Confession: I hate to fly, and that hatred hasn't diminished one single iota in my years of hauling myself around the world. This abhorrence doesn't stem from anxiety, or from fear of crashing. It's the almost unbearable hassle involved at every step in the process.
There's the trek to the airport, which tacks hours onto travel time; the circus at security (where I once had a stuffed lizard confiscated – true story); the inevitable delays; the Las Vegas-like affect of artificial time and air; and the worst part: whiling away 15+ hours at 30,000 feet, trapped in cattle class with people I'd rather not know so intimately.
But here's the thing: there's simply no other practical way to see the world. If you want adventure, it's the ticket to see the show. And I promise that the rewards far exceed the cost of admission.
The advice you'll hear most often from experienced long-haul travelers is to upgrade. Business class makes a long flight bearable, and first-class makes it enjoyable, say the jet-setters. I don't disagree, but not everyone has an endless supply of frequent-flier miles, and I prefer to get the most mileage out of my, er, miles. If I can get two economy class round-trip fares or one round-trip business class ticket, I'll always opt for two trips. More adventure is always the goal!
Each tip that follows is geared towards the economy class (coach) traveler.
Get Your Gear
Gone are the days of (most) airlines handing out kits containing hydrating sprays, toothbrushes, and masks misted with essential oils. You'll need to bring your own eye mask, earplugs, thick socks, and noise-cancelling headphones. Trust me that these are not pansy accoutrements, they are survival tools. With the exception of the headphones, they don't add bulk to your luggage, and you'll be thankful for every small luxury.
The headphones require some explanation. As a frequent flier with an uncompromising “no checked bags” policy, it took me years to make room in my system for such an indulgence. I knew I wouldn't use them outside of the plane, so I couldn't justify the spend, the space in my bag, or the additional weight. But the truth is that you can barely hear the dialogue on movies you watch with airline headphones, and anything that quiets the din of crying children, pilot announcements, engine noise, and the clanking meal cart is worth it.
Choose Your Seat Wisely
Aisle vs. window vs. exit: consider that your answer is probably different for a long-haul flight than it is for a shorter one. Each has its drawbacks, but consider each scenario carefully. In an aisle seat, you'll be disrupted by row-mates who are antsy for the toilet, and they might not be considerate enough to wait until you're awake. Sitting by a window, you could be trapped by a snorer when you've hit your breaking point and are desperate for a leg stretch. And an exit row doesn't always mean more room: sometimes the thick exit doors just encroach on what little space you would have had.
Consider where you'll be most comfortable (or the least uncomfortable), research your aircraft on SeatGuru, and call the airline ahead of time to secure your seat preference. If you're not able to get the seat you want when you call, try asking at the gate. If the flight isn't full, the gate agent can make last-minute seat reassignments.
The surprising trick to surviving any flight longer than 8 hours is to minimize boredom.
Let's say you're on a 15-hour flight from Newark to Hong Kong. If you're very lucky, you might manage 7-8 hours of patchy sleep, leaving another 7-8 hours in which you're trapped, strapped into a seat that does not respect your spine's natural curves, your limbs folded like a praying mantis, possibly driven to drink and to check the flight path every twenty minutes.
Some people – usually parents of small children enjoying the luxury of solo travel – simply relish the time to themselves, and can rest peacefully the entire trip. But for most of us with a twenty-first century attention span, battling hours of boredom in the air requires an arsenal of lowbrow entertainment. That's right: muscle mags and gossip rags, rom-coms, episodes of 30 Rock that you've already seen.
When you flick through the on-board entertainment guide, you'll most likely notice that they're offering a documentary on the Tsukiji fish market, or that obscure Japanese drama about children trapped in an apartment that you couldn't get anyone to watch with you. You'll probably feel very strongly that you should use these 15 hours to catch up on culture, after you've composed responses to every aged item in your inbox and tidied up that Powerpoint presentation. Take it from me: this is about survival; it's not a time to be high-brow. Do plan to do some work, but don't expect spreadsheets and business cases to see you through the merciless middle hours of this ordeal.
Sleep is critical to getting through a long-haul flight, and it also plays an important part in adjusting to your new time zone. How much you should sleep and how to achieve it (sleeping pills or all natural?) depends on a few factors: the duration of your flight; what time you leave and the local time at arrival; and, most importantly, how you react to sleeping aids. Don't knock yourself out just to get through the journey. Consider all of the inputs, and then formulate a sleeping strategy.
To conclude, a few more of my long-haul travel maxims.
- If possible, fly overnight rather than during the day. You're more likely to sleep – which means less time being bored – and, while your first day on the ground will be a long one, you'll suffer less from jet lag.
- If you carry-on your luggage (which everyone should do), pack your toiletries in the bag that you'll stow under your seat, so you can freshen up without the hassle of removing your suitcase from the overhead locker.
- If you wear contacts, take them out during the flight and wear your glasses, even if you don't intend to sleep.
- The old adage about staying hydrated is perfectly true. After you go through security, buy the biggest bottle of water you can find, and take it with you on the plane.
- Drink up – but be careful what you drink. No alcohol or caffeine, and no airplane food.
And the most important tip of all: don't be intimidated by a long itinerary. That time you wasted last Saturday catching up on TiVo and nursing a hangover? You could have been halfway to Australia.