How to Survive an Ultra-Long Flight

I’ve flown back and forth across this great nation a few hours at a time, but I had yet to endure the trials of a long-haul overseas flight until a recent trip to Japan. Of course I was worried about the language barrier and weird foods once I landed, but my first concern was how in the hell to survive being stuck in a tiny airplane seat for 11 hours. I did some research for recommendations before my flight and then was able to put those recommendations to the test. Here’s what I found works best for surviving a super-long flight.

booking airline ticket

Start strategizing while booking your ticket

I cannot emphasize enough how crucial the simple task of choosing your seat is. 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 the way 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 got up.

On the return flight, for the sake of investigative journalism, 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 got exactly zero minutes of shut-eye. Window seats for life!

Don't burn the midnight oil 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 flight anyway or you’re 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 that 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. Instead of beginning your trip 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.

passengers on plane

Go out of your way to be nice to other people 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 100th 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 do you favors that will make you more comfortable. Say thank you when they offer you that hot towel, even if you don’t know what the hell to do with it. They also know where those cute little bottles of booze are hidden, and if the plane is going down, it’s probably best to be on their good side.

Wear comfortable clothes

Unless you’re Beyonce there is absolutely no reason to fly in 6in heels and leather pants. You’re going to be sitting for a very long time so you might as well get comfortable. If you don’t want to be seen in public wearing your Thanksgiving stretchy pants then 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 will tend to swell. Wearing shoes with loose laces gives your feet a little room to expand. As long as your feet don’t stink up the entire cabin you could always make yourself at home and ditch your shoes completely, which is one tip that made my flight so much more bearable. Just make sure you put your shoes back on before you visit the bathroom because, ew.

woman on plane on tablet
wong yu liang/Shutterstock

Layer up

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


This is the perfect time to binge-watch every single season of your guilty-pleasure TV show without remorse. Somehow in the year 2016 airplanes are still not all equipped with power outlets in every seat or decent Wi-Fi, 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. 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 as well or you might be stuck watching the inflight movie selection 5in from your face like I did.

air stewardess with water
withGod /

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

The dry air on planes causes everything from your skin to your sinuses to have the moisture sucked out of them. It’s no wonder why you feel like a raisin by the time you land. There are plenty of airlines that offer free libations to their 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, but I’m not your mother. Just remember to drink plenty of water between cocktails, bring some drops for your scratchy eyes, and moisturize so you don’t walk off the plane looking like an alligator. I forgot to bring eye drops and by the time we landed I felt like my eyelids were practically sticking shut.

Get up and stretch

If you think sitting at a desk all day is bad for your health, sitting on a plane is worse. Staying crammed into that seat for hours can cause blood to pool in your legs and feet. Worst-case scenario, it can even cause blood clots. Every time I got up to go to the bathroom on my flight I made sure to move as much as I could, and even busted out some yoga moves (this is the best one as a remedy for too much sitting) and stretches. 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 at least help to get the blood moving in your legs.

woman sleeping on plane with face mask
CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

Put together a survival kit

You certainly can’t rely on an airline to provide you with anything more than peanuts and a flotation device these days, and even both of those are questionable. There are nine things you should be bringing on every flight, but here are a few extra recommendations specifically 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: It’s not like you can call up and order a pizza if the inflight meal is inedible. Having a few snacks stashed in your bag will keep you from getting all hangry and at the very least snacking will help you pass the time.
  • Headlamp: OK, this might be overkill, but I’m not saying you need to wear the thing on your head. The floor of a dark plane can be like a black hole. If you drop an ear plug once the lights are turned down you might as well kiss it goodbye forever.
  • 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 for the entire flight. It’s best to be prepared.
  • Headphones: Duh. Bonus if they’re noise-canceling headphones.
  • Lotion/Chapstick: These will help you avoid transforming into a reptile during the flight
  • Toothbrush and deodorant: Ten-plus hours is definitely long enough to get gross
  • Empty, refillable water bottle: Fill it up in the airport after you clear security so you can be sure to stay hydrated between those tiny little 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.