As far as I can tell, a long-haul flight is one of many steps to exploring a part of the world that is different from your own. How exciting! This means you’ll be on an airplane for a while. So, based on decades of traveling longer distances, I’ve compiled a list of topics, tips, and solutions to consider before your next whirlwind long-haul adventure.
Choose your seat carefully
Before you choose, think hard about your usual preference of exit vs. aisle seat; it may be different on a long-haul flight than on a shorter flight. If you usually choose an aisle seat, consider whether you want your long-fought-for sleep to be interrupted by a seatmate; similarly, if you usually choose a window, you could get trapped in there by a snoring person in a prescription drug-induced stupor.
Carry On Electronics
Obviously, you are bringing your cell phone. But be sure to purchase and bring a splitter cable or adapter. This allows you to charge and have wired headphones plugged in at the same time. This means you also need to bring a pair of wired headphones. Also, bring two charging cables. I also have one of those phone holders that attaches to the back of the seat in front of you for easy cell phone viewing. Remember, you may be the person who gets a seat without a working entertainment system. And remember some low-cost carriers do not offer any entertainment or WiFi.
Charge your devices. Because the absolute last thing you need is for your iPad to run out of juice halfway through the season finale of Better Call Saul, one hour into an eleven-hour flight. Especially if your in-flight entertainment system isn't working.
Download as many podcasts as you can. Listening to podcasts uses up less battery life than watching a movie, and is often more distracting than music. You can get through an entire flight on podcasts alone.
Ask About Seats at the GateFailing the ability to choose great seats before your flight, try again at the gate. If the flight is not full, the gate agent may be able to see an empty row or put you and a traveling partner in a “window and aisle” configuration that reduces the likelihood of having someone sit in the middle seat, thereby getting you a seat and a half, at least.
Secure Your Stuff
A long-haul flight gives unscrupulous travelers plenty of time to size up the location of your wallet, wait until you fall asleep and make a move on your luggage. Secure your valuables deep inside your bags where it would take a TSA X-ray machine to find them. Consider keeping items like your passport, credit cards and cash in a money belt under your clothes.
Don't pack too much in your cabin luggage
While a few little extras definitely help, keep things travel-sized and to a minimum. There's nothing more stressful than lugging a great big suitcase around the boarding area and trying unsuccessfully to stuff it into the overhead lockers, while everyone else gives you the side eye. Ideally, your cabin bag should only have your smaller essentials like water bottle, snacks, ear plugs and music player within easy reach under the seat in front of you.
Find comfortable clothes to wear on long flights. This should be a given - just think of an outfit that you'll be happy to wear after ten hours of sitting on a plane. Remember, sitting still and being blasted by a powerful air-conditioned system can get chilly, so wearing several loose layers is ideal to adjust your temperature as you fly. Save your jewelry and tight watch bands for the holiday and pack them in your checked bag. In case of emergencies, closed-toed shoes are better than flip flops and make sure you don't wear any footwear that's too snug, as your feet do swell at high altitudes. Of course, if you're saving space in your luggage by wearing your biggest, clunkiest boots, you can always take them off and put on a pair of cozy slipper socks instead.
Take your own snacks
You'll get fed on a long-haul flight but it may not be when or even what you're expecting - traveling through time zones often means you end up with breakfast at dinner time and noodles or curry first thing in the 'morning'. To stave off any bouts of hunger while you're waiting for the rattle of the food cart, stow a few slow-energy release snacks like cereal bars, nuts, or dried fruit in your carry-on luggage.
Eating in general the days leading up to the flight, stick to fairly light and healthy meals. There’s nothing worse than sitting with a Mexican burrito like a stone in your stomach when you’re trapped in an aluminized tube. When you combine this with large periods of no movement, you’re going to feel pretty gross.
Though some people suggest skipping the meal service to combat jet lag, this depends on your own personal discipline. Airlines actually tend to serve more correct portions — think Asian and European sizes — so you could probably take whatever the flight attendant puts in front of you.
During the meal service is when the aisle seat particularly comes in handy. Once the food is served and half of the plane begins to digest their food, you can be sure that the bathroom is going to be pretty popular soon. Don’t forget the fact you’re most likely on a huge plane, which means there are lots of people on board. If you wait too long to do your business, you run the risk of being uncomfortable in your seat while everyone uses the restroom.
Time your trips to the restroom
In fact, there is an opportune time to go. There should be a fairly short window when the flight attendants have served the food and are no longer blocking the path to the bathroom just right before the meal trays are collected. Now, for some reason, people like to wait until the trays are collected before getting up from their seat. This is actually your golden opportunity, should you choose to take it.
Though it’s annoying to hold up your tray table and set it back down to get to the aisle, it’s going to be a lot more annoying waiting for six people to finish using the bathroom. Going to the bathroom during this in-between time ensures you won’t have to wait later, and even better, it means that you still have a relatively clean bathroom before everyone else has used it. This is especially true if this just happens to occur after the first meal service.
Prepare yourself for sleep
You'll be on the plane for the equivalent of a whole day or night, so it's worth bringing a few long-haul flight essentials. Start with a lightweight blanket and invest in a good travel pillow to make sleeping less of a neckache. In terms of tangible objects, investing in a cheap eye mask and earplugs work magic, in terms of improving the quality of your sleep and regulating your circadian rhythm by limiting light.
Finally, slip in some basic toiletries, such as a hand luggage-sized toothbrush and toothpaste, and you'll feel that bit fresher when you land. As a matter of fact, I bring my own travel-size amenity kit on long-haul flights. They can be found for purchase on my Etsy site.
Especially because international flights usually serve free booze, people often resort to alcohol to help them sleep. Unfortunately, not only is alcohol a depressant, it’s also a dehydrating agent, so I actually discourage drinking on the plane. When you combine this with the pressurized cabin of an airplane, its effects can be amplified.
Everything starts from the minute you book the flight. If it’s inevitable that you’re going to have a flight with a connection, try booking the connection at the end. Nothing is more draining than beginning a 12-hour flight after you’ve spent three or five hours flying across the country just to get to the hardest portion of it. This may or may not be possible depending on where you live. Travelers who live in major hub cities often have the most choices.
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to reverse the connection so it happens at the end, this puts the hardest part, the long-haul portion, upfront. Not only will you have more energy to deal with the most taxing part of the flight, but by the time you make the connection, you’ll be exhausted. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s actually not: by the time you reach the connection, you’ll end up sleeping through most if not the entire second leg. Most of the time, I end up passing the time in a wonderful, pure state of black unconsciousness.
The main thing I look at, besides connection points and costs, when booking flights more than anything else is the arrival time. One of the most important factors in beating jet lag has to do with remembering that it’s a lot easier to go to bed later than to wake up earlier. Keeping this in mind, flights that have a late afternoon or nighttime arrival are preferred. If you arrive earlier, all it means is that you’ll have to stay up a whole lot longer. (The key is to keep moving when you arrive until you have to go to bed; once you start resting, it’s game over.)
To get a good idea of when I should be sleeping on the plane, I usually immediately change the time settings to my destination on my phone once the aircraft is en route. Though it’s pretty tempting to pass the whole flight in a complete state of unconsciousness, sleeping the entire time can mess up your internal clock just as much.
The cabin crew is pretty good at giving visual cues during a flight; for instance, they’ll dim the cabin lights when it’s a good time to rest or turn them completely on and be in-your-face during specific intervals. The point is to not be deterred if you can’t sync your body exactly, but to sleep proportionately when you need to. Even if the best you can do is to flip-flop the waking and sleeping portions of the flight, it will still help overcome serious jetlag.
If you’re on a long-haul flight, the chances are pretty high that we’re looking at a minimum time zone shift of six to twelve hours (unless you’re traveling north-to-south or south-to-north). If I sleep for half or up to three-quarters of the flight to anticipate an approximately 12-hour time zone change, I consider that a job well done. I find 6-hour time zone changes—give or take a few hours—are the hardest to acclimate to. If you’re flying east to Europe from the U.S. East Coast, you’ll run into these.
Move around the plane
Stretching your legs is not only necessary for your own sanity on a long-haul flight, but to avoid the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Keep the circulation flowing in your legs by doing exercises at your seat, and get up every two hours. There may not be anywhere in particular to walk apart from up and down the aisles but moving about the plane once in a while is much more conducive to getting some healthy rest than popping a sleeping pill.
Aircraft cabins are often very dry places and the chances of becoming dehydrated are high. Drink plenty of water slowly and regularly and avoid too much tea, coffee, and alcohol. Bring a bottle of water on board if you can (it may need to be purchased at the airport and stay sealed until you're on the plane because of liquid restrictions). Even having an empty plastic bottle in your hand luggage means you can store any water the cabin crew brings around so that you always have some to hand in between trolley trips. You may find your skin's affected too - bring a small tube of moisturizer and take some eye drops if you're prone to dry eyes.
What better time is there to abandon your cares and just do nothing than a flight? No mobile phone coverage, crew waiting on your every need, someone else is at the wheel... Use the time to catch up on that book you haven't had the chance to get stuck into, watch a few rom-coms, or get excited about your destination by leafing through the guidebook. See those hours as bonus time, and your long flight will immediately become a positive thing rather than a drag.
Have a fantastic flight and I'll see you in line at security!