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.
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.
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.
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.
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!