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How to survive long-haul flights

For travelers, flying at 35,000 feet for an extended period of time comes with its own set of challenges, including little space for movement, dry cabin air and time zone changes.
For travelers, flying at 35,000 feet for an extended period of time comes with its own set of challenges, including little space for movement, dry cabin air and time zone changes.

By Katie Robertson

Long-haul flights are generally considered to be those eight hours and longer, while any that stretch past a grueling 16 hours are nicknamed “ultra long-haul.” The longest nonstop commercial flights currently available include New York to Singapore (18 hours and 50 minutes; 9,530 miles) and Perth, Australia, to London (17 hours and 45 minutes; 9,010 miles). Qantas Airways, Australia’s national airline, plans to operate two even longer direct flights in 2025: Sydney to London and Sydney to New York — routes that will take up to 20 hours.

For travelers, flying at 35,000 feet for an extended period of time comes with its own set of challenges, including little space for movement, dry cabin air and time zone changes. Although extreme long-haul air travel never gets easier, there are some things you can do — before, during and after your flight — to make it slightly less terrible.

Jennifer Bagnall, 40, a communications executive who often flies between her home in Los Angeles and Sydney, believes reframing the experience in your mind is an essential first step. “Instead of approaching it as a long stretch of time in a confined space without escape, I think about how it’s a long stretch of uninterrupted time with no responsibilities and where I can’t be contacted,” she said. “It’s so rare you get that.”

1. Pack your carry-on smartly and strategize early.

You’ll most likely be checking your luggage, so your carry-on bag will need to be well equipped. As well as any items you’re going to use for entertainment, think ahead to what will help you feel the most comfortable. Packing a change of clothes (if there is a stopover, you may be able to find a shower in the airport) as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste will go a long way to helping you feel fresher during your journey. Make sure you’re wearing comfortable clothing and a pair of compression socks to combat swollen feet from so many hours with little physical activity.

“Wear a hoodie,” recommends Nikki Greenberg, 40, a futurist and innovation strategist from Sydney who frequently travels internationally for work. “It is cozy, warm, covers the ears (less noise) and eyes (less light for sleep), and creates a private cocoon environment.”

2. Find a way to sleep as much as possible.

Do anything and everything you can to make sure you spend a large chunk of the time onboard asleep. Some travelers consider sleeping pills or melatonin supplements as must-haves, while eye shades and noise-canceling headphones can reduce cabin lighting and help to dull the roar of the plane. A travel pillow like the Trtl Pillow, which supports your neck, can help when trying to sleep in the upright position.

Mapping out your sleep schedule ahead of time can also be useful, depending on when your flight or flights are departing. Vanessa Quincey, 33, an advertising director from Melbourne, Australia, who has lived in New York for the past decade, stays awake for the shorter leg of her journey — New York to Los Angeles — to ensure she’s extra tired for the long second leg to Melbourne. “Purchase a ‘Do Not Disturb’ eye mask if you plan on sleeping through meal service,” she said. “The mask will block out the overhead lights, and the ‘do not disturb’ will let the cabin crew know not to wake you.”

3. Save up entertainment.

Plan how you will fill the rest of the time onboard: A 10-episode narrative arc of a TV series will stretch out a lot longer than one movie. You can look ahead on the airline’s website to see what in-flight entertainment will be available on your flight. Be sure to download TV shows, movies, podcasts and music onto your devices before you get to the airport and have to rely on spotty Wi-Fi. Bring a good book you’ve been meaning to read. Have some offline games you can play on your phone or iPad. And don’t forget a backup portable charger.

Patrick Quade, a 52-year-old tech founder from New South Wales in Australia, has done the trip between the United States and Australia more than two dozen times. He recommends setting a goal that takes longer than 20 hours: “Learn Adobe Premiere well enough to make a three-minute short with edits and sound track.”

4. Never stop hydrating.

The air onboard is extremely dry. Pack a decent moisturizer, lip balm, lubricating eye drops and a small nasal spray. Try to avoid alcohol and drink as much water as you can throughout the flight: Bringing your own empty water bottle to fill up at the airport after customs can help with this goal. Powdered vitamins or electrolytes can be added to your water to maximize hydration.

5. Move when you can.

Many people prefer an aisle seat so they are able to get up frequently without disturbing their seat neighbor. Before booking, research the layout and model of planes on websites such as SeatGuru to find the most legroom. Do some stretches while you’re waiting in line for the bathroom and walk a few laps of the terminal during a layover to get your blood moving.

6. Think ahead to your final destination.

Without a doubt, the most important thing is to never, ever take a nap if you land during the day, as tempting as it is after a grueling flight. “This is really tough flying to Australia because you usually land early in the morning,” says Nathan Weinrich, who has been traveling home to Australia from New Jersey for eight years. “But it makes a huge difference to how quickly you adjust to the new time zone.” — The New York Times

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