Other than a quick weekend back home in Tampa, I haven’t had a major trip since New Orleans. I’m staying busy enough in D.C., but I’m starting to get the urge to travel again. Luckily, I only have to wait a little bit longer because I will be back in Turkey in less than three weeks! I plan on meeting up with my boyfriend, who I haven’t seen since our Canada trip in September, and I’m so excited and ready.
The only downside is that I have a long flight ahead of me. The last time I went to Turkey, I flew Turkish Airlines direct from D.C. to Istanbul. The flight is around 10 hours, but it leaves late at night, so I can sleep through most of it. However, Turkish Airlines was too expensive this time, so I’ll be taking Lufthansa, with a layover in Frankfurt.
In the last 5 years, I’ve taken a lot of flights, and I’ve learned some tricks along the way. This post, therefore, isn’t about a specific trip but to give some tips on how to survive what the industry calls a long-haul flight. The bottom line: They’re not a fun time. My flight to Thailand in December took about 25 hours one-way with 2 layovers, and just sitting in a seat for the majority of that time left me exhausted.
So, what would I recommend for someone who might be taking their first big flight, or for someone who maybe has taken a medium-length flight but now wants to go even further to China, South Africa, or Australia?
Food and Drink
I’ll start with this category because it’s where I have the most sensitivity. My first tip starts even before you get to the airport: Drink plenty of water. We should always be drinking water, of course, but you want to be as hydrated as possible before the flight. I usually start one or two weeks before I leave. Planes are very dry inside, with recycled air, so it’s very easy to become dehydrated.
During the flight, I stay away from alcohol, which is also dehydrating, and soda because the carbonation makes me feel bloated and gives me a stomachache. Another way I get stomachaches is from eating heavy, fried, and greasy foods before and during a flight. As I said before in my post about Thailand, I made the huge mistake of eating Chick-fil-A in Detroit right before a 13-hour flight from Seoul. I regret nothing, since I love Chick-fil-A, but I was super uncomfortable, so don’t be like me!
From what I’ve read when I tried to find out why I always get so bloated (and this has been happening since my first trip to Europe in 2007), when we’re flying at high altitudes, there’s less pressure pushing down on us (even though the cabins are adjusted for this). This causes the gas in our stomachs to expand, which is exasperated from drinking soda. At the same time, it’s harder to digest food that high in the air, which can cause some people (e.g., me) pain and discomfort.
I would even say that you don’t have to eat the food on the flight at all! (Unpopular opinion: I don’t understand the hate that airline food gets. I actually really like it, so I’m always happy to eat.) I’m sure many people feel like they need to eat when dinner is being served or when it’s right in front of them, but just know your limits and your stomach.
Lastly, you can bring snacks with you. This is especially important when you’re on a budget airline. Last May, I flew to Orlando from London on Norwegian Air and didn’t reserve a meal on my flight, but I bought water and sandwiches in the airport. I also have a travel water bottle that I got as a gift from my aunt for Christmas. It compresses when empty, and then I can fill it up for free at a water fountain. Having my own water and snacks makes me more relaxed for the flight.
For a long flight, I like to be as comfortable as possible. When I flew to Thailand, I wore leggings, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and a light jacket. No tight jeans, no belts. I’m usually fine for short trips, but I’m always freezing on longer flights—maybe because we’re up so much higher in the sky. Airlines usually provide blankets (except for budget airlines), but who really knows where those have been? Do they really get cleaned? I have no idea. I don’t trust them at all. Depending on the time of year, I’ll bring a pashmina scarf that functions like a blanket, or I can roll it up to make a pillow.
I also started wearing compression socks around two years ago. Sitting for a long period of time increases the risk of blood clots, which is why it’s recommended to get up and walk around every hour or so during a long flight. (Another confession: I don’t do this nearly as much as I should; I’ve taken a 10-hour flight before and only got up once…) The compression socks supposedly help with increasing blood circulation in your legs to reduce the chance of blood clots and deep vein thrombosis. Another kind of compression: Keep your shoes on! I made the mistake of taking off my shoes once (pre-compression socks) and couldn’t fit them back on by the time we landed.
I’m a window seat person. Personally, I’ve found it easier for sleeping; I don’t like to lay back in my seat and prefer to lean to the side. The problem with the window seat comes back to the advice about getting up to stretch. I don’t like bothering the people next to me, so I usually end up trapped inside and don’t go anywhere unless absolutely needed.
My latest strategy for picking the aisle versus the window seat considers the length of the flight and when it leaves. For example, that Turkish Airlines flight from D.C. leaving at 11 p.m.? Window seat. I can eat and then sleep. The Delta flight from Seoul to Detroit leaving at 8 a.m.? Aisle seat. I’ll probably stay awake and will want to get up to stretch.
Of course, this only works when you can choose your seat. That Norwegian Air flight from London to Orlando leaving at 3 p.m.? Aisle seat. I didn’t want to pay, and that’s what they gave me. I was lucky.
Larger commercial airlines are trying to compete with low-cost carriers, which has resulted in “basic economy” tickets. You can watch movies and eat for free, but choosing a seat and checking a bag costs more. And even when you book multiple tickets together, there’s not always a guarantee of being seated together. For budget airlines, you generally must pay to choose your seat, but some (like Pegasus in Turkey) will still let you check in your bag for free. (For Southwest, my strategy is to check-in as soon as possible and take a middle seat closer to the front of the plane.) I didn’t pay to select my Lufthansa seats for my Turkey trip, so I might be flying for eight hours (one of the legs) squeezed between two people. Pray for me!
What to Bring
Before going to Thailand, I was most concerned about getting sick. My rationale was that I was flying for longer than usual, so I had more chances to catch something. Therefore, my next piece of advice is to stay sanitized! There are so many germs on planes, and I don’t trust a single surface area. I always bring hand sanitizer, but I went an extra step for Thailand and brought antibacterial hand wipes and Lysol wipes. As soon as I sat down, I wiped off the seat belt buckles, the tray tables, and my armrests; then I wiped off my own hands. I’m a nail-biter, so if I’m going to pull my hands apart, at least they’ll be sterile.
Do you want to know how worried I was about getting sick? I got a flu shot for the first time in my adult life. Yes, call me a germaphobe! Make my day!
In addition, I always bring my over-the-ear Bose headphones when I take a long flight, along with an eye mask (a good one, not one of the cheap ones they give you on the plane) and a pair of earplugs, so that I can block out as much noise as possible. To stay moisturized, I use lip balm and lotion.
I would also say bring some books or magazines. Watching a movie or two is nice, but remember–there’s a lot of free time. I’m usually tired of staring at a screen by the fourth movie. I like having something on paper to read to give my eyes a break. But don’t be that person who never turns off the overhead light when everyone else is trying to sleep.
Keeping a Positive Mentality
This is one of the most important things I try to remember when I’m about to take a long flight: Don’t think about it! Don’t dwell on the number of hours. Don’t focus on the number of layovers. I’m honestly not excited by the idea of leaving D.C., flying to Germany, waiting 3 hours, flying to Turkey, and then waiting 3 more hours for another flight—with customs and security checks included. It can seem very daunting to know that you have twenty hours of flying ahead of you, so it’s better to take things minute by minute, hour by hour, leg by leg. The destination will validate the journey.
Thanks for reading my 25th post! What are some other good tips for surviving a long flight? I’m always happy to improve my experiences up in the air.