On one of my many travel days, I was finding my seat on a plane for a connecting flight. A man sheepishly asked me if I minded giving up my aisle seat for a middle seat so that he could sit next to his wife.
I told him, “Sure, no problem. This is a short flight anyway.”
The man on the other side of me sputtered, “Short flight?! It’s four hours!”
I guess my perspective had shifted because I had just come from a 14-hour flight, two hours of standing in customs and luggage recheck lines, and a connecting flight before that. And I still had another flight scheduled after that one.
Traveling to other countries is a wonderful gift for which I’m grateful. However, the length of intercontinental flights can be overwhelming. Once you consider the uncomfortable proximity of strangers, sitting in an airplane seat for 14 hours becomes much more unsettling than sitting on your couch for the same amount of time binging on Netflix.
To alleviate some of the stress, I’ve assembled the ultimate guide to surviving especially long flights.
THE DAY BEFORE:
Sort out your carry-ons CAREFULLY. This depends on how you need to distribute your luggage weight between your checked bags and your carry-ons, but the less you have to lug around on long travel days, the easier your life will be.
Also, look out for anything that might flag scanners at the airport. Besides the banned items, agents have searched my backpack because of a purse within my backpack, a tangled mess of charging cables, a coin purse, batteries, and aggressive-looking keychains. And once the person searching your carry-on gets to the bottom of the last pocket, they rarely place everything back neatly.
The most notable exception was in Japan, when the security agent asked me permission to remove every item from my backpack, one at a time. Then he asked me if it was okay to place item back in. While I appreciated how thoroughly polite he was, it was a tedious process during a limited layover time.
Pick your favorite outfit for travel day. Waiting in hours of lines and not lying down for a day or more can make people feel less than their best. At least it’ll help if you’re in
an outfit that makes you look good. And be sure to find an outfit that allows for bloating, feet swelling, and seat belts digging into your waist.
Oh, and wear socks. Nobody wants a barefoot passenger traipsing through the security line.
Pack a small change of clothes and toiletries. I stick with a fresh pair of underwear, socks, a toothbrush, travel-sized toothpaste, a hairbrush and some deodorant. Then, I duck into a bathroom before standing in a long line or waiting for my transportation from the airport to the hotel. Taking time to freshen up reduces my crankiness.
Get a good night’s sleep . . . or don’t. For most passengers, sleeping on a plane is difficult. Your neck is strained even with an airplane pillow, you can’t curl up, and you have to sleep semi-vertically. Cutting back on sleep the night before might help you pass out on a long plane ride. For me, since I can rarely sleep at all on planes, I’d rather have one last full night of sleep before acknowledging I’m not going to sleep the next day. Plus, standing in long immigration and security lines while groggy can lead to accidentally leaving a suitcase behind or heading to the wrong terminal.
THE MORNING OF:
Charge all of your appliances. I recommend investing in a battery-powered charger for your appliances, too.
Download your entertainment to your devices. Most airplanes have dozens of movies and television shows available on the back of the seat in front of you on international flights. Still, I recommend non-visual entertainment when your eyes are tired of the strain. Podcasts, music, and audiobooks are great for resting your eyes.
Shower. This isn’t meant to condescend to your hygiene; what I mean is to shower as close to your departure time as possible. I normally prefer to shower at night, but when it may be 36 hours before I see a private bathroom again, you can bet I’ll be showering within an hour of when I leave for the airport.
Bring an empty water bottle. In most North American airports, you can refill it once you get past security and save yourself $4. If you’re in a country that doesn’t have a water fountain in the airport, you can at least ask a flight attendant for two cups of water on the plane to fill it so you don’t dehydrate on the long plane ride.
AT THE AIRPORT:
Give yourself plenty of time to get there. Yes, I know, you want to spend as little time as possible at your home airport, but you have to allow for traffic and long security lines. You never know if delays, a power outage, or some other emergency has caused backup at your first airport.
Take anti-motion sickness precautions. Not everyone is as cursed with motion sickness as I am, but in case you do run into awful turbulence, come prepared. I take motion sickness pills, but it’s important to note those take a full hour to be effective, so I plan accordingly. I also stock up on everything with ginger, which is a natural anti-nausea spice — ginger drops, ginger chews, candied ginger, ginger tea bags, and ginger ale once I’m on the plane. It’s better to prepare for motion sickness before you hit turbulence than to experience nausea and wait for these remedies to kick in.
Download your airline’s app. I have found the airline’s apps to usually be the first with flight updates, before the monitors at the airport or the email notifications. Also, when you’re flying internationally, research your airline’s alliance and ask if you can transfer your frequent flyer miles to your domestic airline.
Hold back the sass. There’s something about airports that brings out the worst in people. Flight delays cause people to snap at employees at the check-in desk; power-tripping TSA agents condescend to passengers in the security line; passengers elbow each other and merge to the front of the line to board the plane like it’s the Hunger Games and roll their eyes if they lose.
You have your ticket, so you will have a seat. You gave yourself time to get through the airport. If you miss your connection, you can reschedule to a different flight and get home eventually. Just relax and don’t feed into the competitive energy in airports. I find that when employees are snippy with me, it’s because they’ve already spent four hours straight dealing with other snippy passengers. Once I relax and treat travel day as a low-stress situation, the effect is contagious.
And finally, enjoy! Look at long travel days as opportunities, not a chore. A long plane ride is a chance to catch up on all the Academy Award nominations from that year or read that book you’ve been meaning to finish. Killing time at a layover means I indulge in an expensive coffee treat that I don’t normally buy anymore. And waiting in line at immigration or baggage claim is usually no worse than 30 minutes of your time, which can be spent people-watching passengers from different cultures.