How To Survive A Long-Haul Flight With Finesse

How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight with Finesse

I think it's safe to say that few people enjoy long-haul flights. But here's how to safely survive a couple of days trapped in an aluminium canister with your sanity intact.

Photos by Edward Simpson, Tomas Sobek, George Ruiz, Alberto Vaccaro and Angelo DeSantis

This post originally appeared on Map Happy

Some flights pass by in the blink of an eye; some drag on forever. The good news is that some flights are better than others and there are things that will help mitigate the journey along the way. Don't also underestimate the power of dread; long-haul flights are intimidating if you travel infrequently, but it's not near as bad as you think it is after the hundredth time.

I've definitely flown my fair share, including some rough routes. The worst flight I've ever endured involved a 12-hour flight from Hong Kong to Istanbul, followed by another 13-hour flight from Istanbul to Los Angeles. Instead of traditionally flying over the Pacific, I basically flew in the other direction. The layover was eight hours long. (It was cheap and it was for the holidays, what can I say?)

It should be noted that this advice mostly applies to people who are flying international long-haul flights in economy class. If you're in business class, you might want to take your glass of wine and hang out on a different part of this site.


How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight with Finesse

Like on any flight, a good seat is paramount. On a transcontinental or transoceanic flight, though, trust me, you want an aisle seat. No matter how much you hate it, there is no way anyone can avoid the aeroplane bathroom over a 12-hour period.

If you're sitting in an aeroplane that has a three-row configuration -- where there is a section of seats on the left side of the plane, followed by a middle section, and section on the right side -- you should opt for one of the aisle seats in the middle section in particular. Though it may not seem obvious, this seat has several advantages.

Most importantly, it gives you easy access to the aisle and bathroom while also giving the people sitting in the middle seats two options to get to the aisle. This should automatically reduce your chances of getting climbed over (or having to politely exit your seat so others can get out) by 50 per cent or somewhat significantly. The aisle seats toward the left and right section of the plane don't have this advantage.


How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight with Finesse

It's actually quite important to keep the blood flowing while you're sitting down for ages. Though it's not happened to me personally, AllThingsD's Kara Swisher suffered a transient ischemic attack, or a "mini stroke," on a plane en route to Hong Kong a couple of years ago when blood temporarily stopped flowing to her brain.

For those concerned, many carriers are pretty good at demonstrating in-flight exercises in their safety videos. (CNN also has an instructional airline yoga article, who knew?) I always use bathroom breaks as a periodic opportunity to stretch my legs and either hang out in the back of the galley, at least for a few minutes, or walk down the aisle once or twice.


How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight with Finesse

In the days leading up to the flight, I would 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 aluminised tube of claustrophobia. 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. (I have a particularly strong sense of smell and the olfactory cues kick in my hunger pangs. Even watching The Food Network is sometimes a form of masochism.) Airlines actually tend to serve more correct portions -- think Asian and European sizes -- so I just generally take whatever the flight attendant puts in front of me. However, if that's not going to be enough, pack something that's easy to snack on.

During the meal service is when the aisle seat particularly comes into 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 pretty big-arse 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 loo.

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 longing 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 your 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.


How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight with Finesse

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 generally discourage drinking on the plane. When you combine this with the pressurised cabin of an aeroplane, its effects can be amplified. I also can personally tell you this as someone who once fainted in the middle of an aisle during a 9-hour flight from Singapore to Australia.

In terms of tangible objects, investing in a cheap eye mask and earplugs work magic, and I do mean *magic* in terms of improving the quality of your sleep and regulating your circadian rhythm by limiting light. Travel pillows do considerably less in comparison; pillows are one of those things where you're better off using the complimentary one onboard. Not only are most airline pillows sufficient, you'll also have one less thing to carry on the plane with you.

Getting to actual sleep is a far trickier business. Some people swear by complete sleep deprivation; I prefer to do things a little bit less drastically, especially if you have to work in the days preceding the trip. That said, shortening your normal sleep by a few hours does help. (Last-minute packing does wonders!) It's not necessary, however, to feel like you need to get on the time zone of your destination immediately. This will either occur eventually or not at all.

In frequent traveller circles, some people like to cite melatonin as one of the more natural remedies for visiting the Sandman. The truth is, though, this is really dependent on how your body reacts to it like any other drug. While I've had poor results, I know others who swear by it. I would prefer melatonin if it actually worked for me, but the alternative is using more traditional over-the-counter sleeping aids.

Unfortunately, there is a small segment of the population that just won't be able to sleep on a plane, no matter what they do. This does happen to me from time to time, and I can tell you that it's anything but fun. Torture is staring at the plane's current route on the in-flight entertainment system in pure silence.

Jet Lag

How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight with Finesse

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 -- travellers that 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 will 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 jet lag.

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 travelling 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.

In a nutshell…

The thing about most of these tips is that what may work for another person may be completely different, but like anything, it's only over time and with lots of practice does someone get used to flying long distance. Still, many of the strategies I mentioned can cut down significantly on the stress of flying. The important thing to remember is that, thankfully, the flight does eventually end.

How To Survive a Long-Haul Flight With Finesse [Map Happy]

Erica Ho is the founder and editor of Map Happy. When she's not writing about travel, well, she's just planning her next trip.


    Aisle seat on a long haul flight? I'd rather die.
    Having people crawl all over you, constantly disturbing you so they can have a walk up and down the aisles. No thanks!

    Window seat, every single time. Preferably on the port side. The windows are great for sleeping against, although I usually bring a hoodie as the pillows aren't enough.

      Thank god for people that think like you, more aisle seats for me to pick from. I'm always happy to let people out (i rarely sleep on the MEL-LAX flights, even when i get 3 or 4 seats to myself i don't sleep more than 2 hours) but I hate to wake/get people up every hour so i can stretch / pee / get chips and drinks from self service. Of course i have to get up regularly because i have a bad back and i get a numb bum when i sit down on a hard seat for too long.

      Horses for courses I suppose. As a 6 foot, 100kg, frequent toileter, it's all about the convenience and extra space of an aisle seat for me.

        6' 6" myself. Easily get a good 6-8 hours of sleep.
        I rarely get up on MEL->LAX and sleep really well but only if I get a window seat.

        Get a handful of drinks during the first refreshment service to last the waking hours of the flight, no real need to get up. Hardly have to pee, dehydrating enough on a plane.

        Last edited 01/04/14 10:27 am

    Travel pillows are essential to long haul travel, they stop you getting a crick in the neck when you sleep...

    The best tip I have for flying long haul is to book a 24 hour stopover towards the end of the trip. I'm off to the UK over Christmas and have 24 hours in Qatar on the way there and 24 hours in Singapore on the way back. The time difference between Qatar and the UK isn't huge, and ditto for Singapore-Australia. It helps avoid jetlag and also gives a nice break for journey as well.

    Maybe consider these if you are tall. Completely legal.

      Legal sure, the FAA and equivalent haven't outlawed them, but there are stories of people being found out and told not to use them, If anyone tried to stop me from reclining there would be hell to pay, I'm not sitting upright for 15hours.

        Yes, the attendant can tell you not to use them. But if I'm paying for a space on a plane, I'm going to do my best to keep that space for myself.

        After the 'hell to pay' your trip will not be very comfortable with handcuffs etc on.

          The person in front of you paid for the space to recline into.
          You also paid for a ticket for a seat which will be reclined into, so you're really stealing space from the other person. Generally just being a greedy twat.

          Handcuffs are a lot more comfortable than a broken nose at 38,000 feet.

            We'll see. Holidaying in the US for a month so the test will be on!
            I think you may need to see an anger management person, you seem to be very aggressive over little things.

            The last row of seats do not recline and are not cheaper, so it appears you do not pay to recline.

            Last edited 01/04/14 11:07 am

              Who said it has to be cheaper?
              If you want to recline, don't pick the last row and if nothing else is available then take another flight. Otherwise you get what you paid for.

              I don't need anger management. People just need to be considerate of others and just ask the person in front of them to please avoid reclining. You are not entitled to the space in front of you, the seats are designed to do it. If it really was your space, they wouldn't recline in the first place.

            Technically you paid for the space in front of you, not behind you.

          i can see hell to pay was a little loaded, what i was meaning was "ill tell on you, and the flight attendant will take them off you and throw them in the bin, and if you make a fuss they can move you to the seat by the toilet"

        wrong reply

        Last edited 01/04/14 12:56 pm

        I kick the back of the seat of any jerk who tries to recline their seat (unless they're willing to discuss it with me first). Being stuck in a tin can in economy seats at high altitude for x hours is bad enough. Having some prick in front of you use up the little space you have is worse. Bring on your lame "hell" and prepare for it to be jammed back up into you.

          The airplane is designed and fitted with reclining seats. Don't like it? Fly in an airplane without reclining seats.

          Kicking peoples seats? Sounds like you're the jerk.

          Do you go to McDonalds and complain that you didnt get a nine course meal when you ordered your Big Mac? Fly business or first place if you dont like flying economy.

            If we're all stuck in a tiny space, and you insist on taking up even more of my tiny space, that makes you the jerk. Flying long-haul can be unpleasant, and when you consider it your right to make my journey even more unpleasant, I rightly object to that. And yes, I'll kick your seat. Don't like not reclining? Fly business or not at all. Don't like me kicking your seat? Don't recline it. Secondly, whilst I already know that McDonald's don't serve nine course meals, that doesn't mean that I enjoy sitting on a seat there that some previous jerk spat on. Sounds like you'd be the jerk who spits on a seat and then challenges everyone else not to buy McDonald's if they don't like it.

              You're missing the point. The seats are SPECIFICALLY designed to recline.
              Seats at McDonalds aren't designed to be spat on.

              Your analogy is flawed.

              You're the jerk for making someones flight less comfortable just because they are using the equipment in a manner it was designed to be used.

              To use your analogy, you're spitting in peoples food because they bought a cheeseburger and you dont like cheeseburgers.

                No, the point is about how we treat each other in a confined space. THAT is the point - reclining airplane seats is merely the context. Just because a given object can do something does not mean that it should, nor that it will not impact another person. Reclining an airplane seat means that I lose about half the space I have paid for, not to mention making it difficult to use the in-headrest entertainment (if there is one). Further to this, I have previously stated that if the person wishes to talk to me about it, I am more likely to accommodate them than if they just recline their seat immediately. If the criteria that you claim makes me a jerk ("making someones flight less comfortable"), then the person reclining their seat is a jerk too.

                If my analogy is flawed, then so are both of yours.

        I can understand reclining on long haul flights (but not in mealtime), and I'm happy for people to do it. I know this isn't what the article is about, but for a 2-3hr day-time domestic service, i'd consider using one of these, it's just not needed and usually the people who recline on these have no regard for other passengers (in my experience).

          Meal time you're not allowed to recline your seats and flight attendants will always tell you to put it into the upright position.

          I've seen people tell them to get stuffed when asked to do it, and well... Lets just say they regretted not following the flight attendants instruction.

    I disagree about the connection at the end if you can avoid it (depending on stopover and travel times etc).

    I go MEL-LAX-SFO(or SJC) and if i have too long in the LAX-SFO/SJC leg, i find it hard to stay awake at the gate and I'm too tired to do anything (not that there is much you can do), and i have missed my connection at times because the LAX customs has been atrocious sometimes with them trying out stupid line configurations, took me over 3 hours to get through customs one time, and at least a dozen of us missed our connections.

    But then perhaps my issue wouldn't be so bad if i got some sleep on the international flight, and my 2nd leg is only a 1 hour flight (i spend more time in the customs queue at LAX than in the 2nd plane).

      Fly on Qantas or Virgin Australia, they are one of the earliest international flights to land in LAX.
      Most times, can get through immigration and customs in under 20 minutes.

      New Zealand and United arrive in the late morning, and the lines are hellish by that stage.

      Also if you're running late for a connecting flight, and have the boarding pass. Go to the very left, where the global entry, crew and express lanes are. They'll get you through in about 10 minutes. Alternatively, get global entry.

      Last edited 01/04/14 10:40 am

        Sweet, I'm flying virgin!

          Its better outside of daylight savings as you arrive between 6 and 7 am.
          Daylight savings kicked in about three weeks ago so you're arriving between 7 and 8am which isn't as good but still better than arriving at 10 or 11am with United and Air NZ.

        I used to always fly qantas, then switched virgin as i like their 777 more than the A380.

        And ill never fly Qantas again after they expired my 93,000 points on me because they say burying the expiry warning in an email 1 month before expiry is sufficient (and my wife was 8 months pregnant at the time so my email checking was very limited).

        Anyway back on point, ive arrived at 6 to 8am ish at LAX for most of my 20 trips and have pretty much always had a busy customs experience.

          That and they don't care if their customers are left stranded at the gate for a couple of days...

          Fill out the customs card and leg it to customs. Run over women and children if you have to.

        Immigration and customs at LAX in under 20 mins? I call bs. I have been through LAX maybe a dozen times, arriving at various times ranging from 5 am to 11.30 pm. I have never had less than a 90 minute queue.

          Its possible, especially with the global entry

    As usual, the photo of the neck pillow shows it being worn the wrong way around. To get the best sleep possible you want your head as far back as it will go so you don't want the huge lump of the neck pillow behind your head pushing it forward. The neck pillow is designed to stop your head lolling to the side or flopping forward so you should wear it with opening to the rear.

    The problem with wearing the neck pillow this way is that they tend to pop off so you should sew an elastic strap across the rear opening - very carefully, so you don't puncture the air cell.

    This probably only applies to shorties like me. Longies whose necks clear the top of the head restraint should probably wear it with the lump to the rear.

    I find that neck pillows are almost unnecessary these days as most modern aircraft have fold out wings on the head restraints that hold your head in place.

    I must be doing something right because I can sleep 8 hours straight on planes.

    Three words - noise cancelling headphones.

      Four words; Proper noise cancelling headphones
      the amount of money I'd spent on sub $150 NCH could have easily bought me the decent pair I have now.

    I must be doing something wrong, none of the planes I have been on have ever had a bath, just the tiny little toilets. Have I been looking in the wrong place? Or are they reserved for 1st class passengers and not us cattle?

      ahahaha... what are you on about?

      Last edited 01/04/14 3:54 pm

      Its just the Septics. It's ok to bomb cities, shoot anything that moves, talk loudly all over the world, expect us all to gratefully accept US dollars (ha ha - try that in Wagga), avoid taxes, issue arrest warrants in sovereign states, expect us to have an intimate knowledge of US geography, allow them to take over entire trains with their luggage for a three day visit. You see, the little darlings are actually mortified by the idea that other people might know they are going to the toilet or the lavatory. Want to embarrass them more? Stand outside the toilet when they are inside and make really loud farting sounds. The best strategy is to just ignore them. Remember, there are almost 7 billion people who are NOT Americans.

    Xanax is your friend - take off, snooze for 12 hours then wake up when the plane lands. What boring flight?

    Clothing. Wear natural fibre fabrics, and avoid synthetics or mixed fabrics - because synthetics start to smell very quickly. Not pleasant for you and your neighbours.

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