must. Many insomniacs, not to mention people with different levels of chronic anxiety, use a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which can be highly effective in aiding relaxation and sleep (use the smallest effective dose since this class of drug can be habit-forming). If you think you might need benzodiazepines to help you sleep on the plane or to help reduce/eliminate anxiety when you fly, you’ll need a prescription from a doctor.

Other travelers might benefit from a simple dose of Bonine or Dramamine, both intended to treat motion sickness but which tend to have a tranquilizing effect.

Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the body’s pineal gland; this happens when it gets dark outside, around 9 p.m., the time when you may begin to crave sleep. Melatonin can be bought over the counter as nature’s way to induce sleep. Beware: the effective window of melatonin is about a half hour. If you don’t fall asleep during that window, melatonin may not help.

Find out well ahead of your trip how these sleep aids affect you. Don’t wait until you’re on the plane to experience a nasty side effect. Also, don’t mix alcohol with sleep aids, which can get you dangerously snowed—and worse.

13. Travel light. Try to avoid checking luggage, if possible, and have a fraction of the worries.

In the 1980 classic Airplane, a character describes the film’s ill-fated aircraft as a “big pretty white plane with red stripes, curtains in the windows, and wheels,” and said, “It looks like a big Tylenol.” You’ll be cooped up in that big white Tylenol capsule for a long haul, and there’s only so much you can do. However, a neck pillow, good food, entertainment, a walk, and a sleep aid, among our other tips, will get you off to a good start.

Written by Katie Anton