9 things that make a difference on a long-haul flight

Photo: Hong Kong airport last Saturday, waiting for our connecting flight to Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Most people only fly long-haul every couple of years for a holiday, if that, but for a few of us, part of our job means we tend to be up in the air for 9+ hours 1 a few times a year 2.

I love flying, (I’m actually on one as I write this!) planes have always fascinated me. The idea of travelling huge distances in short amounts of time and being released from a metal tube into a completely new place with its own sights, smells and sounds. It’s the closest thing to time travel you can get!

Over the last 5 years Rachel and I have probably been on over 50 flights, at least 20-30 of those must have been long haul. By lots of standards, that doesn’t make us frequent flyers, but combined with my enthusiasm to hack the experience of flying, we’ve figured out how to make it a little more bearable.

1. Drink lots of water and only water

I’m sure a scientist could explain exactly why planes act like deserts and suck every drop of water from your body, but all I know is planes=dehydration.

You should aim to drink one of those small bottles of water per 2 hours you are on the flight, minimum. I promise you, you’ll feel much better at arrival even if you have to get up to go to the bathroom more3.

Although you might be tempted by offers of free alcohol, the reality is it contributes to dehydrating you and gives any sleep you do get a groggy lightness, STAY AWAY FROM IT.

2. Switch your clocks to destination time

One of the greatest battles for travel that moves between time zones is managing your body clock. I change every clock I have (laptop, phone, watch) once we take off and try and sleep and eat on that schedule.

I might leave my watch unchanged if I’m transferring through an airport in another time zone, but on the flight I’ll look at only the arrival location time and tell myself no other time zone exists. It sounds as bad as a 70’s self help book, but I’ve found if I can add 12+ hours (which living at the bottom of africa is pretty much any international flight), to my body clock adjustment things go a lot easier on arrival.

3. Get an aisle seat

There are two types of flyers, so the adage goes, aisle and window4. I am firmly in the aisle camp – you don’t have to bother your neighbour to get out, and you generally feel like you have more space (even though you probably don’t). There is nothing worse than drinking water (like I recommended in No.1) and having a grumpy aisle-seated neighbour to whom you have to apologise profusely every time you need to get out.

4. Strategic seat spacing

This is a trick on long haul flights, where if you and the person you are travelling with can reserve the two aisle seats on the central section of the plane then normally the two middle seats are the last to get taken (or if you are slightly less brave, seat 1 and 3 in a row of 4).

Then you and your travelling partner can lift the seat arms and take turns lying down in business class lite.

You increase your chance of those seats staying free the further back in the plane you are willing to go (but remember the further back, the louder the engine noise, the more you feel turbulence, and the less likely they are to have your meal choice left).

Worst case scenario here is that the plane is full and you have one or more people sitting inbetween you, but aisle seats are prime real-estate on planes and so I’ve never had any hassle with asking someone to take my aisle seat so I can sit next to a person I’m travelling with.

5. Create a schedule ordered from active to passive

This sounds massivley OCD, but I don’t mean you have to write out your schedule with timings, laminate it and then then follow it religiously!

Long haul flights, as the name implies, are long, so have a game plan.

Just like if you were forced to sit on your couch for 12+ hours but had nothing to do the time would feel longer, the same goes for flights.

Flights are a great time to work, write, read, watch and think. But the longer you are on the flight, the less-functional and able you are. If I want to write email, or plan some training, things I think I will need to be sharp for, I’ll do those first. After, I might read something and make notes for studying, then finally I will read a novel or watch a movie. As my tiredness increases the activity goes from active to passive.

This scheduling works to break the time up as well, Rachel’s add-on trick here is refuse to check the map or progress screen until she is sure she is 50% through the flight!

6. Batteries and backups

There’s not much worse than realising you lugged your electronics through the security check only to realise they are sub 50% on the battery indicator. Buy a power pack (5000mah+) that you can charge and then in turn can charge your electronics when they run low and make sure everything is turned off when not using it.

Similar for headphones that are powered (such as noise-cancelling ones – see point 7), bring a couple of AA or AAA batteries to keep them rolling.

7. Get the best noise cancelling headphones you can afford

Early on in our travelling life, my wife and some of her family all clubbed together to buy me some bose noise cancelling headphones. They were the best travel accessory we ever bought. Don’t get me wrong, they are not cheap at all 5but as the saying goes, ‘you get what you pay for’, and noise-cancelling headphones certainly follow the rule here.

Apparently bose researched the Hz level that engine noise sits at (which contributes most to your sense of monotony and tiredness) and cancels that out. The plus side is that they create great (if not a little bass biased) sounds both in the air and at home.

I had the over ear versions which worked great but would, when used for 9+ hours, start to feel warm and claustrophobic. Last year I upgraded them to the in-ear variety and the noise cancelling is significantly better due to the fact that the headphone itself isolates the sound closer to your ear, making for a better seal.

8. Be nice to airline employees

Unfortunately airplanes and airports often don’t bring out the best in people. Most travellers feel stressed, confused and out of control and they paid alot of money for the pleasure of it all.

Airline employees have to move people around and fit them in like cattle, but somehow help them reconcile that they paid the price of a luxury good for whole ordeal.

All that to say, airline employees are dealing with people who are primarily thinking of themselves the whole time; what they can get, how they can control their environment and get through their anxiety. The employees need a break!

Secondly, I’ve never, ever, seen someone be rude, short, abrasive and then receive better service or treatment on an aircraft. If you wanted to be treated like a human, then you have to treat the airlines employees that way.

Sometimes you’ll even find an airline employee who is curt, cold, and unengaged. An understandable posture for someone who is treated like I mentioned above, is leaving their friends and family, and negotiating time zones regularly. I’ve been amazed how easy it can be to change a persons day but speaking to them kindly with a smile, it may even lead to some special treatment.

9. Take a change of clothes (and some toiletries)

Imagine sitting on our couch for 9+ hours with varying temperatures, eating microwave meals and drinking plenty of liquids all without doing alot of movement. It’s not exactly a recipe for fresh hygiene.

About an hour before landing (normally right after breakfast on overnight flights) it feels great to head to the bathroom figure out some hygiene (deodrant, teeth brushing), change a t-shirt and some underwear.

This makes the difference between getting through the first day vs. feeling grimey and bad tempered. It also contributes to overcoming jet lag, even if you didn’t sleep, act like you just woke up, following some sense of morning ritual and your body will follow suit.

Do you travel regularly? leave your “10th tip” in the comments below

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  1. my own definition of long-haul 
  2. especially when you live at the bottom of Africa! 
  3. (which isn’t a problem if you follow No. 4) 
  4. although I’m tempted to think that the dichotomy falls along the same lines as occasional/frequent travellers rather than an actual preference. 
  5. although the QC2 bose model can be found second hand in eBay for less than £90 and because they were bought as a seriously luxury item people normally keep them in good condition. 

3 Comments on “9 things that make a difference on a long-haul flight

  1. A couple of my favourites:

    Invest in a decent neck pillow. Somewhere about 5 hours into your flight you will thank me for the advice. I haven’t tried a wide selection, but I opt for the blow up version – takes up less space and allows you to determine the firmness.
    Take off your shoes… Go on, do it. While the floor of a plane is not the most hygienic of places, taking your shoes off and forgetting about them for the rest of the flight will increase your comfort level ten-fold (based on CRs imaginary comfort index)

  2. Having clocked thousands of long haul flights since I was two weeks old – thanks to my father – I have the following tips to add! I also learnt a few tips from your post so thanks for that (point 5 is very smart!)
    1. Queue to get on board early. This means you get prime overhead luggage space options. Get on the plane too late and you risk having to squeeze your luggage into an overhead compartment several rows from your seat.
    2. Bring a comfy outfit such as loose tracksuit pants and a loose top. When most of the passengers have boarded and the flow of people traffic has died down change into these clothes. Much comfier to travel in. Then just after your final meal has been served (usually two hrs before the flight ends) while everyone is waiting for their trays to be collected, go and change back into your normal clothes. It might be a bit awkward getting out of your seat with your breakfast tray still in place, but it saves getting stuck in a toilet queues which usually develop as soon as the food trays have been collected.
    3. Same as Colin above – take off your shoes. But I always have a couple of spare pairs of socks in case of mishap or if I all wearing shoes without socks.
    4. Never hesitate to notify the stewards that a toilet needs cleaning, they routinely check and are usually happy to be notified. It only gets worse the longer it is left and puts pressure on other toilets compounding the problem!
    5. Every airline I have flown on has had mid meal snacks available, they may not advertise that they do, but they usually always do. Qantas it is often sandwiches or biscuits or crisps, Cathay Pacific it is often cup noodles etc. I always get hungry at some point and it kills another 30 min or so of time!

  3. Sound advice….I would add avoid plane food in addition to avoiding on board drinks.water and your own food.airline food is salt & sugar and chemicals all of which through your body into a spin.i precook meat (chicken or steak as they smell non offensive)and some form of veg.before you know it people will be offering you their aisle seat for a piece of your fillet steak!!! 😉
    I also divide my hand luggage with seperate inner bags.1 for a complete outfit change in case your hold luggage should not arrive!!! Another for what I will actually use during the flight which is then stored at my feet and then the main hand luggage can be stored overhead without the need to be standing up and down every time you need something. Flip flops for travel and socks to put on during the flight.ladies take the biggest cosiest wrap you can find and it doubles as a blanket.bingo bango!

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