How to Survive a Long Haul Flight

I've spent the best part of two decades in travel journalism so I've taken a lot of long-haul flights. And I think I've got it down to a fine art.
11/16/2012 05:18 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013
A United Airlines Boeing 787 takes off for its first scheduled commercial flight from Houston to Chicago, with more than 200
A United Airlines Boeing 787 takes off for its first scheduled commercial flight from Houston to Chicago, with more than 200 customers on board Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012 in Houston at Bush International Airport. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Eric Kayne)

I've spent the best part of two decades in travel journalism so I've taken a lot of long-haul flights. And I think I've got it down to a fine art. Flying is stressful, most people agree on that. And I believe one of the reasons it's stressful is that passengers have no control over the process. Airline staff even jokingly refer to us as "self loading freight".

So I believe the key to reducing the stress of flying is in taking control of the experience. At least, control the controllables.

First, let me admit that I am a bit of a control freak. I prefer to watch movies at home rather than in the cinema because I like to be able to set the volume at my preferred level, and not to have to listen to my neighbors snacking all through the quiet scenes. I like maps and timetables.

So I prefer an aisle seat, not just because I feel that I have more leg and elbow room, but because I don't want to ask anybody else's permission to go to the bathroom or fetch something from the overhead locker.

However, I'm not an anxious flyer. I don't much like airports but I enjoy being in the air. I like the views from 30,000ft and the feeling of excitement and anticipation before arriving in a new place. Some frequent flyers get jaded or fearful. I'm neither of those.

It starts like this. A couple of days before a flight I will check Seat Guru to find the optimum seat. I like to be as far forward as possible in the cabin, to reduce noise. I believe ambient noise is a major cause of stress on long-haul flights. However, I'll try to sit a couple of rows back from the bulkhead seats as this is where families with babies are usually seated.

Most airlines allow you to check in online 24 hours before departure. I'm on the website, right on the dot.

For the flight I dress as smart as I can without compromising comfort. The temperature on aircraft -- particularly on overnight flights - tends to fluctuate wildly so layering is the key. A combination of inactivity and low cabin pressure causes your feet to swell, so comfortable shoes are essential.

I arrive at the airport in plenty of time. When I was younger I would cut it fine, believing my time was valuable. Now I realize that it's less stressful to get there earlier, go through security and relax.

I also do a lot of walking in airports. If I'm going to be sitting down for the next 10 hours I don't want to be slumped in an airport chair. If I can find a quiet corner I'll do some yoga stretches.

Now for the most important thing: my travel kit. If I'm only away for a few days I try to avoid checking luggage, but realistically that's not always possible.

Anybody who flies a lot will have experienced the annoyance of arriving at the end of a long flight to find their checked bag didn't make it on the aircraft. So I always carry enough clothing to see me through the first 24 hours: spare underwear, sunglasses, a pair of swimming trunks / shorts, swimming goggles. At least I can relax on the beach or in the hotel pool while the airline tries to locate my checked bag.

As a journalist, I always carry a laptop (a rather bulky MacBook Pro). And, of course, I take a charger and a universal adapter in my cabin bag. Plus a surge protector, just in case.

One of the small pleasures of flying business class is the little amenity kit you are given. In reality these aren't anything special: a cheap toothbrush, a pen, a thin pair of socks. As I don't regularly fly business, I pack my own amenity kit and it's better than any I've been given by an airline.

Here's what my amenity kit contains:

  • Earplugs. I never travel without earplugs. I like the foam variety, which I buy in bulk on eBay. They're very cheap. Some airlines hand them out, others don't (which I suspect is because crew get fed up with trying to talk to passengers who can't hear them).

  • Eyeshades. I have a really good quality set.
  • Flight socks. Aside from the fact they may help prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT), they stop your feet swelling and keep your toes and legs warm.
  • Spectacles case. So I know my glasses are safe while I'm sleeping.
  • Blow-up pillow. They aren't perfect, but better than nothing.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste.
  • A small tube of moisturiser and eye drops to combat the dry cabin air.
  • Another key part of my kit is a pair of decent noise-reduction headphones. I like Sennheiser PXC 250-II, which cost about $120 in the US. I also have a headphone adapter so I can use my Sennheisers to watch a movie, rather than use the cheap pair provided by the airline.

    I board the aircraft as soon as I can, to ensure I can put my bag in the overhead bin above my seat. I check the seatbelt works, and that I have a blanket. Anything in the seatback container that I don't need (airline magazine, duty free catalogue) I throw in the overhead bin and replace it with my own kit. If there appears to be a empty seat nearby I might discreetly grab the "spare" blanket. One is rarely enough.

    What about meals? I actually quite like airline food but I'm careful what I eat if I plan to sleep. I avoid anything with caffeine (including chocolate), stay away from sugary desserts, avoid carbonated drinks (which cause bloating) and restrict alcohol to a single glass of red wine. I take my own snacks - usually muesli bars - and a large bottle of water.

    When I've finished eating I don't wait for the cabin crew to collect the tray - I take it to the galley (another advantage of an aisle seat) and ask if I can help bin the trash. This makes a good impression with the crew, which can come in handy later, and means I'm first in the bathroom. By the time my fellow passengers have their trays collected I'm settling down for a sleep.

    One of the reasons people feel exhausted after a long flight is dehydration, caused by the thin dry cabin air. To combat that, I drink a lot of fluids throughout the flight. Yes, that can mean a lot of bathroom visits, but I'm in an aisle seat, so it's not a big deal. And it means I can regularly stretch my legs, reducing the risk of a DVT.

    Another reason for exhaustion is jet lag. There is no cure for this, but on boarding the flight I always set my watch to the time of my destination and start trying to think myself into that new time zone. I pop a melatonin 20 minutes before trying to get to sleep. I'm convinced that helps to reset my body clock and ensure I hit the ground running.

    Mark Hodson is editor of 101 Holidays