Top 10 Tips for Surviving a Long-Haul Flight

I haven't been on an ultra-long flight since I was about 15 ... and let's just say that was MORE than 20 years ago. Obviously, flying has changed significantly in that time (I mean, back in those days, you could take water on a plane!) and as challenging as long-haul flights were back then, I have to say, things haven't exactly gotten LESS AWFUL over the past 20 years.

As I've mentioned once or maybe a million times lately, I'm heading to Myanmar and Cambodia in early October, and since it has been (ahem) a little while since I've flown more than 5 or 6 hours at a stretch, I've been brushing up on some ideas for staying sane on a long flight and arriving as a functioning human.

My first piece of advice is to upgrade as much as you possibly can. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be a little tricky (because airlines are the worst). If you can afford those lie-flat seats in the first-class cabin, go for it, and you can probably ignore the rest of this blog post. Despite my dislike for long-distance flying, though, I personally couldn't justify the extra five grand for this particular trip. I was, however, able to upgrade to Delta's Premium Select cabin. It'll give me a bit more legroom and hopefully an overall more pleasant experience than Standard Economy, with the added bonus of flying first class on my domestic legs.

Keep in mind as you book your flight that all airlines are different, offer a confusing number of cabin/ticket options, and sometimes you might have to work a little magic to get what you want. For example, the Premium Select cabin was an option when I flew into Yangon, but not on a return flight from Siem Reap. So I instead found a $22 ticket from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, I get to spend a day sightseeing in Phonm Penh AND I get to fly in the upgraded cabin on the way home. But it took some research! 

Now, on to the REAL advice!

  1. Try compression socks - These things are all the rage these days to prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis and just to overall make your legs and feet feel more comfortable during long spells of sitting. I have a few pair and will be trying them out for this trip, so I'll report back!
  2. Pick your personal item carefully - I always travel with a backpack as my personal item because I find it easier to maneuver airports with my hands free, since I generally check my other bags. If you prefer to travel with a large carry-on rather than (or in addition to) a checked bag, choose a personal item that will attach to the large carry-on so that it can hitch a ride and keep you from fumbling.
  3. PACK your personal item carefully - For a long flight, there's a lot that you want to have within arm's reach at all times. To keep everything organized and easily accessible as I dive under the seat and try not to elbow my seatmate, I use a bag with one large compartment and then add my own packing cubes for organization. Cords and chargers in one, snacks in another, toiletries in a third, change of clothes in a fourth, tablet in the main compartment. It means no more digging through a bag with your necessities jumbled in the bottom. (Stay tuned: Next week I'll give you a rundown of what I pack in my personal item!)
  4. Try to sleep - You know that you should try to sleep on these flights, and there are a number of things that can make it easier. I pick a window seat because I can rest against the side of the plane and only get up when I have to go to the bathroom. But some prefer the aisle seat so that they can stand up and move around without disturbing anyone - your choice! My biggest tip for sleeping is don't try to stay up late the night before thinking it'll exhaust you to the point you'll have to sleep on the plane. All that will guarantee is that you'll have two crappy nights of sleep under your belt to start your trip instead of just one. If you're looking for some sleep accessories, you could try a neck pillow, eye mask, and/or noise-cancelling headphones.
  5. Be comfortable but not sloppy - I know that comfort is king for many travelers, but I've never quite gotten into the whole "roll out of bed and head to the airport" style. I generally have things to do when I arrive (even if it's just checking into a nice hotel), and I want to look like a seasoned traveler, not a college student on Spring Break. Loose pants that don't look like sweatpants and a few layers on top can ensure you're ready to conquer the plane and whatever's on the other end for you! I personally have a casual blazer that I like to travel with. It's a great additional layer, blanket or lumbar support, but it helps me feel pulled together and professional when I arrive.
  6. Bring your own snacks and water - If you're flying first class, they'll probably give you more food and drinks than you need, but back in the cheap seats, you'll want to be armed with options. I know that I sometimes eat out of boredom, and it's definitely a bad habit that I indulge when I'm on a long flight. So I try to pack a few granola bars, nuts, and other easy snacks so that I'm not waiting for the snack cart to come around. They also will almost certainly come in handy sometime during your trip, so pack more than you think you'll need. Same goes for water, bring your own! You'll get dehydrated and it's no fun waiting around for the next beverage service to quench your thirst.
  7. Hydrate! - Speaking of hydration, beyond just drinking water, be sure to bring some lotion and chapstick to soothe dehydrated skin and lips. And if you're fancy, consider a hydration face spray, which can be extremely refreshing.
  8. Refresh yourself - After sleeping and eating and sitting in the same spot for hours, it can feel like an incredible luxury to wash your face, reapply deodorant, even change your clothes. Make sure you have face wipes or face wash, deodorant, and toothpaste and a toothbrush (in appropriate travel sizes) on hand for those times when you start to feel just plain gross. 
  9. Plan ahead for jet lag - The best tip is to start your trip well-rested, but some travelers also swear by prescription or non-prescription sleep aids to help them get the sleep they need on the plane to arrive well-rested. Just be careful, because the last thing you want is to wind up groggy when you arrive. If your schedule allows, you can also try adjusting your internal clock ahead of time, gradually shifting your sleep and wake times to those you'll experience in your destination. One site that I've found to help you make a plan for this is, and I'll be trying out their recommendations before my trip.
  10. Entertain yourself - This one is pretty obvious, but while sleep is generally the priority, if sleep just doesn't come or if you've already slept for eight hours and you still have five hours to fill, be sure to prepare with plenty of downloaded podcasts, music, audiobooks, ebooks, etc. I'm generally a fan of actual paper books, but they add extra weight to your carry on and can easily get wet/torn/lost during your trip, so I stick to my Kindle and ensure I have plenty of backup batteries and chargers just in case.

So, now it's your turn ... do you have any tips that will help me survive my 21 hours and 8 minutes of flying time (not counting 4 hours and 36 minutes of layovers) coming up?