Long haul flight tips: A survival guide to flying

07 December 2017 ( 02 August 2018 )

There’s so much world to explore, but unfortunately, being a keen traveller means you inevitably have to take a lot of long-haul flights. Here are a few long-haul flight tips to make the journey much easier!

Do you dread long haul flights? Whether it's Australia or South Africa, however paradisiacal your destination, for many travellers the long hours spent in an aluminium tube a mile above the Earth's surface can seem like a perfect vision of hell.

We’d all love to be first-class flyers and snooze the journey away in a seat that fully reclines, but for most of us, long haul flights are is something that have to be endured in order to get to the good bit at the other side. 

Fortunately there are plenty of ways you can make a long-haul flight survivable and even pleasant; here are our long-haul flight tips for a smooth and enjoyable journey.

When you book your long haul flight

Timing is key when it comes to flying long haul, so if possible book a flight at a time of day that suits your body clock. For most of us, that means getting a mid-morning flight that doesn't require checking in at the crack of dawn or (even worse) in the middle of the night. Only a lucky few sleep well on planes, so if you can avoid taking the red-eye and begin your journey relatively rested you'll have a much more enjoyable flight.

If you travel regularly and have racked up a useful number of air miles, now might be the time to cash some in for an upgrade - premium economy or business class seats provide extra comfort and can make all the difference on long flights. Not a frequent flyer? Think twice about booking onto a bargain airline - it might mean a significantly rougher ride. Look out instead for seasonal sales and online deals on premium airlines.

Many airlines will allow you to choose your seat when booking for an extra fee. This is worth considering on a long flight if it means you can sit in your preferred section, and is particularly helpful when travelling in a group. If you don't want to pay extra, be sure to make a note of when online check-in opens in your diary so you can hop onto the airline's website and choose the seats you want as soon as they become available. Think about where in the row you'd like to sit as well: window seats are fun on takeoff and landing, but on many long-haul flights there's not much to see between the two, so an aisle seat may be more comfortable - especially if you're tall.

Very long-haul flights (to Australia or the Far East, for example) can be particularly taxing. Consider breaking up your travel with a stopover, or at least a few hours on the ground to rest, recuperate and stretch your legs. The world's best airports are blessed with plenty of services designed to revive weary travellers, from massage and spa facilities to gyms, swimming pools and indoor gardens. Spend some time in one of these airports and you'll feel much more human on your connecting flight!

Getting ready for your long haul flight

Dress for flying success by wearing layers of light, loose-fitting clothing in breathable fabrics. Think cotton-rich t-shirts and jersey tops and avoid clingy, skin-tight or heavy clothing. Slipper socks and a cardigan or hoodie can be a good idea to keep you cosy on overnight flights, which can get a tad chilly. If your flight is taking you somewhere warm, peeling off a layer or two at the other end will keep you fresh as you arrive.

What to wear on a flight

Cabin air can be very drying so take a bottle of water (buy it flightside after security) and a good travel-sized moisturiser to keep you comfortable. Other good toiletries to consider for your hand luggage include mouthwash, wet wipes, a travel toothbrush and a facial spritzer up to 100ml in size.

If you're flying between mealtimes, pack a few light and non-messy snacks to tide you over and keep hunger pangs from ruining your afternoon. Rice cakes, travel sweets, dried fruit and cereal bars are all good options, as are mints or chewing gum to keep your mouth fresh.

If you need to take a daily medication, be sure to pack a dose in your hand luggage (in fact, all important medications are best taken on board rather than stowed in the hold in case your luggage decides not to join you at your destination). It can also be a good idea to pack a couple of painkillers in case an early start, stressful journey to the airport or cabin air leaves you with a headache.

Pack your in-flight entertainment - books and magazines; puzzles and games (as good for grown-ups as they are for younger family members); or a well-charged tablet or smartphone should keep you occupied for hours. Pack your charging cables too - you should be able to use them at the airport, and on some flights USB charging is even available in-seat.

Plus, noise-cancelling travel headphones and in-flight accessories (such as ear plugs) will help block out cabin noise, helping you to sleep better and relax more when you're awake. A comfy sleep mask completes your cabin-ready collection.

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At the airport

If your flight leaves at an awkward time (or you're a bit anxious about the quality of the in-flight dining), arrive at the airport in time to eat a light meal. Avoid fatty foods - opt for salads, grilled fish or pasta with veggies over steaks, fry-ups and fast food. If you're pushed for time, pick up a healthy wrap or salad to eat at the gate.

Once you get flight-side you can pick up a bottle of water for your flight and add any toiletries, travel pillows, flight socks or earplugs you may have forgotten to pack previously. Look out for useful freebies on your way through Duty Free - a good dollop of hydrating moisturiser from a quality brand should help your flight get off to a good start, and you may even be able to pick up a trial size tube to carry on board.

On the airplane

Stow your hand luggage in the overhead locker if at all possible - this will give you much more room to stretch out when in your seat. Keep objects in your seat pocket to a minimum for the same reason - your bottle of water, facial spritz and a magazine, tablet or e-reader should be all you need to keep to hand; the rest can go overhead.

Be sure to hydrate to keep discomfort from cabin air to a minimum. By all means get your flight off to a relaxing start with a glass of wine, but remember that alcohol, caffeine and sugary soft drinks are very dehydrating. Sipping water, juice or herbal teas throughout the flight will help you stay fresh; a spritz of water or a drop of moisturiser will help your face and hands stay comfortable too.

Make the most of downtime on your flight by catching up on the latest films and TV box sets - either on your own device, or on the in-flight entertainment system.

Keeping mobile will aid circulation. Give your legs a shake by taking a stroll up and down from time to time (but not during trolley service or the post-lunch toilet rush, when the aisles will be in heavy use). Find a space between seating sections or in the galley for some quiet stretches; you don't need to do a full yoga routine - some simple extensions and rotations for legs, neck and shoulders will leave you feeling much fresher.

Flying somewhere picturesque? Make time to admire the view (from one of the exit doors if you're not seated next to a window of your own) and keep a camera handy to start your holiday album off if you're flying over unusual scenery such as mountains or attractive coastlines.

Rest up (and start to get yourself onto your destination time zone) by taking a nap between meal services. Overnight flights will dim the lights at a certain time to aid sleep, but it can be beneficial to get forty winks even when flying through the daytime. Pop your sleep mask on and your shoes off, and snuggle into a comfy travel pillow for the most restful in-flight nap experience.

Q I’m not a fan of long-haul flying and have a particular dread of turbulence. Is there any way of predicting it?

No, you can’t predict turbulence with any great precision and it’s not confined to long haul! It’s extremely rare for it to be dangerous, though it can be quite unsettling. It’s been said that pilots think of it as driving over a pothole – but you can see potholes, of course.

What you’re really saying is that you’re frightened of flying full stop! You’re not alone.

However, there many ways of coping with a fear of flying (aviophobia), from hypnotherapy and exposure therapy to cognitive behavioural therapy or even something as simple as a mild tranquilliser from your GP.

Virgin Atlantic runs courses, starting from £180 for a ground-based seminar (flyingwithoutfear.co.uk, 01423 714900). Anxiety UK is a charity set up to tackle fears and anxieties across the board, including flying. Download their advice sheet for £1.49 (anxietyuk.org.uk, 08444 775774). And Allen Carr’s self-help book No More Fear of Flying has step-by-step coping strategies that really work (order from wordery.com/saga, see p18).

Extract taken from Saga Magazine, August 2017. For more travel tips, subscribe to the magazine today!

Our tips on making your long-haul flight less stressful

Bring a travel pillow

A sore neck cause by a lack of support as you try to sleep through the flight is not what you need after you’ve touched down somewhere exciting and you want to be out and about, exploring your new surroundings! 

You can get comfy foam pillows that squish into your hand luggage, or ones that you inflate yourself for even more space saving. 

Or if you don't mind something a little bulkier in order to achieve maximum comfort, try a 'J pillow' which has an extra strut for your face to rest against. 

Withdraw into your own little bubble

Invest in a comfortable eye mask and noise-cancelling headphones. 

These are great for shutting out the world and give you the solitude you need to get some decent sleep – plus if you have an overly chatty neighbour, it’s a subtle way of saying you’d like some time to yourself.

Try these essential gadgets for travel

Stock up on lip balm

The air in the plane is very dry and you can end up with sore, chapped lips very quickly. 

If you suffer from coldsores, you'll know that when your lips get dry and damaged is when they strike, and going on holiday is not when you want to be dealing with these pesky, painful little annoyances! 

Even if you are one of the lucky people who don’t get coldsores, you’ll feel much more comfortable after applying lipbalm, so pop a couple of tubes or pots in your hand luggage.

Freshen up

Take baby wipes and moisturiser. There’s nothing like feeling clean to perk you right up halfway through your flight. If you’re about to take a nap, or if you’ve just woken up from one, or even if you need a bit of a pick-me-up, simply wash your face and hands and slather on some moisturiser – it will take away the grimy feeling you can get on long flights and leave you refreshed.

The baby wipes come in handy for this too, if you don’t want to make your way to the on-board toilets, or in an emergency – if you’re ever handed a chocolate ice lolly that melts down your arm on an overnight flight, you’ll be relieved you have baby wipes!

Go menthol

Or spearmint, or peppermint… if you take chewing gum, mints or even boiled sweets, you can avoid the annoying and at times painful experience of your ears popping as the pressure changes. 

As the plane takes off simply chew or suck a sweet, then again as the plane begins its descent, and you’ll have no problems.

Snuggle up

Bring woolly socks or slippers if you like to take your shoes off, as the air in the cabin can get quite cold. 

Kicking your shoes off can make you feel more comfortable and relaxed,especially as your feet can swell up to around two sizes bigger during the flight. 

And your fellow passengers will thank you for covering up your bare feet!

Bring eye drops

A few drops every now and then will stop your eyes feeling quite so tired and uncomfortable – and if you can’t face the idea of drops, you can get a liquid you simply spray on to closed eyes that will still do the trick.

Drink lots of water

Again, the dry air in the plane is not your friend – it’s really easy to get dehydrated, so make sure you drink lots of water to avoid getting headaches. 

And whilst you’re up above the clouds, perhaps order a tomato juice; studies have shown that something about the low pressure in the plane makes it taste suddenly much more delicious – and it’s said to have the added benefit of settling your stomach if you’re feeling a little queasy!

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.