Tips for surviving a long-haul flight

In preparation for a long flight from Seattle (SEA) to Frankfurt (FRA), I have been compiling a list of tricks and tips for surviving ten hours in the main (economy) cabin or, as I tend to refer to it, “steerage.”

Choose your seat carefully
Lufthansa Airbus A330
My outbound trip on Lufthansa will be aboard an Airbus A340-300. While Lufthansa operates A340s in four different configurations, economy seats are generally 17.5 inches wide with pitch of 32 inches. Not terribly generous, but not bad, either. By comparison, Iberia Airlines’ economy seats on its A340-300s are 17 inches wide, while SwissAir’s are 17.2 inches wide. Both other airlines offer 32 inches of pitch.

However, measurements are only part of the picture. According to, economy seats in the A, D, G and K rows on that particular aircraft “may have restricted legroom due to the presence of an entertainment equipment box,” thus reducing the amount of underseat storage. In addition, that equipment can also make the seats above them warmer than those without the equipment. Checking a site like SeatGuru before selecting your seat can help you avoid an unpleasant surprise once on board.

Aisle or window? Your choice, but an aisle seat provides more options for stretching your legs and means you won't have to climb over your fellow passengers when you want to get up to walk or use the lavatory.

Dress comfortably
I’m not advocating PJs (though I have seen it more times than I care to think about), but wear comfortable, looser-fitting clothes and dress in layers. Window seats can be particularly cool, while aisle seats can be warmer. Shed your shoes and slip on some footies or bring slippers, ideally with non-absorbent soles. Wear shoes that lace up as opposed to slip-ons because feet tend to swell when we’re seated for long periods of time. As a result, those pumps or loafers that fit just fine when you got on may be too tight when you reach your destination.

Stow strategically
If you plan to stow a carry-on like a laptop or briefcase under the seat in front of you, it must be in that position for take-off and landing but once you’re airborne, you can take that item out and place it behind your legs, leaning it against the front of your bottom seat cushion. That simple move, along with having chosen a seat without equipment restricting the underseat space, can give you considerably more room to stretch your legs.

Let me entertain … me.
Even if you’re planning to work en route, bring along a couple of diversions – games or movies that appeal to you, for even though more carriers are touting multichannel entertainment systems, the screens are smallish (especially in economy) and the selections may not be your taste. A feature-length movie or two on your tablet or laptop will make the time go by more quickly.

Photo provided by Bose
The Sounds of Silence
Don’t underestimate how much fatigue listening to the drone of airplane engines for hours upon hours can cause. Invest in noise-canceling headsets. Every frequent traveler has seen the $300 Bose QuietComfort® headset, but decent options exist at a more economical price point. Check reviews on sites like CNET and buy a pair that fits your budget. After all, some noise relief is better than none. A set of foam rubber ear plugs can also help a great deal.

Plan to sleep, at least a little. If you can sleep while wearing eyeshades, bring a pair along. If not, putting on sunglasses will reduce the glare if the cabin lights haven’t been dimmed. If you know a sleep aid like Ambien works for you, that’s an option as well but don’t try something new for the first time in flight. Try it at home several days before your trip to be sure it has the desired effect. It is possible that any supplement or medication could have exactly the opposite of the anticipated effect on you and leave you wired for the next eight hours, which is definitely not what you want.

On-board fare
Eat and drink carefully
Depending on your dietary needs and personal preferences, you might do well to buy a meal from one of the airport vendors instead of trusting the airline’s offerings. For example, if a high carb meal makes you sleepy, that may be exactly what you should eat and buying your own ensures you’ll get what you want.

On every long-haul flight I’ve ever taken, the flight attendants are constantly up and down the aisles, offering water to the passengers. Take them up on their offer! In most airliners [the Boeing (NYSE:BA) Dreamliner is an exception], the air is incredibly dry, which has a dehydrating effect.

A few words about alcohol: Having a celebratory glass of champagne or other adult beverage is my preferred way of kicking off a pleasure trip but moderation is absolutely essential in this setting. While airliners’ cabins are indeed pressurized, they are pressurized to the equivalent of 6,500 to 7,000 feet above sea level, or the altitude of Flagstaff, Ariz., or Lake Tahoe. Alcohol’s effects are intensified at higher altitudes so you could find yourself under the influence much more quickly than you would at home. And presenting an inebriated self to the customs officer at your destination is not the best first impression one can make.

Business Class Seat
Use your frequent flier miles
In my estimation, long-haul flights are when your frequent flier miles are the most valuable. If you have enough accrued, consider using them to upgrade to Business or First Class, which will make that long journey pass, if not more quickly, far more pleasantly. In many cases, it also includes access to airline lounges pre- and post-flight, and during layovers.

Read more about my experiences in Business Class on Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA), Germany’s Lufthansa, and Spain’s Iberia Airlines.

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Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise noted
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