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10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

airplane plane woman air travel flight window wingHearing about a recent IndependentTraveler.com staff discussion concerning the world's longest flights made me remember my first true long-haul flight to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Olympics. About six hours into the 15-hour flight, I was feeling strong and confident. I clearly remember thinking, "Six hours down, nine to go. No sweat, I got this."

Four long, boring hours later, it was a different story; you could have poured me into a bucket. "Five hours to go? I don't got this."

But get there I did. Unfortunately, that meant I had to get back, as well, a flight on which I made a serious tactical error, which led to misery for me and entertainment for my friends on the flight -- about which I will tell more in due course.

However, not all long-haul flights have to be miserable; on one direct flight from Tokyo to New York, I was nearing the end of a book I was enjoying immensely, and remember distinctly thinking, "No, no, just a little more time!" when the pilot told us over the in-flight PA that we had started our final descent. Here are 10 tips for preventing boredom, dehydration, deep-vein thrombosis, sleep deprivation and more so you can confidently say "I got this" the next time you are imprisoned in a metal tube for an entire waking day of your life.

1. Upgrade.
When traveling long-haul, you have no better friend on the planet than your frequent flier miles. On the Tokyo - Newark flight I was disappointed to see come to an end, I enlisted the help of my travel agent to find flights on which I could burn up all of my Continental miles to upgrade my entire trip. It meant catching puddle jumpers to my final destination in Japan (Gifu), but a couple of short extra flights were a small price to pay for 27 hours of first-class legroom, fully reclining chairs, edible meals, entertainment and breathing space.

If you stop reading at this point in the article, you almost need to know nothing more than this -- by hook or crook, try to get an upgrade. (Even Dr. Timothy Hosea, from whom you will hear below, offered this as his first and most important suggestion.)

First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade

2. Escape.
You will want to have a rock-solid plan for frittering away several hours of your flight, and I don't mean working; staring at spreadsheets and writing proposals may burn up hours, but it does not make them vanish. You want these hours to disappear almost without a trace. Think headphones and Hollywood blockbusters. Getting a lot of work done is fine -- rarely do you have 15 consecutive hours without a phone or e-mail, so I encourage bringing some work -- but work will fail you when you get to the brutal middle hours of this ordeal. Headphones and Hollywood; don't stray from this.

Spring for the airline's headphones, pay for and watch every movie, swipe your card for the DIRECTV, bring your iPad crammed with your favorite flicks -- whatever it takes.

Nine Must-Dos Before a Long-Haul Flight

3. Don't carry on too much stuff.
While checked baggage fees are inspiring travelers to carry on more and more stuff, on a long-haul flight this could burn you; anything that is under the seat in front of you just means less legroom and a more cramped living space for 15 or 16 hours. Don't bring so much on that you compete for your own sleeping space.

4. Bring your go-to gear.
neck pillow earplugs eyemask travel airplaneWhen it comes to surviving flights, I am not a gear guy. I can't be bothered to lug around neck pillows, eye masks, earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, etc. --except on a long-haul flight. As I note above, your total carry-on haul should be limited, but you may want to consider some of these relatively small survival tools. Your body and brain will thank you for every small comfort you can provide, and the inconvenience of packing and carrying these around is dwarfed by the misery of 15 hours in flight with crying children, pilot announcements, engine noise and a major crick in your neck. Gear up.

5. Board relatively rested.
Don't count on a long-haul flight as a good place to catch up on sleep -- it's not. As attractive and intuitive as it seems to get on a long-haul flight extremely tired, hoping to sleep the whole way, you are in for a world of hurt if you can't sleep for any reason. You will be on the plane long enough to catch a few winks even if you are somewhat rested, and my advice is to take it when it comes; if your eyes start to droop, get out the eye covers and earplugs, and go with it. If you throw away a solid two-hour nap on a few extra rounds of Angry Birds, you might well be angry at yourself later.

6. Secure your stuff.
A long-haul flight gives unscrupulous travelers all the more 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.

Seven Ways to Keep Your Stuff Safe When You Fly

7. Consider a sleep aid.
If you are planning to use sleep aids (including "natural" methods such as melatonin, or drugs such as Ambien), try them before you fly with them. A few years ago a friend gave me an Ambien pill for a red-eye flight from Honolulu to New York City, and the drug acted more like a stimulant than a sleep aid. I was awake the entire flight, and felt wretched to boot. These types of drugs can vary greatly in how they affect individuals, so you will want to try them at home before you rely on them on the plane.

Dr. Timothy Hosea, team physician and Chair of the Sports Medicine and Research Committee for the United States national rowing teams, sometimes prescribes sleep aids for his athletes, but notes, "If you feel you need a sleep aid but haven't used those drugs before, you should probably try taking Tylenol PM or Benadryl. A prescription is fine with your doctor's approval, but don't experiment on a long flight; [the plane won't] stop for you!"

Dr. Hosea also says that, as the team doctor, he does not take any medication while flying with the squad in case someone needs care. "I bring a book, watch the movies and try to let the flight pass," he says. His approach is appropriate for other travelers who need to have their wits about them, such as folks flying with children, for example. If someone could potentially need you to be 100 percent during the flight, you should forgo any sleep medication.

More Tips for Sleeping on Planes

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