10 ways to make long flights more comfortable

March 18, 2012

Long flights.

We all dread them, but if you want to visit exotic places, there’s no avoiding them.

There are, however, some ways to make them as comfy as possible and I’ve learned them the hard way.

Our trip to Morocco started with an 11-hour trip to Paris, hen a couple hour layover followed by three more hours to Casablanca. A very long time to be flying. And I only rarely can sleep on a plane.

I wouldn’t survive a flight that length without booking a premium seat. On my overseas flights, that means business class. More legroom AND sideroom. Seats that can recline flat or almost flat. Regular pillows. Free entertainment center. And decent food. For me, this investment has always been worth it. I flew from California to London once on coach and I found it extremely uncomfortable. Never again.

Book the best seat you can. If you can’t afford to go up a class and can’t get a mileage upgrade on a coach seat, then try to upgrade to Economy Plus–those seats with more legroom. They’re far less expensive than a premium cabin. Or book a bulkhead or an exit row (but make sure the seat you book reclines, some do not. Check the cabin configuration of your particular airliner online.)

Here’s some advice: We do all our business on credit cards that award mileage and pay them off every month. Groceries, car repair, everything we can put on the card. Using miles, you can buy a coach seat and upgrade, or at least try to. I used to do it more in the past than I have lately–seats seem to be limited. But we’ve gotten many “free” domestic coach flights and we use miles also for hotels and rental cars. A few months ago I needed a room in San Francisco and the going rate was more than $350. My Hyatt room was 13,000 miles. The best deals are still on airline-specific cards–fewer miles per award.

When selecting your seat, avoid the very back of the plane or any seat too near the lavatories, where traffic and the smell of disinfectant will disturb any attempt to relax.

Bring your own amenities. If you’re not traveling premium class, bring a good travel pillow, ear plugs and a face mask. The idea is to make your own comfortable, dark and quiet cocoon so you can actually rest on your flight.

Airlines sometimes give passengers a small kit with earplugs and a mask, but they’re cutting corners today and you’ll be sorry if they don’t. To be sure, bring your own.

To avoid using germy airline blankets, I bring a pashmina or shawl if I’m flying coach. Usually, though, airlines provide fresh blankets and pillows on overseas flights. Still–I can’t get over the yuk factor of airline blankets in coach. If they aren’t sealed in a bag, ugh.

Bring your favorite healthy snacks. Yes, you can buy snacks on board and you’re served at least one meal and sometimes a few on overseas flights.

Still, I’ve been on flights in which favorite meals and snacks are gone by the time the cart reaches my row. Bring your own if you’re not flying premium or if you’re health-conscious.

Wear loose, comfortable clothes for your flight. I’ve always admired people who dress beautifully for long flights and look bandbox-fresh at their destination. It’s just not me.

I have a favorite navy blue travel outfit that I only wear on overseas flights: up and back. I’ve had it for 10 years–ask anyone I’ve traveled with. It’s a pair of loose pants and a lightweight pullover hoodie.

With a short sleeved tshirt layered underneath, I’m ready for any in-flight temperature changes.

But I absolutely reserve it for the plane.

Flat, slip-on shoes complete my travel outfit. Once we’re in flight, the shoes come off. But they’re simple to slip back into for a visit to the loo. Oh, roll or hike your pants up in the loo. Just sayin’.

The whole idea is to try to sleep through the majority of the flight, if you can. The more comfortable you are, the easier that will be.

Take sedatives only after you’re in the air. I’m not a big fan of sleeping pills on flights, but if you must take them, wait until you’re definitely in the air. I’ve seen flights get turned around before takeoff and passengers forced to deplane for a delay. Those who have already taken a sedative become zombies in the airport lounge. Not fun.

Don’t wear contact lenses en route.
The air on a plane is dry and even the most comfy overnight lenses can feel gritty. When you sleep, your eyes aren’t getting lubrication or oxygen. Forget the lenses and wear glasses till you get to your hotel room.

Which reminds me: if you bring contacts in their usual case, the saline evaporates in flight and could leave you with a dried up lens that has to be discarded.

I bring two unopened pairs of contacts with me and don’t break the seal until I’m in my hotel room.

I know, you’ve had Lasik. Not me, I’m chicken.

Oh, and I don’t wear makeup on the flight either. Just plenty of moisturizer.

So you don’t sleep on planes? I get it.

Be ready to entertain yourself. Bring an Ipod if you want your personal selection of music (even though there’s always onboard entertainment.) Your Ipad, Kindle or other e-reader, or even (gasp!) a regular BOOK! Knitting, game device, your laptop–whatever it takes to keep your mind off the endless hours you’ll be in the air.

To avoid blood clots, swollen ankles and stiff joints, walk the plane aisle every hour you’re awake: up and back, at least. If you can’t, do foot and ankle exercises at your seat. Some airline magazines even suggest a few exercises. I absolutely do this on every flight over an hour.

Drink 8 oz. of water for every hour of flight, if possible. I aim for this, but don’t always make it. Being on an airplane is dehydrating. It’s like being at 8,000 ft. of altitude. Drinking water, rather than alcohol or soft drinks, is recommended.

Keep a freshen-up kit with you. You have no idea how great a toothbrush, toothpaste and some facial wipes can look after a long flight. Flight attendants will usually bring breakfast just before landing. Refresh yourself before the meal instead of afater, to avoid the crush just before landing.

There you have it. Tips from a seasoned long-trip traveler. If you’ve got any of your own, would love to hear them.

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