How to Survive a Long Haul Flight

By the fourth hour, you'll be grateful for this advice.

airline seatback screen
Have movies, will travel. | United Airlines
Have movies, will travel. | United Airlines
It's time to stow your tray tables and secure your luggage in the overhead bins—travel is back in full swing. Introducing Return Ticket, a collection of first-person stories, thoughtful guides, and clever hacks designed to help aspiring globetrotters navigate our new normal as safely and smoothly as possible. Buckle up and prepare for liftoff.

Whether it’s cross-country or across the Atlantic, it helps to have a few handy go-to tricks to make the flying process as smooth as it can possibly be (if you’re afraid of flying, that’s a whole other conversation). With airlines continuing to cancel thousands of flights, slashing routes, or banning pets to reduce the ridiculously high number of delays and baggage issues, we need all the help we can get to make it to the other side in one piece (and without a breakdown). Here are a few tried-and-true tips for surviving a super-long flight for those of us not fortunate enough to be pampered up in business.

person booking ticket online
Choose that seat carefully. | Asada Nami/Shutterstock

Start strategizing while booking your ticket

The simple task of choosing your seat is the key to your comfort. When looking at that online seating chart, be sure to take into consideration your leg length, bladder size, and your talent (or lack thereof) for sleeping upright.

On a flight to Japan, I had a window seat. The legroom was minimal, but I’m 5’3”, so that wasn’t a huge concern for me. Aside from having an incredible view, it also meant I had a wall to lean on, sleep on, and shamelessly drool all over. On the flip side, I was trapped. I was forced to repeatedly interrupt the woman next to me right in the middle of her inflight rom-coms every time I needed to stretch my legs or my bladder reached the point of desperation. Eventually, I just started getting up every time she did.

On the return flight, I sat in an aisle seat. That meant I was the person whose inflight movie got interrupted every time the person next to me had to get up. While one of my legs might have had a little extra room to creep into the aisle, that did not make up for the frequent interruptions or the challenges of sleeping upright. Even with a neck pillow, my head was falling all over the place like a broken bobblehead doll every time I dozed off. Out of 11 hours in the air, I didn’t get a minute of sleep.

Don't pull an all-nighter before your trip

Sure, in theory it sounds like a great idea to stay up all night before your flight because you’re planning to sleep on the plane or trying to get a jump on the jet lag or whatever you want to tell yourself. Don’t count on any of that. You never know, there might be a crying baby on the plane or an annoyingly chatty person sitting next to you—or you’ll discover you haven’t mastered the art of sleeping sitting up (how do people do that?). This means you’ll arrive at your destination deliriously sleep deprived and cranky. That’s not the best way to start a vacation or work trip. Instead of beginning in a state of sleep deprivation, you should do the opposite—stock up on sleep as much as possible so you’re able to withstand whatever difficulties may await you.

Be polite to flight attendants and other passengers on the plane

I’m not saying you have to share your life story with the person sitting next to you, but at least say hello. Introduce yourself. Be pleasant. This will make it much less awkward when you have to ask them to get up from their seat for the tenth time so you can go to the bathroom or do yoga in the aisle. And when it comes to the crew, remember these are the people who have the power to pull favors that will make your life more comfortable. They know where those cute little bottles of booze are hidden, and if you’re delayed on the runway a few hours, this is when you’ll want to be on their good side to get through it.

seatback charging outlets
Let’s hope the plane has screens—or at least power outlets. | Photo courtesy of JetBlue

Binge-watch without guilt

This is the perfect time to binge-watch every single season of your guilty-pleasure TV show you didn’t get through during the pandemic. Somehow, in the year 2022, airplanes are still not all equipped with power outlets in every seat or decent Wi-Fi (or even screens, if you’re flying budget), so make sure all your mobile devices are fully charged (a portable charger is a must-have as well) and load those babies up with your favorite movies, music, and apps that will keep you entertained for hours (and consider investing in an airplane phone mount). The man sitting in front of me insisted on sleeping with his seat reclined for the ENTIRE flight to Japan, so there wasn’t even enough room for me to lower my tray table, much less crack open my laptop. I suggest downloading some entertainment to your phone or tablet (some airlines even offer in-flight entertainment via app, which you’ll need to download before takeoff), or you might be stuck watching the inflight movie selection 5 inches from your face, like I did.

Wear comfortable clothes

Unless you’re Beyoncé (who would most likely be flying private anyways), there is absolutely no reason to fly in 6-inch heels and leather pants. You’re going to be sitting for a very long time so you might as well get cozy. If you don’t want to be seen in public wearing your Thanksgiving stretchy pants, pack them in your carry-on and change in the bathroom once the cabin lights are dimmed. Due to things like cabin pressure, lack of mobility, dehydration, and consuming excessive amounts of sodium via the 15 packs of peanuts you ate out of boredom, your legs and feet may swell. Wearing shoes with loose laces gives your feet a little room to expand. Make yourself at home and ditch your shoes completely, which is one tip that made my flight so much more bearable (keep those socks on though!). Just make sure you put your shoes back on before you visit the bathroom because, ew.

Layer up

Speaking of fashion choices, the temperature on a plane can fluctuate from sauna to ice box during the course of a flight, so layering is key. Stash some warm socks in your carry-on in case your feet get chilly if you kick off your shoes. I’m always freezing on airplanes, but even if you don’t wear your jacket or sweatshirt, both of those can be balled up and used as a pillow. I use my jacket for lumbar support when I’m not wearing it because, apparently at 30-ish, I have the back problems of an 80 year old.

man holding cup of water
Those small paper cups won’t be enough to keep you hydrated for 10 hours. | Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

The dry air on planes causes everything from your skin to your sinuses to lose moisture. It’s no wonder why you feel like a raisin by the time you land. There are plenty of airlines that offer alcohol to passengers on international flights, but avoid the temptation if you can. Those little bottles of liquor only speed up the dehydration process. Yes, I’m telling you to turn down free booze. Just remember to drink plenty of water between cocktails (if you do end up drinking them), bring some drops for your scratchy eyes, and moisturize so you don’t walk off the plane looking like an alligator.

Get up and stretch

If you think sitting at a desk all day is bad for your health, sitting on a plane is even worse. Staying crammed in that tiny seat for hours can cause blood to pool in your legs and feet. Worst-case scenario, it can cause blood clots. Each time you get up to go to the bathroom during a flight, make sure to throw in some extra stretches (sometimes I even bust out yoga moves). If you can’t get out of your seat, it’s still a good idea to move your feet around, wiggle your toes, and stretch your calves. This will help to get the blood moving in your legs. Often, airlines will have tips on how to stretch in their magazine, so not a bad idea to peruse those pages and get some pointers.

A passenger holding headphones
Jo Theera/Shutterstock

Bring a survival kit

You certainly can’t rely on an airline to provide you with anything more than peanuts (a stroopwafel if you’re really lucky) and a flotation device these days—and even those are questionable. We have a list of recommendations for making even economy seats feel like first class, but here are a few specific recs for ultra-long voyages:

  • A neck pillow: If it’s a two-in-one neck pillow with a built-in blanket, that’s even better.
  • Ear plugs: Crying babies, snoring passengers, and the constant sound of the engine—need I say more?
  • Snacks: Having a few snacks stashed in your bag will keep you from getting hangry when you can’t stomach the in-flight pasta. You’ll never wish you had a CLIF bar more in your life.
  • Eye mask: You may not need it once the cabin lights are dimmed, but there’s always that person sitting next to you who insists on reading with the overhead spotlight turned on the entire nine-hour flight.
  • Compression socks: Get over your fear of not looking fashionable; getting a blood clot wouldn’t be cute, either.
  • Headphones: Bonus if they’re noise-canceling headphones.
  • Empty, refillable water bottle: Fill it up in the airport after you clear security so you can stay hydrated between those tiny cups of water they give you on the plane.

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Sara Norris is a freelance writer and photographer based in San Diego.