I’m not clickbait, YOU’RE clickbait. Seriously though, long-haul flights can really, really suck, and they only get worse if you’re not prepared. It’s not so bad when you’re on the way to your next adventure, but the coming-home-comedown definitely isn’t helped by jet lag, neck ache and a flat phone battery.
Whether you’re jetting off to Goa or enduring a trio of long-haul flights home from down under, it’s worth knowing how to minimise exhaustion and max out your comfort levels travelling long-haul. My 32-hour journey home from Melbourne, which included three nine-hour flights, was hellish at best – but it got me thinking about what exactly an economy traveller can do to make sure their bargain-basement flight doesn’t leave them in zombie mode.
So here we go – a few crucial things to think about when you’re booking your next big journey.
1. Check out the best time to fly
Jet lag is for lame-os, and you can minimise it by figuring out the most bodyclock-friendly time to travel. A number of sites have now started offering Jet Lag Calculators, where you can tap in your usual wake-up time, the time difference at your destination and other details that help an algorithm to decide how best to adjust to the time difference. But how do you time your flight itself so that you don’t turn up at breakfast ready for a good night’s sleep?
It’s often said that flying west is best, while east is a beast. Your body is better at working through a longer day than it is at reconfiguring for a shorter one – so avoid arriving in your new destination late in the evening or during the night if you can.
Let’s say you’re leaving from the UK and heading to New York. You’re going 5 hours back in the day and it’s an 8 hour flight, so if you fly around 10am you’ll land feeling like it’s 6pm… but it’s really only 1. By 9pm you’ll be ready for what seems like a 2am bedtime, sleep like a baby and be up at an alarmingly sensible time to go exploring the next day. Result! But if you fly at 11pm and sleep through the flight, you’ll wake up at 2am local time well-rested(ish) and ready for the day… Which is gonna really scupper your chances of adjusting to the new time zone quickly.
Check the the time difference at your end destination against the flight time, and plan accordingly.
2. book a non-stop flight
Non-stop and direct flights are not the same thing. I learned that when my direct flight to Ghana sat on the runway in Nigeria for two hours while I tried to sleep across a row of seats, and the airline attendants cleaned around me and the handful of other people who couldn’t get off the plane.
Aside from the fact that non-stop flights are faster (if you can get them), it’s just way less sucky to spend 12 hours in the air than it is to spend 9 hours in the air, 2 on the tarmac somewhere and then another 3 finally getting where you’re going. The chances of extra delays are also less when there’s no part-way changeover, so check the small print when you book.
3. Don’t bother with speedy boarding
It’s possible that I’m a little bitter about speedy boarding, because when we flew to Barcelona I had it for the first time ever and Ryanair (in their usual fashion) managed to completely screw it up (along with luggage, timings, remembering which airport was which, that sort of thing).
Frankly, I don’t know what you hope to achieve by adding speedy boarding. I tried it because it was free with a seat that had extra leg room, and while I enjoyed being able to extend my legs, I don’t know that having an extra twenty minutes of sitting on the plane to enjoy this would have been a win.
Priority boarding for passengers who need assistance boarding and disembarking I totally get , but speedy boarding when you’re about to spend 11 hours on a plane to Thailand…. why??? You’ve already got your seat. Getting on faster does not get you a different seat. What it does it takes you out of the spacious, wifi-ed space of the airport and plonks you in a cramped spot tucked between many strangers where you will soon spend half a day breathing in recycled air.
Speedy boarding is not a long-haul flight hack. It is the opposite of a long-haul flight hack. Save the extra cash for snacks, and max out the time you can spend online scouting out places to eat and things to see when you arrive. (Because even when your airline says you’ll have in-flight wifi, we all know it rarely actually works)
4. Spend a little extra on seat selection
Speedy boarding might not be the hack you’re after, but seat selection totally is. If you don’t fancy spending a little extra on this then the trick is to be very aware of the time and date that online check-in opens, and make sure you’re ready to dive in and select the best of the no-added-cost options.
Travelling on a shoestring rules out extra spends for creature comfort, but if you can afford to chip in the extra tenner or so that selecting a better seat for a long-haul flight costs, it can be really worth it. When you’re only flying for an hour or two it doesn’t particularly matter, but if you’re jetting off to an alternate hemisphere or anywhere that warrants more than four hours or so of your time, things like more leg room and being nearer the front/back ready to get off quickly on landing can be a blessed relief.
5. Pick a ‘special’ meal
Vegans get served first, just sayin’
Alright, not necessarily just vegans, BUT, if you select an in-flight meal that’s specifically tailored to dietary requirements, the vast majority of airlines will dole all those ‘special’ meals out first. Being hungry on a long-haul flight and having to wait while what seems like every other person on the plane gets served, finishes their food and goes back to sleep, is totally lame. Being handed something before anyone else has even got anything, on the other hand, is a moment of smugness that we can all enjoy.
(This is also another reason why seat selection is great – sit yourself in the front of a section and chances are you’ll be at the head of the line at feeding time.)
6. Just take hand luggage. You can do it.
I’ve said this before and I’ll keep on saying it until I stop seeing people at the airport burying themselves under piles of baggage. If it doesn’t all fit in hand luggage, you probably don’t need it. My post on the art of minimalist packing has some advice on what to pack and how to cram it in, but there are so many reasons why travelling hand-luggage only is a good idea. Here are a few.
- You’ve got less weight to carry
- You don’t have to wait around at the luggage carousel for your stuff to show up
- When navigating the airport and transport to your hostel/hotel/apartment, you don’t have to battle crowds with your bag or pay for extra space in a transfer
- If you’re flying out of a dubious airport, you don’t have to worry about hold luggage being tampered with
Now, there are some times when you need to pack things that aren’t allowed in hand luggage, e.g more than 100ml of suncream. But just because your bag needs to go in the hold doesn’t mean you should just switch to a bigger one and fill it to the brim. I did three months backpacking using only a bag that fitted in hand luggage, and there was still stuff in there I didn’t use.
Bonus tip: GET the travel pillow. And the power pack.
Is stating the obvious even a hack? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I am so over travelling without a travel pillow and you should be too. Some airlines will give you those little squishy rectangular ones, and using a sweatshirt rolled up in a ball isn’t a bad alternative… but when it comes to travelling for looooooong periods, a proper travel pillow can’t be beat.
Get one you can clip into your backpack/bag with a carabiner clip so that it doesn’t take up any valuable space, and save yourself a world of neckache and face-on-hand discomfort.
As for power packs, I thought everyone had these by now but a lot of people still look at mine in wonder and I’ve lost count of the number of times someone’s needed to borrow it because their phone is dead, and they need to find a cab / a hostel / a travel buddy / any number of other things.
Charging your tech before you set off isn’t enough: you gotta have back up. Look for power packs that are around 10,000mAh which should give you several full charges on a modern smartphone – don’t rely on the plane having a charging point because not all of them do (looking at you, long-haul Jetstar flight from hell) and when they do, they don’t always work (yeah, that’s you Alitalia).
These are just a few of the ways you can take some pain out of long-haul flights and travel. If you have any recommendations for awesome products, cool apps or sensible behaviours that can boost a long day travelling, let me know in the comments below!