The Ultimate Guide To Surviving Long Haul Flights

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15 Tips For Surviving Long Haul Flights

It's safe to say getting on long haul flights can be an intolerable way of getting from A to B. Long haul flights can take up to 20 hours or more and can result in you arriving at your destination tired, grumpy, and sore. After landing, you are usually fine for the first few hours, all excited about where you are, but in time your body starts to ache, your skin is dry, the need for shower kicks in and you feel like death in a very short space of time.

If you're not spoiled in first-class, long haul flights aren't a picnic, but there are some tips to make the experience a little more bearable and lessen the misery you may experience. Read on to find out how you can get through long-haul flights with relative comfort.

Here is what I have learned from 30 years of traveling to and from Australia on long haul flights.

1. Research The Airline You Are Travelling With

  1. If there are multiple airlines on long haul flights to your destination and the price is not an issue or comparable, check the airline's reviews. What entertainment and dining options do they offer?
  2. Do they have any additional benefits that will improve your flight experience?

I stopped flying on Air Asia for a while as they often ran out of entertainment kits. You couldn’t book them online and it was so frustrating if you were at the end of the flight attendants list, because you often just wouldn’t get one.

Read the Airline reviews and their FAQ’s to see exactly what is included in your ticket. Knowing you can kick back and watch a few movies can make for a totally different experience than getting on the plane and releasing you should have downloaded the last season of Game of Thrones to your phone.

2. Buy Your Ticket Early To Get The Best Seat

Waiting and hoping for a price drop (discounts or special offers) is usually not worth it. Buying early not only gives you peace of mind in the weeks and months leading up to your departure, but it also increases the likelihood that enough seating will remain open so you can choose where to sit.

Whether or not you'd rather lean up against the window, have easy access to the aisle or stretch your legs in an exit row, if you wait until the last minute there's a good chance you (and your elbows) will get trapped in a dreaded center seat. Book early and make sure you can also reserve your seats.

Some airlines don’t even allow this now (which is criminal if you ask me) so check that you can choose your seat at the time of your booking, check how much it costs and DO IT!

Are you a Frequent flyer? Do you have frequent flyer points? Now might be the time to redeem those miles for an upgrade. I only ever use my points for long haul business class flights. I know it feels all elitist and wrong, but if I’m flying from Brisbane to London for 20 odd hours, there is no way I’m going to be stuck in cattle class if I can redeem my points and fly business. NO WAY!

With my budget, I would NEVER pay for a business class seat (come on lotto!) but if I can get one free from just using my credit card and staying loyal to Qantas in Australia – I’m doing it! If I can pay $100 for a flight to Sydney I'm never going to use points for that, but flying from Brisbane to LA or Europe is really worth spending the points on a business class seat or upgrade.

3. Reserve a Good Location on the Plane

One of the most important tips for long haul flights is to think ahead and choose not just a good seat but a good location if possible.

Choosing your location on the plane is not just about choosing a window or aisle seat.

  • If you want more legroom, go to the exit rows
  • Carefully choose your location for the flight when booking or checking in. The back of the plane can be louder and colder, and while we know a lot of parents do their best, you may not want to sit too close to the front of the plane where the kids often sit. If you want to avoid children crying, stay away from the front of the aircraft as this is where special arrangements are often made for babies on international flights.
  • If you enjoy having quick access to loos, make sure you have an aisle seat. If you choose the aisle seat in the middle section, you may be less disturbed by other passengers during the flight, as they can always get off at the other end of the row. I have no problem with people crawling over me, but I don’t want to crawl over someone else. I pee just too often for that.
  • I usually take my necessary items and put them in the seat pocket or on my small carry-on luggage under the seat. There's nothing worse than needing an important item (like your earplugs) and not being able to access it because it's in the overhead compartment.
  • Don’t choose a window seat if you want to be first off the plane. While usually people are great and everyone files off in order, there are ALWAYS people who will push through from the back and if you are in a window seat you not only have to get out, but you have to get your bag down out of the overhead locker as well.

Some airlines may require you to wait a day or two before departure. However, the best advice is to select your seat and location as soon as you can. Consider the cost to choose your seat early as opposed to having to wait until check-in opens to select the seat you want. Get on to the Seat Guru website to find the best seats for your flight. You will need to know the airline and flight number.

Brad and I in business class to Europe
Brad and I in business class to Europe thanks to Qantas Points

4. Dress Comfortably

That fitted blouse and skinny jeans might make you feel like you're 20 again, but trust me – after trying to sleep in it for 15 hours, you'll never want to wear it again.

When it comes to long-distance travel, adhere to a “comfortable, chic” dress code of neutral, loose layers to move about. Not only will you stay comfortable during a flight, but you will also protect yourself from deep vein thrombosis. A serious condition that could be made worse if you sit in tight positions for long periods of time.

I usually wear

  • these comfortable loose exercise pants (I never wear leggings as they can be too tight),
  • a loose fitting top like this one from City Chic (I loved this so much I bought 3. It's so comfy but the sleeves make it look a little more stylish than a T-Shirt,
  • a nice hoodie or soft pullover like this one I love, and of course
  • my trusty lightweight scarf.

* The links above are for plus sizes as I'm a size 18 myself, however Asos has all sizes, and ships to all locations so I have used them a decent amount. A lot of my clothing is actually from the thrift store, however because I'm not a size 10-12 it can be hard to get specific clothes so when I do buy new, I tend to buy items that I will use not just for one purpose and I often buy black.

If you are at risk of DVT, experts also recommend wearing compression stockings, which will reduce swelling and can reduce the risk of blood clots.

Another must-have for the ladies: your favourite pashmina/scarf that doubles as an extra layer to overcome the coldness of the plane or something to cover your face if you need the dark and the person next to you is watching a Bruce Willis movie.

You can also fold it over your pillow to protect it from drool. Oh you don’t drool on planes? Is that just me??

5. Invest in Decent Travel Gear

I get it: The excitement of opening your own little care package is a real thing – The Little Toothpaste! Wool socks! Earplugs! – But even with the best international airlines, those tiny conveniences never live up to their potential. I can't count the number of times I’ve got broken sleep mask straps, pillows that deflate instantly, and earplugs that never stay fully in.

If you are boarding a flight that lasts longer than 12 hours it's time to invest in the right pair of malleable earbuds that will stay in your ears, a silky sleep mask that you'll barely know is there, and a quality neck pillow that offers an adaptable level of comfort.

I always have my inflatable pillow and earplugs. I never carry an eye mask as they just make me feel too restricted. I prefer to put my scarf over my face.

I don’t always have my pillow inflated at the same level. If I’m sitting up, its softer so it doesn’t make me feel like its trying to strangle me, and if I’m trying to rest (sleep is not something I can often do on planes) I keep it firmer so I don't wake up with a crick in my neck. Memory foam works wonders for everyone else but I don’t want to carry that later. Space is important for most of my trips and a huge U shaped pillow doesn’t fit with that.

6. Get Plenty Of Sleep Before You Travel.

Many first-time travelers believe that not getting enough sleep before the flight will help them sleep well on board. This can be a HUGE mistake. Do not fall into that trap or you could end up landing with no sleep at all, not to mention you are already sleep deprived before you got on.

What if there is a fussy baby next to you? Or a snorer? While these things might mean you don’t get the sleep you would like to, if you start off already tired, that will not end well.

Work out which strategy works best for you. You will be able to work this out with a little practice. I used to always choose the window seat so I had something to lean on but I worked out that just hurt my back over time. I was also a little stressed about having to climb over others to go to the loo, so now I choose the aisle every time. I’m much happier and more relaxed.

7. Try an Alternative Sleep Aid.

I’m not talking sleeping tablets here. I’m a crap flyer and often don’t sleep at all, however, I’ve applied my sleep school training to my in flight situation and can now at least relax and rest. I settle myself in, ask for some hot water and add my own relaxing tea bag, drink my tea, meditate for 10-15 mins and then just cover my face, lie back and relax.

I also make sure that the bag that fits under the seat in front of me doesn’t have anything breakable in it so I can use it to support my feet. That extra 10-15cm higher I can get my feet elevated really supports my bad back and enables me to actually put my seat back. Otherwise, with my feet on the floor my back just won’t take it.

Sleeping on a plane
Sleeping on a plane can be challenging

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.

8. Charge All Your Devices Before You Board the Aircraft

This seems simple, but remember to charge all your devices before you step on the plane. I always make sure my phone, reader and power bank are all fully charged. I can power my phone off my powerbank during descent, landing and immigration if I’ve watched heaps of The Walking Dead and its almost flat. That will give me at least an hours charging time and that will be enough to get me anything I need before I get on the train or bus to my accommodation. I never like to land without a fully charged phone. I just never know when I'm going to need it, so ensuring it has charge is critical for me. 

9. Bring Your Own Snacks & An Empty Bottle 

Over the course of a long-haul flight, you will often get at least two full meals and a snack, however on overnight flights once the lights go out, flight attendants are often nowhere to be found. Before you plan your night’s rest, make sure you have enough water at the very least and if you are prepared with your own snacks you will be sure to fend off the midnight boredom munchies. Most airlines will allow you to board with water purchased after you get through airport security (I always bring my own bottle and fill it) BUT – flights to Australia often won't let you board with any water at all. I always have an empty bottle and ask the flight attendants to give me a decent amount. They will often try and just give you a small cup but I'm always insistant that I need a good amount of water. I will also often smile and tell them this will mean I don't have to disturb them overnight. 

10. Drink enough Water

Following on from the snacks and water section, it is advisable to stay hydrated before, during, and after a flight. If you are at a high altitude for a long time, you will quickly become dehydrated. Not only can this make sleeping difficult, but it can also cause headaches and worsen jet lag. Take your hydration seriously!

I always recommend that you bring a reusable water bottle that you can refill after going through security. But if this runs out during the flight (which it should if you drink enough), don't be afraid to ask a flight attendant for water.

For extra hydration, have an electrolyte drink before your flight. I buy electrolyte tablets that you can dissolve in water so I can also absorb electrolytes during the flight. Flying is really mean to me so I do everything I can to make it easier on my body.

11. Avoid Alcohol

This is a massive one for me. Alcohol pretty much ensures my already decent insomnia is greatly increased so I usually have maybe one glass of wine and that’s it on flights. It might be different for you but remember that every alcoholic drink you have to have to add an extra glass or water, above and beyond what you already should be drinking.

12. Counteract the Boredom

Making a plan to pass the time is crucial. If you have any work to do, blog posts to write (my go-to until my laptop goes flat) or photos to edit, now's the time. I usually get these done in the first few hours no matter what the time is, and then put my laptop and everything that isn’t essential away in the overhead cabin. I always find that I feel better once I’ve achieved something and then I move on to whatever I’ve downloaded from Netflix.

If you don't like movies, bring a good book. Really, whatever works for you, although try to remember that you are attempting to relax. I never watch anything really thought provoking if I’m planning on trying to rest or sleep. I can’t turn my head off so its easier for me if I watch Friends or The Big Bang Theory or something light hearted.

13. Complete Any Incoming Immigration Cards ASAP You Get Them

One of my pet peeves is that when I travel with Brad, he insists on not completing his incoming passenger card until the last minute OR even worse hasn’t done it when we are getting off the plane.

OMG it is not rocket science.

Get the card done. Put it in your passport. Lock your passport in your overhead cabin bag and forget about it.

Then you just get off the plane head straight to immigration and you are all set. If you make me wait – it will not end well!

Be ready for immigration before you get off the plane
Be ready for immigration before you get off the plane

14. Bring Spare Underwear

This is a life saver for me for long haul flights. Even if you don’t use them on the flight, having a spare set of underwear in case of lost luggage is an essential step in arriving well. I hate arriving feeling like I’ve been in the same clothes for days on end so being able to put on fresh underwear, clean my teeth and freshen up is essential for me to feel like I’m somewhat human.

15. Time Your Bathroom Visit Before Landing

Get up and use the loo before the rush.

Track the flight on your flight tracker (or ask staff if you don’t have access to the flight path) and get up about an hour before the estimated time for landing. Remember that some of these huge planes can take 20-30 minutes to descend and you don’t want to get stuck not having had a freshen up before you land.

Trust me on this one – take your baby wipes, toothpaste, water and spare undies and use the bathroom before everyone else does. I always have these things in a little drawstring bag so I can just grab the bag, water and go.

Often on overnight flights you land quite early, not long after breakfast has been served. This is another time that the aisle seat is a bonus. If you have your “fresh bag” (that’s what I call it) ready to grab, you can lift up your tray, slide out, replace the tray and get to the bathroom while everyone else is wedged firmly in their seats. The extra bonus here is that you won’t need to fight for the loo when everyone gets off the plane. You can go straight to customs and immigration.

My 15 Recommendations for Surviving Long Haul Flights

So, I hope this helps you to enjoy the next 14 hour flight you do much more and ensures you land feeling somewhat human before heading off to your next exciting destination. I'm always keen for new tips so if you have any for me, please leave them in the comments.

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