8 tips for surviving long flights
Long-haul flights have nothing on me.
I spent most of my 20s living in South Korea, and each of those years meant at least one back-and-forth trip home to the U.S., if not more.
Those trans-Pacific flights were always on a fledgling journalist’s meager salary, which meant flying coach (unless I miraculously got bumped up to business class). Back then, I had precious few vacation days, and I wanted every moment spent at home in the U.S. to count. That meant hitting the ground running, with minimal jet lag and lots of energy to meet up with friends.
I was fresh out of college when I got my plane routine down to a science, but these tips can apply to any business traveler today. After years of 10+ hour flights, I’ve learned it’s all about the preparation — what happens before you actually get on the plane.
1. Request a special meal when you book your flight.
This is one of the simplest ways of making an international flight tolerable. And they’re free on most airlines.
I swear by the “Asian vegetarian meal,” which usually means Indian food. There are also vegan, halal and gluten-free options, to name a few.
To me, the special meals have proved superior to what everyone else gets, plus you are served first. Most standard airline meals are very heavy on the simple carbs, which lack the fiber to keep your digestive system moving. Traveler’s constipation is real, and you want to avoid it. (Along those lines, be sure to pack healthy snacks for the journey — fiber-rich foods like raw almonds and fresh fruit are my favorites.)
2. Wear something comfortable but classy.
I am opposed to dressing like a schlub while traveling. I usually go with a sweater dress or jersey dress that feels just as comfy as a giant T-shirt, only way more put-together. I’ll pair that with leggings, slip-off shoes and socks. (I shudder at the thought of going barefoot through security.) My stylish male friends recommend wrinkle-resistant button-down shirts and trousers with loafers. Leave constricting clothes (rigid blazers, skinny jeans, anything with a tight waistband) in your suitcase. I also bring a large silk pashmina for extra warmth — I always need it.
3. When you board, set your watch to your destination time (or use the World Clock function on your smartphone).
Do your best to sleep when it’s nighttime at your destination, and stay awake when it’s daytime there. Strangely, flight crews will adjust the lights and feed you on a schedule that is often not at all conducive to adjusting to a new time zone, so you have to exercise some self-discipline.
4. Drink tons of water.
I know, I know — that means getting up to use the plane bathroom a lot. (Get an aisle seat.) But planes are notoriously dehydrating, and staying hydrated is a huge part of braving any flight. You should be chugging water the day before your flight, the day of your flight, during the flight, and after. If you’re awake on the plane, you should be drinking water.
Also, bring your own water bottle aboard. Depending on the airline, fill it up before boarding (ask the gate agent if that’s OK — it’s not on some international flights to the U.S.) or ask a flight attendant to fill it up right when you get on the plane. They’ll bring the full bottle back to your seat.
Related: 10 great gadgets when you’re going somewhere
Sitting in a cramped seat for hours is literally a pain. That’s what makes stretching an all-important step. When you have to be seated, remember to occasionally twist your torso and look behind each shoulder. Just rolling your head back and forth a few times will help alleviate a stiff neck. And when the seatbelt sign is off, take walks to the bathroom area to stretch your legs and hips. Get more great tips here.
6. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Sorry to be a bummer. A stiff drink or a hot cup of coffee come as a comfort to many, but both alcohol and caffeine disrupt your ability to sleep. Passing out after three gin-and-tonics on the plane does not actually provide meaningful rest. Booze also dehydrates you and wrecks your skin.
7. Pack a plane “survival kit” in your carry-on, and keep it near your seat.
Here’s what’s in mine: Eye mask; ear plugs; lotion with SPF and/or hand cream (no, the plane windows do not block UV rays, and yes, you can damage your skin at 20,000 feet); face cream (I use the Korean brand Laneige’s Water Sleeping Mask, while the jet-setting makeup artist Lisa Eldridge has her own recommendations here); hand sanitizer; and toothbrush, toothpaste, floss.
I load up my iPhone and iPad to help me stay awake during daylight hours at my destination. This White Noise app is also a godsend. Don’t forget a portable charger and cables, just in case your seat doesn’t come with a USB jack. Old, unread issues of The New Yorker suffice as a low-tech option — they have the advantage of being text-dense and lightweight compared to other magazines.
Long-haul flights aren’t easy on the body or mind. But hopefully, these tips will help you feel more like a human when you land at your destination.