The long haul

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Oftentimes when I am talking with someone about our trips, a topic that comes up is the long flights to and from our destination.

A lot of people don’t like to fly and the idea of spending five or six or 10 or more hours cooped up is one that keeps some people from visiting more far-flung locations. There’s no question that travel can be exhausting and difficult, but it’s the price to pay in order to see amazing places here in the U.S. and around the world.

Our longest / most arduous flights thus far have been to Australia, New Zealand, and Bali, with the longest travel legs ranging from 12-15 hours (or 72, depending on how you count those things).  With all of our trips, I have a learned a thing or two or ten about long haul travel and thought I’d share a few of my coping strategies for many hours spent cramped at 30,000 feet.

How Jen deals with flights — any and all flights, regardless of length — and doesn’t lose her ever lovin’ mind:

  • Water: We have rolling water bottles that go with us everywhere. We stash them in our carry-on bags, then fill them after we’ve gone through security. That alone won’t be enough to keep you hydrated on a long flight, but if you also accept water whenever a flight attendant offers it to you, you’ll get through the flight without dehydrating to the consistency of a dried corn husk.
  • Food: I don’t eat airline food unless I am absolutely desperate and even then I pause and consider my levels of desperation. Airline food is salty and high in fat and always, always, always makes me feel like shit, regardless of what I consume. So I always pack my own food — fruits (grapes, apples) and vegetables (carrots, cucumbers), raw nuts, Larabars (only a few ingredients in each), and a small quantity of good chocolate. For longer  flights, after we go through airport security, I’ll pick up a meal, such as a chef salad for lunch or dinner. I find that the combination of vegetables and protein is just perfect for me. And I also find that I recover more quickly from jet lag if I have eaten simple, healthy foods on the plane. On the other hand, when I have succumbed and eaten airplane food, I have felt utterly terrible for at least two days afterward.
  • Clothes: The internet is full of ideas for how to dress for travel. I know some people are all about the comfort, while others are all about looking very nice, and I try to find a balance somewhere in the middle.  Depending on the time of year and climate where we’re going, I generally skew toward cotton knits that won’t wrinkle and in black to hide my inevitable stains and messes. I always have a cardigan for when I get cold (always). For shoes, I wear boots or slip-on shoes — NO LACES. For socks, always, always, always, some style of SmartWool.
  • Scarf: Regardless of weather, I always have some sort of scarf that I can use as a blanket on the plane. My favorite one has been all over the world with me and matches pretty much everything in my closet.
  • Tablet and charging pack: Entertainment — books, games, videos, etc. — and back up power, in case there’s no place to charge on the place.
  • iPod: To block out noise around you, whether you’re trying to sleep or just ignore an overly exuberant / tired toddler.
  • Toiletries: Lotion and lip balm to help counter the effects of the dry air and dehydration. Toothbrush and toothpaste to help your mouth feel minty fresh. Deodorant for the obvious reasons.
  • Travel pillow: I like this one, as it’s adjustable, plus I can also use it for lumbar support. Also, it rolls up to a small bundle and doesn’t take up much space.
  • Eye mask: To cover your eyes when you’re trying to sleep.
  • Melatonin: I can sleep just about anywhere, but I have a very hard time sleeping on airplanes, regardless of how tired I am. I don’t want to take drugs, because I’ll feel like death warmed over when I land, so I take a little melatonin with my doctor’s blessing.

What do I haul all this in? A small urban backpack. I’ve tried a variety of bags — messenger bags, tote bags, oversized purses — but this one is really working well for me. It’s big enough, but not too big. I can wear it on my back or one shoulder, carry it by the top handle, or attach it to my small rolling suitcase.  Mine is gray, which hides dirt.

So that’s how I cope with long flights, in terms of gear. Mentally, I just try to keep my mind occupied with books, games, or music. Sometimes I watch a movie or TV show, but not always. I try not to focus too much on the time or how long I’ve been cooped up.

Physically, the one other thing I do is get up and walk around a little every couple of hours. It keeps the blood flowing and  helps me not get too stiff. You can find articles online about easy yoga stretches to do in your seat and I’ve found that to be helpful too.

Beyond all that, you just need to stay patient. Find your zen. A remember that you’re on an adventure.

How do you cope with long flights?

Note: I am including links because they’re useful, not because I derive any sort of income from affiliate links. (I do not.) 
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10 Responses to The long haul

  1. Cassi says:

    My main problem with our recent 8 hour flight was the lack of leg room. I’m 5’10″, and no matter what I do, my knees are slammed up against the seat in front of me. I’m also not skinny :-) so if I’m sitting next to someone else who’s larger than a toothpick, our shoulders are touching. While I normally don’t mind rubbing shoulders with my husband, he’s a broad-shouldered heater, so it just adds to how uncomfortably hot we both are. In fact, I can’t imagine needing a blanket on a flight -we were horribly hot on both the flight to and back. I actually spent most of the 8 hours leaning forward, with my head on the back of the seat in front of me, just so I wouldn’t actually have to be touching anyone.

    In those conditions, the idea of eating anything was just darn unpleasant. Between Rob’s onion allergy and Emma’s peanut allergy, the airline food was dicey anyway. I ate one of the snack sandwiches they offered and drank water each time it was offered. When we got to our hotel I happily downed a nice cold beer!

    While there were lots of movies (even new ones) offered on our flight home, with individual screens, I was too uncomfortable to want to watch anything. Music was totally my savior, since with headphones on, leaning forward against the seat, I was almost able to fall asleep.

    Luckily, there are lots of places in the US I haven’t been yet -we’ll be enjoying driving vacations for quite a long while.

  2. Patience says:

    I finally broke down and bought a neck pillow for my 18 hour flight to Cape Town. It definitely made it easier to sleep. Otherwise, all I need are my books. Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t mind airline food? I love getting my little tray of surprises that I didn’t have to cook myself.

  3. bdaiss says:

    Its been forever since I’ve been on a long flight. But my 1-2 hour flight routine is damn similar to yours. My go to snack is a honeycrisp or pink lady apple and a Justin’s nut butter squeeze packet. I almost can fly without them any more!

  4. Julie says:

    so comprehensive…now if I could only get my butt on a plane! to anywhere! if/when I do, I will be using your list to prepare.

  5. Cassi and I have some of the same issues with airline seats. The last time I flew across the country was in 2011 (United Airlines). My knees were jammed up against the seat in front of me and I was lucky the person in that seat did not recline! On the return trip, I had to upgrade (not first class) just to ride 5 hours in reasonable comfort. Southwest Airlines seems to have better leg room than some other companies. My only flights these days are simple trips to Arizona once a year (coming up in October) but I’ve long been a fan of hydration — personal water bottle and accepting water and orange juice on the plane.

  6. Next time we fly LONG, I need to get neck pillows for everyone. They seem essential.

  7. Kris says:

    YIKES $75 for that wee backpack? That hurt my heart.

    When Nate and I went to England for those 2 weeks I was so proud of us. We managed to pack only carry-on suitcases for the whole time. We did take too many cords, chargers, and even books. We also didn’t need the neck pillows we took with us except for the night we camped out in the Boston airport >: ( If we’d taken Toby with us I don’t know if we’d have managed carry-ons, because Toby needs a lot of crap.

    As for the flight, I hate getting up during them. To the point that I have never used the bathroom on an airplane, not even when flying to England. Nate thinks I am insane. I have a bladder of steel so I can do that and stay hydrated too. I usually don’t eat on planes though. Even healthy things - they make me feel bloated and squished. But on our British Airways flight they served fresh wheat croissants with jam and that was neat. And oh my gosh Air France? Serves warm pain au chocolate!!!

    IcelandAir was an amazing airline to use. Each seat has an electronics charger in the head, the seats were a little roomier for my very big butt (and Nate’s.) The armrest by the window actually went up, which made it even more roomy (I hate it when the armrests don’t move.) And and and and the best part (for me) was that each seat gets its own personal TV screen with at least 50 movies (new releases! and classics! and kids!), 60 TV shows (multiple seasons!), a flight tracker, and games. That was AWESOME.

    Our Delta flight from Detroit also had that type of headset but it cost money to use. Toby did get to watch Penguins of Madagascar in German though so that made it a little better.

  8. Jenny says:

    I HATE to fly. No room at all, and I am a short person. Now I feel like a pig or chicken on a factory farm.
    Not like when I was a kid: then you got on a plane to Florida and they served you OJ.
    Give me the trains. (Useful for my next trip to France, yes?)

  9. We take almost everything you list, in addition to more protein - cheese sandwiches and sometimes hardboiled eggs, although I am careful with those as the smell can bother other people. We also take my uncle’s sausage sticks (1. he makes the best sausage I have ever had - I won’t eat commercial sausage and 2. I know what’s in his sausage - it’s meat, period).

    My husband can get into the Delta lounge, so he always gets us some hummus and pimento cheese spread (their newest addition) and little Nutellas.

    I take paperback books to keep me entertained. I buy them for a dollar or so at the library sale, then leave them in the seat or in the airport or at the hotel when I am through. My own traveling Little Free Library.

  10. I fly a lot. Mostly short(ish) flights 3-4 hours but did a big haul to China and back a few years ago where I swear I was the ony person awake on the whole plane. I have a neck pillow that I use as a regular pillow up against the window. My favorite new thing is a Britta water bottle with a filter. I can fill up almost anywhere and the water always tastes good. (Love those roller bottles in your link so I’ll definitely be giving those a try to save space.)

    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a terrible, terrible packer but I seem to have the carry on thing down pretty well with snacks, iPhone/ipod, a book, and ALWAYS good chocolate. Ear plugs are a bonus of playing the piccolo and are always in my bag. My newest addition are some little packaged handy disinfecting wipes for the gross airplane tray tables and arm rests. Probably a little OCD but I’m not getting all sticky and germy.

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