How to survive a long-haul flight

How to survive a long-haul flight

I realized I’d been in Australia too long when I dismissed the flight to Hawaii as “just 10 hours.” Before my 14-hour jaunt to Sydney, the longest flight I’d taken was nine hours to Europe from California. Now those cross-country and cross-Atlantic flights just seem like warm-ups for the real thing.

Aerial view of San Francisco bay

I’ve done about four to 10 long-haul flights a year since I was 16 (my carbon footprint is obnoxiously large, unfortunately), and I’ve got my anti-jet-lag, anti-dehydration, stay-in-as-good-a-mood-as-possible flying plan down to a science.

A glass of wine and Tylenol PM: I’m sure it’s not doctor-approved, but add in my iTunes sleep playlist and an eye mask, and I can sleep for six to eight hours at a time.

Lunch and wine at Le Sud haute gastronomie, Lyon, France

Request a special meal: If possible, I’ll request a vegetarian meal. There’s the added perk of being served first, and I’ll take a nice veggie lasagna dish over weird ground beef or dried-out chicken any day.

Bring an empty water bottle: I fill my Klean Kanteen up before heading to the airport and make sure to finish it before I head through security (in the States, it’s impossible to get liquids through the security checkpoint). Then I fill it up again in one of the food court stops in the terminal: just ask if they can hook you up with some free water. Staying hydrated…

Check what type of aircraft you’ll be on: There’s nothing as disappointing as assuming you’ll be watching movie after movie on your flight, only to board and realize that the aircraft doesn’t have individual entertainment screens. You’ll know whether to load up on movies and books, or whether to take your chances on the not-on-DVD-yet entertainment collection.

Walk and stretch: Take advantage of each time you get up to use the toilet to get your blood flowing and muscles moving. Walk to the back of the aircraft, touch your toes, stretch out your arms.

Lahaina, Maui at sunset

Get on schedule: To avoid jet lag, confirm what time of day you’ll be arriving in your destination. If you’ll be landing in the morning, try to get as much sleep as possible so that you don’t waste a day being jetlagged. If you’re arriving in the evening, stay up and keep busy so that you’ll be ready to get on a normal sleep schedule as soon as you get there.

And once you arrive, don’t account any time for being jet-lagged. Having social engagements as soon as I’m out of the airport forces me to be on-point—no random afternoon naps that mean I won’t be able to sleep that night.

What are your tips for surviving—and thriving on— long-haul flights? 


  • The personal entertainment centers are a life saver!  Flying is so much easier with these.  I agree with all your suggestions.  Jet lag is the worst.

  • Anonymous

    I have to say that my iPad saves my sanity.  books, videos, games galore! I love me the Tylenol PM, as well, but I just hate the “hangover” that i experience from it.  I’m totally discombobulated for 12 hours after I wake up! 😉

  • Shannon M

    Well my version of surviving a long flight is making sure you have as many stopovers as possible (if you can afford the taxes to do that since the governments charge the airlines each time a passenger makes a stop there. 

    To be honest, I would rather spend as little time in that big tube of metal with sticks on each side (wings) than I have to.  I flew nonstop from Seattle to JFK, never again… last year I went to NYC and was able to make two stops enroute, I enjoyed that much better although the DEN-LGA route was a tad long, not unbearable. 

    The other thing abut walking around on the plane is that while I agree its a great idea but I find it annoying that everybody wants to get up and walk AND the flight attendants also want to get around you and everybody is waiting for the lavatory its impossible to walk around! 

  • Great tips, Christine! I know what you mean about 9 and 10 hour flights being “nothing” once you’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, or even China a few times from the States.

    A tip I would add is to try to get yourself on the schedule of your destination ahead of time, especially if you’re going to end up on a totally opposite sleep/awake schedule. This might mean sleeping odd hours a day or two before you leave, but being able to sleep on that long flight and arrive ready to go will be totally worth it! (For example, the last time I went to NZ, I stayed up for almost 48 hours before my flight. Healthy? No. But my body clock was so confused that I was able to force it into a NZ sleep schedule on my flight, and wasn’t super jet-lagged when I arrived in Wellington!)

  • Anonymous

    The last two international flights I took on Hawaiian didn’t have personal entertainment centers! It was a rough!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t have an iPad but my Kindle + Macbook Air definitely keep me busy 🙂

  • Anonymous

    It’s so funny how everyone has their preferences–I absolutely HATE stopovers! Would rather just get it all over at once 🙂 As for walking around, it definitely depends on the flight–some flights have so many walkers than we’re all running into each other and others don’t have any!

  • Anonymous

    Great tip on trying to get on schedule–I always try to tire myself out before red-eyes so that I can have a sound sleep.

  • @TravelEater

    Good advice!
    I flew the longest commercial flight in the world – Newark to Singapore, 18 hrs 40 min (and the return, only 18 hrs). But this was when you could fly premium economy on Singapore Airlines – the flight was so comfortable I was reluctant to leave at the end!
    The best part was a little bar area (with heated floors) where passengers could stand up, stretch, and select from a range of snacks, which were ever-changing.
    The worst part was I was reluctant to sleep because the flight was so enjoyable! (but I was so comfortable it was too hard to flight the heavy lids…)
    My next super long haul will be London-Jo’burg … Sadly not on Singapore, so I’ll be following your advice!

  • Bend over to the front. And touch your toes!

  • antipodean-parisienne

    I fly between Europe and New Zealand, a total of about 25 hours flying time, with a usual 6 hour stop over…i adopt the ‘get into NZ time before I leave’ tactic, for example, in 2 weeks im leaving Paris on a noon flight, but will stay up the night before so i can go to sleep as soon as I can on the plane. Also, jetlag is a lot like a hangover, worsened by dehydration, so drink heaps and heaps of water, and sit in the aisle seat so you can go to the toilet as often as you need to without waking your neighbour! 

  • Anonymous

    I felt that way when I flew KLM business class from San Francisco to Amsterdam…I could get used to champagne upon arrival and those privacy pods! Will have to try out Singapore, it sounds amazing!

  • Anonymous

    A little in-flight yoga never hurt anyone!

  • Anonymous

    Totally agree with drinking tons of water and sitting in the aisle so that you can go to the toilet and stretch your legs without feeling guilty about bothering your neighbor!

  • Anonymous

    All really good tips. I’m gearing up for my first really long-haul trip (more than Paris > Philly), we’re going to Shanghai and Beijing! getting up and moving around will be key (in addition to sedatives!)

  • Anonymous

    White wine and Tylenol PM is where it’s at!

  • Mysydneyparislife

    Excellent advice — love the ‘only ten hours’ which is sooooo true when you live in Australia! I also wrote about long-haul flights at ‘Top 10 in-flight insights’ at http://mysydneyparislife.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/a-passion-for-travel-part-8-top-ten-in-flight-insights/
    Really enjoy your Aussie posts – cheers and happy travels.

  • Anonymous

    Europe to the States doesn’t seem nearly as long any more–thanks for sharing! 🙂