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Maintaining Your Sanity During Long-Haul Flights

jeikabu profile image jeikabu Originally published at rendered-obsolete.github.io on ・10 min read

living_overseas (5 Part Series)

1) Working Abroad 2) Moving Abroad 3) Boots on the Ground 4) Maintaining Your Sanity During Long-Haul Flights 5) Long-Distance Relationships vs. Quarantine

Thinking back, I’ve flown somewhere between 15,000 and 70,000 miles a year for each of the last 15 years. What constitutes a “long” flight is relative, but I’d wager anything close to 10 hours (or longer) is eligible. At this point the normal rules of human attention span and sitting tolerance break down, and the numbing effects of jet-lag are highly probable.

It goes without saying that a lot of this is subjective, depends on your body size/type, varies by region, etc. I’d love to hear additional tips/tricks you’ve discovered.

Pre-Flight

Many considerations involve decisions long before you leave for the airport.

Route Selection

Look for an itinerary with a long-ish layover (6+ hours) midway. Few things lessen the strain of travel like cutting it in half and spending the night in an airport hotel.

Miles/Points Status

Reward/loyalty programs exist for most carriers. Leveling up in one of these unlocks a number of things that can make traveling more pleasant. In a previous post I wrote:

If you do any amount of business travel as well, you can really stockpile them. Even if someone else does the booking, many airlines will allow you to retroactively get a credit.

The points by themselves are worthwhile since you can redeem them for flights, hotel rooms, and car rentals. But you can advance to higher levels/tiers in the loyalty program: “silver”, “gold”, whatever.

The perks depend on the airline, route, and your level, but may include:

  • Seat upgrades: usually extra leg-room and on some airlines you even get a slightly wider seat or other perks.
  • Lounge access: when waiting for a connection after a 10+ hour flight sometimes it’s nice to be somewhere with quiet, better wifi, more outlets, nicer chairs and bathrooms, and food and drink (including booze).
  • Luggage allowance: depending on the airline and route you get extra checked bags and/or increased weight limits. This can be especially handy when moving.
  • More points: gain points faster (more per mile flown) at higher levels.

Depending on the route there may be one clear airline to invest in. If you’ll be flying between major hubs and there’s a wide choice of airlines it’s still worth considering. If I had to choose between saving $100 on on a $1000 ticket with another airline versus getting the miles to level-up with my usual carrier, I’d pick the latter.

Two things I’ll add:

  • Points are also generally applicable to the airline alliance
  • Additional perks that you may get:
    • Earlier boarding priority. Helpful if you need more time, travel with children, or need to get a carry-on (or two) into overhead storage.
    • Baggage priority. Checked luggage de-planes sooner- it all seems to get handled the same, however.
    • Booking benefits. There’s many different services from special hotlines, waived service charges, re-booking and standby, etc.

Seat Selection

Most airlines let you pick your seat assignment either at booking, within X hours of departure, or at check-in. Do it.

Look for (potentially free) upgrades to the “premium” or economy “plus” or whatever the airline calls the better economy seating.

Aisle

An aisle seat generally leaves you with the most horizontal space and gives you freedom to go to the restroom or get up and stretch. Being right-handed I prefer having the aisle on my right side as that will give me full mobility of my dominant hand.

If you’ve got a carry-on under the seat in front of you it can be a bit awkward to rummage through it. It’s often easier to slide it into the aisle to rescue some item from the bottom.

If the seat includes a movable armrest for wheelchair accessibility it can be raised by pressing a button or lever either on the underside or back of the armrest. This lets you slip out of your seat without having to put your tray up or trying to juggle drink/laptop/food-tray/etc.

Special Rows

Emergency exits are always good. But I like bulkheads- the first row after business/first or bathrooms/gally- even more:

  • Ample leg space
  • Prop your legs up against the bulkhead (depends on your height)
  • Reduced cart/foot traffic going past you (only if end of seating section)

I’ve seen people that bring folding/inflatable foot-stools on board. They deserve a tip-o-the-hat for being travel savvy. A sturdy piece of luggage works just as well.

Be aware that you generally lose stowage under the seat in front of you. You’ll need to place everything in overhead compartment during take-off and landing.

Window

Some people swear by the window seat as it gives you the best option for leaning up against something to sleep. Personally, I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, and dislike how the outer wall of the plane curves down into the space for your feet. But, investigate this for yourself.

Meal Preference

Most airline meals aren’t as bad as the stereotypes would have you believe (some are actually worse). But, sometimes: they run out of your first choice, or the “meat” is dubious at best. At one point I started requesting the vegetarian/vegan meal option and decided that it was better than the regular meal on average.

Power

For longer flights your battery operated devices might not be able to make it. USB ports for power are increasingly common, so keep charging cables in your carry-on.

There’s often power outlets between seats. They’re frequently too loose to support the weight of a Mac power adapter, so either use a cable so you can set the adapter on the floor or invest in one of the lighter GaN adapters.

Depending on where you’re flying to/from and the carrier you may also need a plug adapter.

Depending on the devices in your entourage, consider investing in a power bank- especially one that supports USB Power Delivery. Anker among others make batteries capable of powering my laptop, my Nintendo Switch, or my phone. The FAA limits batteries to 100 Wh so even the larger 26,800 mAh batteries fly (26800 mAh * 3.6V / 1000 = 96.48 Wh).

Seat Cushion

On older planes and budget airlines the seats don’t seem to be designed for comfort. If you’re slender or lacking in posterior your derriere can really suffer on flights. And then there’s the dreaded “swamp butt”. I won’t go into details, but modern synthetic materials seem to have been designed to be easy to clean rather than maximizing air flow. Consider looking into a portable cushion like the Purple Everywhere.

Noise-Canceling Headphones

Contrary to what the name implies, noise-canceling won’t make the flight silent, but it will be quieter. Most importantly, you’ll be able to listen to music, watch TV/movies, and play games at a sane volume without blaring over the background drone.

Now ubiquitous in airports, both the Bose QC35 and Sony WH-1000XM have sufficient battery life and are comfortable for long flights, albeit pricey.

The bluetooth variants get that cable out of the way and ensure you never need to juggle your device or avoid getting ensnared should your neighbor need to get out.

If you wear glasses, the case also makes a nice place to stash them while you sleep.

Sleep Aids

Neck cushions, eye masks, auxiliary bedding, etc. I don’t like carrying extra, bulky stuff and rarely sleep anyway, so I don’t have strong opinions about this stuff.

Meds

Sleep aids. Either heavy stuff you’ve talked to a doctor about or natural solutions like melatonin. In either case, try it before you fly. Melatonin gives me intense, hellishly lucid dreams that would surely cause concern on a flight. You also don’t want to wake in a strange land groggy and confused.

Dramamine for motion sickness. Luckily, this is not a problem for me, and cannot vouch for its effectiveness. Let’s assume you know if it’s a problem for you and about its effectiveness.

You’re going to be in closed spaces with recycled air and at least one sick person. Consider getting your flu shot and taking an immune system booster. Do they actually work? No idea. But preventative measures are cheap and easy.

I never fly without a tiny container of aspirin. If you’re prone to headaches and often need Tylenol, have a back/shoulders that flare up and need ibuprofen, or whatever- bring it. Nothing is worse than having to sit through the flight in discomfort.

Packing

Long flights are painfully dry. I always bring chapstick, eye drops, travel skin lotion, and arrange to have a bottle of water on board. When I can be bothered, a thermal bottle pre-loaded with tea is a wondrous comfort. Just be mindful of security gates you have to pass through and be sure to de-liquify it.

If you’re prone to getting hangry or blood sugar swings like me, bring snacks. You can always ask the airline staff for something, but I’d rather have a protein bar than whatever they have to offer.

Bring essential toiletries, a change of undergarments, and other absolute necessities in your carry-on. It doesn’t happen often- perhaps ~5% of my flights, but if your luggage gets misplaced you won’t be miserable.

Wardrobe

Dress for comfort. I like to wear sandals, or bring a pair of slippers to change into and put my “proper” shoes in the overhead compartment. Another option is to grab a pair of disposable slippers provided by some hotels.

Flights generally get pretty cool after a few hours. Unless you tend to run hot, bring a light jacket and socks.

Frequent Traveling

If you fly into the U.S. frequently and are eligible, take a look at Global Entry. Besides breezing through U.S. immigration, it automatically enrolls you in TSA PreCheck- which is handy even for domestic travel.

I used to be a die-hard believer in this, but re-entry has gotten a lot smoother and more automated and PreCheck more crowded over the past few years.

Itinerary

If you're traveling for work, try to take a few extra days off to actually enjoy where you're going. Either for opportunistic activities or just sight-seeing. It puts your mind in the context of "mini-vacation" instead of boring "work trip".

Device Readiness

Buy a book for your e-reader, grab docs/movies/videos for offline viewing, download the airline app to partake in in-flight entertainment, switch Steam to offline mode, and so on to give yourself a few options to kill time. I find that I can generally program or read the first part of the flight, but for the second part I'm generally too frazzled to do anything but play dumb games or watch movies.

You should also download offline maps and other apps necessary for your destination.

Anxiety Management

Take care of things well in advance so you're not overwhelmed at the last minute and fretting about what you forgot. I don't mind chilling in the airport for an hour, I hate barely making flights.

Arrange for someone to check on your pets/children/flat. Use your phone to make a quick tutorial video showing them where kibble/snacks and sundry accouterments are to be found or how to perform necessary tasks.

Clean your house, or if nothing else, definitely take out the trash before you leave. Coming back from a long trip to a filthy flat sucks.

Before Take-Off

I like to walk around airports. I’m not a big duty free shopper or anything. I just don’t understand the appeal of sitting in the waiting area right before a 10+ hour flight.

  • Buy gifts for friends/family/co-workers/partners.
  • Pick up snacks and a bottle of water (now that you’re through security), or fill your own water bottle.
  • Indulge in over-priced, poorly rendered versions of local cuisine
  • Currency exchange. There’s usually either a lousy exchange rate or a steep service charge. But, it’s preferable to not being able to use a card and not having any cash.

Booze

Airport lounges and international flights generally serve free booze. If you like to partake, keep in mind it’s a diuretic and means more bathroom trips as well as dehydration.

Nicotine

If, like several of my friends/co-workers, you smoke/vape. Some airports have convenient smoking lounges, others require you to exit security or are just unpleasant/well-hidden. Regardless, you can’t smoke anywhere on planes. There’s gum and lozenges that can help you avoid flipping out at 35,000 feet.

The vapes with juice reservoirs, like fountain pens, may be prone to leak with the pressure changes. If it’s in your pocket you’re going to absorb the nicotine through your skin and end up with nicotine poisoning. My co-worker assures me this is extremely unpleasant.

I’m not a smoker so there’s likely lots more tips/tricks. Consider taking the opportunity to quit, or in the weeks leading up to your flight at least taper down.

On-Board

Poor-man’s Upgrade

While the plane is boarding (and certainly after the “boarding completed” announcement) it should become fairly clear how empty the flight is. Sometimes I check the seating map just prior to departure to claim a different seat in advance.

I will mention that staff prefer passengers wait until boarding is completed and only move within the same seating class. Respect the wishes and requests of the flight crew at all times.

Keep Calm

Be pleasant, courteous, and friendly to the crew and your fellow passengers. You've stuck with each other for the duration and getting agitated or venting frustration really won't help matters at all- and there's nowhere to flee to. When flight cancellations or other disasters strike, a friendly smile and calm demeanor will get you a lot further than a lot of attitude.

When not in the right mental state, try meditating, stretching and breathing exercises, or listening to music.

Other

Keep your stuff together. Resist the urge to place stuff in the seat pocket in front of you- lest you forget it. When the time comes to de-plane if you’re been awake for 36 hours or barely slept you’ll be pretty insane.

living_overseas (5 Part Series)

1) Working Abroad 2) Moving Abroad 3) Boots on the Ground 4) Maintaining Your Sanity During Long-Haul Flights 5) Long-Distance Relationships vs. Quarantine

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