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There was supposedly a time when air travel was comfortable and glamorous. That time is most definitely past. These days, flying is an uncomfortable affair for just about everyone. If you aren’t in first class (and who of us is?) there’s really no way to make the whole ordeal of getting from one place to somewhere else actually enjoyable. But there are ways to make the whole thing better. Read on for tips and tricks to making your long haul flight (or even a short one) as comfortable as possible. The goal of travel is to get somewhere, and the hope is that you get there without being too grumpy, tired, or sore. Here are my tips, refined over years of travel, and brought to a fine point this June when a single trip to Africa and back saw me clock up over 40 total hours in the air.
The Champions – Winning Products & Strategies
My first tip isn’t popular these days, but frankly it keeps me sane. Check your bag. That roll-aboard is heavy, it’s awkward and more and more often it just won’t fit on the plane. Instead of lugging it through airports, dealing with security, and then having to gate check the stupid thing anyway (which often holds you up at the other end waiting instead of making your connection), just check it. Your fellow passengers will thank you, because you aren’t holding up boarding trying to cram your just too big rolling bag into a too small overhead bin. Your back will think you (rolling or not, hauling it around isn’t great). And your stress levels will too. Yes, it is possible for checked luggage to be lost, but it happens less than you’d think. In the 25 years I’ve been flying I have never (not once) had a bag lost. I check a bag every time due to shoulder issues.
If you are really afraid of losing that checked bag put an extra t-shirt and some underwear and socks in your carryon. Remember, just about anything else you can do without (or grab from the hotel, like a toothbrush) for a day or two in the unlikely event your bag goes on a different trip than you did.
The Ultimate Carry On: A Diaper Bag
Now, for the bag you do carry on the plane, here you want something that fits under the seat in front of you for a number of reasons. First, it allows you to have access to it at all times, even when that pesky seatbelt sign is fastened. Second, it lessons the chance of theft (yes, it happens). It eliminates the possibility that you’ll be made to gate check it. And finally, it encourages you to pack just the essentials. For a very short flight I carry my purse with an extra snack stuck inside. I routinely sit in a car for two or three hours without fussing, so there’s no need to bring a huge pack on a plane either. However, I recently did a trip that required two 10 hour flights each way. And for that, you are going to need stuff.
Enter the best carry on you can buy: a diaper bag. That’s right, forget all those expensive fancy travel bags that get marketed for “experienced travelers.” They’re overpriced, and don’t have half the capacity or organization of even a cheap diaper bag. Mine cost me $7 on clearance. There are lots of reasons to love diaper bags. They’re generally made to wipe clean easily. They are also big and roomy but meticulously organized and squash down small. And the straps meant to secure the diaper bag to a stroller work great to securely fastening it to a piece of rolling luggage.
I got my bag from OiOi, but the number of choices is nearly limitless. Figure out what you need or want from your carryon and go from there (I threw away the changing pad and bottle that came with my bag.)
OK y’all, let’s talk health and safety. I know compression socks are a thing we all saw our Grandmother’s wear in the hospital, but on long haul flights the risk of blood clots is real, no matter how old you are. For those of us taking birth control, our risks are even higher. Wear compression socks. They might not be “cute” but they’re important and I found they actually helped me stay more comfortable. If you’re prone to being cold on planes they will keep you nice and warm, and they’ll keep the ankle swelling down on top of it. There are tons of different options these days, you can even get fairly cute prints. I bought mine from Amazon.
Choosing your clothing when flying is half the battle. I have two rules: stretchy and soft, and layers. For a short flight a pair of jeans is fine, but try sitting (and sleeping) in them for 10 hours and you’ll understand my first rule. For long flights I wear cotton (it wicks moisture to keep you from getting sweaty, cold, or otherwise uncomfortable) and I only wear stretchy clothing. So yes, I’m that person flying in yoga or sweat pants. Not having your middle constricted while trying to contort yourself into a sleeping position makes a huge difference. Forget about fashion and chose comfortable clothing that moves with you.
Also, bring layers. A t-shirt, a fleece or sweatshirt, and a wrap are a great flying ensemble. You can shed or add as you like, and the wrap can act as a blanket or pillow as you need. There’s nothing worse than being freezing, or sweating at 30,000 feet with hours left to go before you can escape. So be prepared for anything.
Change of Clothes
For true long haul travel pack a change of clothes in your carryon! After my first 10 hour flight, and seven hour layover it was incredibly refreshing to put on a clean set of clothing. Choose stuff that isn’t bulky, and here’s where all those extra diaper bag pockets are super helpful. I rolled up a light t-shirt, socks, and underwear into a little log, and stuff them down into the bottle pocket of my bag. Half way through my two days of air travel I got to change clothes and felt much, much better for it.
Some airports have hotels (or micortels) either inside the terminal (see Japan’s capsule hotels), or directly attached. For the true long haul flight like the one I just finished these are worth the cost and the hassle of going back through security. There’s nothing quite like a shower after 10 hours in a tin can with a couple hundred other people to make you feel human again. And you might even have time for a nap on a real bed.
But what if your layover isn’t seven hours, or you can’t afford to grab a hotel room at the airport? Enter a bath in a bag, or a wet wipe for your whole body. They’re not as good as a real shower, but they are far better than nothing. I toss two in my carryon when I travel as they take up so little room. Find yourself a bathroom, strip, scrub yourself with that big wet wipe and then change into fresh clothing. It might not be as good as a shower in your own home, but it will leave you feeling much better and refreshed.
There’s nothing that dries your skin out like airplane air. All that dry recirculated air leaves your lips cracked and your face feeling tight. So I travel with a little bag of skin care essentials. These will obviously vary based on your skin and it’s needs. My skin tends to dry and dehydrated anyway so I travel with the most hydrating products I can find in mini form. Sometimes for free. Because of size restrictions (and really, who wants to carry a whole pot of moisturizer around anyway) small wins, and samples are perfect. Those little foil pouches of serum, or moisturizer, or overnight mask you get with your Sephora, or Ulta purchases? Don’t use them, save them for travel. They add almost no weight or bulk to your carryon, and you don’t have to deal with half used products. Apply, toss them, and move on with much happier skin!
You can also buy little travel bottles and pots and decant your favorite skincare, but however you do it, bring some!
Peace & Quiet
Airplanes are loud, even without screaming babies, or the loud talker behind you with the annoying laugh. Peace and quiet on a flight can save your sanity. But there’s no need to buy super expensive noise canceling headphones! A pair of cheap earplugs (a few cents at the pharmacy) will cut the noise nicely. Or, buy yourself a pair of “closed back” headphones that cover your entire ear.
Closed back, over ear headphones use solid backs so there is less noise leakage from whatever you are listening to, and those same closed backs also keep sound out. I wear mine on flights even if I’m not listening to anything because they take the top off noise levels and bring everything down to a nice soft muffled level I can deal with!
Sleep is difficult at best on modern airlines but there are things you can do to make it easier, or even possible. First, bring an eye mask, you don’t need anything fancy here but something to block light will make all the difference when your seat mate decides to open the window shade half way through your nap. A good neck pillow is also a must. If, like me, your head tends to fall forward when you nap sitting up then this pillow is worth checking out. It worked well for me and is the only pillow I’ve found that kept my head from falling forward and waking me up. It’s only drawback is that it’s very warm. In the future I’ll probably swap the cover out for something silky that will be less hot!
Finally, a bit of lavender oil can help you relax and be more likely to actually sleep. There are lots of options but I went with this one. The smell was lovely, I just rolled it right onto my neck pillow and found it incredibly relaxing.
Choosing Your Seat
This isn’t about what you bring onto the plane with you, but where you sit. First of all most airlines allow you to chose your seat when you book your flight. Do that, I prefer to book directly with airlines for this reason instead of using those comparison sites. Feel free to find the flight you want on someplace like Expedia, but then try going directly to the airline to book. In general the price is the same and you can usually chose your seat right from the start. I prefer a window seat for short flights because I like window gazing, but for long flights I always go with an aisle for easy access to the bathroom and a bit of stretching space.
To make sure you keep your seat be sure to checkin online 24 hours before your flight and confirm your seat. I’m always surprised at how many people don’t do this, checking in 24 hours before your flight also helps ensure you actually get a seat since airlines are increasingly likely to oversell flights. Check in, make sure your seat is chosen and showing on your boarding pass and you’ll have far less stress and frustration at the airport.
I like to bring distractions to take my mind off just how long I still have to sit in this cramped little seat. For me that means
podcasts on my phone, a Kindle stocked with great books, and sometimes a game system like my Nintendo 3DS. Whatever works for you to keep you distracted and happy. On flights within the continental US entertainment is often not free. The last thing I want to do is spend $7 to watch a movie on a tiny little screen. If you’ve got kids these distractions are even more important! Include some small toys, games, and their favorite books. Special “treat” toys for flights can help keep them interested and engaged. Some might call it bribery, others good parenting. Consider relaxing rules on screen time, or getting special toys just for flights to add some excitement and make the whole experience less painful.
Never fly without food. But please don’t bring an Indian Curry or really stinky cheese. I keep a few protein bars in my bag in case I miss a meal. But I also hit up the grocery store, or Target, before a flight and buy bit of dried fruit, or some nuts. Bring things that don’t need refrigeration, won’t cause odor issues for anyone and can keep your blood sugar in a healthy range. After all, if I don’t want to spend $7 for a movie I really don’t want to sped $15 for a few bits of cheese, some sad crackers and an apple in flight.
Flying Like a Pro
Surviving your travel with grace and good humor isn’t magic, it’s about experience and preparation. Mix and match the tips above until you find what works for you. Please share your own tips for travel in the comments below! How do you get through a long flight with your humor in tact?