20 Tips to Survive Long Haul Flights..
You know a long day of travel lies ahead – an 8 hour flight combined with arriving at the airport more than 2 hours before, plus time to get through passport control at the destination and collect your bags. Are you properly prepared for 12 hour travel day?
This is the reality of long haul flights. They get you to where you want or need to be but they are tiring. Having lived in Australia for most of my life, unless I was travelling to New Zealand or a South Pacific island, every overseas flight I took for more than 20 years was long haul – and there was plenty of them. This taught me many ways to make long haul flights a more enjoyable experience. Remember that anything over 6 hours flying time is considered long haul, but flights of longer than 10 hours are not uncommon either.
One important thing to remember is to keep your seat belt fastened at all times in case of unexpected turbulence. If you do not do this and the plane does hit turbulence you could find yourself with serious neck or head damage as you are catapulted to the ceiling. There is no need to have the seatbelt tight, but it must be fastened. I’m amazed how many times I hear people unclicking their belts just after take off is concluded – don’t follow their example, keep buckled up. During some flights, I’ve sat next to airline staff and they always keep their seatbelts fastened during flights and they do it for a reason.Read more: Saving Money for Travel
Before You Go
Choosing your Airline
Not all airlines are the same. If you are flying long haul you need lots to keep you entertained. In my experience, Asian airlines (including the Middle East) offer the better In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems, though there are definite exceptions (I remember that both Ethiopian Airlines and Air Canada had good IFEs). I love flying long haul with Emirates because they can have more than 4000 channels (yes, four thousand channels) of IFE on their ICE system. More than enough to cover any journey. Other Asian airlines that I know have strong IFEs include Qatar, Etihad, Singapore and Cathay Pacific. Better airlines also have more frequent food offerings too so you are less likely to get hungry.
Once you choose your airline, check what aircraft they use on any given route. Modern aircraft have more comfortable seating arrangements, better IFE, and those small touches such as nicer toilets. For example if going long haul with Emirates, I try to take a flight that has the Airbus A380 because I prefer its on board facilities when compared to the Boeing 777. My favourite aircraft to take is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner as its internal pressure is kept at a lower altitude, plus they have a humid control that doesn’t dry you out. I always arrive relaxed after a flight on a Dreamliner. I will even change my flight times to give preference to my favourite aircraft. Remember though, that there can be a late equipment change which may mean the aircraft you want will not be available.
Choosing Your Route
Be aware that very cheap routes will involve either very long layovers or multiple connections. This will significantly reduce your enjoyment of long-haul travel unless you can avail yourself of a hotel during a very long layover. Unless there is a very good reason to do so, try to avoid such routes. Staying in an airport for 9 hours without access to a business lounge to relax in or an airport hotel to sleep in is going to be a very tiring experience. Likewise a direct flight that would normally take 10 hours could take double that time if you have two connections during the journey.
When choosing a route that involves more than 15 hours of flying time, I will try for a stopover of at least 10 hours so that I can spend a night sleeping in the transit destination. Travelling non-stop for 20 hours (including transit time) is exhausting and not something that is enjoyed by many.
This is one of the most important sections of this page. Getting a bad seat (for example, sitting in the middle of two strangers for 10 hours) will significantly impact your flight enjoyment. This is my guide for the advantages or disadvantages of different seats.
- Window Seats – my favourite, especially ‘A’ seats. Allows you to lean against the side of the plane to rest and you can enjoy the view too. The only disadvantage with window seat is if you take a lot of toilet breaks, it means disturbing those in the seats next to you.
- Aisle Seats – preferred by many because they have space on one side (thus making them feel less cramped) and it allows easy access to the toilets. People with long legs like these seats because they can occasionally stretch their legs into the aisles without needing to stand.
- Middle Seats – a bad seat all around unless you know the people either side of you (travelling with friends or family). These are always the last seats allocated during a flight due to them being unpopular.
- Emergency Exit Row Seats – Lots of extra legroom, and thus loved by many. However, these seats will not recline if the row behind you is also another emergency exit row and you cannot store any items under the seat in front of you on take off and landing which means access to your items is restricted during this time. To sit in these seats you must have the strength to open the emergency exit if the need arises. If you cannot do this, you will be moved to another seat.
- The Row in Front of Emergency Exit Row Seats – this is the worst row to be on a plane. Because the row behind you is an emergency exit, these seats do not recline. So you get no recline with the usual narrow economy leg room. Definitely avoid this row if you can.
- Bulkhead Seats – these gives you the largest leg room of any seat on the plane – it can be massive. They are the front row of each section of a cabin and have either an emergency exit in front of them or a partition to the next section or class of the plane. However, any IFE will be stored between the seats instead of being on the back of the seat in front of you, thus meaning the width of these seats is often reduced. Not the best seats if you have a wider girth. Also remember that you don’t have a seat in front of you to store anything under, so access to your bags will be limited. Families with toddlers and babies are given priority of these seats in the middle section of an aircraft.
- Last Row Seats – some people don’t like these due to their limited seat recline and the close presence of either the toilets or galley (where food is prepared). I love these seats because being in the back row window seat gives me space to my side and rear. It feels like I’m in a cocoon at the back of a section of the plane – a very nice feeling.
I strongly recommend you check the seating plan for the aircraft you will fly or check the excellent site, Seat Guru that has a comprehensive list of seating plans and even colour codes different seats to represent their overall comfort level. However, in both cases, remember that a last minute equipment change will render these seat plans irrelevant.
If you can, book your seat early on the airline’s website to avoid the dreaded middle seat. If the airline’s website shows you have only middle seats to choose from, don’t choose a seat, but instead arrive early at the airport to see if a better seat is available. If this fails, try again at the counter at the gate, and if this fails, see if there are empty seats on the plane when everyone has boarded and ask a member of the cabin crew if you can move to that seat.
Also remember that seats near the back of the plane are noisier than seats either on the wing or further forward. The reason is that you are sitting directly behind the engines and the wings. Because of this, these seats are not as popular, but if you have noise-cancelling headphones you can negate the inconvenience of this extra noise.
Furthermore, if flights aren’t full or near to full, there are always a number of empty seats. I’ve observed that large tour groups take seats toward the back of the plane, but if they are not on your flight and the flight is not full with other passengers, there is a chance that there will be a number of empty seats in the last section of the plane. At check-in ask if the flight is full or nearly full. If the answer is ‘no’, enquire if there are many empty seats at the back of the plane. If there are, take a window or aisle seat there, and the chances are much better that you will have one or two empty seats beside you. This is perfect for long flights where you can lay across two or three seats to stretch out and get some sleep. Sitting next to a empty seat or two is not guaranteed but I once flew from Athens to New York and had two seats next to me free because I took a seat in the last few rows of the plane. The front section of economy class on the same flight was much fuller and there was no way I would have two empty seats next to me if I sat there.
In The Air
Wear comfortable clothes on board a plane and remember it is possible to dress well and be comfortable. Loose clothing is generally better as it is more comfortable. Also remember to bring the right type of shoes – something with too many laces will be difficult to remove easily both in the cabin and at security control. Your feet will swell during a flight, and if your shoe is tight at the beginning of a flight, it will be even more difficult to put on at the flight’s conclusion.
Remember that to board the plane you will need to pass through security screening, so avoid anything that you will have trouble removing (shoes with many laces, studded belts) as this will quickly become tiring.
When flying, I tend to bring a shirt that has a lot of pockets so that I can store items in them (boarding pass etc) that I will need to show when boarding the plane. I bring a light jacket to keep me warm, a simple belt that is easy to remove, shoes that are easy to remove, and a pair of travel socks that I can wear during the flight.
Bring Snacks and Food
Airline food need not be bad food. I’ve eaten countless superior meals on airlines, especially from Asian and Middle East carriers. Regardless of the quality of the food, I always brings snacks such as chocolate, biscuits, and other small items. On a very long flight you will want to munch inbetween eating times. If you have a dietary requirement, you can order special meals either at the time of booking or by contacting the airline directly afterwards. Either way, ensure you have ordered your special meal at least a few days in advance otherwise they will be unable to cater to your dietary needs.
Hydrate on a Plane
Drink water often when in the air as the dry cabin conditions will dehyrdate you quickly. Bring your own water bottle as cabin crew can fill it for you on the plane when it gets empty instead of having to rely on those small plastic cups. Some airports will not allow you to pass security even with a empty water container. Best to buy a bottle of water at the last point of purchase and take it on board with you. Even then, you may be asked to place the bottle in a sealed plastic bag so that you can pass through security. Some airports (such as Prague) don’t even allow this, so you will need to purchase your water from a vending machine at the gate.
Remember that alcohol does not hydrate you – it has the opposite effect. Drinking at this altitude has double the intoxicating effect so drink alcohol sparingly on a plane (if at all).Read more: Guide to Healthy Travel
Noise cancelling headphones are essential for anyone who travels. Their ability to eliminate the ambient noise of the flying plane is incredible, plus they get rid of most cabin noise as well. Even Business Class and First Class on airlines will not offer you noise-cancelling headphones as good as those you can purchase yourself. I choose Bose and you can either have an in-ear or over the ear models. Remember to bring the adapter so that you plug it into the IFE system. Also remember that noise cancelling headphones that do not have a cord (such as bluetooth models) will not work with IFE systems. It may be fancy to have the latest bluetooth technology but it is useless on with the IFE system on flights.
Power Banks and USB Cables
Some planes offer a USB charging facilities in their seats. However, these are only useful if you have a USB cable to do the charging. If this facility is not available, bring a power bank with you into the cabin instead – actually always bring one of these regardless. Also bring the AC adapter too, some planes still use them and they are also necessary if in transit at an airport if you happen to find an empty plug somewhere in the terminal.
Bring your own Entertainment
What happens if the IFE on a plane fails? This has even happened to me on a flight crossing the Atlantic. You need an alternative form of entertainment. In this case, I had my laptop, MP3 (with headphones), book and a small card game with me. Thus, I passed the many hours without ever getting bored. Remember to bring an item or two that does not rely on power such as a book or small board games in case you run out of battery on your electronic items. Remember to fully charge all electronic items before you leave home.
One of the best travel items I own is a leather travel organiser. In it there are pockets for my boarding pass, baggage tag, printed hotel reservation, printed airline itinerary and passport. It is brilliant for keeping everything in one place. I will also keep any immigration or customs form in this same organiser and will make sure that a pen is inside. It allows you to fill these different forms onboard or at the airport where there are rarely enough working pens.
Eye Shades and Pillow
A travel pillow is one of your greatest travel accessories, and not just the neck pillows, but a proper pillow. Good eye shades are useful too because they will darken your world even if lights are on in the cabin. If I want to sleep, it is hard to beat the combination of noise-cancelling headphones playing gentle music, eyes shades and a comfortable pillow.
Take a small toiletries bag with you. Mine contains lip balm, deodorant (roll on versions because aerosols are not permitted in the cabin), toothpaste and toothbrush. If a very long flight I’ll bring a razor blade and a small bottle of shaving gel. I also bring a small hand sanitiser to use before eating meals. Remember that anything liquid needs to be smaller than 100ml and placed in a clear plastic bag for security screening.
Bring any important medication with you in the cabin. Not only are they important to take during the flight but if your luggage is delayed on your arrival you will not miss any doses.
Flying with Children
A child’s short attention span can make long haul flights a challenge. Many of the rules already listed above (snacks, electronic and non-electronic entertainment) also apply for children, but you may need more than just one option of each item instead. Remember to bring headphones if using a pad or another electronic item to keep the little ones entertained. Playing such items without headphones is inconsiderate to those sitting near you. Some airlines cater very well to children. When we travelled with our infant daughter to Europe, Emirates provided the following items to make the trip easier – small blanket, diaper changing kit (including wipes, soiled diaper bag, rash cream), bib, feeding spoon and 2 small toys (this is shown in the photo below). This, along with the choice of many children video channels on the IFE made our journey a lot more enjoyable.
Airport toilets are a hit and miss affair. In order to avoid them use the toilet on the plane. If you decide to have a toilet break after you land, that delay will cause you to be at the back of the passport control queue – not a good thing. Best to take a toilet break about an hour before landing, because if you try to do so closer to landing there will be longer toilet queues or the toilets will be closed for use.
On the ground
Transit times between Flights
Some airports are massive and sprawling buildings and even a layover of 90 minutes will not be enough to get you between flights on time. I always allow at least 2 hours between flights on international routes, and even longer if I have to pass through immigration and collect my luggage to board a domestic flight – I would recommend 4 hours. If you do have a tight connection time between flights ask for a seat near the front of the plane.
Remember that if you miss your connecting flight it can cause you some real problems. If both your arriving and connecting flight are with the same airlines, they are more likely to assist you as it was their own flight that caused you to miss your connection. However, if you are changing airlines then it will be harder to get the assistance you need as the airline of the connecting flight can rightly say that they are not to blame.
What you do at an airport during your layover depends on the length of your layover. Anything around the 2 hour mark means you really only have time to transit with maybe a quick meal and toilet stop. Remember to head to your gate as quickly as possible.
A most reasonable layover time is that of 3-4 hours – it gives you time to actually wander around to see what is on offer. Remember to not get lost in the duty free shopping or restaurants. It is incredible how many flights I’ve been on when luggage is offloaded because passengers never boarded the plane on time. Best to stay in the region of your gate and set an alarm on your phone or watch for around 60 minutes before your flight, and when it goes off, time to head to the gate.
The worst layover times are those of 5 – 7 hours. Not enough time to leave the airport, and you are effectively stuck in transit within the airport. If you can, avail yourself of an airport lounge do so, but even then time can pass slowly – but some of these lounges offer things such as beds and showers so you can refresh yourself between flights. Remember that many airport lounges do not make boarding announcements, so again set an alarm on your phone or watch to tell you when it’s time to head to the gates.
For anything 8 hours or more, it’s time to consider an airport hotel within the airport, The price of these can vary considerably, but you are likely to pay far more than a hotel outside of the airport. The other option is to consider an airport hotel that is within walking or shuttle distance to the terminal, but even a time of 8 hours will quickly reduce to 5 if you have to pass through passport control and security checks again to board the plane, plus the time taken to check in and out of the hotel. For me, I would never leave an airport if my connection time is 8 hours or less as I won’t get a restful sleep due to knowing I have such a short time before it’s time to return to the airport. Don’t want to be late for that next flight!
When organising my itinerary for very long haul routes (combined flying time of more than 15 hours) I try to organise a long layover of more than 10 hours so that I can leave the airport and head to a nearby hotel for a good night’s sleep. If less than this time, I head to an airport lounge or a hotel within the airport, thus saving the need to pass through passport control and even more security checks and allowing me more sleep time.
I always try to organise for a late afternoon or evening arrival, but this is not always possible. By arriving late, it means I can sleep soon after arrival. If arriving during the morning, it means that I need to stay awake until evening in order to best deal with jetlag – and this is a challenge even for experienced travellers.
Set your Watch to Local Time
Finally, though a small touch, it is an important one. As soon as the plane closes its doors, I switch my watch to the time of the destination. This is especially important if you have a connecting flight as if you are tired you may accidentally rely on your watch time set to your home time and may miss your flight. It also mentally helps you prepare for the time zone you are heading to, again as small but important factor in making your long haul travel a little bit easier.
The Reality of Upgrades
You will read on many websites about strategies to get upgraded to Business Class or First Class when flying long haul. However, speak to people who have worked in airlines and there are only two factors that will determine if you are upgraded:
- Compensated for a travel delay caused by the airline – If the aircraft you are on has mechanical troubles and you have been severely affected by this, including with connections (only applies if your connection is with the same airline), you may also be offered an upgrade, but this is more likely to occur if you are a member of the airline’s loyalty program (see below).
- A member of the airline’s loyalty program on an overbooked flight – all airlines overbook their flights because of no shows. Problems occur on the rare instances when everyone actually does turn up. During this time you may be asked to give up your seat and take a later flight. If you do, compensation may include the offer of a free return flight, monetary compensation or an upgrade on the next flight. If enough people don’t take the offer to move to a later flight, certain people in economy are upgraded to allow more people into that class of seats. Preference is always given to members of the airline’s loyalty program, especially if they hold tier status. I have been given upgrades a number of times (including the photo above) and they always followed this scenario – an overbooked flight followed by an upgrade due to my membership in their loyalty program.
If you do not fall into the above categories, the chance getting an upgrade is about the same as being struck by lightning. If you follow the link below you can read more about how to benefit from an airline’s loyalty program.Read more: Guide to Cheaper Travel