Anyone can be a pillow

Anyone can be a pillow

My friend Nikki is going on a trip to Thailand next month (lucky!), and knowing my near-constant travelling (I’m currently averaging 17 mph for the year) she wanted some tips on how to prepare for long flights. There are several websites and blogs that discuss this, and even a book, but here’s my own personal tips for preparing for and surviving a long ride in the flying bus.

Preparing for the Trip

Make sure you have the best seat: Nearly all airlines allow you to choose your seat online, but how do you know your seat reclines or has a power plug or has a good view of the movie?  I’m a big fan of, which shows seat maps for the planes of most airlines, based on reviews by flyers.  Also, should you be fortunate enough to get a window you might check out to see what will be out the window and what side to sit on.  Openflights also tracks your flights if you’re a crazy flyer like, ummm, me

Bring it all on the plane or just bring a light travel bag: In my opinion there are two strategies to dealing with baggage on a long-distance flying.

Strategy 1: Carry on all your luggage.  This means packing light and making sure your one or two bags – be sure to check with your airline(s) how many! – will fit in the overhead and/or under the seat in front of you.  Bringing only carry-on makes check-in faster, reduces the chances that the airline will lose your bags, and can save money given that most airlines are now charging for check-in baggage.  However, it can also make going through security more of a hassle, limits what you can bring (no liquids and limited toiletries) and there is always a chance everyone else carried their luggage on and there isn’t enough space (this explains the mad rush when people are boarding the plane).

Strategy 2: Check in as much as possible and carry on only what you need.  You may be faced with extra fees, lost bags and time spent at the baggage carousel, but it will generally be a more relaxed experience getting on and off the plane.  Frankly, which strategy works best depends on the trip.  I tend to pack as light as possible and carry-on for domestic flights, but as soon as I have to check anything, I usually check it all.

Check in online and get to the airport early: Unless you are at a rock concert, waiting in line sucks, so if available use online check-in whenever possible.  Also, if you are trying to upgrade, priority tends to go with check-in time, so the earlier you check-in (usually 24 hours max) the better your chances for first-class.  I’m also a huge fan of very early arrival to the airport – 1 hour before domestic, 2 hours before interational – even if it means rising before the Sun.  It reduces stress, mitigates against problems, and most airports are equipped with wireless and ample diversions to make the extra hour or so pleasant.

Consider joining the airline’s frequent flyer program: If you are traveling a truly large distance (say to Thailand!) consider joining the airline’s frequent flyer program and making use of those miles for a future flight.  If you have several big trips coming up soon, you might even try a frequent flyer challenge – be awarded a high status right off after flying some set number of miles in a short period.  For example, if you fly 10,000 miles on American in 90 days, you immediately can get boosted right to platinum.  Airlines tend not to promote this, so call their customer service line to see if it’s a possibility and sign up (American and United have this program).

What to Bring on the Plane

Noise mitigation: Until the airlines start shelling out for sound-proofing (don’t hold your breath), your ears are going to be assaulted by 60-90 decibels (db) of jet engine noise inside the cabin for the entire trip, particularly if you are in the back of the bus.  Since OSHA forbids 90 db exposure for more than 8 hours on the job, you can imagine that your 10 hour flight is probably doing permanent damage.  So consider purchasing noise-cancelling headphones for the ride, which knocks down the white noise but still allows you to hear the flight attendants and your traveling partner (be sure to bring extra batteries too).  Of course, a good set of Bose headphones (my preference) can run you $300, so a cheaper and still excellent alternative is to just pick up a bunch of earplugs at the local drug store, which will also be useful if you stay in a hostel or noisy part of a city.  I actually use both on long plane flights, just to make sure my ears are safe and sound!

Sitting & sleeping comfort aids: I’m not sure what genius designed the modern airline seat, with its thin padding, narrow width, metal armrests and total lack of back support, but a long flight in one of these modern-day torture devices can knock out the first day or two of your trip in back, neck and joint pain.  Plus, unless you’re a GI Joe action figure, sleeping sitting up sucks.  So I recommend getting some comfort items to make sure your body arrives still malleable.  To support that 10 lb bowling ball we call “the head”, consider bringing an inflatable neck pillow (see this review), but be sure it’s one that you can tighten/tie together at the opening so your head stays supported (I’ve actually considered getting a cervical collar but those tend not to be made for comfort).  To support your back, there are plenty of travel back supports available for purchase, but my recommendation is to just roll up a sweatshirt, which you might need anyways if the plane gets cold. Finally, if you’re going to sleep, blocking out the lights and movie is very helpful.  So pick up a good eye mask, particularly the uber-comfy Temper-pedic or  NapForm eye masks (we call it an eye mattresses!) you can pick up a Relax the Back or Brookstone.  Incidentally, the best thing for a long sit is to make sure to get up once and awhile to stretch your joints, and also do regular seat exercises.  This will help prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis, a potentially fatal risk for long-haul flights.

Snacks: There was once a time you could get a nice healthy meal and some wine, especially on international flights; now airlines serve reheated cheese, bread and meat combinations (even in first class!) and don’t provide enough food for all passengers.  You can generally pick up something in the airport, but unless you’re on a fast food diet I suggest bringing along some healthy snacks for the trip.  While you can’t bring fresh fruits, vegetables or liquids past security, packaged goods, including dried fruits and nuts, are ok and sometimes even sandwiches (although it varies depending on where you’re going and your departure airport).  Also, if you’re not down with Lipton swill (American Airline’s special brew!), consider bringing your own stash of tea as well.

Plane activities: Sure there is the movie and the inflight magazine, but does 10 hours of airline-approved entertainment really sound that entertaining?  (actually, it can be if you’re on a foreign carrier)  Books are an obvious and good alternative, and a paperback that you’re willing to donate at the other end of your trip will keep your carry-on load light.  Another idea is an activity book like crossword puzzles or Sudoku – they’re much more compact than a laptop and much more stimulating that solitaire (which is hard to play on the tiny meal trays anyways).  If you really need that video fix, portable DVD players or mini-computers are much better for a compact space than a full laptop, but remember you’ll need to lug that thing around for your entire vacation.  If you’re more of an audiophile, consider downloading an audiobook or two from, or download some free language lesson podcasts for you destination country (see my post on French podcasts) – you’ll be surprised how much Farsi you can pick up in a few hours!

Change of clothes: Face it, you and your clothes will probably stink after sitting in one place for 10 hours, and there is nothing worse than getting to you destination to find out the airline’s misplaced your luggage with the rest of your clothes.  Carrying on a change of clothes is a good insurance policy against this.  In addition, it means you can wear clothes on the plane that are more suited for the long trip – loose and light shirt and slacks/sweatpants, sandals (but bring socks for the cold), and a sweatshirt are optimal; pajamas are just plain tacky.

Avoiding Jet Lag

This is a controversial topic, with many frequent flyers and physicians having all kinds of conflicting potions and notions on how to reset your circadian rhythm (here’s a nice list).  Frankly I feel if you fly enough jet lag just becomes a fact of life.  However, here are some tactics I’ve tried in order to avoid it:

Don’t eat on the plane: While that reheated soggy ham sandwich might seem appealing, there is evidence that fasting on the plane and then eating as soon as you arrive can reduce jet lag.  Fasting triggers a “starvation” body clock that can help reset your circadian cycle, and your first meal in your new destination will reset your clock to breakfast – so it’s helpful if you arrive in the morning.

Sleep as much as you can on the plane: While many people think it best to “pre-adjust” to the destination’s day-night cycle, I have found that just getting as much rest as possible on the plane is infinitely better – this is where the sleep aids come in handy.

Exercise and immediately get onto a normal sleep schedule at your destination: After a long flight, one’s first instinct is to get to the hotel and get some rest, but that will almost certainly throw off your circadian for a few days.  Instead, plan on some low-level activities that involve exercise, like a good walk or hike, or a bike ride around town.  Get to bed early in the evening and you should be adjusted by the first morning of your trip.

Enjoy your trip!!