Your Guide to Handling Long Flights

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We all know how uncomfortable a long flight can be—sitting in a cramped spot for hours is not what most travelers would call a good time. The numbers back this up: 77 percent of travelers say that uncomfortable seating and a lack of legroom are the biggest negatives of flying.

The bad news? You can’t change how long your flight is, at least not until aircraft technology improves significantly. The good news? You can make it a little easier to bear.

Some of these tips for long flights are close to commonsense, while others are rather clever. No matter which helps you most on your next intercontinental journey, I think you’ll want to continue reading.

What Qualifies as a “Long” Flight?

As of September 2020, the world’s longest flights can approach 20 hours in length. I’m talking about Singapore Airlines’ Singapore-New York service, and Qantas’ nonstop from Perth to London. Unbelievably, longer flights are on the horizon in the not-so-distant future, notably direct routes to New York and London from “down under” cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland.

For most travelers, however, I’d say that any flight over 12 hours is “long”; 15 hours or more is ultra long-haul. In addition to the raw stage length of these flights, they often cross multiple time zones, which means that in addition to physical jet lag, you’ll have to contend with a distortion of time itself. On routes from Asia to the United States, if you can believe it, you often arrive “before” you depart!

My Top Tips for Long Flights

1. Dress for Comfort

You never know how hot or cold a flight will be, so it’s vital to dress strategically. Wear layers, and choose clothing that is easy to remove when you have others in close proximity. Choosing clothing that’s comfortable, like a zip-up sweatshirt, or a cardigan with a cotton tee underneath. Avoid things that are tight-fitting and made with uncomfortable material like wool. You don’t want to be itchy in a tight space!

2. Invest in a Travel Neck Pillow

Nothing is worse than a bobbing head when you’re trying to take a nap and relax. If you have neck pain, try buying a neck pillow, a simple too that can help you get more comfortable in your seat, even if you’re flying a low-cost carrier with a cramped cabin. A neck pillow is easy to slip in your carry-on—and you can also use it on the ground, to support your neck on longer car cars.

3. Choose the Right Seat

Everyone has a seat preference—choose yours wisely. Taller flyers may want an aisle seat to stretch their legs out. If you want to try to nap, on the other hand, you may want to consider a window seat—this allows you prop your head and not be disturbed when your seat row mates need to get up. Seats closer to the front allow you to avoid bathroom traffic and additional (and louder) engine noise! Obviously, if you can afford it, you should fly first or business class.

4. Hydrate

Stick to drinking water during your flight—drinking soda and coffee can actually make you more tired and feel dried out over time. This is an essential point to make, because airplane air is dry. (Typically, if you can believe it, humidity levels inside an aircraft are only around 10 to 20 percent.) In addition to drinking water, you should also hydrate the outside of your skin. Hydrating mist, eye drops and chapstick are a must for any in-flight amenity kit!

5. Get Rid of Noise

Noise-canceling headphones can help you feel more relaxed than you imagine on a loud plane. Enjoy watching TV shows and movies or simply listening to your favorite tunes without all the noise from the plane engine (and other passengers). If you just plan to sleep, and you don’t have noise-canceling headphones (which—pro tip—block out all sound if you wear them without playing audio!) you can bring earplugs to get rid of any unwanted noise.

6. Don’t Bring Too Much

You may be tempted to bring everything as a carry-on, but a huge bag under the seat in front of you is a recipe for reduced legroom. Instead, try to be a minimalist on your long-haul flight. Opt to bring only must-have items like earplugs, headphones, a neck pillow, snacks and a water bottle. Consider checking other items with your larger suitcase. You’ll be happy you have the extra space when sitting for hours!

7. Stretch Your Legs

Sitting for long periods is bad for your health, so it’s important to try to move around and stretch when you can on long flights. Throughout your flight, do stretches like wrist and ankle rolls. You can also do shoulder rolls and hands-over-the-head stretches if your space is limited. When the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign is off, get up and walk around a bit bit. Regardless of what you do in flight, you should also consider exercising the day of your flight. The endorphins will help you feel your best on your long flight.

8. Improve Your Mindset

Whatever you do, don’t fret about your long flight. Instead, de-stress. Do you have a movie you want to watch or a book you’ve been dying to read? Take this mindset onboard with you. Find ways to make the flight enjoyable, such as packing snacks or journaling. It’s amazing how the right attitude—and actions—can help make a long journey easier to tolerate. That’s why it’s one of my top tips for long flights!

FAQ About Tips for Long Flights

How do I survive a 15 hour flight?

A 15-hour flight sits at the beginning of what I call “very long” flights—you need to be mindful to survive a journey of this length without jet lag! In particular, try and sleep a full eight hours, and time it according to your “normal” bedtime in your destination. Another tip is to use the restroom well before landing, and before the end of meal services, when queues tend to form.

How do I survive a 20 hour flight?

To survive a 20-hour flight, you need to avail almost all the advice I’ve mentioned above—and then some. In addition to hydrating, dressing comfortably and sleeping strategically, you should make sure you’re in good physical condition before boarding the flight; you’ll also want to maintain a light schedule once you land, especially if it’s early in the morning.

How do I prepare my body for a long flight?

As a general rule, the top ways to prepare your body for a long flight are the same as those you should follow onboard a plane: Hydrate, eat well, dress comfortably and sleep according to the time zone of your destination. Avoid drinking alcohol and other diuretics like tea or coffee; try not to work or otherwise stress too much, so you’re not in a scattered headspace.

The Bottom Line

I hope these tips for long flights have helped you, whether you’re flying from Singapore to San Francisco, or from Doha to Auckland. Of course, even if you’re flying a mere 12 hours (Los Angeles to London or Tokyo), the advice I’ve presented here can make your journey a lot more pleasant. Certainly, there’s never a bad excuse to hydrate, sleep well or dress in comfortable clothes, whether at 35,000 feet or ground level! I hope your next flight is peaceful, restful and safe, most importantly of all. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit!

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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