7 Strategies to Stay Comfortable on a Long Flight

Have you been flying long enough to remember when airlines competed, not by lowering price points, but by providing luxurious experiences? I haven’t. However, during a several-year stint as a flight attendant, I heard about the “golden years of air travel” plenty. 

Believe me, no one wished more than I that we were still allowed to carve you up a nice slice of roast while pouring endless glasses of wine on domestic flights!  But the lack of those in-flight indulgences doesn’t mean your next long haul can’t be comfortable.

Instead of enduring a leg of air travel like mandated torture, here are seven tips that can help you can best prepare for a bearable—even enjoyable—long flight.

1. Pick Your Seat

At risk of getting Stealer’s Wheel stuck in your head, no one likes to be stuck in the middle. But how to avoid that tinned-sardine feeling?

First, choose your seat as soon as possible. If booking online, you’ll often have the opportunity to do so when you purchase your ticket. An exception is when using a third-party booking system, such as Kayak or Travelocity. These sites don’t guarantee passengers will get the seat of their choosing! Instead, aggregated airfare sites are great for comparing. But whenever possible, book directly through your carrier’s official website.

It’s also a great idea to check back during the week before your travel date to ensure that your seat hasn’t been shifted due to a change in the aircraft’s model. This is also a good time to look for newly emptied seats due to last-minute cancellations.

Window or Aisle?

If you’re really hoping for some rest, window seats are great. However, for those who need frequent restroom access, an aisle seat might be your best bet. While you’ve probably already figured out your preference, what about bigger planes?

If you're sitting in an airplane that has a three-row configuration—where there is a section of seats on the left side of the plane followed by a middle section, and section on the right side — you should opt for one of the aisle seats in the middle section in particular. Though it may not seem obvious, this seat has several advantages.

Most importantly, it gives you easy access to the aisle and bathroom while also giving the people sitting in the middle seats two options to get to the aisle. This should automatically reduce your chances of getting climbed over (or having to politely exit your seat so others can get out), somewhat significantly. The aisle seats toward the left and right section of the plane don't have this advantage.

How to Choose Wisely

Check online! This may seem like a daunting decision, but several services are simplifying the search. Veteran SeatGuru.com’s color-coded airplane maps make it easy to spot the roomiest seats farthest from the bathroom on long- and short-haul flights. The site’s new Guru Factor (or G-Factor) “comfort rating system” grades the in-flight experience with the tags “love it,” “like it” or “live with it,” with scores based on legroom, comfort (defined as type of seat, seat pitch, width and recline), Wi-Fi, in-flight entertainment and more.

SeatExpert.com also has charts, albeit more simplified ones. Keep in mind that the legroom in an exit row or bulkhead seat can be equivalent to business class on some airlines. However, more and more airlines are charging a premium for those coveted rows, and they do have drawbacks, namely narrower seats.

Routehappy.com, meanwhile, tracks more than a dozen seat “Happiness Factors,” from legroom and chair width to layout and connection length. Finally, Hipmunk.com initially sorts your search results by “agony” factor, which is a combination of the price, duration, and number of stops. The only inconvenience is that none of these three sites are booking platforms, so you’ll have to take your favorite routes and reserve them elsewhere.

Seats to Avoid

Passengers should be aware that any seat with its back against a bulkhead or in front of exit rows won’t recline fully.

2. Prepare Your Carry-On

With rules changing so freqently, it’s hard to keep track of what is allowed in your carry-on bag. It basically boils down to no weapons (or anything that could be interpreted as such), nothing flammable (but lighters are now ok?), and no liquid in a container larger than 3.4 ounces (all correct sizes placed in a one quart plastic baggie with other liquids for easy x-ray access).

Once you get past having to leave those nunchucks at home, a few small items can make a world of difference when it comes to increasing your physical comfort on a flight. To avoid cabin fever or earning a major crick in your neck, I wholeheartedly suggest investing in the following as a go-to inflight survival kit:

  • An eyemask
  • Earplugs
  • A travel pillow
  • A compact blanket
  • Snacks (more on this next)
  • Necessary medications
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Headphones
  • Your tablet, Kindle or notebook (fully charged!)
  • Something non-electronic to read
  • An empty water bottle
  • Comfy socks
  • Any small toiletries you might want to use to freshen up (toothbrush, face wash, deodorant)
  • Wet wipes

For ladies, I highly recommend grabbing a thin pashmina shawl (even the cheapies!), which are brilliant for multitasking: Wrap around your shoulders if chilly. Drape over your eyes for additional peace. Scrunch into a pillow for extra comfort. The possibilities are nearly endless!

3. Brown Bag It

The quality of airline food these days is so awful that even a simple homemade sandwich feels like a treat. However, most passengers don’t realize that solid foods can, indeed, be brought through security. Here’s my list of in-flight favorites to keep full without bloating from excess sodium (and remaining non-offensive to sensitive noses):

  • Snacks: Crackers, string cheese, hard fruits such as apples, hard cheeses, nuts, popcorn, and even graham crackers.
  • Meals: Cold Asian noodle or pasta salads, chickpea & chicken wraps, homemade sandwiches (BLTs are particularly great for packing!), and roasted sweet potatoes.
  • Sweets: Cookies, brownies, streusel bars or bundt cake! Pretty much everything but ice cream is fair game here.
  • Extras: I’m a big fan of bringing a few bags of my favorite tea. Small and light, the familiar scent can make any space feel a bit more comfortable.

Something many passengers don’t think of is to supplement the onboard food offerings with some healthy carry on items. Many airlines will show their in-flight menu online, so take a minute to sneak a peek and see if there isn’t already a cracker and cheese dish that might pair nicely with your favorite fruits. 

What Not to Pack

Equally important is knowing what you can’t bring on a plane. While some of these items are alright in limited quantities (as in compliance with the TSA’s liquids rule), I try to avoid them altogether:

  • Creamy dips and spreads
  • Jams
  • Salad dressing
  • Salsa
  • Soups

Additionally, while plastic forks, knives, and spoons aren’t expressly forbidden, you may have an easier time just snagging a set from one of the fast food restaurants past security.

Don’t Bring Your Own Booze

Finally, while onboard alcohol is expensive, you should know that bringing your own beer — or any alcohol, for that matter — is strictly prohibited. Though it might feel like it, this isn’t just so airlines can sell you marked-up minis! Instead, it’s a flight attendant’s duty to monitor how much alcohol their passengers have consumed, as many non-frequent fliers forget how differently the sauce hits at 30,000 feet.

4. Stay Hydrated (and Moisturized!)

Many people forget just how drying that recycled air can be after several hours. Even if you’re not prone to chapped lips or dry eyes, the in-flight air can be insufferable.

First, it’s important to drink an eight-ounce bottle of water for every hour you’re in flight. If you’re partaking in alcoholic beverages, double that number! For those who would prefer not to see their flight attendant every 60 minutes, hand over an empty water bottle and they’ll fill it up in the back. But for the love of all things, please never drink from the bathroom sink! To say it’s not clean is an understatement.

On top of upping your H2O intake, consider packing a few of the following to ensure you step off the plane feeling refreshed:

  • Eye drops (remember to pack them in your bag of liquids)
  • Saline nasal spray
  • Lip balm or chapstick

Girly Things

Because long-haul flights are so arduous, I like to purchase a few spa-like extras to feel really pampered and fresh. My favorites are a cuticle cream, hand lotion, under-eye cooling patches (to heck with what onlookers think!), and makeup-removing face wipes. To save money and space, I’ll generally purchase a small pouch full of tester-size items. Burt’s Bee’s makes a great one, and the scent is gentle enough to not offend anyone nearby.

However, while a little pampering is nice, it should go without saying that in-flight is not an opportune time to paint, trim, or clean one’s nails. Please.

5. If It’s Not Smooth, Don’t Wear It.

This is crucial. When choosing your flight wardrobe avoid belts, ties, big buttons or anything that can pinch, poke, or constrict. 

Instead, remember that while in flight your body is going to bloat and expand. Think plush fabrics with stretch are ideal such as fleece, soft cottons, or cashmere. Really, any material that inspires you to hug yourself is a winner. 

6. Don’t Be Afraid To Stretch

I’d like to think that I was a wonderful flight attendant. However, the one thing that really got my goat was, come mid-flight without fail, a host of yoga-panted passengers would sprint for the back galley to lackadaisically downward dog, sun salute, and backbend — often unaware that their backsides were saluting my face.

But then I became a regular passenger, confined to the same 31 inches as everyone else, and now I UNDERSTAND! Sitting still for hours on end is brutal and even dangerous, if you’re prone to blood clots.

So, please do feel free to stretch!

Obviously, while your crew is hurriedly preparing meals at the beginning of the flight, stretching in the aisles is not ideal. However, in penance for all the side-eye I once delivered to stretching passengers, here is a wonderful list of air-friendly stretches from CNN.com.

7. Take Care (of Yourself)

While flight crew will do whatever they can to ensure you’re comfortable, sometimes their hands are tied. For your wellbeing, it’s important to be aware of the flight crew’s limitations and to prepare accordingly:

  • Crew cannot give you medication. Whether it’s an aspirin or an antihistamine, unless you are seriously ill, crew is not allowed to hand out medication — even over-the-counter stuff. And yes, there is a medical kit. But to break it open means alerting the pilot and considering an emergency landing, so please just bring a few spare pills!
  • Crew can dispense feminine hygiene products. There is often a selection above the kleenex box in the restroom. However, if empty, spares should be available on board.
  • Be responsible for your own wellness. If you are a diabetic, please do not assume that the crew will be able to deliver your in-flight meal within a certain time frame. Occasionally turbulence or other issues delay meal service, and your condition could become unnecessarily serious. Additionally, if you suffer from seizures or other ailments, let the flight crew know ahead of time so that they can act quickly.
  • Do not fly if you are having ear, nose, or throat issues. What is slightly bothering you on the ground is almost guaranteed to feel like shards of glass in your ear after take-off! Besides, do you really want to get everyone else sick? Call the airline and explain that you’re ill with ear issues, they should assist in rescheduling your flight.
  • Breastfeeding mothers, know your rights. While each airline has a slightly different policy on breastfeeding, a nursing mother should never be asked to move or nurse in the bathroom. If you are breastfeeding and meet some resistance or a polite request, please understand that this is, unfortunately, a touchy issue and your crew are likely trying to make everyone comfortable. If you are met with rudeness, report it immediately.
  • Those with allergies, know the rights of others. If you have mild to severe animal allergies, it’s wise to call ahead and check if there are any service animals listed as onboard your flight. Due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, passengers with a service animal must be considered a priority and those with allergies must be bumped to the next flight. For those with nut allergies, it’s important to let your flight crew know as soon as possible.
  • Don’t think about using an e-cig. Many e-cigarette companies falsely claim that their devices can be safely used on an aircraft. While an e-cig isn’t going to start a fire, the dense vapor can trigger the onboard smoke detectors — even in the bathroom. To avoid being slapped with a $2,000 fine, consult with your doctor to learn about alternative nicotine replacement options pre-flight.
  • Finally, wear shoes in the bathroom. Just trust me. There isn’t enough antiseptic wash in the world to go barefoot in one of those bathrooms.

Try to Enjoy Your Flight!

Is there a spare seat? Spread out! Need something? Feel free to ring that bell. And when in doubt, never be afraid to ask. While many of the tips mentioned can significantly cut down on the stress of flying, only you know what creature comforts can really make a difference in your flight.

And at the very worst, just remember that, thankfully, the flight will eventually end.

What’s your go-to strategy for long plane rides? Tell us in the comments below.

  • June 12, 2015

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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