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Surviving Long Flights

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

I only fly economy. I figure I can put up with a lot of discomfort to have more time or a fun experience once I reach destination. I have convinced myself that I can handle even the longest flight. Do I look with intense envy at those fancy lie-down seats in first class as I walk past them to my seat in the cattle car at the back? Absolutely. I have flown on many long haul flights in economy-the majority of them could not be described as comfortable. Flying coach class can be awful but there are ways to make sure you have a good flight. Here are my top tips on how to survive a long flight in economy class.

Pay for Seat Selection

There aren't any really fabulous seats in economy class but some are better than others. Most airlines offer an economy plus price that includes seat selection. Seats in front of the bulkhead have greater leg room but your carry-on must be stowed overhead, making accessing it during flight more of a challenge. The seats in the very last rows don't recline. On some discount airlines, none of the seats recline. There are advantages to both aisle and window seats. Middle seats work for smaller folks like me but can be very confining for almost everyone else. Seats beside the emergency exits have lots of room but again, carry-on bags cannot be on the floor in front of you.

Try to get your seat assignment as you book your flight. Before choosing seats, I usually look up the seat map for my flight on SeatGuru will point out bad seats (for example seats with less legroom, close to the bathroom etc.) Try to get an entire row to yourself or an empty seat next to you -- a huge challenge on popular flights but much more feasible on overnights. I find that planes are less full towards the back. My personal preference is to be in the first or last 10 rows. If your airline has seat maps available online, you might want to keep an eye on the seat maps and change your seat assignment, as others select their seating. Singles might be able to snag a row with an empty seat between you and a seatmate. Regular economy tickets get assigned seating at the airport so someone can still end up seated next to you even if the seat was empty during online checking.

Download Entertainment

On a long flight sleeping is the best way to pass the time, but few of us can sleep for the entire flight so we will need some entertainment – whether reading a book or watching a movie. Many discount airlines no longer offer any type of inflight entertainment. Even if the airline offers in-flight entertainment, it is often poor quality, might not be working or the movie on your flight might be one you don’t like or you have seen before.

If you are flying with an e-reader or tablet, download books, podcasts, shows and movies from home. Make sure your electronics are fully charged before your flight and bring your adaptors or extra batteries with you. I always bring an external battery because many planes don’t have any power outlets in economy.

Dress Comfortably

Many years ago, I was married to an airline employee and we flew on passes. Part of the policy required that we were always well dressed. The comfort of the business class cabin did not always mitigate the discomfort of "office clothes", especially on long flights.

It's so much better to wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothes. I also recommend wearing fairly loose slip-on shoes without laces so that you can take them off easily and put them back on when going to the bathroom. Wear socks to keep your feet warm and clean when taking off your shoes. Many travel doctors recommend wearing compression socks while flying.

I find most flights cycle between stifling heat and freezing temperatures so I bring a sweater, cardigan or fleece even in the summer. I always bring a scarf or large wrap with me – not only does a scarf keep you warm but it can also be used as a blanket or to cover your face in place of an eye mask. Dress in layers so that you can adjust to the airplane temperature as it cycles.

Try to Sleep

For me, the number one way to survive a long flight in economy is to sleep through most of the flight. I know some folks take medication to help them sleep on planes. I choose not to do this as I have a hard time shaking off the effects and it slows down my ability to recover from jet lag, not to mention, I'm not a huge fan.

There are a few things you can do to make it more likely to sleep well on your long flight. Get cozy and wrap yourself in your wrap or travel blanket. Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones will block out noise and help you sleep. If you have trouble sleeping with lights on, bring an eye mask. You might also find it more comfortable to travel with a neck travel pillow. Don’t eat a large meal if you want to go to sleep after dinner. I find it easier to sleep after I brush my teeth, so I bring a toothbrush and toothpaste in my carry-on bag. I avoid using the airline pillows and blankets as I prefer knowing that the items I use are clean and sanitized... and my stuff is comfier, anyhow!

Stay Hydrated

My number one tip for surviving a long flight is to drink a lot of water. The air on planes is so dry that dehydration happens much quicker when flying. As soon as I pass security, I fill up my water bottle and I buy an extra bottle to put in my carry-on. Consider avoiding or limiting caffeine and alcoholic drinks. It's also a good idea to bring along some hand/face lotion and lip balm.

Take a Walk

If you can take a walk along the aisles, without being a nuisance, do it. Even if you can only walk to the bathrooms and back, step in place while waiting. Make sure that flight attendants are not offering service and that you aren't disturbing other passengers. If walking the aisles isn't possible, wiggle your toes and ankles periodically.

Make sure you have everything packed in your small carry-on. Check the airline measurements carefully -- North American sized carry-on is much bigger than what is allowed on European airlines. You don't want to be required to check your carefully prepared in-flight bag or pay a fee for an oversized bag. Costs of extra/oversize baggage increases dramatically at the airport where airlines can really add to their profits. I cannot count the number of times I have witnessed North Americans arguing about carry-on sizes with airline staff, rarely with any success. I am not going to promise that your next economy flight will be pleasant with these tips, but, hopefully, it will be less unpleasant. With travel opening up again, we will all need to remember and review our travel tips. How do you get comfortable for a long flight? Share your best tips for a less-unpleasant flight in economy in the comments.


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