Spending nearly a full day in a tiny space, next to people you’ve never met before, is no one’s idea of a good time. Surviving long-haul flights isn’t easy, especially for those of us who can’t catch any ZZZ’s while in the air. Upon hearing how long my flight was to Southeast Asia, Singapore specifically, the general reaction is a visible shudder.
Sixteen hours, or two work days back-to-back, was only the first leg to China. Another four hours later, we were in Singapore and near delirious. You really start to question your sanity about ten hours in, wondering why you subject yourself to sticking yourself in a tin car that hurls itself through the air. The next two weeks would also include four more flights to different countries before getting back onto another long-haul flight to return home.
They say that the journey is oftentimes better than the actual destination.
Yet when it comes to flying internationally, I have to disagree this one. You’re fed at weird hours, if at all. The plane is always freezing, no matter what. Everyone’s windows are closed, so you have no sense of time, nor direction. And it’s likely the most time you’ll spend next to a stranger in such a small space without potentially ever saying a word to them. You get to know their sleeping patterns, the drinks they like, and just how gross they can be.
*Cue internal screaming when you see the person next to you curling their un-clipped toenails around your bag strap that you keep trying to push further under the seat in front of you.
Plus, after watching your fourth movie in a row, eating through all of your airplane snacks, and constantly getting bumped by people attempting to stretch their legs, you begin to wonder if you should have ordered that overpriced whiskey & coke after all.
I’ve made it all sound very enticing, no?
Despite all that, it can be severely limiting to only search for places within a short plane ride away. You miss out on what most of the world has to offer. Though the destination is long, some of the most rewarding, enriching, and beautiful places can be found on the other side of the world. Seeing lands so unlike your own makes it all worth it. How would I have experienced walking amongst the Supertree Grove in Singapore, sixteen stories up for $5? Or learned just how hard (4am, traffic-stopping crowds hard) the Faroe Islands, an island with as many people as my hometown, parties on the weekend?
At the very least, I would have never met the people I have, laughed as many full belly laughs with good company, or witnessed some of the most beautiful, quiet moments at sunrise. This world is so vast and we are so small in it, there is a lot to be learned about the cultures we may have never previously known about. I count down to the moments I first arrive in JFK airport, ready to take on another adventure.
After a few dozen sleepless flights, most spanning several hours, I’ve compiled a bit of a cheat sheet for those looking to jump into exploring further lands and surviving long-haul flights. I oftentimes get restless on planes, and my legs cramp up, so I’ve made sure to include everything from what to wear onto the plane, to what over-the-counter medications to have on hand. If you feel like I’m missing anything, feel free to add it below in the comments section for other readers. And, if you have ANY tips for sleeping in an airplane seat for light sleepers, I need all the help I can get.
Prep your body beforehand.
Try to get yourself to the gym, or doing a bit more walking the day before to prepare for having to sit in the same position for several hours. Avoid drinking a ton of alcohol the night before (no fun, I know) as you’ll already be dehydrated on the plane. Don’t rely on staying up all night either in order to sleep on the plane if you’ve never tried before, this has backfired many a time for me.
I have yet to find the “trick” to get myself to sleep (you read that right, I didn’t sleep on either twenty hour leg of my journey to and from Singapore..) and sometimes, your sleep-deprived self is put next to the crying baby.
Book an aisle seat and get up often.
To prevent being “that person” that keeps asking you to get up, or at least feeling bad about doing so, just book the aisle seat. Try to get up and walk around the plane as often as you can. I aim for every 1-2 hours, which is part of the reason I try to avoid booking a window seat. A lot of airlines now charge you for your seat selection, even in economy, so I usually don’t do this unless the flight is over six hours long.
Traveling as a couple/family? Being one of the shortest people in my family, as well as having a boyfriend that’s 6’4″ means I usually get stuck with the middle seat if we want to sit together. Instead, book aisle seats across from one another, or in a cluster of four aisle seats for families. This way you all can talk or pass snacks around without risking discomfort.
Scope seating out on Seat Guru
I learned the hard way that some plane seats do not recline if you’re up against the bathroom/galley area. Places like Barbados actually de-plane from the back, versus the front meaning the back exits first. Looking all of this up beforehand will ensure a comfortable and smooth experience.
If you can, consider breaking a long flight up into sections. When booking your flight, see where some of the layovers are for the longer/cheaper flights on the list. Now, compare how much it’ll be flying straight to your destination versus first flying one-way to that layover city. If It makes sense and you have the time, you can now spend a day or so in this layover city, and fly to the place of your choosing. This way, it won’t be one chunk of a flight all at once.
I did this while booking my flight to Germany by flying direct to Dublin, spending a few days, then flying to Germany. Although small, this broke an eight-hour flight into more manageable times in the air. Plus, I actually saved $100 I was able to spend on hostels and sightseeing in Ireland.
Wear the perfect long-haul flight outfit.
Hint: It wont be pretty, but an uncomfortable bra digging into your skin eight hours in on a twelve-hour flight sucks.
It’s no secret; planes are almost always freezing. Skip the cute, too-tight jeans and wear all of your warm, loose-fitting clothes. To save space in my backpack/suitcase, I usually wear a few layers on the plane. This way, you can adjust to the temperature of the plane at your leisure. I also wear my clunkier boots/sneakers and take them off when seated, but this is more space-saving than anything. Consider packing a thin pair of slippers for the plane as well, I see plenty of people doing this and envy them every time.
Example Outfit: From NYC to Rome
Duration: 8h 10min | Time of Year: April. | Weather: Rainy. Somewhat chilly.
-Bralette with no wires
–Breathable black t-shirt
-Black zip-up hoodie
-Long grey cardigan to use as a blanket or pillow
-Black leggings with pockets
-Black pajamas/joggers on top*.
*Gauge airplane temperature,
then head to bathroom to take off leggings
underneath for ultimate comfort.
(Depending on timing, I usually try to change into my compression socks
while waiting at the main gate so I’m not bumping the person sitting next to me.)
-Heaviest sneakers or boots
Stretch your legs out, do some calf raises, or spend time hanging out in the bathroom (2-3 minutes max) if there’s a lull in the line. I’ll usually head to the back area for a few minutes of stretching once the after-meal-bathroom-rush is done.
You’ll find me doing a ton of hamstring stretches, neck rolls, and what looks like a figure four/chair squat for my sciatic nerve pain. To be the least obtrusive, I’ll back my butt up to the wall by the bathroom because no one wants an uninvited booty in their face.
If you can’t get an aisle seat and are worried about disturbing the people next to you, look up some leg exercises you can do between binge-watching shows while seated.
Take advantage of the little pillows.
Learning how to sit properly on planes will save you and your back, especially if you’re prone to lower back aches. To sit correctly, push your tailbone all the way to the back of the seat, and put the weird little plane pillow behind your lower back. A hoodie or blanket works just as well. This is my number one move for surviving long-haul flights as I begin to get restless when my back and legs start to hurt.
Buy the biggest bottle of water in the airport.
You get dehydrated as hell on flights and definitely should be chugging water. I usually try to get one massive bottle (you know, the ones the size of your arm they sell for way too much money) per six hours I’ll be in the air and take advantage of any time the stewardesses come around with drinks for even more water.
If you aren’t a huge fan of just plain water, bring some of those flavor packets to add in. Drinking a ton of water is so very essential for beating jet-lag, not coming off the plane with crusty lips, and just staying healthy. Or, bring an empty bottle and fill it if you have time at the airport after security. You can also ask the stewardesses for refills on the plane.
Sure, you’ll have to get up to pee constantly, but I did just mention that’s extremely helpful, riiiiiiight?
Have entertainment back-ups.
Sometimes, certain long-haul planes don’t have TV’s. Or worse, they only have all the movies you’ve already seen a million times. Yet, if you have my luck, your TV will be the only one on the entire plane that doesn’t work.
Make sure all of your electronics are charged, don’t forget your headphones at home, and pack a book or something in case your phone didn’t finish downloading all those podcasts you planned on listening to. Airplane wi-fi can also sometimes be down, spotty, or expensive to buy, so make sure to get everything prepped for working offline if necessary.
Prepare your under-the-seat bag beforehand.
There is nothing more irritating than the dude holding up the entire damn line trying to board as he lazily grabs his Ipad, cables, headphones, and jacket from the bag he just stuffed into the overhead bin. Don’t be that person, have all of that ready in your under the seat bag so you don’t have to slam your forehead onto the tray table when you realize your Kindle is crammed in your suitcase.
Create a Feel-Good kit for long-haul flying.
I just started making these recently and fill it with any vitamins or medications (Aspirin, Benadryl, Imodium, etc) I may need on the flight. This also includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, face/makeup wipes, hand lotion, feminine wipes, change of undies, hair ties, and chapstick.
Your face and body will feel filthy after you get off the plane, so make your discomfort a little less by having these things on standby for the plane or airport bathroom when you start to feel real yucky.
As a naturally anxious person, I typically add a few more things to my feel-good kit. I include Passionflower tablets for reducing my anxiety as well as preventing an oncoming panic attack. It takes about 10-15 minutes to kick in, but the feeling of impending doom fades into the horizon.
There are several different, natural supplements that are suited for preventing anxiety while flying as well as in everyday life, so do your research beforehand. Little things, such as lavender lotion or essential oil to dab on your skin will help calm as well. You can also bring your own packets of camomile tea, or whatever calms your nerves to plop in your hot water when the beverage cart comes around.
Some additional items worth mentioning for surviving long-haul flights:
Here are some items I usually take with me that I felt were worth mentioning separately for staying healthy and safe on any long plane ride.
Wear compression socks.
These fun ones are the ones I brought with me. Compression socks typically come in a few different levels of well, compression, or how hard they squeeze your legs. I went with the 15-20 mmHg level of compression which seemed to be the standard. Listen, I have some pretty fat calves and admittedly no ankles, but I didn’t have a problem wearing these the entire time. Compression socks or stockings are meant to promote circulation and minimize swelling to prevent the pooling of blood in your legs when you’re sitting for too long.
Things like DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) occur more often than people realize on long-haul flights. DVT is where blood clots being to form in your legs, which can become fatal if they detach and travel up towards your lungs. I’ve had a few scares on long haul flights where my legs became very warm and painfully swollen. It’s an excruciating dull ache that you can’t seem to shake for hours on end and I couldn’t stop shivering in my seat. My legs easily became bruised with finger marks as I tried to massage my calves to get any sort of relief.
Just trust me on this one. Find a pattern you like, spend the money, and thank me later.
Consider taking Aspirin.
I take aspirin before and during (depending on how long the flight is and the recommended dosage on the bottle) a long flight to hopefully prevent any sort of blood clots from forming. I always manage to catch some sort of cold from the plane, so I typically will bring a few Alka Seltzer Cold tablets (which contains aspirin) along to do double-duty. Obviously don’t take it if you can’t, but I’ve noticed less leg pain when doing so.
It may look odd for all of 30 seconds, but airplanes are filthy. Chances are, the person that was last in your seat was sick and wiping their snot, or coughing all over your tray. You may look like that person that is frantically wiping down their seat, but that’s okay. Bring a pack and make sure to get your:
- Tray table and part of seat the tray table folds into. No sense in cleaning something just to mush it back up into a dirty area.
- Seat belt metal and straps.
- Armrests and headrest. If someone’s already commandeered the armrest, ask if you can wipe it down and offer one to them as well. It’s only polite.
- Tv screen. this one usually does get wiped down, but people sneeze without covering, so a one-over wouldn’t hurt.
- Airplane seat pockets. People put their used tissues, wrappers, and all sorts of nasties down there.
Pack nutritious, filling, but non-smelly snacks.
I certainly got the semi-nutritious, filling part right as I ripped open a bag of beef jerky two hours into our flight to Singapore, only to have all the heads around me whip around with The Look on their faces. Even my travel partner took out her headphones to ask what I could have possibly just opened that was so strong the smell carried across the aisle. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur to me how one of my favorite snacks for traveling wouldn’t be the best in a small, enclosed space.
Granola bars, fruit leather, nuts (not everyone will agree with this one due to allergies, but I’m just going to put it here) or anything else you may find that’s filling are good. Candy is also great, but you know that feeling after a movie when all you’ve consumed for three hours straight is greasy popcorn, a massive soda, and four different types of candy? No? I can’t be the only one..
Ultimately, long haul flights are long, stuffy, and leave you feeling gross. Your face will feel like you have a layer of scum on it and your butt starts to ache. But by preparing beforehand, staying hydrated, and getting up frequently, you’ll walk off that flight ready to take on your next destination.
Do you have any tips for surviving long-haul flights? Let me know in the comments, especially tips for sleeping, because lord-knows I haven’t figured that one out yet.