(this article was recently published in the Washington Post)
Let me start by saying one thing: If I can do this, you can, too.
When I lived in China and traveled home three times a year, making a 14-hour trek from Beijing to Dulles, people would say, “Oh, I could never do that kind of trip.”
They’re wrong. If I — a fidgety person who needs a body-space buffer most of the time — can do it, you can do it. And the payoff is that if you can survive a long-haul flight, whether it’s from Los Angeles to Sydney or Hong Kong to New York, you have just expanded your world.
This is not really intended for those who travel business or first class, those lucky ones who can pretend they’re curling up in the comfort of their living rooms, where the only downside is a little boredom and the wrong kind of chardonnay on the menu. No, this is for the humble masses, those who figure a cheaper flight is worth the reward of waking up in a place where breakfast might be spicy Asian rice noodles or where the smells might be an Australian eucalyptus tree.
You just need to keep a few tips in mind:
1. Choose your seat wisely. Most of the time, an aisle seat is best, even if you think you might want to sleep. Sleep on planes is overrated. Even in comfortable seats, you won’t be sleeping as much as you want. An aisle seat gives you the luxury of being able to pop up to stretch your legs. Of course, if this is an overnight and you want to be fresh when you land, a window seat and a good pillow might be better — if you promise yourself you’ll still move around. Deep vein thrombosis is real.
[How to avoid the worst seat on the plane]
2. If you do end up with a window or the dreaded middle seat, remember this: You have the right to move. This means you must be brave enough to ask the person in the aisle seat to get up whenever you want, even if he is asleep. I learned this once the hard way when a guy in the aisle seat announced that he hadn’t slept in two days, popped an Ambien, and then became an unyielding wall between me and freedom.
3. This might be controversial, but I’m a seat-back proponent. Those folks who say you should never put your seat back at all have not traveled for 14 hours in coach. It doesn’t have to go all the way back, but no one should have to sit up straight for that long.
4. Food is overrated. Even if the meals surprise you with their quality — in which case you’ve been hitting the chardonnay a little too hard — don’t indulge in every last crumb of that brownie or roll. Your digestive system will thank you.
5. Do eat something, though. There is nothing worse than the feeling of having passed up the middle-of-the-flight meal only to realize you’re ravenous and you have another three hours before any kind of sustenance will be offered. A snack with protein (think nuts, not that pork knuckle you bought before you got on the plane in Munich) is a good backup plan.
6. Stay hydrated. Take every cup of water that is offered and don’t be shy about asking for more or walking to the service area. On many flights, trays of water are set up so passengers can help themselves.
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7. Remember the accessories. I have tried the sling that wraps around your tray table and offers foot and leg support. The one I tried bunched one foot on top of the other — fail. Other people put some kind of book or solid item under their feet so the pressure is off their lower spine. A good neck pillow and eye mask are also helpful if you think you’ll sleep. A lightweight jacket, sweater or scarf is a godsend on over-chilled international flights.
8. Make sure your devices are charged. Some older-generation iPads, Kindles, phones and laptops don’t hold 14 hours of juice, and if you don’t have a battery pack and your seat doesn’t have a charger, you’re out of luck. Bring a paperback or magazine as backup, so you don’t end up browsing Sky Mall or staring at the seat like Elaine’s boyfriend Puddy in that one “Seinfeld” episode.
9. Be disciplined about entertainment. It’s best to start with reading when your brain is fresh and the dry air hasn’t made your eyeballs feel like cotton. When you can no longer read, go for a movie. Choose wisely: “Boyhood,” at 2 hours and 46 minutes, once ate up a good chunk of a flight. Next, move to music or podcasts. I recommend Krista Tippett’s “On Being.” If I’m going to have a voice in my ears when I drift off, let it be Krista’s. When you wake up from your catnap, you can start the process over again.
10. If the thought of wearing shoes for that long bothers you, bring a pair of soft socks or slippers to protect your feet from the bathroom floor.
11. Women, don’t wear a lot of makeup. You’ll feel gross after 10 hours. Pack some makeup removal wipes for the end of the trip to freshen up.
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12. Remember that alcohol is rarely worth it. Airline wine is generally unimpressive, and if you choose red you’ll have purple teeth and lips for longer than you like. And the beer is generally bad. Besides, it’s really too cold to be drinking beer.
13. Try very hard not to look at the little screen that tells you how much time remains in the flight. When you feel as though you’ve been traveling forever, it’s no fun to glance at the indicator and learn that — nope — you still have nine hours left.
14. Finally, this might feel like Stockholm syndrome, but I have found that being nice to the flight attendants pays off, even when they seem to be scolding passengers and rushing by you so fast there’s a breeze. You never know when one might slip you an extra Dixie cup of ice cream or look the other way when you grab an entire empty row for a good long rest.