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The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Long Flights

The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Long Flights

Last Thursday I flew back to South Africa from Michigan on yet another 35-hour journey. And even though I was experiencing 12-15 hour flights before the age of 10 (God bless my mother), I still find long flights to be so uncomfortable, there is no getting around it. But there are some tricks I have picked up over the years to make long flights a bit more bearable.

Here are 20 tips for making your next long flight a little bit more comfortable from take off to touch down.

  1. Be in the right seat

    Picking your seats as far in advance as the airline allows is the first step in ensuring comfort on a long flight. I’m a personal fan of an aisle seat close to the front. It allows me to get up as much as I want without climbing over someone and the passengers in the front are often the first ones off. Check out SeatGuru to see if there if something is specifically reported to be wrong/inconvenient with the seat you are considering.

  2. Don’t eat heavy before

    Flying for 10+ hours is not like running a race. There is no need to load up on carbs beforehand. Try and eat something light and fresh for the last meal before your flight. Heavy foods will only make you feel more lethargic and uncomfortable while you are trapped in a sitting position. And you definitely want to avoid dealing with any digestive issues in the air.

  3. Pick your meals ahead of time

    Many airlines are not very equipped for dealing with unique dietary needs in the moment. However, if you notify them ahead of time (typically 4+ days before your flight) they are happy to accommodate. Most airlines have an option to request a “Special Meal” online with your ticket information. I always get “Asian Vegetarian.”

  4. Dress in layers

    When travellers give tips for surviving long flights, they often recommend bringing a travel blanket. I personally think it’s not worth the space it would take up in your bag. We are all about packing light remember! Instead, just dress in layers. I always wear a tank-top or t-shirt under a sweatshirt/hoodie under a zip-up jacket. The jacket or the hoodie can be folded a pillow or used as a blanket. And, on long international flights, you will always be provided with a blanket or pillow.

  5. Look good, be comfortable

    Experienced travellers will always tell you that being comfortable is so important on long flights. What some may forget to tell you, however, is that feeling good about your appearance is key to being comfortable. Pick out an outfit before you flight that’s comfortable but also makes you feel good. This is the time to whip out your favorite Athleisure brands (mine are Athleta and Alo Yoga).

  6. Have back up entertainment

    Today, when flying internationally, you can pretty much expect a personal entertainment screen with a selection of movies, tv shows, music, and games for you to enjoy during your flight. On very rare occasions you can end up in a seat with a dysfunctional entertainment system. Although it hasn’t happened to me, I know it does happen. So I always come prepared just in case. The more likely situation you will face is a selection of movies and tv shows that do not interest you (this happened to me on my recent flight from Zurich to Cape Town). This problem is easily avoidable by downloading some movies and plenty of podcasts before your flight.  

  7. Charge everything beforehand

    Just like your seat’s entertainment system can fail, so can its power outlet (if it has one). An easy way to avoid the stress of a low battery is to charge up your devices before the flight, re-charge them at your layovers at a charging station, and bring a portable charger.

  8. Stay hydrated

    If I could only gave you one tip, this might be it. Planes are so dry and it is so easy to get dehydrated on a long flight. And when you are dehydrated you are guaranteed to be more uncomfortable on your flight. Drink a lot of water the day before your flight and then always take water from the flight attendants when it’s offered. And for those of you that always get soda or juice or whatever special drink while you are flying, still get it. But get a glass of water as well.

  9. Don’t sit for too long

    It’s important for you health and your comfort to periodically get up. Aim to stand up every 3 hours whether it’s to go to the bathroom, get something from an overhead bin, or just stretch a little bit. It will not only make a big difference during the flight, but afterwards.

  10. Refresh yourself mid-flight

    At some point during your flight when you are feeling extra drained or bored, head to the bathroom to do a little refresh. Brush your teeth, touch up your make-up, put in some eye drops, spritz some perfume and feel 10x better just like that.

  11. Structure your Time

    Whether it’s an 8 hour flight or an 18 hour flight, I have gotten into the habit of structuring my time on-board. Even if you are not a planner like me, I think breaking the long block of time into segments like you would a day of the week can help with sanity and passing the time.

    Here’s how I structure my time as an example:

    • Taxi/Takeoff: Get settled. Listen to music or play a game on my phone. Look through the movie/tv options and pick out what I want to watch.

    • Meal Service One: After the seatbelt sign is turned off there will be significantly fewer announcements over the intercom, which means it’s time to start my first movie. Watch the movie through the first meal service.

    • Lights Off: Once the first meal service is wrapped up, the cabin lights will turn off. It’s time to either watch a second movie or try and get some rest (depending on how tired I am/how long the flight is).

    • Meal Service Two: 90 minutes before landing is the second meal service. I typically do my “Refresh” an hour before this when I’m feeling my worst. Then I pick a second/third movie to watch to ride out the remainder of the flight.

    • Landing: Either finishing the movie or listening to music.

  12. Moisturize

    As I said before, airplanes are DRY! So it’s important to moisturize consistently throughout the flight. Bring lip balm for you lips, lotion for your hands, and eye-drops for your eyes.

  13. Bring headphones

    If you have them, bring your own headphones. Sometimes the ones provided in-flight are low-quality or just plain uncomfortable. I always feel better using my own.

  14. Bring a snack

    For the long stretch between meal services or even for a long layover, having a personal snack can taste so good, especially in comparison to the airplane food. I usually bring an apple baggie or a granola bar.

  15. Pack an extra pair of socks and underwear

    This small addition to your carry-on is so so worth it. I love having an extra pair of socks to double up on the ones I’m already wearing. It keeps me warm and adds an extra layer between my feet and the gross airplane floor. The extra underwear is for you to be able to change at some point during your travel when you feel like you really need a shower. The change is small but makes a big difference in how you feel.

  16. Cancel the noise

    Whether you have noise-cancelling headphones or bring cheap-foam earplugs, having some way to block out noise can be a lifesaver on a long flight. You can’t control whether there is a crying baby. You can control if you have a way to block it out.

  17. Take it easy on the alcohol

    Sometimes these long flights make you feel like you need a drink to make it through. I know that feeling. But consider carefully before drinking because it will dehydrate you fast.

  18. Sanitize thoroughly

    A mini hand-sanitizer always makes me feel better on long flights. I’m not a full-on germaphobe, but I am the kind of person that will avoid touching public door handles and refuse to eat with my hands if I’ve just touched a public surface. On a plane, every surface is public. Your tray table, arm rests, TV screen + remote, call button, etc have hall been touched by people who still haven’t learned that coughing/sneezing into your hands is not appropriate. The only thing that helps me - constant use of hand sanitizer.

  19. Charm the crew

    Being nice to the crew can you a long way. Say “please” and “thank you” and smile when they greet you. If you need something from them later, they are much more likely to try their best to help you if you haven’t been rude to them.

  20. Don’t let it get to you

    While all of the above tips can help ease some of the discomfort of a long flight, there is no getting around the fact that it will be uncomfortable some of the time. But you have to remember, the only thing standing between you and landing at your destination is time. You can’t control if you are seated near a crying baby or if your seat doesn’t recline or if some passengers in your section have really bad B.O. You can control if you let it get to you. Close your eyes, do your best to tune it out with the things you have done or brought to prepare, and let the time pass.

In order to follow all of the above tips, be sure to add the following items to your carry-on:

  • Bonus pair of socks

  • Bonus pair of underwear

  • Earbuds

  • Eye Drops (*Especially if you wear contacts on flights)

  • Lip Balm

  • Mini Hand Lotion

  • Mini Hand Sanitizer

  • Noise-Cancelling Headphones OR Earplugs

  • Sample-Size Perfume

  • Small Snack

Want more tips for international travel? Check out these posts:

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