I have been on my fair share of long haul flights. I’m not a frequent international business traveler nor do I have the luxury of jetting off whenever I want (yet!), but for an average Joe I’ve racked up about 20 flights that were roughly 8+ hours and to me, that warrants some kind of expertise on the matter.
Long-haulers are not exactly fun. You are stuck, literally stuck, in space roughly 2 feet x 3 feet in the confines of a long narrow tube no wider than your living room…for hours upon hours. If you fly first or business, this post is not for you. This post is for all of us plebs just trying to get from point A to point B as cheaply as possible.
My first long-haul flight wasn’t something easy to get my feet wet like Newark-LAX; it was Chicago-Seoul, it was 2010, and it was miserable. Below, I’ll let you in on my tips and things to expect to make this relatively unpleasant experience as pleasant as possible.
PHASE ONE: Settling In
A lot of the aircraft used for long flights are something like 3-4-3, 2-5-2, or 2-4-2 configurations. They will nearly all have two aisles so when you board the plane, the flight attendant will direct you down the correct aisle. Unlike short-haul flights, you will find a pillow, blanket and a very cute amenity kit at your seat. They include basics like eye masks and ear plugs, but depending on the airline, I’ve had toothbrush/toothpaste, pretty nice headphones, socks, lotion, floss, hairbrush or pens. The first thing you should do once you sit down and get organized is to set your watch to local destination time. If you only have your phone, it’s not going to adjust throughout the flight, so keep a mental note of the time there that way you can plan out your flight. If they are sleeping there right now, go right to sleep, if they go to sleep several hours into the flight, go to sleep around then. There’s also Jet Lag Rooster that uses science to start getting you on your new timezone even several days before your trip if you want. Trying to get yourself on local time just while on the plane helps, even if…
PHASE TWO: You won’t be sleeping
There are some of you that can drift off easily on an airplane and GOOD FOR YOU. But most people just can’t do it, myself included. Even if you are a plane sleeper, don’t expect to be conked out in blissful ZZZs for that 12 hours. There is bound to be some turbulence, movement, lighting changes and at least two meals with snack times in between to wake you up, not even counting the restlessness of your very close neighbor that will bump you occasionally, if not often.
Melatonin, Advil PM or similar will help. As mentioned above, take some of these around the time the locals are sleeping. This will help you get a little bit of shut eye, otherwise you can be awake for literal days once after arrival, depending on where you are going and local time. For example, you have an early afternoon departure and you’re flying west. Everyone on the other side of the world is asleep, but you stay awake the entire flight because technically it’s the middle of the day for you. Well, you’re going to arrive there also early afternoon (time travel, baby), the entire day spread out before you, yet it’s your “bedtime”. Because you CAN’T go to sleep when you get there or you will ruin yourself, by the time you can actually go to bed that night, you will have been up for two days. It’s not fun. It’s much better to knock yourself out with some drugs even just for a few hours on that airplane.
PHASE THREE: Entertainment excitement
In-flight entertainment has come a long way since I took my first long flight. Back in the day, you had about two new-releases, a few old selections, maybe a TV show or two if you’re lucky and some music. Now, (usually) there is so much more to choose from. On my most recent trip from Europe, they not only had about 15 new releases, but hundreds of movies in not just basic categories like “Comedy” but “90s” and “00s” also. (This was on Delta and KLM) I actually ended up watching Gone with the Wind because A. I like it and B. it’s so long that it took up half the flight. Add in nearly every popular show on TV, tons of games and music and your flight goes by pretty quickly.
Now that you can use the system the second you sit down instead of having to wait until cruising altitude, the first thing people do is usually find something to watch. The husband and I will sort through everything the second we buckle up, exclaiming each time we find something exciting. It really is fun going through it all once you sit down.
PHASE FOUR: Free booze
That’s right. Free. Booze. And not just with your meal, either. Anytime. Bing Bong! Rum and coke. Bing Bong! White wine, if you please. Bing Bong! Another rum and coke, with a lime this time. BING BONG, BING BONG, BING BONG as much as you want, or at least as much as you aren’t belligerent and/or annoying the flight attendants. If anything, this helps those sleeping pills slide on down and you’ll be there in no time!
PHASE FIVE: Now what
A few hours in, even if you are loaded with your kindle, phone, in-flight movies, music and your free Jack Daniels, you are going to start getting a little itchy. Afterall, you’ve been sitting in a very confined space for quite a while.
Tips: You can get up and walk around the cabin. Take a stroll, just be sure that the seat belt sign isn’t on; you don’t want yelled at. It’s also good for your legs to stretch once in a while (the placecards in the pocket warn you about something scary called Deep Vein Thrombosis. I dunno.)
PHASE SIX: I smell food
Look, people love to complain about airplane food, but it’s really not that bad. Truly. I’ve had some not great food on planes and yes I’ve heard horror stories and sure some airlines are known for bad food (Air Koryo burger, anyone? I mean what do you expect from North Korea?). But to discount all airplane food is this horrible disgusting thing just isn’t fair when that’s just not the case. Most, if not 98% of all the dishes I’ve had on planes have been pretty decent. On long-haulers, you typically get two meal times and some snacks in between. You’ll start to smell the food waft down the aisles then you watch the flight attendants slowly, slowly, slowly make their way to your row. You’ll have a choice of a few and then, even in economy, you get a cute and well arranged tray of things.
Tips: If you have special dietary needs, make sure you alert that on your reservation. Also, in between meal/snack times you can roam back to the galley and ask the crew for more snacks. Normally they are perfectly happy to oblige and give you more cheese/cookies/fruit/crackers whatever it is they have back there.
PHASE SEVEN: Boredom kicking in
You pull up the live map on your seatback screen and see that you are only halfway to your destination. How are there still 5 hours to go? Once you realize that not only have you already been on this plane for a very long time, you still have a very long time to go, you start to get antsy. The novelty has worn off, you’ve watched a movie and a few shows, you’ve read a few chapters. Now is the time to focus on your health a little bit and remember to stay hydrated. Airplanes have this special way of sucking out all off your moisture, so in between drinks, drink lots of water. It will help you feel better throughout the flight and once you arrive.
PHASE EIGHT: Pressure change
When you decide you just can’t take any more, the cabin pressure changes a bit and you feel the plane descend a little. REJOICE you are on your way down! At this point, you are about to lose your mind and just need off this plane immediately. What I like to do now is keep raising the window shade once in a while to peek how close are getting to the ground. The plane will start do descend about 45 minutes to landing, so you always see yourself getting closer to freedom. Start gathering your things now and attempt to get organized. Disembarking these huge planes takes forever, so you want to be prepared and ready. After being on there for so long, the last thing you want to do is have to wait even longer than necessary because you weren’t ready to get off. Your things will magically be all over the place so make sure you look everywhere including the floor, under the seats, and deep into the seat pocket abyss to double check you aren’t leaving anything behind. You will want to shout to the Heavens once those wheels touch down. Some people even clap and shout (don’t be those people).
FINAL PHASE: Do not succumb
You are going to be exhausted from the flight, lack of sleep and being on a new time zone but the best piece of advice I can give you is DO NOT GO TO SLEEP. You will want to crash the second you get to your accommodation. Don’t. If you do, you will ruin yourself and your vacation. You must persevere! One of my favorite bits of travel advice to give is to take sleeping pills. If you are weird about taking them, then by all means suffer through and try and get over jetlag naturally, but if you don’t mind popping two Advil PM around 9 that night, you will wake up refreshed the next day and on local time. There isn’t a cure-all for jet lag; after all you are fighting against your body’s natural clock. Sleeping pills simply will just majorly cut down on the time it takes to adjust properly. You may still find yourself a little sleepy earlier in the day than you normally would (like around dinnertime) but I’d rather get a little sleepy around dinner than not take pills and be tired all day and toss and turn all night for days on end. They say it takes about 1 day for every timezone you cross to adjust. Your call.
- Make sure you have a neck pillow. This is very important.
- Compression socks, I hear, do wonders. Long flights normally haven’t bothered me too much physically, but this last one did a number on the husband and I. Both of our ankles and feet were pretty swollen when we got off the plane, so I think next time we will invest in a pair each.
- Bring headphones. If they aren’t in your amenity kit, the flight attendants might give them out, but also maybe not. And they aren’t the best quality.
- This might be obvious, but wear comfortable, loose clothing. You wouldn’t believe how many times I see girls boarding in short skirts or crop tops or something. And it’s cold on there too, so wear or bring a sweater.
- Make sure you don’t forget to fully charge all your devices. Some planes have USB ports, but many still don’t. You can always check your aircraft on SeatGuru to be sure.
- Pack a travel toothbrush and toothpaste. You will want to brush those things and freshen up a bit once you get off the plane.
Do you have any other advice for long-haul flights or special things you do? Let me know in the comments!