10 Tips for Making Long Flights (Somewhat) Bearable

Long flights are, quite frankly, the worst. You are stuck in a small seat inside a pressurized tube racing through the sky at 30,000 feet. You have what feels like about half an inch of leg space, the air is all recycled, the food is mediocre, and the person sitting next to you is a stranger. But hey, look on the bright side: you only have 8 more hours left in the flight! Fortunately, there are a few tricks you can use to make long flights a bit more bearable (without having to fork over a fortune for first class).

1. Try taking a sleep aid.

For really long flights, you may be able to have your doctor prescribe a medication like Ambien (generic Zolpidem), which is a common sleep aid used to combat insomnia. Ambien is pretty powerful and you should talk to your doctor about possible side effects. I once accidentally took too strong a dose on a trans-pacific flight. When I woke up in New York I found out I had engaged in a conversation in my sleep and I was inexplicably sitting on a chicken sandwich. An alternative, which is less potent but will give you a more natural sleep, is tryptophan, a common over-the-counter drug. I’ve personally had great luck with it. Even though it is over-the-counter, you should still consult your doctor about potential negative side effects and interactions with other medications.

2. Bring earplugs.

This is a good idea even if you don’t plan on sleeping. Airplanes can be noisy places, especially if there is a baby on board (young children often don’t respond well to changes in pressure and sitting still for many hours at a time). Additionally, the noise of the engines may bother you. Older aircraft, especially, are not as good at insulating the noise. You should bring earplugs so you can be prepared for anything.

3. Drink lots of water—and no alcohol.

The air at 30,000 feet gets pretty dry. This will dehydrate you quickly and can make you feel ill. Drinking alcohol on long flights will make the dehydration issue much worse. In addition, cabin pressure is typically kept at about the equivalent of 6,000 feet above sea level, so your oxygen is limited. Alcohol is not a great solution for long flights…water is.

Google Play

Image Courtesy of Google

4. Find some games to entertain yourself. 

The FAA has significantly loosened restrictions on electronic devices in flight and they now allow you to use your phone in “airplane” mode, so find some fun mobile games to entertain yourself. Many popular board games have been turned into smartphone apps including Monopoly, Carcassonne, Solitaire, and Kingdom Builder. My wife and I once played multiple rounds of Ticket to Ride on a long flight back from the Caribbean, which gave us something social to do while flying.

5. If you have a tablet, consider watching some movies.

Not all long haul flights include in-flight entertainment, and those that do may not have a selection to your liking. Download a few movies or TV shows before you leave home so you’ll have some entertainment on the flight. A great option is to use Google Play. You can download  movies you have purchased or rented right to your device and watch them offline while in flight. On some flights you can get Wi-Fi, however, this is expensive and can be very slow, depending on which part of the Earth you are over.


USB Portable Charger

Image Courtesy of Amazon

6. Bring a USB battery charger.

If you plan on using your mobile device a lot on the flight, this is a must because your phone’s battery will be drained from lighting the screen for so long. Even pilots, who use their iPads to help with navigation and flight management, keep their devices up and running with USB battery chargers on extremely long flights. Fortunately, they’re fairly inexpensive.

7. Feel free to walk around.

That is, of course, if the pilot says it is okay to take your seat belt off. Most people only get up to go to the bathroom. You shouldn’t be afraid to walk around the cabin every few hours to stretch you legs and stay active (unless your strategy is to sleep the whole time). I have seen some people just walk to the back of the plane and stand there for awhile. It is much healthier than sitting for 12 hours straight.

8. Try a smaller carry-on personal item.

You may be tempted to fill your bag with all kinds of things to keep you busy during the flight. However, the larger your carry-on personal item is, the less leg room you will have under the seat in front of you. A small bag will make a world of difference after many hours in a cramped plane. Outside of landing and takeoff, you are also allowed to take stow-away items out, so you can put those items on you lap, leaving you more room to stretch your legs.

Choosing Airline Seats

Image Courtesy of Boeing

9. Choose your seats wisely.

The seats you pick will depend on your preferred activity level. If you plan on sleeping, try to get a window seat. If you plan on being more active, get an aisle seat. Why? If you try to sleep on an aisle seat, someone trapped by the window who needs to use the restroom will probably wake you up. You can also use the window to prop up your head. Conversely, if you plan to be active during the flight, but are stuck by the window, you will be bothering your neighbors a lot. Either way, avoid the middle seat. It is the worst of both worlds.

10. If you find comparable flight options, choose the one with the more modern plane.

Not all aircraft are made the same. Newer aircraft tend to have better “creature comforts.” The best, by far, is Boeing’s 787. I recently had the pleasure (really, I do mean it was a pleasant flight) to fly from Toronto to Munich in a 787. It is the only commercial airplane with a humidifier to help combat the dehydration. The windows on the plane can also be “dimmed”—there is no shade to pull down. You turn a dial and the window can go from completely translucent to completely black…or anywhere in between. The cabin is much more roomy and small design details will distract you from the fact that hundreds of human beings have been jammed in a small tube.

Everyone has personal preference on a long flight—you can relax, sleep, walk around, or have fun. You actually have more choices than you think.  What other tricks have you used to make long flights more bearable?