A long-haul flight is at once boring and exhausting. A First or Business Class seat allows you to stretch out, eat good food and pretend you’re at the spa. Unfortunately, most of us walk through this glorious area to the coach cabin behind. We are confined to a small economy class seat with little room to maneuver and few, if any, amenities. We are left to our own devices for comfort and entertainment. Don’t despair. There are ways to prepare that will help make your time in the air easier. Read on for our guide on how to survive a long flight.
The world is a wonder; every continent offers unique cultures and exotic wildlife that draws the traveler. We love where we live on the coast of New England and are mostly content to enjoy all that our region of the U.S. offers. But who doesn’t want to walk centuries old Roman roads, have an umbrella drink in Waikiki, experience an African safari or (add your dream destination here)? Of course, what makes these destinations ‘exotic’ involves them being on the other side of the world. To experience them, we need to travel…a…long…way. We’ve been fortunate to have made many of these trips, always in economy or premium economy class. And until we win the lottery, our bucket list travel will remain in coach.
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Choose your seats as soon as possible
Even in economy class, there are variations in seats. Select your seat in advance to get an aisle seat if you plan on getting up often, or a window seat if you’re one of those obnoxiously deep sleepers. Avoid the dreaded middle seat if at all possible. Look for bulkhead seats or exit row seats to get a bit more leg room (note: those seats may also have drawbacks like having to stash your personal item for take-off and landing). Airlines have gotten wise to seat preferences, so you may need to pay to get the seat that’s best for you. It’s worth it.
Use seatguru to find an unbiased take on the best (and worst) seats on your aircraft. Some seats that appear great on your flight diagram may have drawbacks in reality – too close to the bathrooms or no window to look out.
How to survive a long flight – adjust your mindset
First, and most important, for every traveler is a positive attitude. As difficult as it may seem, spending 10-15 hours in a narrow tube with a few hundred strangers is possible if you’re mentally and physically prepared.
Imagine you’re confined at home during a winter storm. What would you do? How would you dress? What supplies would you want on hand? Many of us actually relish these days when we’re forced to be home, reading a good book, or catching up on tv shows. Consider your travel time as similar, adjust your mindset to anticipate the time on board.
Choose a comfortable travel outfit
Deciding what to wear on a long or overnight flight is key! The goal is to look presentable while feeling as if you’re in your favorite jammies.
I have a go-to travel outfit. I opt for either Encircled dressy sweatpants or pants from Chico’s Travelers collection. Both are stretchy knit pants with a bit of style. And both will be worn at my destination, which is important as I like to travel light.
I add a comfortable top (a Breton striped top is a great mix and match item for the whole trip) and finish with a cozy sweater or wrap. I alternate between my favorite merino wool tunic sweater, or my DKNY cozy (shown).
How to survive a long flight AND stay healthy
Comfort and entertainment are what people think of first, but for older adults, staying healthy should be the priority. I’m not a germaphobe but I do take health precautions when taking long flights. Recirculated air and lowered resistance due to stress can make you susceptible to illness.
Preparations before your board the flight
Let the airline know of any food allergies: Request a special meal the day before you leave home to ensure they’ll have what you need.
Consider compression socks: Sitting in one spot for hours at a time on a long haul flight can lead to Deep Vein Thrombosis, DVT, a dangerous condition for anyone, but especially for older or plus size people. This can be avoided by wearing compression stockings, staying hydrated, and MOVING. That’s essential for blood circulation. Get up and walk every two hours at the least. If you’re lucky, there might be a spot mid-plane where you can do some stretches. I’m sure I looked silly doing my exercises while on the 16-hour international flight to South Africa but I’d rather get stares than a DVT. (for more information on this read- Deep Vein Thrombosis)
Hydration, Electrolytes, Vitamin C: Before I board the plane I fill my reusable water bottle in the airport terminal and add some Emergen-C to be proactive. I’ll try to drink this before boarding so I can refill the water bottle again for the flight. I might use another Emergen-C or a Gatorade packet mid-flight. As an older traveler, I find the Gatorade a big help in keeping healthy while traveling.
Preparations at your seat
The first job after settling in your seat is wiping down that nasty tray table. These are the most germy spots on the plane, being cleaned only once a day, if that. So, take the 10 seconds it takes to wipe down the tray. A quick wipe of the seat belt buckle is also a good idea.
Consider wearing a face mask. This was mandatory during the pandemic and most of us were relieved to see the mandate lifted, but it’s still a good idea if you’re traveling during flu season or if you’re seated next to a stranger.
Try to incorporate as much of your at-home routine into your flying hours as possible. Brushing your teeth and cleaning your skin can be the best way to ease your body into sleep mode.
Prepare your carry-on essentials: make your own first-class amenity bag
Most airlines allow passengers a carry-on and a personal item. The personal item is the small bag that goes under the seat in front of you. Choose a well organized personal item so you can access needed items during the flight. But for those items essential for your long flight, pack a small ‘flight bag’ and tuck it into your bag.
Before boarding the plane, I remove my ‘flight bag’ from my carry-on. I use a Packing Cube Shoulder bag by Tom Bihn but you can use any soft bag like a Baggu or drawstring gym bag. Choose a bright color to ensure it’s not overlooked when exiting the plane. My bag has a front zipper compartment where I can stash valuables. In the main compartment I carry everything I’ll need for the trip – all the flight comfort items of those First Class amenity bags and my personal entertainment for the long haul as well.
Having everything at my seat precludes me having to dig through the overhead compartments looking for chapstick or a pen. My fellow passengers appreciate this, I’m sure.
How to enjoy the flight: movies, books, games, and projects
Having several options for things to do on a long flight will keep you occupied and relaxed. Prepare your tablet with a few movies or TV episodes you’ve been wanting to watch. Most flights have entertainment but don’t count on the system always being in working order or finding something you like. (Check what’s available on your flight from the airline’s website) It’s always best to have your own entertainment available.
A long-haul flight is a good time to catch up on things you’ve been putting off – read a book you’ve wanted to read, put together an event or party plan, write letters, or learn something new. Try a language app on your overseas flight. I like to organize my travel journal on the flight over and my travel photos on the return flight!
If all else fails, have some games ready to keep you occupied. Crossword puzzles on your tablet are a great diversion and can be done while listening to music. If you’re traveling with a friend or partner, try one of the pass and play games apps. Nothing like a little competition to pass the time!
How to survive a long flight: food
Well, I guess I’m being a bit dramatic, but preparing for 8-10 hours of travel should include thinking of nutrition.
If you have food allergies, sensitivities, or cultural preferences, request a special meal before the trip. But even those without food prohibitions might want to consider alternatives to airplane food. You can usually pack a sandwich at home and carry it through security. Or pick up a salad or yogurt in the airline terminal to carry onto the plane.
Bring your own snacks on-board. Healthy snacks like fruit, hummus, cheese, and a little bit of chocolate will come in handy, especially if your meal isn’t great.
And remember to drink plenty of water!
Tips for sleeping on an overnight flight
Sleep is usually the biggest challenge on a long flight through multiple time zones. Some travelers (my husband…) fall asleep before the plane has left the tarmac, but for most of us, falling asleep on a plane is difficult. To avoid jet lag, and a miserable first day at your destination, do whatever you can to prepare your body for sleep.
- Begin to turn off (blue light) devices at least 30 minutes before you hope to sleep.
- Wear comfortable clothing.
- Follow your normal bedtime routine – brush your teeth and freshen up.
- TIP: if you know you’ll need a sleep mask on the flight, begin wearing one at home to become familiar with it.
- Some people adjust their sleep schedule at home to match the time at their final destination. That way they are more likely to fall asleep on the flight. YMMV
- Pack comfort items that might encourage sleep – neck pillow, cozy blanket, slippers. The airline often supplies a lightweight blanket but I prefer to use my own light wrap as my blanket.
- Consider using an OTC sleep aid or sleeping pill (Advil-PM, Dramamine, or melatonin) to encourage sleep, but be sure you’ve tested this at home first. You don’t want to be drowsy when it’s time to depart the plane.
Under the best of circumstances, you will only get a few hours of sleep, but hopefully the excitement of your trip’s start will make that tolerable.
Secure your valuables during a overnight flight
Wallet, cash and other valuables:
Don’t leave these in the overhead compartment. You should always have these secured at your seat or on your body. If you’re uncomfortable wearing a money belt or passport pouch, look for a wallet or small bag that you can secure to the airplane seat itself.
We keep these items close for obvious reasons, but you might also consider that most flights now require credit cards for onboard purchases. You don’t want to be scrambling for your wallet when the flight attendant comes by with the beverage cart!
Lock the bag in the overhead compartment for peace of mind. Thefts have occurred on overnight flights when passengers are sleeping. A simple zip-tie will suffice if you don’t have a TSA approved padlock. (Why TSA approved? In case you’re asked to gate-check your luggage.)
How to Survive a Long Flight in Economy: My Long-Haul Essentials Packing List
- Travel pillow -The soft ones are great, but I use an inflatable one from IKEA which takes up little space in my luggage and has a minky soft exterior.
- Pair of compression socks – these colorful socks will keep your legs refreshed, but, more importantly, help to prevent DVT. If you have a history of edema, or DVT, your doctor may prescribe a tighter compression.
- Blanket or wrap – the airline will provide a blanket but you might prefer your own. Bring a favorite soft scarf and you can use that as a blanket on the flight, and a wrap while traveling. Travelrest make a lovely soft 4-in-1 blanket if you don’t have anything that works in your closet.
- Sleep mask – again, experiment with what is comfortable for you.
- Foot rest – I’ve begun using a foot hammock that hangs from my tray table. Easy to carry and gives my legs a little help on long flights.
- iPad mini or other small tablet – I clear out extraneous stuff before the trip to make room for videos to watch on the flight, and for my uploaded photos as I travel.
- Kindle Paperwhite – Yes, you can read on your tablet, but for long stretches of reading, an ereader is better on your eyes. Plus, the battery on these devices lasts for weeks! Load up your kindle with library books or choose one of the kindle free books available on Amazon.
- Noise-cancelling headphones – enhance your listening pleasure or just drown out the noise of the plane or your seatmates. I’ve used and loved Bose Quiet Comfort, though now to save space I pack noise-cancelling earbuds. I use Apple AirPods Pro, but these from Symphonized NRG are well priced and compact. (If you want to use your Bluetooth headphones with the in-flight entertainment system, be sure to pack a wireless audio transmitter. I usually carry an inexpensive set of plug-in earbuds.)
- Some flights have outlets built into the seats, but I pack an Anker external battery charger just in case. And make sure you’ve included a charging cable in your flight bag.
- Always have a pen handy for filling out forms during flight
Toiletries, medications and other amenities to help me through a long flight
- A reusable water bottle to fill after going through TSA security
- Keep my skin hydrated with a travel sized spray moisturizer and a small lotion (Bee Bar Lotion by Honey House) Some people use the travel hours to apply a hydrating mask.
- I keep all medications close at hand, especially prescription items! (Hints: low-dose aspirin can help prevent DVT, Dramamine will work for air sickness and helps me sleep, melatonin (as in Midnite tablets) is also a good sleep aid.)
- Facial cleansing cloths are sometimes provided by the airlines, but I carry my own just in case.
- Lip balm – bring your favorite or try an intense one from Lansinoh (marketed for breast-feeling moms but actually amazing for lips.)
- Artificial tears eye drops (your eyes will thank you!)
- Hand sanitizing lotion and antibacterial wipes
- Toothbrush, floss and paste
- Brush, hair elastics, etc.
- Snacks and Gatorade
Hopefully these tips for surviving long flights in economy will ease some of the misery of your trip. What are your flight essentials for coach class travel?