Five Tips for Surviving Long Flights

A good friend just spent four all-expense-paid days in Europe at an equipment show.  Although he wanted his wife to travel with him, she refused and admonished him not to go on the grounds that he’d likely expire on the long flight from the west coast to Europe due to blood clots in his legs.

He survived the long flights and returned home clot-free.  Amazingly, all of the other passengers on both the outbound and return flights also survived.

This does not mean that either my friend or his fellow passengers ENJOYED their flights, or that they weren’t in danger of thrombosis or something worse.   Surviving long flights isn’t the same as enjoying long flights.  My friend actually stumbled on a couple of the methods used by savvy travelers to not only survive but to actually squeeze a little enjoyment out of those long, long hours stuffed into a flying metal tube packed with screaming children and adults with questionable hygiene.

Below  are 5 tips for making long flights less painful, and perhaps even somewhat relaxing:


 If you haven’t seen the movie Idiocracy, you won’t appreciate my misspelling. In which case,  never mind.  The important point is that upgrading to a more comfortable class on your airline may be cheaper than you think.  My friend got Economy Plus seats for around $100 per flight and ended up with a row to himself.  Many airlines are now offering upgraded economy seating with extra legroom.  Alaska Airlines, for example, offers “Preferred Plus Seating''.  These rows have between 4 and an astonishing 8 inches more legroom than other seats in the economy cabin for between $15 and $50 per one-way flight. Preferred Plus passengers get one free drink, and early boarding so you get to feel special as well as more comfortable.  In order to reserve these seats, check in online the full 24 hours ahead of your scheduled departure time because unless you’re a very frequent flyer in Alaska, they won’t be available until then.

A word of WARNING: not all “upgrayyeds” are upgrades.  Use TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru BEFORE you reserve your exit row or another seat to find out if it’s really going to be more comfortable.

For overseas flights, business or first-class seats are wonderful.  Many offer fully reclining seats, lots of legroom, and service that doesn’t suck.  Yes, these seats are expensive, which is exactly why you really MUST collect air miles if you’re going to survive AND enjoy long flights.

This is not a tip, but it may inspire you to either make more money or save more miles:  The gap between first class and economy class on some international flights is widening.  Etihad Airlines now offers first-class suites on some of its long-haul flights.  The cabins are uncannily quiet, and suite passengers have access to a shower during the flight.

There are people that have circumnavigated the globe at least a few times using nothing but flyer miles, which in many cases allowed them to fly in first- or business-class cabins for the very reasonable price of free.  Chris Guillebeau is a personal hero of mine because he’s mastered the methods of flying for free.  You can read his blog here, or purchase his amazing courses in which he reveals his best secrets for free here.

If you don’t have flyer miles or time to accumulate them (get started using Chris’ methods NOW!), there are a couple other options.  Even if you don’t upgrade to a better class of seating, having an empty seat or two can make all the difference in surviving long-haul flights.  If you’re flying with a companion, you might be able to pull this off by selecting your respective seats on an aisle and at the window on the same row, if it leaves an empty seat between you.  If the flight is not full, you may get lucky and not have a passenger select the seat between you.  If you’re unlucky, middle-seat passengers almost always trade with window or aisle passengers, so you can still sit together in all likelihood.

Be cheerful, kind, and sunnily disposed toward the gate agents and flight crews.  Ask at the gate if there are any better seats available.  Many frequent flyers have found that this is a great way to get the best seats and the best treatment by your flight crew.  However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get upgraded merely through grace and charm.  If you’re going to be successful, dress and coif neatly.  Arrive at the gate early, and don’t even think about trying it if you’re traveling with your family of young children or you bought a super-cheap fare.  Full flights are a better bet.  Also, let the gate agent know when you arrive that you’re willing to give up your seat if an upgrade is possible, perhaps on a later flight.

Tip #2: GET Hydrated and STAY Hydrated.  

This is simple but too often overlooked, partly because the foods and beverages we eat and drink while traveling by air tend to dehydrate us.  Drinking 8 ounces of water at least every 90 minutes should avoid the problem, but some physicians recommend adding electrolytes, either by drinking a sports drink like Gatorade, or adding a pinch of sea salt to your water bottle at least once during your flight.

Air traveler’s increased likelihood of catching a cold or the flu is not just due to their close proximity to other travelers and the unsanitary condition of most commercial planes; our immune systems are weakened when we’re tired, run-down, and underhydrated, so give yourself the best chance you can stay healthy on your trip by drinking plenty of (non-alcoholic) fluids.

Tip #3: Avoid Pharmaceutical Anti-Anxiety Meds AND Prescription Sleeping Pills.  

If you’re claustrophobic, or otherwise hate or fear flying, you may have been tempted to ask your doctor for an anti-anxiety medication before taking a long flight.  While anti-anxiety medications may make you feel less stressed psychologically, studies have shown that they actually INCREASE physiological stress, AND they make subsequent flights more difficult.  This means that your heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure will be higher when you take them, and you may feel less anxious.  The overall effect is worse than either staying home or turning to homeopathic remedies like St. John’s wort, valerian root, or kava. 

Sleeping soundly may be one of the best things you can do on a long flight, but not if it’s induced by strong pharmaceuticals.  The problem is that deep vein thrombosis is not as rare as we might hope.  Some medical professionals estimate that your risk of developing it on a long-haul flight may be as high as 1 in 5000.  Heck, Serena Williams got it, and you know she’s not flying in coach.   Your risk of developing blood clots increases if you have a history of clotting, and certainly when you remain immobile for long periods.  It’s a good idea to consult your doctor before you take a long flight.  He may suggest compression stalkings, or you might just pick up a pair. Or take baby aspirin or drink some Alka Seltzer before or during your flight.  Better safe than dead, as they say.

Meanwhile, if you want something to make you drowsy, some frequent flyers take Benadryl, claiming that it knocks them out for up to four hours or more.  Tylenol PM may be another choice, but you should again consult your doctor before trying any chemical remedy.

Tip #4:  Carry On Only Essentials and Sleep If You Can.  

Minimizing the size of your carry-on has advantages and disadvantages.  Although “wearable luggage” gives you some space-saving options, I prefer to take my chances with checked bags and reduce the size and weight of my carry-on bag.  That means essentials only.   For me, that means my electronics, since checking them is a sure way to lose them, my UV sterilizer, hand sanitizer, earphones (the ones provided by the airline are probably re-used) and noise-canceling headphones, at least one bottle of water, protein bars, iPad, phone, and caring cables.  I always carry two pens to fill out forms and loan to less well-prepared fellow travelers.    All my entertainment, books, movies, shows, music, and audiobooks, are digital.  I can bring as many as I want and my luggage won’t take up any more room or weigh an extra ounce.

My advice about pharmaceuticals notwithstanding, sleeping is the best way to spend a long international flight.  Not everyone can sleep on planes, and one of the reasons is that the roar of jet engines is hard to sleep through.  Even though I don’t recommend stronger pharmacological aids, Benadryl makes me drowsy.  If you are in doubt, ask your doctor if he or she recommends or at least condones it for you.  You should also at least consider investing in some noise-canceling headphones.  They’re comfortable, and some are really good at damping engine noise as well as the screams of unruly children.  Once you’ve experienced the tranquility of a good set of noise-canceling headphones, you’ll never want to fly without them.  I can’t fall asleep on a plane without them.

Bose makes the finest headphones in this category that I know of, but at $300, you may prefer earplugs:

There are some less expensive alternatives that are still very effective. Soundcore makes a reasonably high-quality headset that’s less than a third of the price of Bose, so you’ll still have money for an economy upgrade

Tip #5: Meet Someone New. 

This obviously can’t work on every flight.  But making a new friend on a long flight is a great way to pass time, and can lead to long-term friendships.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve boarded a plane tired and cranky from the effort of preparing for the trip, rising way too early after sleeping way too little, braving traffic, and being mistreated by TSA agents.  On days like those, I usually dread having a talkative row mate or neighbor, but literally, over time I’ve extended myself and engaged in conversations with fellow travelers, the time has flown by, and I’ve learned more about life, the universe, and everything.

On a recent flight to Kona, I met a fellow tennis enthusiast that managed to get tickets for my wife and me to attend two days of Fed Cup tennis matches that were otherwise sold out.  We were literally within 20 feet of the baseline watching Venus Williams and several other great women’s players in some great matches.  All because we saw rackets in their carry-on luggage, and struck up a conversation.

Even when you’re not feeling like it, extend yourself to your fellow travelers, and the odds are that you’ll enjoy your flight more, and you may even form new friendships.

Long flights in economy class suck.  Even business and first-class flights internationally can be pretty traumatic.  With a little foresight and the right gear, you can not only survive, but you can also actually enjoy long flights.

We’d love to get your comments and suggestions, too!  Post them below.