After years of traveling all over the world in all classes of services, I have gathered and refined a list of travel hacks to help me survive and even enjoy long-haul flights.
These travel tips help me stay relaxed and maximize my sleep on the plane. I arrive at my destination without sore muscles. Surviving a long-haul flight means more than just arriving without feeling like you pulled an all-nighter for an exam and then decided to run a marathon. It means enjoying the experience of travel even before you arrive at your destination.
When travelers were surveyed about their cutoff flight time for comfort on a long-haul flight, 36% said they can fly comfortably for only 4 hours. 22% said 7 hours of flight time was their max. That means half of travelers would be beyond their max comfort time flying from New York City to Paris or London, both of which have flight times over 7 hours. Only 13% reported they would be comfortable on flights over 7 hours.
Long-haul trips with a flight time of 7 or more hours are brutal for the majority of people. So what can we do to better tolerate those long hours hurtling in a tin can around the world?
Keep reading to learn the best strategies and travel hacks for surviving your next long-haul flight.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is provided for general information purposes only. It is not meant to represent legal, financial, medical, or other professional advice. Deskless Nomad makes no representations, warranties, or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete, or up to date. Please see the full Deskless Nomad Disclaimer.
Choose your flight wisely to survive a long-haul flight
Choose long flights that match your sleep cycle
Getting sleep on your flight is crucial. There are many things you can do to help you sleep on a plane even if you are stuck in the middle seat. But choosing the right flight is probably the most important.
Certain flight times will better match your circadian rhythm depending on which direction you are traveling around the world.
Flights to Europe leaving late at night will be more conducive to sleep. Everyone else is trying to sleep so there are fewer glowing laptops or entertainment screens. The flight attendants also turn off the cabin lights to match your sleep cycle.
Book direct flights to reduce your stress levels
While direct flights are a more sustainable way to fly, they are also a better way to reduce the stress of travel. Disembarking and then rushing to find your next gate increase your heart rate and cortisol levels. It takes longer for you to relax again enough.
Then there’s the stress of finding an uncrowded place to relax. It is difficult to catch any sleep during a layover in the airport, even if you manage to find a premium lounge with a dedicated sleeping area.
Direct flights reduce your overall transit time, giving you more time to recover on arrival before enjoying the rest of your trip.
Choose a flight during off-peak times for more space to stretch out
Traveling during off-peak times increases the chance there will be open seats on your flight so you can stretch out. Very early or very late flights in the day are more likely to have open seats. According to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight, early morning flights are also less likely to be delayed. Flight delays inevitably increase travel stress, especially if you have to make any tight connections.
If possible, try to avoid traveling during peak times like a couple of days before major holidays. Consider taking your international vacations during shoulder seasons like late spring and early fall instead of during the height of summer. Tuesdays are also less likely to have overbooked flights.
Choose your seat wisely to survive a long-haul flight
Use SeatGuru to select your seat
Using SeatGuru to select your seat is an absolute must for surviving a long-haul flight. But the best seat for you will depend on your priorities.
- Do you want to have easy access to the aisle to stand and stretch your legs?
- Do you want to be able to rest your head against the window to fall asleep?
- Are you sensitive to the light and noises of the bathrooms and galley?
- Do you want a better chance of having a whole row to yourself? (in a back row)
- Do you want extra leg room in the exit row? (but don’t mind if the seats don’t recline)
- Does turbulence stress you out? (seats by the wings experience less turbulence)
- Do you need guaranteed overhead storage space? (Bulkhead rows may not have overhead storage space near you)
When you are ready to purchase your tickets online, open a separate browser window to access SeatGuru. Type in your selected airline and flight number to find the best seats in that particular plane’s configuration.
You can find information on which seats don’t recline and which ones have extra leg space. These sites compare seat pitch and width between airlines and tell you which planes have power ports to charge electronic devices.
Use Legroom for Google flights Chrome Extension
When you use Google Flights to search for flights you can also evaluate legroom using the Legroom for Google Flights Chrome Extension. You can also get information carry-on restrictions and some other amenities alongside your Google Flight search results.
Pay a little extra for more leg room
Paying a little extra for more legroom is almost always worth it. Being able to stretch your legs can make a huge difference in your comfort on a long coach flight.
When choosing extra legroom it is important to understand the distinction between economy plus and premium economy. Skyscanner reports that premium economy is often double the price of regular economy. The seats are wider with more recline and have five to seven inches more legroom than regular economy. You may also get different meals, priority boarding, and amenity kits.
But you don’t have to pay double if all you want is more legroom. Economy plus is a more affordable option to have a better seat with more leg room. Some airlines even provide more plush, wider or newer seats than the rest of economy.
Each airline has a different name for its economy seats with extra legroom. United calls them Economy Plus. Delta has Comfort+, JetBlue has Even More Space, and American Airlines offers Main Cabin Extra.
You pay anywhere from $50 to several hundred depending on the trip but you are guaranteed more leg room.
Leave an open middle seat between you and your travel partner when booking
If you are traveling with someone try booking an aisle and window seat and leave an open seat between you. Middle seats are always booked last. If your flight isn’t full there is a good chance the middle seat will stay empty and give you more room to stretch out.
There is very little risk with this strategy. If someone ends up sitting between you, they will gladly trade their middle seat for your aisle or window seat.
Check the airline seat map 3 to 4 days before your flight
Three to four days before your flight is scheduled to leave you can check the seating selection on the airline website. If there are any open rows you can change your seat to have a better chance of having a whole row to yourself.
Just remember many airlines lock out online seat changes during the 48 hours before your flight. Check your airline’s policies so you can plan your strategy accordingly.
Once you arrive at the gate you can also ask the gate agent about switching to a better seat. Use the airline’s live seat map on their website so you know what is available before approaching the gate agent. Seats will all have been assigned by about 15 minutes before boarding so this is often the best time to switch to an empty row.
Buy the seat next to you for more room to stretch out or fall asleep
You can buy the seat next to you for a steep discount on many airlines. Prices vary depending on the airline but these programs allow you to block off the seat next to you to stretch out. Some airlines allow you to do this at the time of booking. Others send out an email with the offer a couple of days before the flight.
Purchase an economy “bed”
Several airlines offer an economy bed which is essentially a row of 3 economy seats with bedding.
Air New Zealand offers the Skycouch which has a shelf that pulls out to make a flatbed. You get a mattress topper, pillow, blanket, and an extension seatbelt to use when you want to lie down. You can also sit back and put up your legs as if lounging on your couch at home.
The ANA Couchii is a similar product for those flying on an ANA A380 airplane between Narita and Honolulu.
Lufthansa’s Sleeper’s Row lets you book 3 to 4 seats to yourself on flights that last 11 hours or longer.
Use miles or bid to upgrade to premium economy or business class
Although flying internationally in business class is out of reach for most of us, it is worth keeping an eye on the cost of upgrading to help you survive a long-haul flight. Having frequent flyer status with an airline is the best way to get a free upgrade. You can use miles to upgrade or sometimes purchase an upgrade at a reasonable price.
Airlines use complicated and sometimes counterintuitive algorithms when pricing seats. If economy class is almost full but premium economy has empty seats, booking premium may be far cheaper than you’d expect.
Some airlines will also let you bid on an upgrade if your flight has empty seats in business class or premium economy during the days close to departure. You tell the airline how much you are willing to pay to upgrade and the airline accepts your bid or not, depending on what other passengers also bid.
Score a deal on business class or premium economy seats
La Compagnie is a boutique airline offering all-business class flights between Europe and Newark. The tickets for flat-bed seats are much lower than many large airlines. Plus tickets are 100% refundable up to 24 hours before the flight.
You can also find great deals on business class or premium economy with SkyLux.
If you can’t score a deal on business class there are still many ways to make your economy seat feel like first class.
Pack these essential travel items to survive long flights
1. An Inflatable ottoman
The inflatable ottoman was a game-changer for my ability to sleep in economy. Getting your feet a little higher and releasing the pressure on your back will make a long-haul flight much more comfortable. Inflatable ottomans are also great when you travel long distances on buses, trains, or road trips.
2. A foot hammock
A foot hammock is an alternative to the inflatable footrest to help you sleep in economy and survive a long-haul flight.
To set it up you attach the straps to your tray table to create a sling that elevates your feet. Some foot hammocks create a sort of shelf from your seat to the tray table. This type tends to be better for kids than adults. Other models are more of a bag that you put your feet inside.
3. Your own blanket and pillow
While airlines provide pillows and blankets for long-haul flights anything you bring with you will be infinitely better. A memory foam neck pillow that contours to your head will provide better cushioning. A stuffable down travel blanket will keep you nice and cozy when they turn down the cabin temperature.
You can also try asking for a second blanket or score one from an empty seat nearby after everyone has been seated.
Knowing that airlines generally don’t sterilize and wash the blankets and pillows in between flights may also convince you to bring your own!
4. Noise-canceling headphones
Planes are loud. Even the quietest wide-body aircraft, the A380 produces 70 decibels. The threshold for peaceful sleeping is around 60 Decibels.
If ambient plane noise keeps you from sleeping or you suffer from anxiety on long-haul flights, noise-canceling headphones are a travel essential. Bring your own to block out the engine and other noises around you.
Ear plugs can also help block airplane noise for better sleep.
5. A portable charger
Your phone is a great tool to take the stress out of long-haul flights. You can check in, use a paperless boarding pass, check on flight status, check the seat map, and for entertainment on your flight. Make sure you keep it charged with a high-speed, lightweight, and compact portable charger.
6. Travel games
Small portable travel games or even a pack of cards help you pass the time on a long flight with your travel partners.
7. Travel-friendly and gut-friendly snacks
Highly processed and salty airplane food can upset your digestion and make it difficult to relax. Bring some healthy snacks from home like carrot or cucumber sticks, whole grain crackers, fresh fruit, and hummus or another protein-packed dip. Avoid packing snacks that need silverware, can be easily spilled, or have a strong odor.
8. Comfortable travel wear
Wear or bring a comfortable outfit with layers that you can shed or add to adjust to changes in temperature.
- A large and cozy sweatshirt or sweater
- Stretchy pants, jogging pants, or leggings
- Fuzzy socks or compression socks
- Comfortable shoes that slip on and off easily
A spare mask, underwear, and a pair of socks will also keep you feeling fresh if your flight is delayed.
9. An amenities bag
Pack an amenities bag of long-flight essentials like the ones airlines provide to business-class and first-class passengers.
- Moisturizer (in a refillable silicone travel bottle)
- Lip balm or chapstick
- Toothbrush & travel toothpaste
- A couple of hard candies, mints, or gum
- Sanitizing wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- Dental floss or toothpicks
Don’t forget to include important health items you might need like:
- Extra doses of important medications
- Eye drops if your eyes tend to dry out
- Glasses if you wear contacts
- A pain relieve like Tylenol (Paracetamol) or Ibuprofen
- Melatonin (or other sleep aid recommended by your doctor)
Pack everything in a small clear toiletry bag to easily remove during security screening.
You can also buy a ready-made travel amenities bag full of flight essentials.
10. A sleep mask
Sleep masks are one of my most important travel essentials. They are great for blocking ambient light in the airplane cabin to help prepare your brain for sleep. They are also useful when you arrive at your destination and need to catch up on sleep during the day. While hotel rooms often have blackout curtains, most Airbnbs and other vacation rentals do not.
11. A pen
Bring your own pen so you can fill out the necessary forms on the plane. This will shorten the time you spend standing at passport control when you are already tired.
12. A reusable water bottle
It is very easy to become dehydrated when traveling. You become distracted by the logistics of catching your flight and forget to drink. Then you are exposed to air conditioning in the terminal and recycled air with low humidity on the plane that dry out your nose and throat.
Bring a collapsible water bottle that packs down small so you can stay hydrated. Fill it at a water fountain after security screening or with filtered water in an airport lounge.
The Aerospace Medical Association recommends you drink eight ounces of water each hour you fly.
Try these travel tips before leaving for the airport when flying long haul
Download your books, movies, and shows ahead of time
Plan your entertainment ahead of your trip to make your long-haul flight more enjoyable. The inflight entertainment options may not be as good as what you can download from your streaming services.
Download movies, shows, and books to your tablet, phone, or e-reader. Make sure your devices are fully charged ahead of time. And don’t forget your charger or mobile battery pack.
Download a playlist of relaxing music or podcast episodes
Consider making a calming music playlist you will listen to in the 30-60 minutes before sleep. You could also try a guided meditation.
If your favorite podcast just dropped a new episode download it and save it for the flight.
Weigh your bag ahead of time
Avoid the stress of shuffling your items between your bags to meet the weight limits. Weigh your bags at home ahead of time so you can shuffle your personal items between your bags in the privacy of your home. You can find handheld luggage scales through any major retailer online.
Sign up for a Trusted Traveler Program like TSA pre-check or Global Entry
Most international travelers save at least an hour with Global Entry by skipping the security line and accessing the express customs and immigration lines upon arrival. You don’t need to fill out forms for passport control and you get expedited access to self-service kiosks. It currently costs $100 and is valid for 5 years.
For domestic travel in the US, TSA precheck also lets you use the expedited security line. It currently costs $85 and is valid for 5 years. You get to keep your shoes, belt, and light jacket on. You don’t need to remove liquids or electronics from your bag when going through security.
Check with your credit card benefits since many travel credit cards reimburse you for these services.
Use the My TSA App
If you are not enrolled in TSA pre-check or Global Entry, use the free My TSA App to see security wait times at your airport so you can plan accordingly.
Exercise and shower before your flight
Try to get in a workout and shower before you head to the airport.
You can also go for a brisk walk around the terminal to help you sleep once you are on the plane.
Many airports have free or paid shower facilities for you to freshen up before your flight or during layovers. Lounges also often have shower facilities available.
Try these travel hacks at the airport to survive long flights
Go to a lounge
If you don’t have status with an airline, many travel credit cards offer the same benefit of lounge access. Lounges are one of the best travel essentials and are a far more comfortable place to wait with free drinks, food, TV, magazines, and wifi. Some of the larger international airport lounges have showers and napping areas with beds, blankets, and pillows.
One-day airport passes to United or American Airlines lounge can be purchased for $59. Frequent travelers should check out Priority Pass for access to over 1300 lounges worldwide.
Savvy travelers use LoungeBuddy to purchase airport lounge access starting at $25.
Stay standing at the airport before your flight
Stay standing while you are in the airport, especially if you are waiting for a connecting flight. You will be sitting for hours during your long-haul flight so use your time in the airport to stretch and keep walking. Don’t sit down until you get to your airplane seat.
Use the bathroom before your board the plane
Avoid holding your bladder until the pilot turns off the seatbelt sign when you reach altitude. If you are following these tips you’ve been hydrating prior to boarding so use the bathroom before you get on the plane. Your bladder will thank you for it.
Be careful about what you consume before your flight
I know it is tempting to take advantage of the free alcohol and snacks in lounges. But carefully consider what you consume in the hours before your flight to help you avoid jet lag.
Caffeine and alcohol can disrupt your sleep cycles or result in poor sleep quality. Stick to healthy foods that are easy to digest.
Skip the salty plane snacks like peanuts and pretzels that can cause you to retain water and your legs to swell.
Find the right balance of staying hydrated and not disrupting your sleep with frequent trips to the bathroom.
Try these tips during your long flight
Stow your bags overhead and leave room to stretch your legs
Consider boarding early to find space for your bag in the overhead compartments in economy class so you have plenty of space to stretch your legs.
Once you are in the air you have the option to put your bag under your seat to create a footrest and raise your legs. If you decide this position isn’t comfortable you can always return your bag to the overhead compartment.
Keep your mind occupied
- Play games
- Watch movies
- Listen to podcasts or music
- Get some work done
- Discuss your travel adventures in the coming days with your travel partner
- Stretch and walk
- Get to know your seatmate and make a new friend (and maybe get some local insider tips for your destination)
- Chat up the flight attendant for their favorite restaurants at the destination (and score some extra snacks)
- Try out an adult coloring book
- Solve puzzles and crosswords
Keep your mind occupied and the time on your long-haul flight will pass faster. Distraction is one of the best ways to survive long flights.
Consider wearing a face mask, especially if you are at high risk for Covid-19
Sitting for hours near someone with Covid-19 is a sure way to get sick and ruin the next few days. As countries drop their testing requirements and airlines drop their mask requirements, the likelihood of being exposed to someone with Covid-19 on an airplane has increased.
The best way to protect yourself from Covid-19 on a plane is to practice good hand-washing hygiene and wear an N-95 or KN95 mask. These masks can be very uncomfortable to wear for hours at a time so make sure you try them out ahead of time. Brands and styles will vary in sizing and comfort.
Masks are just one way to travel safely during the pandemic, especially if you have any chronic medical conditions.
Stretch early and often
It is so important to move your body and increase your blood flow when you are flying, no matter the flight time. When you are in your seat, try to stretch and roll your neck, shoulders, wrists, and ankles.
Get up and walk towards the bathroom, even if you don’t plan to use it. Sitting for long periods of time slows down the blood flow in your legs and can lead to muscle stiffness and leg swelling.
Even worse, staying immobile increases your risk of developing a life-threatening blood clot in your legs called deep vein thrombosis. This can break off, travel to your lungs, and stop your heart.
Learn about the warning signs of blood clots in the legs and lungs and associated flight tips in this short CDC podcast.
Ask your doctor if sleep aids are a good option for you
Melatonin gummies are an option to boost your natural sleep hormones. Check with your doctor about potential side effects and any medication interactions before taking them. Ask your doctor if the counter options like Tylenol PM or Benadryl would be a good option for you.
Try any sleep aids at home at least once in the week before you fly so you know what to expect and how to time them with your sleep cycle.
Avoid using your electronics in the hour before you sleep
Blue light from electronic devices tells your brain it is still daytime. Your brain responds by suppressing melatonin production to stay awake.
Adjust your internal clock to the time zone of your destination
Adjust your internal clock faster by changing the time on your phone or watch to align with your destination time zone on the day before your flight. This will help you plan your sleep time accordingly and feel less groggy when you wake up. Even small-time adjustments early on will have a big impact on your jet lag later.
Try these tips for after your long-haul flight
Arrange your ground transportation ahead of time
Don’t struggle to find a taxi, Uber, or the right bus or train when you are exhausted after a long-haul flight. Plan your ground transportation ahead of time. Download the time schedule or bookmark the website before you leave on your trip. Planning ahead will help you get to bed faster to catch up on your sleep.
Book a hotel or Airbnb close to the airport for the first night
Depending on when you arrive at your destination airport and how far you need to travel to get to your final destination, staying the first night closer to the airport may be a good option. Driving long distances while sleep-deprived can lead to accidents. A long bus or train ride after a long-haul flight can also further deprive you of sleep.
Some hotels near airports allow half-day stays where you can get a nap before continuing on your journey. Day use passes are greatly discounted compared to the price of a hotel night.
Don’t book big adventures for the first 1-2 days of your trip
To make the most of your trip, try not to schedule your bucket list adventures for the first 1-2 days. Give yourself time to adjust to the time zone so you can be alert for the best parts of your trip.
So that’s my round-up of travel tips for surviving a long-haul flight. Air travel doesn’t have to be exhausting and stressful. These tips have helped me survive multiple long-haul flights, sleep well even in a middle seat, pass the time with ease, and arrive at my destination feeling ready to explore. I hope you’ve found one or two tips you can use to make your travels more enjoyable.