Coping with a Long Haul Flight

With the Thanksgiving weekend in the USA this week, the holiday travel season begins.  For many, the holidays mean travel on packed planes and at times over long distances.  Coping with a long haul flight requires for some a bit of tactical planning to minimize discomfort and irritation which might ruin the occasion.  Everyone has a different style and set of preferences, and here are some tips from a few decades of travel:

Plan for Disruption

The airlines fly fuller planes these days than they did years ago.  Any weather delays or maintenance issues quickly cascade into disruptions affecting entire hubs with many connections and with fuller flights, getting out on the next available flight may mean a different day.

  • Consider buying the trip insurance when you purchase your tickets.  Airlines are not responsible for weather or air traffic delays and unless you are an upper tier frequent flyer, forget about the airline paying for hotel or meals.  The trip insurance will reimburse for such expenses though and I have made many a claim vs. spending the night on the floor of the airport terminal.  If your plans are going to be disrupted, plan for comfort.
  • Keep a change of underwear and toiletries in carry on luggage.  This way, when you are delayed overnight you can at least freshen up.
  • Keep the airline reservations number handy or on speed dial.  When disruptions happen, the customer service desk in the terminal will have very long lines as everyone else waits to rebook flights and missed connections.  Call while in line instead of waiting.
  • Consider skipping the line entirely and head to the airline’s club if they have one in the airport.  If you do not have an annual membership, many clubs sell day passes and the staff there can assist with your rebooking.  The club staff are always more courteous than the customer service staff out in the terminal, plus you get the added benefit of refuge front he crowds, free snacks and beverages, and a comfortable place to work or relax while coping with the delay.
  • Winter means snow in many places.  Does anyone remember Christmas past with many travelers stranded in Denver?  In New York?  Travelers had to wait many any days in some cases to get out on other flights.  If you are worried about weather, consider purchasing a refundable one way ticket the next day so you have a better chance at getting on a flight when a weather disaster strikes.  Just be sure to cancel the reservation prior to scheduled departure if it will not be needed and it is fully refundable.

Seat Selection

Nobody likes a middle seat.  Beyond that it is a matter of preference for either a window or an aisle and both have advantages and disadvantages.  For a long haul flight where I really need to sleep, I prefer a window seat as I have a side to lean up against as well as leaning back.  If ease of getting up is a concern, go for an aisle seat.

Exit seats do offer extra legroom, and most airlines charge extra for these.  Be careful here though, as some exit seats do not recline at all.  Imagine paying extra for no recline!  Also, exit seats are narrower as the tray tables are in the arm rests, so unless you are of a smaller build, these may be very uncomfortable on longer flights.

One secret here that can often score a great seat, is to study the seat plan for the aircraft before heading to the airport.  Airlines reserve up to 30% of the seats for the gate agents to assign the day of the flight.  When checking in, ask for bulkhead seat by row number from your prior research.  If there are no families with infants needing them, (the bassinet often attaches to the bulkhead), the gate agent should be able to assign the seat to you if you ask and no one else has beat you to it.  The leg room may be a little tight, but I am 6’4″ ad even on an international flight have always been comfortable with these.  Plus, there is usually enough room for the person with a window seat to get up and walk around or use the restroom without causing the person seated on the aisle to get up.

Eat Before You Board

Unless you are in premium class, where meals are prepared by chefs, (they are often not that good even then), skip the meal and eat before you board, particularly on overnight flights.  Airports have increasingly better food selections these days and and skipping the meal gives you added shuteye.

Avoid greasy or spicy foods, foods that may cause gas, and tomato based dishes.  Definitely no pizza before you fly!  Also avoid soft drinks, coffee, tea, or drinks which contain caffeine. Water works best as it keeps you hydrated and you can always hit the restroom right before you board.

The window seat is best for this strategy as you will not be disturbed by the aisle carts and flight attendants reaching over you.  Grab a pair of eye shades and earplugs and get to sleep right after takeoff.  Put a strip of masking tape on your eye shades and write “Do Not Disturb” on it so that the flight attendant does not wake you for the meal you do not want.  Be sure to have your seat belt on as they WILL wake you if you don’t.

Avoid The Booze

I used to think a few glasses of wine would help me sleep on those red eye flights.  While it is true, the wine will help you fall asleep quickly, the sleep will not be restful and you are better off staying up during the flight and watching the movie since you will feel about the same when you arrive.  If you must indulge, limit alcohol consumption to a single drink and take Melatonin instead.  I also find that taking a Valerian capsule, which you can get at health food stores, is helpful for staying asleep at least four hours.

Wear Comfortable Clothes

Tight fitting clothes are simply uncomfortable for a long haul flight.  The same goes for shoes.  Take a pair of flip flops or loose fitting sneakers, as well as a pair of sweatpants and a loose fitting shirt.  If you have a carry on, these can be placed there and you can change right before boarding, and also keep your regular clothes fresh to change into when you arrive.

Jet Lag

Some advise to adjust to your destination time zone before you travel.  This really is the best and most effective strategy, but for most of us, not practical.  From the experience of many red eye flights, I have found two methods to be best alternatives to dealing with jet lag:

  • If at all possible, take a power nap before you fly.A 30-60 minute nap the afternoon of your overnight flight will work wonders for you the next day when you arrive.  Do take the Melatonin and Valerian to help you fall asleep with this strategy.
  • At all costs, resist the temptation to head right to the hotel and sleep when you arrive from an overnight flight.  While many hotels enforce 4:00 PM check-in times, I have found that many hotels in Europe will let you check in early anyway.  Heading right to sleep is not helpful in adjusting the body’s circadian rhythms and only postpones the difficult adjustment process to the new time zone.Stay awake and engage in normal daily activity as long as possible, as well as get some direct sunlight.  You will sleep better that night, and be refreshed and recovered by the following morning.

Coping with long haul flights is possible with a bit of planning and the right approach.  What are the alternatives?  Avoid travel entirely and not go to see many far off places?  That is for you to decide, but I would vote for coping with long haul flights and head out to see the world.


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