How to Survive Long Haul Flights

How to survive a long haul flight

Long Haul Flights

Long haul flights. 10+ hours sitting in a tin can that’s hurling its way across the sky. Just reading that can make some people shudder and think twice about booking that trip. The longest non-stop flight, between Dallas and Sydney, currently tops out at 17 hours. Yikes! Unless you’ve got the money to sit in the pods of envy (aka Business Class) or you get upgraded (hurray!), you’re sitting in Economy with the rest of us plebs. No matter which way you cut it, long haul flights suck. But they are a reality when travelling to certain destinations.

To date, I’ve been on 9 long haul flights (12+ hrs) and most recently tackled my longest flight yet, 15.5 hrs between Toronto and Hong Kong. Sadly, they don’t seem to get any easier but I’ve developed a pretty good routine to make them manageable (there’s more to consider than which movies you’re going to watch). Below are my tips on how to survive long haul flights.

What to Wear on Long Haul Flights

Before even setting foot on the plane, think about what you’re going to wear. To survive that long in an aircraft, you’ll want to wear something that is comfortable and made of material that will breathe. The last thing you want is to get 3 hours into a flight and your pants are already chaffing or causing you swamp butt (yes that’s a thing, think about it). Forget about making a fashion statement. Unless you’re Beyoncé, no one will be taking your photo when you get off the plane. Planes are also notorious for being on the cooler side, so make sure to dress in layers so you can add/remove clothing to suit your body temperature.

Window or Aisle Seat?

Ah yes, the old ‘are you a window or aisle seat’ debate. Definitely give this one some thought. Most long haul flights have 3-3-3 or 3-4-3 seating combinations in Economy. If you tend to go to the bathroom often, consider getting an aisle seat so you can avoid having to crawl over your neighbour(s) or waking them up. I’m generally a ‘window’ gal but I actually prefer the aisle seat for long haul flights. I can get up and stretch whenever I want and if I have a connecting flight to catch, I can get off the plane a little quicker.

Set Up Your Seat Area

Now that you’re on the plane, it’s time to get your 1.5 x 1.5 square foot space you’ll call home for the next 10+ hours organized. As soon as I get to my seat, I like to place all the items I’m going to need the most in the seat pocket in front of me. This usually includes earplugs, eye mask, ear buds, water bottle, Kleenex, lip balm, and gum. I then leave the rest in my carry-on bag under the seat in front of me for easy access.

How to survive a long haul flight

Distractions, Distractions, Distractions

The trick to surviving long haul flights is distracting yourself from the fact that you’re 35,000 feet in the air, breathing in recycled air, for an ungodly length of time. The more varied the distractions, the faster the time will go by. My go-to distraction of choice is always watching movies. It’s incredible the amount of bad movies I can watch on planes. In-seat entertainment systems have become quite advanced and most airlines offer TV shows, audio playlists, and even games on top of the usual movie choices. Other great distractions include books, newspapers, crosswords, iPods or the like, and whatever the latest Candy Crush-like game-craze is. Lately, I’ve found long haul flights are the perfect time to get work done. I’m stuck in this seat so I might as well be productive while I’m at it. Yes, as you may have guessed, I wrote this article on that recent 15.5 hour flight from Toronto to Hong Kong somewhere over the Arctic.

Sleep that Flight Away

Nothing passes the time faster than sleeping that flight away. Is it comfortable? Not in the least. But I’ve learned a few tricks that have worked for me over the years. Recline the seat as far back as it’ll go (which isn’t much), put the pillow behind your lower back for support, place the blanket over your legs, squeeze the flaps on your headrest together to prop your head against, pop in those earplugs and slide down that eye mask. I also hug an inflatable neck brace to give my arms some support and use a bunched up shawl for extra neck support. I personally don’t find neck pillows comfortable around my neck. You may choose to medically help your ability to sleep but that’s entirely up to you. I’m always impressed with people who can fall asleep before take off and stay out for the majority of the flight. Flying goals.

Get Up and Stretch

It’s really, really important to make sure you’re getting up to stretch and move around throughout the flight. This helps with blood circulation and makes sitting for that length of time a bit more manageable. Whenever I go to the washroom (which tends to be often) I usually to do a lap of the cabin. I’ll also take about 5-10 minutes to hang out at the back of the plane. I can look out the window or chat for a few minutes with the flight attendants.

Stay Hydrated

Aircrafts are extremely dry, so drink plenty of water on the plane. Sure the alcohol might be free but things will go a lot smoother if you’re hydrated (it also helps you get over jet lag quicker too). Pack an empty water bottle in your carry on and fill it up at the gate before boarding your plane. Throughout the flight, don’t be afraid to ask a flight attendant to refill your bottle. I’ve also seen people bring travel coffee mugs and their own tea bags and get hot water from one of the attendants – a great idea for my next long-haul flight.

Have you been on long haul flights? What strategies and tactics do you use to survive them? Leave them in the comments section below!

6 thoughts on “How to Survive Long Haul Flights

  1. Oh man, long haul flights – my husband and I take them to and from HK at least 1x/year. You’re pretty on the money with your strategies. I just have a few to add:

    On some planes (777s and 787s), there are 2 awesome rows near the back of the plane where it tapers off leaving room for 2 and a half seats where there are normally 3 in a row. Which means the window seat in this row has extra room between the seat and window to store your things and leaving you extra leg room.

    Pack snacks, instant noodles and a water bottle so that you’re not at the mercy of the beverage and food cart. There is normally a water dispenser in the boarding area where you can fill your water bottle. Pack a face towel, some face soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a little notebook. Also pack a little hand cream – The Body Shop gives small free samples of their hand creams – perfect for carry-on size requirements. Planes are very dry.

    Speaking of boarding area – try to scope out a good location – end of the row, an extra seat if necessary, near windows and with electrical outlets. You do not need to wait in the boarding area for your flight, just in the vicinity.

    Wine or gravol + muscle relaxants works wonders – it helps you sleep, and keeps you loose and limber (as does stretching). Taking the meds as soon as you get on the plane also allows you to sleep off the effects before you arrive at your destination.

    I always pack a sarong in my carry-on – it functions as a non static-y blanket, (plane blankets suck, only use plane blankets for back support) cover up, and on the trip – a quick hat, cover up for churches or conservative buildings, beach towel, picnic towel, impromptu bag, clothing, etc…

    Use the bathroom in the boarding area before you get on the plane.

    You do not need to wait in the giant line when your rows are called. Wait until the majority of the line is gone, then you can leisurely make your way to the plane. Most of the people well be on the plane and seated. If you’re storing your things under the seat in front of you, there’s no need to fight with the overhead compartment.

    As soon as you get on the plane, set your watch to the current time of the location you are traveling to, and immediately start functioning as if you’re on the new schedule. This helps reduce jet lag. If this means you sleep through a meal – well that’s why you packed snacks. Also, you can always ask for hot water from the galley at any time.

    Order a special diet meal – you get served first, then you can visit the bathroom while there is no line (and everyone else is receiving their meal).

    When you get off the plane you’ll be feeling pretty junky. Take your time exiting the plane. Customs and immigration isn’t going anywhere! And there will be a massive line regardless of when you get off the plane. There’s always a bathroom in the arrivals area before customs. Use the bathroom and brush your teeth and wash your face. Using paper from your notebook, you can fold your self a little cup. Feeling refreshed, you’re in a much better mood to deal with customs and immigration. Also by the time you get in line, the majority of people will have already been through and you only need to wait a short while. Of course, only do this at your final destination.

    If you need to catch a connecting flight, let the flight attendants know when you get to the gate so that they can hold the plane in case there are any delays.

    1. WOW! Fantastic recommendations Nina! You’re right about packing snacks. I didn’t do that on this most recent flight to Hong Kong and I was starving by the time meals were being served. I love your tip about the back rows with only 2 seats. I noticed this too but didn’t realize they have a bit more room. And switching your watch to your destination’s time is key. Then you’ll already start operating and thinking in your new time zone. You’re a pro on long haul flights!!

  2. I find getting to know your “seat mate” or “single serving friend” beside you helps pass the time. On a flight to Tokyo I sat next to a guy who was ex-US military, had worked as a mercenary in South America and was on his way to Thailand where he kept a girlfriend housed and fed so she would always be there for him. It was one of the most bizarre conversations I’ve ever had. I also pack a couple good books with the goal to finish them in the flight!

    1. That’s a great tip Jason, especially if you’re flying solo! I’ve done this a few times when I used to fly between Toronto and South Korea. I met a number of American military personnel and it was very interesting getting to know that side of things.

  3. If you don’t like waiting for food and aren’t too fussed about it being meat or not, just order vegetarian (usually on the airline’s website, beforehand). Always get served first & grants you a couple of doubtful looks from other passengers.

    As for my long-haul flight routine… Nothing too interesting: sit down, watch bad movies non-stop, eat, maybe sleep a little, get up & go. :p

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