How I Survive Long Flights (After 2 Decades of Taking Them)

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The stories are legion, even in the realm of my first-hand experience: The entire economy cabin of my flight once watched the mother of a newborn melt down completely when she found that she didn’t have the front seat with the little detachable crib after all. On another occasion I watched a woman get her carryon bag tested for size at the boarding gate, then, forced to check it, grow increasingly angry, erupting finally at the gate agent with the following statement: “I don’t know why you’re so angry, or why you have it out for me.” As I boarded ahead of her, I listened to her phone call to customer service, complaining about the awful treatment she’d received.

If you’ve traveled via plane much over the past decade or so, you too have had occasion to watch reasonable people crumble into temporary insanity. You’ve been the person crumbling into temporary insanity. I once spent a flight getting up for the bathroom repeatedly not because I had to pee, but so I could give the stink eye to the family behind me who had insisted I not recline my seat because they had a child in their laps. When you’re in the throes of an airplane-induced meltdown, no rational line of thought about how world travel is still a privilege that most people in the world can’t afford has any effect. You are miserable, you don’t deserve this, and someone should pay.

We all know that Xanax is the only thing that can enable an approximation of happiness during hour six in coach. However, over the years and dozens of flights over an ocean, I’ve acquired a plan of attack capable of keeping my head on straight, at least, and sometimes even of depositing me at my destination with some patience and enthusiasm intact.

Below, I’ve outlined that plan, breaking the exigencies of plane travel down to its basic parts: Comfort, Sustenance, Self-Maintenance, and a catch-all category that I’ll call Survivability, which includes everything from entertainment to dealing with the armrest hog seated next to you.

(I’m going to go ahead and note that this guide will be most helpful to other women.)

 

Comfort

Forego Jeans: They are less comfortable than some other types of pants, and after sitting in challenging positions in them for 10 hours they’ll be so stretched that they’re hardly a viable option for the trip you are now on. Better and more comfortable options include leggings, yoga pants, and jogging pants. The current trends in athleisure and PJs as daywear are your friend here.

Socks and Underwear: I am never without socks on a plane. If it’s summer, I put a pair in my carry-on. Also, one word: Bralettes. And another to avoid: Underwires.

Other Comfort Essentials: Chapstick, hand lotion—the authorities say they’ll take away even small bottles that aren’t in a clear plastic bag, but they never do take away that hand lotion floating around in the bottom of my bag.

Pillow: I haven’t generally been a person to haul a travel pillow along for the ride. However, I recently got convinced to try the Znzi Travel Stuff Travel Pillow that’s made it into so many gift guides. It’s got suction cups to stick to the window and internal magnets to shape it as your require. You can read my full review of the pillow–the short version is that it’s worth hauling along on long flights.

 

Self-Maintenance

Beauty Routines: I have learned that on planes, despite the best of intentions beforehand, I am unwilling to partake in any kind of beauty routine that requires effort or movement. I won’t be brushing my teeth or removing my makeup. I won’t be spraying on a soothing face mist. I won’t be wearing my retainers. I won’t be applying makeup before landing. What I will do: Put some blush on before heading to the airport. Apply dry shampoo before the flight and possibly again in the terminal’s bathroom after deplaning (DryBar’s Detox Dry Shampoo is my jam). Save my face with a wipe just before landing. (Whole Foods used to sell the best tea tree-based one in a plastic container that distributed one wipe at a time. I hate the bags they all now come in. If someone starts putting them in a plastic container again, I will be all over it.)


Two Birds, One Sweater/Blanket: I have a 10-year-old Tracy Reese sweater-shawl that gets worn only on flights. I can wear it to and at the airport, where it makes me look inexplicably polished, then turn it into a blanket once I’m seated. It’s perfect. Every woman should have something similar. I like looking inexplicably polished while coddled in a blanket.

Wrinkle Free Travel: I have this 100% polyester tank top from TopShop that is literally impossible to wrinkle. Say what you will about polyester, this is the kind of shirt I always try to wear on a long-haul flight.

Hair: I keep it simple here: a hair tie on my wrist and a couple bobby pins with me at all times. That’s it, really. These “Invisibobble” hair tie things do a good job of keeping the hair pulled back without putting kinks in it.

Sustenance

Food: Maybe you are a person who packs two days ahead of time and eases into the day of a flight with nothing to do but contemplate and then create some perfect healthy in-flight snack you discovered on Pinterest. While you’re doing that, I’m usually just starting to pack with a sudden sense of oh shit. The best I can do in terms of food planning is usually a couple of Kind Bars. At the airport, I always buy a bag of Original Chex Mix and I never let myself tear into it until after takeoff. This gives me something to look forward to and then I eat them one piece at a time, to make the minutes pass.

I also continually remind myself that I am not required to eat everything that’s set in front of me, no matter how unappetizing, just because I’m bored and they’re giving it to me for free.

The Approach to Booze: Everyone says don’t drink alcohol on flights because of dehydration and maybe existential despair, but I find that a single glass of wine right before bed straddles that fine line between inducing sufficient relaxation and too much need to pee. It’s also a soothing way to pass a half hour or so, and I’m all for it.

Hydration: That said, having your own bottle of water on hand is key. This is one area in which the airports have got us hook, line and sinker. I pay $4 for a 16-ounce bottle of Poland Spring in the terminal because I have to. And I’m always glad I did. That said, I will gladly sign a petition to ban the gauging of captive customers in this way.

 

Survivability

Window vs. Aisle: I’m a window-seat gal myself, although I appreciate the argument for the aisle seat. The key to making it work is to pee strategically. I go do it when the person next to me does even if I don’t really feel like I need to just then, which can save me having to wake him up later. At the very least, I try to take that opportunity to stretch my legs.

Elbow Room: I make a point of putting my elbow on the arm rest I have to share with the stranger beside me the second I settle into my seat. It sets precedent, is what I’m saying. This move is most important if you are a woman finding herself seated next to a man. Sorry, men, but you have a tendency to just take up all the space without thinking of others.

Entertainment: Also while you are busy putting together that healthy and delicious snack before leaving home, I am frantically coaxing a movie to fully download. It is almost always worth the effort and the $4 rental fee, especially because you can watch the movie in the terminal during a delay or layover.

There is one place in the world I allow myself to purchase US Weekly, and that place is Hudson News.

The Little Things: Small nods to luxury here and there can stave off the feeling that your Constitutionally ensured rights have been stripped from you. In a space where most everything feels cruel and unusual, a little dollop of one of the finer things can remind you that you are a worthy human being. Kiehl’s “First Class” Purifying Hand Treatment does this for me. It smells divine and it passes muster at security and it makes me feel pampered, so.

More on Peeing: Everyone gets up to pee right after the meal is finished. I always try to get up and pee just before the dinner cart comes down the aisle.

Sleeping: Xanax, if I can get it. Otherwise, I neither force sleep nor avoid it. I’ll settle into a movie designed purely for easy entertainment, and I won’t care if I pass out and miss the second half of it. Without sleeping aides, I’m far more likely to take four naps than sleep for five straight hours.

Being Productive: I wish I could get work done on all flights, but I know I am only capable of such if I am in business class or if there is no one in the economy seat next to mine. Otherwise, the quarters are too close and I can’t concentrate through the paranoia that my neighbor is reading over my shoulder. I always have my laptop on hand just in case, but go into it with the acceptance of my situation, whatever it turns out to be.

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Survive Long Flights
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Sarah is the founder and editor of Flung, the author of Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, and a widely published travel and culture writer. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.