The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Long Haul Flights
by Teresa Borg
Regardless of how much you've travelled in the past, being bound to an airplane seat for countless consecutive hours, is an endurance test for both frequent flyers and first-timers. However, if you need to tick off a couple of far-away countries from your bucket list, a long-haul flight is one factor you surely can't override. What are a couple of hours on a plane, when compared to a plethora of exciting days and weeks exploring new terrains, delving into new cultures, and meeting the locals.
Nevertheless, we do understand that a comfortable flight is fundamental to starting off a vacation on the right foot. On the contrary to what you may think, booking a first class seat isn't the only way to ride out a long flight. It would be a great bonus, but one which isn't for everyone's wallet, so we've compiled essential survival tips for a long-haul flight. When you arm yourself with the right necessities and luxuries, and become aware of practical techniques to help you sleep and live through a whole flight, long-haul flights will seem less intimidating, and you'll be more inclined to traverse whole continents, oceans, and time zones to arrive at your dream destination.
Which airline and flight should you choose?
Which airline should you choose for your long-haul flight? Searching for the cheapest option is natural as long flights tend to be on the expensive side. However, if you want to survive the flight, you need to take into consideration other important factors, apart from pricing, to have a level of comfort guaranteed. These include:
- Seat widths
- Number and type of meals provided
- Seat vs overhead entertainment systems
- Seat charging ports
- Number of stop-overs
- Arrival times: booking a red eye flight will increase your chances of falling asleep
- Seat configurations
- Fixed vs reclining seats
Choosing an airline with a bunch of awards and excellent reviews under its wing, will reflect its commitment to the highest level of standards, and will guarantee a pleasurable flying experience. Check out these airlines which operate from Malta to get started.
Moreover, assess flight connections carefully. Can you actually manage that time frame between one flight and another? Computer-generated flight connections cannot be trusted as they provide you with the shortest layover. If you want to avoid getting stranded in an intermediary country, carry out your research wisely, and consider the time needed to clear customs, retrieve your luggage, find the next terminal, check-in your bag, go through security, and get to the gate on time. Make sure you have enough leeway in case of any delays.
Where should you sit on a long-haul flight?
After choosing the most appropriate flight, grabbing the best seats on a plane is crucial to boost your chances of having a comfortable flight; and it boils down to your personal needs and priorities.
Window vs Aisle Seat
Each seat carries with it its own pros and cons, apart from middle seats, which offer no apparent benefits. With window seats, you can rest your head, making it easier to sleep, and you won't be awoken by neighbours who need to use the bathroom. An aisle seat is favourable when you're an avid bathroom user, or if you get up for a stroll every couple of minutes. Be that as it may, you'd also need to get up when your seat-mates need to stand up, and you'll be more prone to accidental bumps by people strolling along the aisle.
Front vs Rear
Here are some factors to keep in mind when choosing your seat row:
- Stay away from bathroom areas: it gets very noisy here as people are queuing, doors are opening and closing, flushing is loud, and unpleasant smells will waft to your seat. Galley areas are also prone to a lot of noise, especially when the crew is preparing meals. Attempting to sleep will be a lost cause here.
- Choose an exit row for extra leg room, but keep in mind that seats may not recline here.
- You'll generally find more peace and quiet on the upper deck.
- Engine noise is more intense at the rear of the plane.
- Seats at the front have no under-seat storage, and would have a smaller seat width, since the food tray and the entertainment system will be situated in the armrest.
- Seats behind the exit row will have more space, as those in front won't be able to recline their seat.
- Choose a seat in front of the bulkhead if you feel guilty about reclining your seat.
How can you ensure you get a good seat?
- Book seats as early as possible (this is airline-dependent)
- Arrive at the airport early
- Join a frequent flyer programme
- Once you're at the gate, check whether better seats have freed up
What to wear on long-haul flights
Dismiss the urge to wear a pretty dress and heels for a flight. If you're going to spend a lot of hours wearing the same clothes, comfort is key. You need to run (if you're late), eat, relax, sleep, and exercise in your outfit. Hence, assess your wardrobe, and put together a comfortable get-up (which is not your Pjs, that is, if you don't want strange looks coming your way). Here are some tips to consider when choosing what to wear for your flight:
- Wear layers: If you're on a long-haul flight, chances are you're travelling to a different climate than that in your place of departure, and temperatures in the terminal and on the aircraft will also vary. Wear layered clothing to adjust accordingly. Having a cotton t-shirt, a light cardigan, a cosy sweater, a jacket, and a scarf, will ensure you can don or disrobe as you deem fit. Feeling too hot or too cold will make it harder for you to doze off, and layers you don't use can always be used as supporting pillows.
- Put a spare outfit in your carry-on: After endless hours wearing the same outfit, you'll definitely feel the urge to change into a fresh outfit before disembarking.
- Wear loose clothing: Anything restricting blood circulation should never be worn on a flight, especially when it's going to be a long one. Choose clothes which are loose, soft, breathable, wrinkle-resistant, and the kind which stretch. From harem pants, joggers, leggings, and palazzo pants, there are options to suit any taste.
- No skirts or dresses: Refrain from wearing any skirts or dresses, as they'll pose sitting and sleeping restrictions.
- Opt for comfortable shoes: Choose closed shoes (sneakers or flats) which would allow you to sprint to your gate in case you're running late, and footwear which is not too tight. Slip-on shoes are also ideal as they're easy to put on when you need to get up, and easy to slip off when you're in your seat.
- Compression socks: These are a valuable addition to your attire as they enhance blood circulation. Wear socks which are sweat-resistant, and which you won't feel embarrassed wearing if you take off your shoes mid-flight.
- Keep your heavy jewellery at home: Apart from posing an inconvenience when passing through security, jewellery will interfere with your sleeping. Chokers, in particular, can pose breathing issues.
How to sleep on a long-haul flight
You chose the best possible airline, booked a comfortable seat, and you're wearing a comfortable outfit. What should you do to further increase your chances of falling asleep? Chances are all seats in your row are booked, so the possibility of lying down is quite remote, even if you pray to your lucky stars. Sleeping on a flight may be an arduous task, so we've compiled fundamental tips and techniques to help you catch a wink on your next flight:
- Keep yourself fresh and clean: If you're feeling fresh, you'll have better odds of drifting off. Take a shower before your flight, and keep some basic toiletries handy to freshen up every couple of hours. Visit a local pharmacy to buy any missing toiletries.
- Use an eye mask and ear plugs: These will help you shut out chitchat, engine noise and light. Noise-cancelling headphones are a good alternative as well.
- Invest in a good travel pillow: Try on different travel pillows, and buy one which gives you the support your sleeping position requires.
- Carry a travel blanket with you: The airline may, or may not, provide a blanket, so best be safe. Remember to fasten your belt over the blanket, so the crew won't wake you up in case of turbulence.
- Keep calm: Put your negative thoughts to rest, take deep breaths, and use a meditation app to calm down. Listening to relaxing music may also help.
- Spray soothing scents: Certain scents, such as lavender, can be sleep-inducing, so remember to keep a balm in your carry-on.
- Avoid alcoholic drinks: Forget about drinking yourself to sleep, even if drinks are complementary. Opt for water and natural hydrating supplements instead.
- Stay away from sleeping pills: You don't want to be unfocused in case of an emergency.
- Keep snacks handy: It's easier to sleep when you're not hungry or thirsty. Just make sure the snacks you take are easily digestible to avoid bloating.
- Lean backwards or sideways: Never lean forward on your food tray as you'll wake up with backbreaking pain (literally). Try leaning on the side of the plane or on your armrest.
- Keep legs straight, slightly bent on the knees: Avoid crossing your legs as it will hinder your blood circulation.
Fun things to do on a long-haul flight
While you're 35,000 feet above ground, time stops still. It's the ideal place where you can disconnect, put all your cares aside, sit back, and do what you've been wanting to do for ages, guilt-free. When you perceive a flight in this light, you can start seeing it as an opportunity, rather than a burden. If your kids are tagging along, make sure you plan beforehand on how to keep them entertained for long hours.
Hence, when preparing for your vacation, make sure you prepare for your flight as well. Your airline may, or may not, offer its own entertainment solutions, but they may not be to your liking, or they may even suffer a technological failure. Hence, downloading an assortment of apps on your phone, which you can access offline, is a very good idea. Here are some activities you can consider doing to amuse yourself on a long-haul flight:
- Read a book: Grab your e-book reader and catch up on your reading. Download a couple of e-books which you've been meaning to read for the last months, and do refrain from taking paper-backs with you.
- Watch a movie or a TV show: A long-haul flight gives you the opportunity to binge-watch a TV show on the in-flight entertainment system. If not available in your aircraft, download a couple of movies and episodes on your tablet or laptop before the flight. Several airlines provide charging ports, but bring a portable power bank as backup.
- Listen to new music: Discover new genres and emerging artists while you sit back and relax. Do download some music on your phone, just in case.
- Play a game: Buy a few pocket games from a local toy store and puzzle books from local book shops, or discover the variety of games on the entertainment system.
- Listen to a podcast
- Make new friends: Start chatting with your neighbours by using your destination as a conversation starter. You may even find a local who'd be able to provide you with authentic travel tips.
- Learn a language: If you're visiting a country which doesn't speak your mother tongue, a long flight gives you ample time to learn basic words and phrases which will help you in your trip.
- Take photos: If you're in a window seat, take this opportunity to take photos of vibrant sunsets, towering landmarks, and stupendous mountains. While you're at it, you can also edit and organise past photos.
- Start a journal: Being disconnected will enable your mind to wander and get creative. Start writing your thoughts, ideas, resolutions, and experiences, and try your hand at some creative writing. You never know, you may get inspired by the clouds drifting below you, or by the vast stretches of blue seas. This may not be possible on the ground when your smartphone or smartwatch is vibrating invariably with incoming notifications.
- Be productive: Create to-do lists, brainstorm new ideas, organise a birthday party, or plan your trip; you will always find something you need to plan.
- Get handy with crafts: Be it knitting, or drawing adult colouring books, a long flight gives you the opportunity to learn new skills.
Exercises for long-haul flights
Exciting as each trip may be, knowing you need to spend long hours flattened out on a plane seat, is not the best way to start a holiday, especially because it may take its toll on your health. However, a couple of simple movements is all it takes to keep your muscles active and your blood circulating. Thus, when it's time to disembark, you won't feel wobbly and distorted, and you'll reduce the risk of DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis), generally caused by restricted movement. Arrive at your destination feeling invigorated, and with no stiffness, with these practical tips:
Before the flight:
Exercise regularly in the weeks preceding the flight. Cardio exercises, in particular, will boost your heart's circulation, making it easier to fall asleep during the flight, and lowering the chances of jet lag after the flight. On the eve of your flight, challenge yourself to tougher exercises. By doing so, you'll subdue your stress hormones and tire your body to a greater extent, making it easier to catch a wink. Visit one of the fitness clubs in Malta and Gozo to get active.
During the flight:
If you're not one of the lucky ones in first class, you must accept the fact that you'll have constrained legroom in your seat. However, despite being in a confined space, you can still carry out certain exercises in your seat, which won't disturb the other travellers.
Practical exercises you can try out in your seat to release tension include: neck rolls, upper body twists, calf raises, ankle circles, foot pumps, knee lifts, knee hugs, shoulder rolls, forward bends, and bum squeezes. Carrying out these exercises every hour will help avoid cramps, soreness, swelling and jet lag. Moreover, go for a short walk down the aisle every hour or so, as long as the seatbelt sign is off, and, if you don't get embarrassed so easily, a couple of walking lunges will also be beneficial. Try not to slap anyone's face when stretching, or you'll start making enemies. Also, don't cross your legs, or sit with your legs underneath you, as these positions will disrupt your circulation.
If you want to go the extra mile, buy a massaging gel to amplify circulation. Essential oils can also serve to relax your muscles.
After the flight:
Although a good sleep is all you might be looking forward to when you arrive at your hotel, do refrain from doing so. After a long flight, you need to do as much walking as possible to get your blood circulation flowing, and your muscles warmed up. So take a shower, and get exploring.
If you have a stopover, go for a stroll along the terminals. Explore the multitude of outlets within the airport, and try to do some stretching while you're waiting for your next flight.
What should you eat and drink on a long-haul flight?
There are few things worse than being famished on a long flight, and although most airlines provide in-flight meals, they may not be to your liking, or the meal option you would have liked may be unavailable. In the case of this occurrence, you need to have an alternate plan, or you'll end up with an empty stomach until touchdown. What should you throw in your carry-on?
Make sure the food you pack is rich in proteins and vitamins, and low in sugar and fats. Take a mix and match of light snacks to get you through the countless hours: unsalted nuts, fresh and dried fruit, seeds, cereal, and protein bars, will suffice in helping you survive. Also keep a bar of dark chocolate handy for a special mid-flight treat. We recommend you steer clear of food which goes bad, or which emits strong odours, to avoid annoying fellow passengers. Buy your snacks from one of the health shops in Malta and Gozo or from a local supermarket.
Staying hydrated on a plane is crucial to counteract the dryness inside the cabin. Take a bottle of water with you to guarantee a constant supply of water, rather than pestering the crew to bring you one glass of water after another; and stay away from any caffeine drinks (which include tea, coffee, alcohol and wine). Electrolyte solutions can also be beneficial.
Try to stick to light snacks even before the flight, as it's harder to digest food when you're seat-bound, and will make dozing off much easier. Also make sure you drink a lot of water before the flight in order to start your trip hydrated.
How to prevent air sickness while you're on a long-haul flight
- Choose a window seat at the front of the plane to experience less turbulence.
- Eat a light meal before the flight, and avoid salty and greasy foods.
- Keep yourself hydrated, both before, and during the flight.
- Adjust air vents to boost airflow in your direction.
- Avoid reading and glaring at a screen for a long time.
- Listen to soothing music, or meditate, to keep anxiety at bay.
- Drink ginger and lemon drinks to treat nausea.
- Take mint chewing gum.
- Take anti nausea medication before the flight.
How to reduce the chances of jet lag and fatigue
- Rest well before you depart.
- Choose a flight which arrives at your destination during the day, so you can walk around and stretch your muscles out. Don't go to bed as soon as you arrive.
- Carry out the exercises mentioned above.
- Massage sore body parts.
- Book stop-overs when possible.
- Stay away from caffeine drinks.
- Refrain from taking sleeping pills.
- Walk along the aisle every hour.
- Eat light snacks both before, and on the day of the flight.
- Once you're on the plane, reset your watch to your destination's timezone.
- Wear compression socks.
- Sleep as much as possible (check out our tips above).
- Drink plenty of water before, during, and after a flight.
- If you have a physical condition, do seek medical help before embarking on a long-haul flight.
What to pack in your carry-on for a long-haul flight
Your long-haul flight can be all the more survivable if you remember to pack all the carry-on essentials, which will enhance your flying experience, and help you live through the flight. Apart from packing a standard cabin bag which fits in the overhead luggage compartment, also prepare a small tote bag which fits underneath the seat. Place toiletries and other essentials in this bag for easy access. Also consider buying packing cubes to keep your carry-on essentials tidy and organised. Keep the following checklist handy and stop forgetting the essentials for your long flight:
- Laptop/tablet/ e-book reader
- Phone and laptop charging cables
- Universal adaptors
- Portable power bank
- Noise cancelling headphones
- Mild Perfume
- Make-up bag
- Mouthwash/ floss
- Face wash
- Lip balm
- Compact hair brush
- Hair ties/bobby pins
- Anti-bacterial wipes
- Feminine hygiene products
- Travel towel
- Contact lenses
Pack these toiletry items together in one bag, so you can just grab this bag, and head to the bathroom, when the need arises, rather than rummage in your carry-on for each individual toiletry item. Make sure fluids are placed in 100ml travel bottles in a transparent bag, to guarantee a swift pass through security.
- Prescription medication
- First aid kit
- Eye drops
- Hand sanitiser
- Medication for headaches, allergies, pain, and motion sickness
- Chewing gum
- Essential oils
- E-book reader
- Pocket games
- Puzzle books
- Paper and pen
- Travel journal
- Travel guides/ maps
- Travel blanket
- Travel pillow
- Eye mask
- Ear plugs
- Extra outfit
- Sweat-resistant socks
- Scarf/ extra layer of clothing (can be tied round your waist if your carry-on is short of space)
- Variety of snacks
- Water bottle
- Purse/ wallet
- Credit cards
- Travel visas
- Health insurance card
- Travel insurance
- Hotel reservations
- Emergency contact numbers
Consider buying a document organiser to lower the chances of losing important papers.
Flying long-haul isn't so intimidating now, is it? Being seat-bound for a stretch of hours at one go can be endured if you prepare your body and mind, book the right flight and seat, wear a comfortable outfit, eat the right snacks, prepare a variety of activities, carry out some stretching, and pack the essentials in your carry-on. Always keep your final destination in mind, and if you're returning home, think of your next vacation. If you follow these tips, the hours will fly by unknowingly, and you'll embark on your adventure feeling invigorated and refreshed.
Don't hesitate to ask for a flight upgrade before boarding. You may be one of the lucky few to commence your vacation in style, and have a flying experience of a lifetime.
Looking for more travel tips? Discover how to be a Maltese traveller on a budget, affordable destinations you should consider, tips on planning your summer holiday, and how to choose the right hotel for your getaway.
Visit one of the travel agencies on Yellow and book your next vacation. You may get your hands on a last-minute deal which may have you boarding a plane earlier than expected. Safe travels!
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