Air travel in coach or economy class is rarely the most comfortable experience. When flying long distances, air travel can become an especially uncomfortable or difficult proposition – unless you’re one of those lucky people who can fall asleep anywhere and during anything. Flights that stretch past 6 hours to 10, 12, or even 20 hours can be an endurance test for anyone’s patience and ease. An unpleasant flight can ruin days of your vacation thanks to lingering pain, lack of rest, or a stressed state of mind.
Yet long-distance flights are something most of us who like to travel will have to endure at some point. As such, it’s best to have a game plan on how to make the best of the experience. What follows are my tips and recommendations for long-distance air travel: how to make yourself as comfortable (and healthy) as possible, how to relax, and how to keep yourself entertained.
1. Pick your seats wisely
Long before you go on your air travel trip, try to book your seats early and thoughtfully. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a cramped middle seat for a 12-hour flight. Try to get an aisle seat so you will be free to get up and down more freely, but avoid getting one too close to a bathroom. Near the bathroom you will likely be jostled and bumped by others waiting in line to use it, plus you will have to deal with the unpleasant chemical disinfectant odor emanating from it all flight. Also try to avoid seats too close to the plane’s galley if you want a quiet flight, as passengers tend to gather there to chat and stretch and that is where the flight crew generally congregates. SeatGuru is a terrific website to view different planes and airlines’ common seat configurations. You can see which seats have limited leg-room or won’t recline, as well as which seats are the most optimal for features such as power ports, extra room, or overhead TV view.
Some airlines are now charging extra for their optimal seats, including exit rows or ones in the front instead of the back of the bulkhead. If comfort or leg-room is a high priority to you, this extra charge might be worth your money. But be sure to check with SeatGuru first!
2. Dress comfortably, and wear layers
A long airline flight is not the time to make a big fashion statement. Wear lose-fitting, soft clothing that will not bind, constrict, or otherwise make you uncomfortable. Keep your hair down and avoid pins, bands, or other hair accessories that will make it difficult to comfortably rest your head. Remember that your feet may swell from inactivity and too much sitting, so comfortable shoes are important as well. You may find the cabin alternatively too hot or too cold, so wear or bring sweatshirts, sweaters, or other clothing you can take on or off as you need them. It is wisely recommended to always bring a change of clothes in your carry-on luggage in case your checked bags get lost or delayed. I also recommend doing this just in case something gets spilled on the clothes you’re wearing during a long flight, as spending hours in coffee-soaked pants isn’t necessarily a fun endeavor.
3. Supply your own entertainment
While some long-distance flights are equipped with personal entertainment systems for every passenger, they’re not a given in these budget-conscious days and the equipment doesn’t always work. Bring things to keep your mind occupied as well as your hands busy. A good book, some favorite movies or television shows to watch on your laptop, puzzle magazines, a game board designed for travel: whatever works best for you. I enjoy audiobooks on long flights. Trying to read a printed book for long stretches of time, sometimes in poor lighting, can lead to eye and neck strain. An audiobook can be a better solution as you can simply lie back, relax, and listen. You can purchase many audio books in mp3 format these days, making them easy to load onto your ipod and save room in your luggage.
Also keep in mind that not all long-distance flights will have power-ports for you to keep your electronic gear running for extended periods of time. Consider investing in an extra battery for your laptop, and make sure your mp3 player is fully charged before flight.
4. Stay hydrated
Drink lots of water before and during your long-haul flight to stay hydrated. Avoid drinking alcohol as it can increase your dehydration significantly, leading to swelling in the hands and feet, and further discomfort. In fact, try to avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol the night before a long flight as well. Air travel while nursing a hangover is never a fun prospect.
To make sure you’re never low on water while on board an aircraft, bring a bottle or two with you. That way you don’t want to have to wait on a flight attendant to answer your call, or for the beverage carts to be wheeled around. Just remember that you’ll have to purchase your “carry-on water” after the security checkpoint in the airport, so don’t bring a plastic bottle from home. Also try to go easy on the salty foods, again before and during your flight. Skip the peanuts and chips and bring snack foods like fresh fruit or a simple sandwich, to again help hold dehydration at bay.
5. Get up, get moving
Blood circulation can be a concern on long flights, so try to stand up and stretch every hour or two. This movement will help prevent swelling in your extremities, reduce stress and tension, and also help avoid muscle cramps which could plague you for days after your flight. There are numerous exercises you can do even while seated to keep your legs, feet and hands in good condition and from getting stiff and cramped. See the links at this end of this article for some exercise guides you may wish to print out or save on your computer for your next air travel trip.
6. Bring relaxation aids
Whether or not you’re able to sleep on a long flight, you can – and should – bring some items with you to help try to relax and shut out the surrounding noise and disruptions. Earplugs and a sleeping mask are excellent ideas. You may also want to purchase a travel pillow. I’ve never been fond of the classic donut or U-shaped airline pillows, nor those flimsy pillows provided by airlines themselves which are better for your lower back than your head. However there are new designs such as the TravelRest, which secures to your seatbelt for more firm head, neck and shoulder support. There is also the SkyRest, which can sit upon your lap or a tray table for reclining forward. However, some of these pillows can be bulky and large, and if you’re sharing a row of cramped seats with strangers, their use could be awkward and intrusive. I personally like the SkyRest but tend to use it more as a partly-inflated lap pillow, to keep my hands comfortable and warm while trying to rest. It’s also not a bad pillow to share if traveling with someone you don’t mind nestling up against – or if by great luck you end up with a row of two or three seats to yourself and can really stretch out and relax.
7. Be considerate of others
Speaking of being considerate towards your seat-mates, here are a few etiquette tips to help improve your comfort when spending hours cramped together on a long flight with strangers. If you are planning on using personal electronic devices such as a laptop, hand-held game, ipod, or dvd player, definitely use earplugs, and keep them at a volume level that won’t bother others (or damage your own hearing). Consider investing in a pair of noise-reduction headphones which will help cut out the background sounds around you. They will make it easier for you to enjoy your entertainment options at a lower volume.
If you plan on trying to get some sleep and have an aisle seat, you may wish to let your seat-mates know that it is okay to awaken you if they need to get up and stretch, or use the toilet. Let them know if you have a preferred method of being awakened, such as being touched on your hand, your shoulder, or simply spoken to. Another matter of courtesy is to remember that some people can be highly sensitive to strong smells and chemicals, especially in the confined environment of an aircraft cabin. I recommend against wearing (and re-applying) perfume while on flights for this reason, and similarly advise against using lotions and hair products with strong scents while on board. And whatever you do, please don’t whip out the smelly nail polish and remover to give yourself a manicure!
Taking off your shoes during long flights is common, but should still be done with courtesy to others. If you were wearing sandals or dress shoes onto the airplane, please cover your feet with a pair of socks instead of going barefoot for your – and others – sanitary health. Perhaps even consider packing a pair of light slippers in your carry-on to change into for the flight. The air can get stale enough during a long flight, so if you know you have “stinky” feet, consider keeping those shoes on or at least keeping your feet well-covered and clean.
8. Be patient
Patience can go a long way toward making a lengthy flight more bearable. Realize that there are situations which may happen beyond your control or ability to plan for. Flight delays are commonplace, so try not to get anxious if you are on a plane that’s stuck circling before being able to land, or in a long queue for take-off. If there’s a screaming baby in the row behind you, just put in your earplugs and try to ignore him. If a child – or adult – is nervously kicking the back of your seat, ask them, or their parents, politely if they could please stop. Scowling looks and angry glares rarely help, but a gentle request might if the flight is too full to change your seat. If you are having a significant problem with someone in your row or near you, get up and discretely talk to one of the flight attendants about it. Again, a loud confrontation is not likely to end well, whereas there might be some way to quietly relocate your seat if necessary.
Enjoy your flight!
Admittedly, it may be a stretch to say that an extended flight in coach class can ever be “enjoyable.” But if you follow the recommendations listed in this article, hopefully your next long flight will be less painful, more tolerable, and leave you in a better state to enjoy yourself upon landing.
In-flight exercise guides:
* 5 Exercises To De-stress On Long Flights
* American Physical Therapy Association In-Flight Exercise Guide
* Personal experience