Survivor: Long-Haul Flight Edition


The world is supposed to be getting smaller, and yet, it seems like flights are getting longer.

Actually, they ARE getting longer; it’s not just relativity making your flight feel interminable. Why? First, airplanes fly slower than they used to, partly due to air traffic and partly because flying slower uses less fuel. What used to be a two-hour flight may now take three or more hours.

Second, advances in engineering have vastly extended the range of airplanes. It’s now possible for a plane to circumnavigate half the globe without stopping to refuel. For instance, United just launched the longest flight in or out of the United States: from Los Angeles to Singapore, in just under 18 hours.

Think about that: 18 hours on a United airplane.

How does one survive such an indignity?

If any flight over two hours makes you shudder with dread, take heart: there are ways to make the experience more palatable. Here are my top 6 tips for surviving long flights and living to tell the tale:

1. Plan Ahead. Choose both your flights and your seats carefully. Long journeys often involve multiple flights, and at a certain point, your desire to just get there already will be outweighed by your need to get out of the airport and sleep fully horizontal for a few hours. In other words, consider a layover along the way. Immediately after your longest flight – that 18-hour beast, for example – is generally the best time to call a Time Out. As for your seats, consider the circumstances of your flight: If I’m going to be sleeping, I’ll opt for the window seat. If I’m traveling solo, I’ll go for the aisle, so I can get up whenever I want without having to prod the stranger next to me. Seats over the wings feel less turbulence. Seats near the bathroom are…undesirable. Refer to seatguru.com to help you make your selection. If your only option is a middle seat, see tip #5.

2. Move. Movement is critical to prevent both blood clots and airplane-induced insanity. And consider this: if you were sitting in a moving car for 18 hours, you wouldn’t be able to get up and walk around. Take advantage of your relative freedom on an airplane and get up to walk the aisles whenever you can. Go ahead and do weird stretching moves in the galleys. Reach your arms up to the ceiling and roll your neck around from your seat. Just try not to smack anyone with your flailing limbs or pull a muscle with over-exuberant stretches.

3. Hydrate. The air inside airplanes is so horribly dry, it will suck all the moisture out of your body like a jar of pickling salts. And being dehydrated makes jet lag so much worse. So drink, drink, drink. And, I’m sorry to say, alcohol doesn’t count. In fact, alcohol makes dehydration worse. Carbonated beverages aren’t any good either (for a different reason: gas expands at high altitudes and, well, you know). Skip the free wine and soda and stick to water. I bring onboard a large bottle of my own water whenever I can (curses upon the airports that don’t allow this) and grab a cup every time the flight attendant passes by with water. Yes, this means you’ll have to make more trips to the bathroom, but you’ll be up walking around anyway!

4. Gear Up. If you read ten articles about “what to bring on an airplane,” you’ll get ten different answers. For example, I find an eye mask to be helpful and a neck pillow to be useless. It’s highly personal. But in general, I say: Bring layers to stay warm, wear compression socks (unless you want cankles), and have on hand a supply of books/movies/whatevers to keep you entertained. Try not to overdo it, though: you have to carry all that gear with you the rest of your trip.

5. Keep it Positive. Think about how remarkable air travel is: you can get anywhere in the world in 24 hours. Flight has opened up the world for our personal exploration as nothing else has. You no longer have to endure a multi-month voyage and scurvy to experience the other side of the globe. Keep the big picture in mind – gratitude that you have the means and opportunity to travel, excitement for the adventure ahead of you – and you’ll find it much easier to maintain your good humor. In the grand scheme of things, a day of discomfort on an airplane is inconsequential.

6. Be Kind. Courteousness goes a long way on an airplane. Be considerate of the flight attendants and your fellow cabin mates. Being rude is only going to make things worse for you, and achieving your own comfort by sacrificing the wellbeing of others creates bad airplane karma (and it will bite you back). Remember, we’re all in this together.

Bon voyage!


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