How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

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I’ve flown to New Zealand and back – twice. I’ve flown over the Arctic to China. And I’ve traveled to Italy and Ireland once apiece.

Sydney Sunrise

Suffice it to say, I’m no stranger to long-haul flights.

I have a love-hate relationship with flying. I like the sensation of take-off and landing (take-off is my favorite), I love soaring high above the clouds, and I enjoy the fact that air travel allows you to go to sleep in the U.S. and wake up in New Zealand within hours. Assuming you can actually fall asleep on planes, of course.

Which brings me to the hate part of the relationship. I hate cramped seats and seatmates who take up all the arm rests. I hate how cold I get on planes. And I hate the fact that, no matter how much Dramamine I pop before the flight, I can never get comfortable enough to get decent shut-eye 30,000 feet up in the air.

So, for someone who usually can’t sleep much even on the longest of flights, I have had to find other ways to pass the long hours up in the air.

Here are my best tips on how to survive a long-haul flight:

Bring Plenty of Things to Distract Yourself

If you don’t plan on getting much sleep, be sure to bring some of your favorite distractions along so you don’t spend 12 hours twiddling your thumbs or staring at the guy sleeping next to you.

Things like magazines, iPods and laptops are all great tools for distraction purposes. I also make sure to have at least one good book with me to read. Sometimes, I don’t even bother with anything new, but instead bring along something I already know I love. For example, I almost always fly with a Harry Potter book, simply because I know I can easily spend hours reading about Harry and friends, even if I’ve read it seven times before.

Get to Know Your Neighbor

If you’re traveling alone, it never hurts to strike up conversation with the person sitting next to you early on. Maybe you’re both going to be staying in the same city. Maybe he or she is a local and can give you some travel tips. Maybe they’re just really cool and you end up talking for hours. You never know.

At the very least, introduce yourself. Chances are, if you both doze off later, you may wind up awkwardly cuddling without even realizing it.

Make Use of the In-Flight Entertainment

Most long-haul flights these days come equipped with some wicked in-flight entertainment systems. While you probably aren’t going to have your own seat-back TV on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles, chances are you WILL have one from Los Angeles to Auckland. Air New Zealand especially has great in-flight programming – everything from TV shows to new movies to music videos – and many other airlines also have a lot to offer. Take advantage, because usually the service is free.

Sunrise at 30,000 feet

Adapt to Your New Schedule

You may not be in the mood for dinner at midnight, but that very well may be when your crew serves it to you. Meals are often served to coincide with mealtimes in the destination you’ll be landing in. To try and get acclimated ahead of time to any sort of major time difference, attempt to force down that pasta at 11 p.m. anyway.

The sooner you can get into the swing of the time difference, the less likely you are to suffer from severe jetlag. My tip? Set your watch to the local time in your destination once you board, and follow your normal routine accordingly as much as possible.

Stick to Your Nightly Routine

If you usually brush your teeth and take your contacts out half an hour before bedtime at home, try to brush your teeth and take your contacts out half an hour before you want to try and go to sleep on your flight. You may be able to trick your body into thinking it’s bedtime, even if the hours are different.

If, however, your pre-bedtime routine involves intricate yoga poses and a round of yodeling… well, good luck with that.

Above the Rockies

Try to Find an Acceptable Sleeping Position

For me, sleeping on planes is the worst. I can never find a comfortable position, and the guy in front of me almost always leans his seat back so far that it feels like he’s essentially in my lap.

My tips? If you’re traveling with a significant other, take turns acting as pillows for each other. If you’re traveling alone and don’t feel like cozying up to your neighbor, try to score a window seat. If you can’t, invest in one of those fancy neck pillows. Even if you can’t fall asleep, at least your neck won’t be killing you when you arrive.

I’ve also found that sitting in the rows directly behind the bathrooms on a long-haul flight can actually be great. You can stretch your legs out, or even prop them up on the wall in front of you for comfort. I imagine an exit row wouldn’t be bad, either. There’s nothing worse than not having enough legroom when you’re trying to fall asleep.

My strangest in-flight sleeping position? A few times, when I was especially exhausted, using my seatback tray table as a pillow has actually worked. Granted, it takes a bit of contortion, and requires the seat in front of you to be upright. But if you can bend yourself in half comfortably enough, it may work for you, too.

Block Out the Noise

I think part of my problem sleeping on planes is that I'm a fairly light sleeper. I have a lot of trouble falling asleep when there's a lot of noise around me. And, let's face it, planes get pretty loud. Not only do you have people talking and babies crying, but those jet engines don't exactly keep it down to a low purr. Noise-canceling headphones can be a great investment if you, too, have this problem.

Dress in Layers

I’m always cold. Like, always. And it seems especially bad on planes. Possibly because it’s really cold up in the atmosphere… I always travel wearing pants, and a jacket or sweatshirt that can be easily taken off or put back on. If I'm really chilly, I'm not above asking a flight attendant for an extra blanket. I often also bring a pair of slipper socks so that my feet don’t get uncomfortable in my shoes once they start to swell up.

Move Around

Speaking of swelling appendages, you want to try to avoid this. The risk of blood clots on a long-haul flight is real, and should not be taken lightly. Being so high up does funny things to your body and blood vessels, so make sure to get up out of your seat every now and then to get your circulation going. This may not completely alleviate foot or leg swelling, but hopefully it’ll be helpful enough that you can avoid arriving in your destination with a bad case of kankles.

Most of these tips seem pretty obvious, I realize, but hopefully one or two of these hints can help you on your next long-haul flight.

Do you have any helpful suggestions for surviving long, cramped flights? How do you fall asleep, get comfortable, or distract yourself? Let me know in the comments!


  • Rebecca says:

    Being a mindful window worshipper, and hating to jump over people I don’t know (I rarely fly with people I know) to get up and walk around, I always just take advantage when my row-mates get up, I usually get up at the same time and walk around until they get back.

    I also almost always bring my down jacket, which doubles as a jacket and awesome pillow!

    I also take my shoes off when in my seat to be as loose as possible while trying to sleep.
    Rebecca recently posted..Australia – Fraser Island and Rainbow Beach

  • Tracey Shaw says:

    There is nothing like looking forward to going on a holiday destination that’s halfway round the world, but the travel is often the worst part and the jetlag or change of schedule – the tip about changing your watch to the time of your destination is an excellent one that I have been using for many years.

    I always treat myself to a new pair of socks and wear them on the day as I take my shoes off too!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I agree — the long flight (or any sort of travel that takes a long time) can often be the worst part of the entire journey. But, I suppose a little jetlag is worth it for an awesome destination!

  • Ben Gair says:

    Whenever I fly abroad I take a book that is new, the tip about bringing a well loved book is a really good idea – unsure about Harry Potter though 🙂

    A comprehensive article that I have shared on Twitter again as this is where I found it..
    Ben Gair recently posted..Buy cheap futons from Comfy Living

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Haha, I realize Harry Potter doesn’t work for everyone, but that was just my example. I usually bring a new book along, as well, but I always worry about what happens if I don’t like the new book — then what do I read?? Hence bringing along a well-loved book, too.

  • I love long haul flights. Do what everyone else does, bring books, magazine, an ipod, camera, personal video game system, take use of the in flight entertainment system (you will get to choose from a wide variety of movies, music, games, tv shows and track your flight) which should be available on your flight since you have a long-haul flight. And if you have a window seat do what I do, record the landings and take offs, and take pics of the awesome view.

  • Vanessa says:

    The first time I ever went on a flight with entertainment (when in-seat entertainment was new) I was thrilled. They had some of my favourite old Gameboy games, some good movies & tv shows… the 12 hours flew by and that was the best flight of my life.
    Vanessa recently posted..Packing modules-squares-cells – Review

  • Greg says:

    I’m a fairly tall guy and space is pretty much always sacred around me on a flight, so if like me you’re tall you can fork out a bit more cash to secure a seat with extra leg room, but if they’ve already been bought up by 5 foot tall girls who you could fit into the overhead lockers then do all that you can to get an aisle seat! You can stretch out whilst sat down and you can get up to walk around without making your row buddies get up all the time.

    Likewise with your point about bed time rituals, it can also be helpful to keep yourself awake for the duration of the flight so that when you arrive you can get a good nights sleep. Now this means that you need to keep yourself occupied a bit more, and if you’re really struggling to stay awake, a 15 minute nap can work wonders. If you opt for the 15 minute nap then an alarm clock will help, but make sure that it’s a personal alarmclock with headphones etc.

    I was lucky enough to fly with Emirates with work from the UK to HK a few weeks back, and after business class with them I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fly economy again! Personally I’d never had paid the additional £1750 myself, but it made the flight so much easier!

    • DangerousBiz says:

      All good tips, Greg! Thanks for sharing them.

      And you’re not the first person to say good things about Emirates. Sounds like a great airline!

  • Tash says:

    Definitely get up and walk around as much as you can on the flight, and be careful of crossing your legs, or cutting off circulation to your lower limbs. Take it from me, a DVT was my return gift from a trip of a lifetime!
    I also wrote about it, here on Travel With A Mate h
    A lesson learnt, and has to be shared!

    But you are right i these tips – a movie marathon is my usual strategies now, which means at the end of each movie I get up and walk a lap of the plane.
    Tash recently posted..Australia Day

  • Rob says:

    Air NZ long-haul economy seats have little fold-out head braces to keep your head straight when you doze off. They’re not obvious, but they are there. And my last SFO-AKL flight (and back) had enough movies and music to keep me amused when I wasn’t sleeping. Sound-deadening earphones, while a touch pricey, are the *best* for long (and short) haul flights. They reduce the stress levels induced by the noise and make the movie sound ever so much better.

    Bulkhead aisle seats are my favorites, or any aisle. In fact, I won’t book a flight where I can’t get an aisle seat. Drink lots of water so you’re up peeing every hour or so. Not only is it good for your legs to get up and move around, but being over-hydrated in the dry air of the plane is great. Fortunately I live at 5500 feet, so I don’t have any of the swelling that flatlanders get when I fly. Also, unlike US airlines, Air NZ isn’t paranoid about people standing up. I usually try to spend an hour or so after all the service is done standing back in/by the galley chatting with the crew. They always have interesting things to say and like to be treated like fellow humans rather than just servants to surly travelers.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Yeah, those fold-out head braces don’t help me at all; I can’t fall asleep sitting up. But it’s nice that they’re there.

      Lucky you that you’re used to higher elevation and don’t suffer from swelling. I always get some killer kankles after being in the air for so long.

      • Rob says:

        I thought I was in heaven when I discovered those braces. Fell asleep almost instantly. Of course it was a 3am flight from Tahiti to AKL. I usually sleep for crap when I’m at home, but when I’m traveling (including on the plane) I fall asleep almost instantly. I guess it takes years of practice. That plus the fact that I never get enough sleep the night before a flight (I can’t count the number of times I’ve wondered why I thought an early-morning flight would be a good thing!).

        Melatonin also helps a lot of people sleep on planes. YMMV, though. It just give me a headache.

        Elevation is certainly a weird thing. When I first moved to the Denver area I had all the classic elevation stuff happen (headaches, swelling, etc..) but after a month of hiking and hauling my behind around above 10,000 feet that summer on an Outward Bound course, the air here at 5500 felt thick and I’ve never had any altitude symptoms since – even on planes.

        One other recommendation for long-haul travel. Bring light snacks of your own (gorp, etc..) and order something like an asian vegetarian meal (in advance, of course). The special vegetarian meals are easier on your system than the standard fare, and usually tastier. I ordered special meals even when I was a meat eater. A few handfuls of gorp before the meal will keep you from eating the less appetizing stuff they put on the tray out of boredom (or hunger) as well. Much as I like coffee, I avoid it the day before and during the dinner meal on the flight to minimize its diuretic effects. I will do coffee after breakfast, as close to landing as possible, to liven me up for the customs & immigration gauntlet, though.

  • My personal plan for overnight flights is to try to get a window seat and I take a sleep aid (doctor consulted and prescribed) to help me get to sleep. I use my blow-up travel pillow over my window shoulder instead of around my neck (avoids crick in the neck from being pushed forward). I also bring a pashmina type scarf that I can use the cover the edge of the airline blanket (and act as a second layer) so that I can tuck it up around my face/neck. If the person behind me has their seat tilted back, I’ll recline mine as well. Final step is an eye mask and I’m ready to go. With that set-up I was able to get 8 full hours of sleep on a Tokyo-Toronto flight recently. I was still jealous of the people in business/first class with the lie-flat seats though.

    On flights longer than 2 hours you should also consider compression socks. They’ll help keep your feet and ankles from swelling up, prevent clots and improve circulation which I’m told in turn helps with jet lag.
    Melissa @ Suitcase and Heels recently posted..Reflections on Cloud Gate

  • Chris Shaul says:

    I fly to Asia once or twice a year. On tip that I learned was to bring a mobile power pack. Not all planes have a power plug under the seat. Having spare power for your tablet or phone is very worth the money. I’ve written about this and some other tips on my blog:

  • As a New Zealander, I am well used to long-haul flights to get to the other side of the world. My top fave travel tips for long plane journeys are: Noise cancelling headphones (getting cheaper every day, good pairs are now under $100), flight socks (compression socks), eye mask, inflatable neck pillow, dress in layers that are easily removed for changes in temperatures (NZ Icebreaker clothing is fabulous); hydrate your face regularly with a small spray bottle filled with water and a few drops of lavender oil. Lavender is very soothing. I also drink lots of water but I also have a glass of wine with dinner (It makes me sleepy). I nearly always pick night flights because I find it easy to sleep on a plane (in 1-2 hour bursts) – in fact I sometimes fight to stay awake once I’ve taken my seat. I always have a aisle seat so I can get up and stretch my legs when I am awake. I do tai chi at the back of the plane and also chat to the cabin crew. Once I arrive at my destination, I try to stay awake until night time. I do a full workout of tai chi (can be done anywhere, but outside in sunny park is great) for energy and well-being.
    Eventful Woman recently posted..What do you dream of?

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