I first started seriously traveling over a decade ago, mostly back and forth between Washington DC and Europe, when I was living in Spain. I hated the travel. In fact, I still do.
Ironic right? The professional travel blogger who hates flying. Who would have thought?
I can still easily recollect the utter agony I felt at those overnight flights that felt like they would never end. I mean 7 hours crammed in a metal tube surrounded by equally grumpy people who wish they could be anywhere else; could it get any worse?
Wait guys, it totally can!
Then I moved to New Zealand, aka the end of the world, where everything is approximately a 24 hours of flying away! What was I thinking?!
These days I yearn for those 7 hour overnight flights. For me, I now count anything less than 8 hours as a short flight. Talk about perspective.
As I began writing this from 40,000 feet in the comfort of business class on one of the longest flights in the world, 17 hours from Dubai to Auckland (don’t hate me cuz you ain’t me), I can’t help but reflect on over a decade of solo travel that often involved long ass flights, most of which made me want to kill myself, and how I managed to survive.
Blah blah privelage blah blah. Let’s move on to the real stuff.
I’m not a good flier, and I never have been, but now surviving long haul flights is kinda my speciality.
I have severe anxiety, depression and insomnia, not a good combination for someone whose job requires them to board planes all the damn time. It’s not the act of flying that stresses me out, and I’m not worried about crashing, it’s rather the whole process of airports and travel that literally gives me nightmares.
I’m not kidding. I actually do have regular nightmares about packing suitcases, losing things, arriving late to the airport, and checking in. All the time.
My flying anxiety mostly comes from being surrounded by so many people (so annoying) and unable to get away from them. What on earth does that say about my character? Wait, don’t answer that.
So I feel duty-bound and honored to share the wisdom that hundreds (yes hundreds) of long-haul flights have taught me about how to survive stupidly long trips. The past two years I’ve averaged around 100 flights per year, so I consider myself something of an expert on the matter.
And even with all those miles and carbon emission offsets under my belt, I still hate flying. But I’ve learned to make it a lot more palatable, and no, it’s not always because I’m drunk or popped some Xanax. Or both.
With more people traveling than ever these days, getting on planes is an inevitable part of the process, unless you’re one of those badass people who hitchhike on cargo ships or bike packs around the world, and if you are, I salute you.
But for the rest of us, how do we make flying more bearable? Like really? Here’s my best guide of real, honest, tried and tested tips to surviving long haul flights. Enjoy!
1. Weasel your way into business class
Ok, ok, don’t stop reading just yet. Hear me out.
Most of the time I fly long-haul these days, I fly premium, usually in business class BUT I almost never buy business class tickets because they are usually very pricey. And let me be the first to tell you that as soon as you fly in business or first class, the entire airplane experience becomes INSTANTLY more palatable, dare I say, enjoyable?
While this deserves a blog post entirely on it’s on, my biggest tips for getting an affordable business class long haul flights are last minute upgrades and airline loyalty. Start collecting miles and pick an airline to build an alliance with. Use those points or miles to cash in for upgrades, and often you will receive cheap upgrade offers. And always ask when you check in at the airport how much an upgrade would cost. Most of the time it’s a lot cheaper than buying a premium ticket, and airlines always look more favorably on guests who have status with them. And the first people who get upgraded for free are usually the ones with high status – this happens to me ALL THE TIME on overbooked flights.
They also look more favorably on people who don’t look like shit so don’t show up to the airport in your sweats. Trust me, this works.
2. If you can’t get upgrade, at least weasel your way into good seats
When I was dirt poor traveling on pennies for years, sleeping my way through European airports and 30 bed hostel dorms, I quickly figured out how to ninja my way into good seats in economy, in particular how to get a row to myself.
Depending on the size of the plane I usually found the back to be emptier, and as soon as I booked I’d go online and chose my seats. If it’s full and I don’t think I have a chance of scoring a row to myself, I’ll pay up for an exit row or a premium seat. If I have money to spare, I’ll splurge on airlines like Air New Zealand that have the Skycouch option in economy where you can get the whole row to yourself or go up into Premium Economy with them or Cathay Pacific.
But here’s one of my best secrets: certain airlines will even let you buy the seat next to you, they call it a comfort seat, for like $100. Not having anyone to fight over the armrest with or drool on you? Hell, that’s worth $100 to me.
My other big trick is that I always chat up the staff at check in to see if I can move my seat around to a better one, and even at the gate too. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
3. Stop flying shitty airlines
Not all airlines are created equal, and there is a big difference between flying a budget airline for 12 hours and a nice airline for 12 hours.
Do your research (here for seats and set up and here for the best 2019 airlines).
Air New Zealand has and always will be my favorite airline, and I can’t recommend them enough!
4. Candy Crush your way around the world
Last year as I boarded a red-eye Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur and made way through the overbooked economy section full of cramped seats on one of the oldest and most rattliest airplanes I’ve ever been on, I almost had a panic attack. It was really old, stinky, and rusty, three things I do not want to see on a plane. You just knew it was going to be hell.
We were delayed for hours sitting on the runway for maintenance. The whole time I was thinking no wonder one of their planes went down. As I was crammed in my seat on the waiting, I really really want to stand up and say “let me off right this minute” about to have a panic attack.
Wondering how I was going to survive the next 12 hours, literally and figuratively, without thinking I downloaded Candy Crush right before takeoff.
I think I came up for air 5 hours later. Damn that went by fast!
5. Excuse me, where’s my Xanax?
You know those people that say things like, “oh the flight was great, I slept the whole way” I have a special message for you – screw you!
Why are some people blessed with a thin physique and ability to sleep sitting up? It just isn’t fair!
You’d think for someone who flies as much as me that I’d be able to sleep on planes but the truth is I can’t. I need to be completely horizontal and either drunk or medicated to sleep on a plane.
Since I’m being super honest on here, even now I usually need some kind of medical or liquid assistance to relax me on planes. From sleeping tablets to melatonin, to sleepy teas to all the wine, anything that can help my jitters and anxiety disappear, is great.
I’ve only just started to meditate on use the Headspace app on trips, which has been great so far!
6. Take a break
I know this one is a bit of a luxury but if I have the time and can afford it, I’ll book stopovers on my trips to avoid back to back long haul flights. Now that I live in New Zealand, if I want to get to Europe or Africa or the East Coast in the USA, I am looking at back to back long-haul flights which is THE FUCKING WORST.
One long haul flight sucks. Two in a row? Kill me now.
My usual flights to Europe involve the following: 2 hours Queenstown to Auckland. 17 hours Auckland to Dubai. 7 house Dubai to Europe. I often intentionally book flights with long layovers or multi-day stopovers.
I’ll stop in Dubai for a night or too to relax, and sometimes airlines will give you a free hotel room if you have a super long layover. I even have booked rooms at the airport hotel INSIDE Terminal 3 in Dubai; they have hour specials as well, so sometimes I’ll book a 6 hour stay there on a long-ish layover.
It’s so worth it.
7. Change your clothes, for you and everyone else
I don’t think I started packing a change of clothes in my carry-on until I moved to New Zealand, and honestly I don’t know how I survived flying before. Or how the people next to me survived. I’m so sorry.
Nowadays I usually bring 2-3 changes of clothes in my carry-on, and I have a strict routine.
As soon as I board a long-haul flight, even before takeoff, I go to the bathroom and put on my airplane pajamas. These are pajamas that don’t look like pajamas; how you style them is up to you. Sweatpants. Thick socks. Comfy t-shirt (no bra – again sorry guys) and cozy sweater hoodie thing that is stylish. You don’t want to look like a total bum, especially if you’re in business class.
I never fly without wearing my beloved Allbirds, the perfect travel shoe.
I don’t know about you, but nothing puts me in a cranky mood like dirty underwear.
8. Don’t let yourself dry up or smell bad
First pull out your fancy jade roller and work out those puffy cheeks. Don’t forget to hydrate!
I’m just kidding, god how annoying are beauty bloggers?
I don’t have some fancy flash routine for flying, but I do always bring a small bottle of face lotion, body lotion, toothpaste and deodorant with me. And I have been known to slap on a $4 Sephora face mask halfway through a 15 hour flight, but honestly, can you blame me?
Airplanes are notorious for their dry air, so make sure to moisturize and drink heaps of water.
9. Binging makes everything go faster
Part of my travel routine is to download at least 10 hours of a new podcast or tv show on my phone, just in case I need entertaining or the movies suck. Usually I have a book or two with me.
I know that might go without saying but it has truly saved me on several flights. I first listened to Serial years ago on a flight from Vancouver to Auckland and it truly changed how I travel. The trick is finding podcasts that are really “binge-able” that you can’t stop listening too. It makes the trip go by fast.
But did he do it?
10. If you can’t see or hear anyone, are you alone?
I never travel without really good earplugs and a comfy dark eye mask. If you fly business class on long-haul flights these are usually provided.
It makes things so much better, and I found even at my most anxious when I slip them on, it’s like I’m not even there.
Oh, and window seat, always.
Do you have any tips or secrets for surviving long-haul flights? Are you as neurotic as me flying? Spill!
Award-winning food scholar. Infuriatingly humble explorer. Music specialist. General tv fanatic. Pop culture geek.