I’ve done a LOT of long distance flying.
I’ve spent a chunk of my life in Europe, with family mostly in New Zealand. For the uninitiated this is typically a 26-36 hour flight (depending on the route and stop overs involved). I’ve had it take over 40 hours (that ONE time I wasn’t paying attention when booking flights).
I’ve typically done this trip at least a couple of times a year. Except for that one time I flew to NZ, spent four days there, then back in time for work the following week.
There’s something about sitting in one seat for 12+ hours, often, that gives you a lot of time to think about how the experience could be improved.
Here are some things I’ve found that make it better.
Before the flight
Get everything critical laid out the day before
This enables you to easily and visually check the obvious stuff (tickets, passport, itinerary), and make sure you don’t forget anything, but also to question “do I really need that.” If you’re flying, weight matters.
Put deodorant in your carry on
You might not need it, but if you do you’ll be super grateful. Also, if your bags get lost (it does happen) you won’t have to feel/smell like death until you can find a chemist.
Tie a fancy ribbon on your hold luggage
Around the handle is fine. Just something that makes your generic black bag look slightly different from every other generic black bag on the carousel. The only thing more tedious than having to lift your bags off yourself is having to lift many bags off because you keep accidentally grabbing ones that aren’t yours.
Duct tape makes everything look old
If you have expensive stuff, putting duct tape on it will make it look old and crappy. A sneaky trick I learned from an international travel photographer. It’s odd, but works.
Put everything of value in your carry on
As awful as it is, you have to assume that baggage handlers don’t care, and that everything in your hold luggage will be rifled through and possibly stolen. If your expensive gear is with you at all times, you can keep an eye on it. Otherwise? Good luck.
Always keep your passport and tickets in the same place
Don’t do what I did once – madly rip my entire suitcase apart in front of check in, looking for a lost passport – only to realise ten minutes later that it was in my right jacket pocket instead of my left. Oops.
Always dress up for the airport
Of course, “additional screening is random.” And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. I’ve travelled a LOT. The only times I’ve been really hassled at security was when I had surreal hair and was dressed for a festival. When I’m tidy? (usually black dress shoes, jeans, collared shirt, jacket). I get waved through. In fact, some of the times they’ve actually waved me AROUND security. Yes, so I didn’t get scanned at all. Go figure.
Oh, as a bonus? Jackets have pockets. Always helpful.
Get to the airport early
Usual check in for international flights is an hour and a half. If I’m travelling by myself, I’ll typically aim for 2-2 1/2 hours (depending on how I’m getting there) or 4+ hours if I’m travelling with someone else (depending on the person).
I’ve been on the way to an airport, with two 30+ kg suitcases and three hand carries, only to have a train we were depending on get cancelled. The next available train was half an hour. Fortunately, I’d planned to get there 4 hours early, so we had plenty of time and could relax and laugh about the whole thing.
Travel can be stressful enough, and there’s nothing worse than getting on a long haul flight dripping in sweat because you’ve had to sprint somewhere carrying a giant suitcase. Get there early, be chilled, let everything be easy.
Be super nice when checking in
You may not have noticed, but often the person who checks you in will also be on the flight. It’s one of the ways that airlines save money. They don’t hire extra desk staff, it’s just one more job for flight attendants. What this means is they’ll remember if you’re a dick to them (or grumpy) when you’re checking in. The other thing here is – these people have HUGE power. Baggage allowance, which seats you get, how much they look after you on the actual flight, oh and yes, if you’re even ON that flight.
All that aside, they have a hell of a job. Twelve plus hours, standing most of the time, required to smile and be super polite to often demanding, rude, inconsiderate people. Make a point of making their lives a little easier. It’s good karma.
So, before you walk up, put ALL your internal crap to one side. Imagine you’re meeting an old friend, and do all you can to smile, connect, be loving, supportive and warm. And yes, this is someone who is “there to serve you”. Just do it, you’ll thank me, plus it’ll make you feel better – being loving always does.
Ask at check in to be seated as close to the front as possible
Generally they fill the windows first, front to back, then the aisles. If you don’t mind sitting in an aisle seat, then being in front of 50 or 60 sets of seats will make a huge difference to how quickly you’ll be able to get off the plane. Which in turn makes a huge difference to how quickly you can get through immigration (often the slowest bit of the post-plane exit). Also, forward of the engines is noticeably quieter than behind.
If you can check in with a machine, do that
It’s always faster than standing in a queue. Also, you can then choose a seat super far forward.
Be nice to the security people
Much like checkin staff, they have the power to make your life miserable (up to and including jail, let alone missing your flight). Sure, they can be thieving, under trained, unhappy people, but hey, they need love too. Also? In all likelihood they hate their job as much as you hate them doing it. They’re not all bad. They’re in a crappy position (if nothing awful happens, they’re “adequate”; if anything does, it’s their fault – there’s simply no win condition for them). Have some empathy.
No matter how stupid the modern “security theatre” is (hint: very), you can suck it up for five minutes. Smile, be polite, do NOT joke – about anything, be loving. Then run away as quickly as you can. No, don’t run; walk briskly.
When going through the xray, put everything from your pockets into your jacket
First, it’s much faster than putting it all into the plastic tray. Once you’re through you can walk away, and empty your jacket pockets as you go. Secondly, it keeps your stuff safer. Much harder for someone to surreptitiously grab your wallet if it’s hidden. I’ve never seen (or heard) of anything like this happening, but often (say) if you’re pulled aside for secondary screening, all your valuables will be left in the open, without you being anywhere close to them. Might as well play it safe.
Going through security, queue behind single business people
They’ve done this a thousand times, they’ll have it down to a fine art. Try to avoid families (kids make everything slower) and old people (who generally move slower anyway).
Charging devices in airports
If you look around, you can usually find outlets to charge phones, ipads, laptops etc. They have to plug vacuum cleaners in somewhere. Be wary of officially provided phone charging stations. They’re probably fine, but these can be trivially hacked.
Do not get onto the flight hungover (or worse, drunk)
For a start, nobody working in an airport likes drunk people. However, even hangovers are bad. We get hungover partly because we’ve just filled our brain with neurotoxins and hammered the hell out of our liver and kidneys. A big part of it though is simple dehydration. If you’re dehydrated getting onto a plane, 12 hours of aggressive air conditioning is going to dry you out like crazy – which will leave you with jet lag from hell.
On the flight
Take a scarf
Air con on most flights is brutal. All that cold air swishing around goes right down your neck. Plus a scarf can double as a mini pillow if you’re trying to scrunch up into a corner and need more bolstering.
Take ear plugs
I can’t stress this enough. That background roar of the engines is deceptively loud. Good ear plugs make a HUGE difference in terms of quality of sleep. Plus, bonus, it damps down screaming kids, people who insist on talking while the lights are out, or, heaven forbid, those over-loud page turners (yes yes, fellow readers, I’m joking).
Noise cancelling headphones
These are more comfortable than ear plugs, and work better. Not a terrible idea to have your own headphones anyway, if you prefer your own music. Just make sure you have enough battery power to last the distance (plus layovers).
Wear an eye mask
Most (but not all) long distance carriers provide these, but it’s worth collecting them from previous flights, as this gives you a choice of the best one available. Or, if you’re fancy, go buy one of your own. Never underestimate the benefits of being able to control ambient light when trying to sleep (particularly if people have reading lights on, or the plane lights come on 20 minutes before you’re really ready to wake up)
A neck pillow
I’ve never used one, but I scrunch up pretty small. I know people who swear by them in order to support your neck while you sleep.
Haven’t used them myself, but they’re reported to both make the flight much more comfortable AND help reduce the likelihood of DVTs – although since the risk factors are still a bit in question, that may be hokum.
Take an aspirin
This only really applies if you have one of the dozens of possible “risk factors for DVT” – but it’s not a terrible idea to take one as a preventive measure. Aspirin just thins the blood very slightly, making it less likely to coagulate (glue together) and thus kill you (by having that glued up lump travelling up into your heart).
Use the airline socks
These aren’t always provided, but when they are, change into them ASAP (ie, before take off). Keep them on until the plane is taxiing towards the terminal at your destination. Why? A couple of reasons. First, feet sweat a lot, and having clean socks to wear when you land is always nice. Secondly, because you’re sitting still and at high altitude, blood pools in your feet, making them swell up. Shoes will get super uncomfortable (plus cut off blood flow). Letting your feet readjust to normal altitude first is a lot more comfortable.
Move seats as soon as you can
Once you’re damn sure there isn’t going to be any more passengers, that is the time to nab the middle row, shift rows, or generally just grab more space for yourself. You may not have paid for four seats to lie down in, but if you sit in one of the middle two of an empty four, you can be reasonably sure no-one will grab either aisle seat and voila – instant bed. But you have to be fast. Elderly Asian gentlemen can be surprisingly nimble at this game.
Drink lots of water
For a start, water is great. We’re 70% water, which means we’re less like a solid body with liquid, and more like a rather thick aquarium. Secondly, aggressive air conditioning (filtering 12 hours of 400 people farting) means air travel is VERY dehydrating. Dehydration is a killer. It also makes jet lag much worse (since your body needs water to work, so without it, it can’t help you heal as quickly). Lastly, drinking lots means you’ll have to get up and go to the loo. Hello? Exercise is better than sitting on your arse for 12 hours.
I used to take a 2L bottle of water for each 12 hour leg – which worked great. Unfortunately these days, security theatre means it’s harder (and more expensive) to do this. In lieu of that, just drink as much water as you can and don’t be afraid to go to the steward stations and ask for more – they’ll be happy to give it to you.
Avoid caffeine and booze
As fun as it is to just get roaring drunk, your primary enemy on long distance flights is dehydration. Both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics – which means they absorb water out of your body. Plus, the coffee on planes is usually pretty awful anyway, so you’re not REALLY missing out.
My absolute all time worst jet lag has occurred on those long hauls where I’ve merrily guzzled coffee and wine at every opportunity. Not. Very. Smart.
See: dehydration. Your skin will thank you.
Regularly rotate your ankles, knees, shoulders. Just wiggle them all about as much as you can. Get up and walk about if possible. It’s important to keep blood flowing. This is why in hospitals, long term sedentary patients are regularly turned over by nurses. You don’t want to start getting the early precursors to bed sores just from sitting still too long.
Be nice to the flight attendants
It’s very simple. They have a hell of a tough job. Be loving. Be kind.
Wet wipes are awesome. Basically, you can use them to “wash” any part of yourself that sweats. So, feet, groin, behind the knees, armpits, back of the neck, face. Anything that would otherwise be sticky and uncomfortable. Unless you’re able to smuggle a portable shower on with you, this is your best option.
Two hours before landing, wash
This sounds odd, but a couple of hours before landing, going to the bathroom and washing anything and everything (wet wipes!) makes a huge difference. Any later than that can be tricky as they’re often serving a last meal, or insisting you sit down for landing. Plus the queues get large as everyone tries to go to the bathroom at once.
Airline travel can be pretty awful – airport dirt, all that sitting down sweating etc, but getting off the plane feeling even moderately clean can feel like heaven by comparison.
Empty the seat pocket WELL before you land
It’s too easy to get distracted by people pushing past, saying goodbye to a seat buddy, etc, and forget something you love (I’m so sorry gorgeous blue scarf, you will be forever Korean).
Sleep as much as humanly possible
I know there’s a lot of talk about circadian rhythms, syncing with the place you’re going to, etc etc, but trust me. Just sleep as much as you can. Once you land is a whole different story, but if you’re tired, it won’t help.
I generally make a point of just generally burning the candle at both ends before a long flight. Then once I’m on I watch a silly movie and sleep for ten hours. It works super well.
Don’t read a book
Magazines are fine, since you can dip into them, but feeling like you have to power through a book will keep you awake much more, limiting your sleep. Movies are fine, since you can usually tune them out or sleep through them, but books force wakefulness. You NEED sleep.
Sit with your legs apart
A bit gross, but it stops you sweating as much “down there.”
Going to the bathroom at night
It can be tricky to spot which is your seat in the dark. So, leave something bright (your scarf or a magazine you brought with you) on the seat. Makes it all a ton simpler.
When you land
Unless you know the airport, always allow more than two hours on layovers
I know it’s annoying sitting in an airport waiting for your next flight, but hear me out.
First, some airports make you go out through security then back in again (LAX!), whereas some just sit you in transfer zones (Seoul). So, it could be a 15 minute journey through a single layer of security, or you may have to go through immigration as well. Ie, it’s impossible to predict how slow it could be. On top of that, often the simple walk between gates can be 20+ minutes, in a larger airport.
Secondly, and more importantly, global warming is affecting air travel. It’s common and becoming more so for strong winds to affect travel times, meaning your incoming flight could be an hour late. If you’ve only allowed an hour to connect to your next flight, you’re going to be STRESSED. Stretching your legs in the terminal (or getting a beer) is a hell of a lot more relaxing than having to sprint from plane A to plane B.
Once you’re off the plane, walk as quickly as you possibly can to immigration
Immigration queues can be HUGE, and walking past the entire rest of the plane means you’ve jumped a couple of hundred places up the queue. If you’re super lucky, you might even be able to walk past an entire other plane that’s landed at the same time.
Do NOT go to the loo before immigration unless it’s life-and-death. My lil bro did this once when we were travelling together. I sat and waited for him while the entire plane shuffled slowly past us *facepalm*
When you’re going through customs, walk slowly and look tired
This may be easy if you’ve just jumped off a 20+ hour flight, but it’s always helpful to walk tiredly and slowly through customs. They’re watching for suspicious behaviour. If they see you, say, excited and looking forward to seeing your friends waiting for you, they may easily misinterpret that as you being excited and looking forward to handing your drugs off to the dealers waiting for you.
The only times I’ve ever been stopped is when I walked at my usual brisk pace, keen to get the hell out of the airport. Walk at grandma pace, it’ll take an extra 30 seconds, but possibly save you twenty minutes of nonsense.
Ditch your airline baggage tags as soon as possible
If you’re travelling on public transport it’ll be obvious you’ve got a lot of stuff with you, but you don’t need to advertise that you’ve brought it all from overseas (and thus it might include duty free booze and electronics, rather than just dirty washing for the nearest laundry).
Stay awake until your normal sleep time
Even if you arrive at 4:45am and you’re exhausted, try to stay awake until your normal sleep time. It’ll help your body get in sync faster, thus reducing jet lag. One tired day is much better than a week falling asleep in meetings and staying up all night. Even if you can’t make it right until evening, every hour you can stay up will help your body adjust enormously.
Have a shower as soon as you can
Get rid of all that travel dirt. You’ll feel a million times better, trust me.
There’s a lot of things about air travel that are tiresome and stressful. However, it’s also quite exciting. Airports are full of people off to distance places. They’re like a nexus for adventure. A few relatively minor changes can make the whole thing fun, and certainly a lot less hassle.