Long-Haul Flights – How to Stay Sane and Healthy

DCA Gates and Tarmac

Long-haul flights are anything but enjoyable, but are a necessary evil for anyone who wants to see more of the world. Technically, a long-haul is defined as any flight more than six hours in length, but depending on your level of travel experience even a shorter flight may seem like a long-haul to you. There are a few ways though in which you can keep your sanity and stay healthy when spending a long time on board a plane.

Time Management – At first blush, a twelve hour or longer flight may seem completely impossible. After five minutes you’re already looking at your watch and wondering how much time is left. One way I deal with passing the vast quantities of time is to schedule the time onboard into smaller segments. For example, the first two hours are devoted to getting settled, eating dinner and perusing the entertainment options. The next 3-4 hours might be spent watching movies or reading, the following four hours devoted to sleep, etc. No matter how you choose to segment your time, I find that thinking of the voyage in smaller segments helps you achieve mental goals more often and feel like time really is passing by, rather than looking out at a seemingly endless quantity of flying time.

Entertainment Variety – The modern traveler is lucky when it comes to onboard amusements. Most long-haul planes have individual entertainment options that offer dozens of movies, games, TV shows, music and more. Be sure to take advantage of these opportunities, as they really do help pass the time. Combined with dinner and sleep, if you watch three movies on a flight you have probably accounted for almost all of your time on board. If you plan to sleep though, try to avoid work or other mentally stimulating activities unless you absolutely have to.

Get Up Often – Although rare, there are significant health concerns when sitting in the same position for a long period of time, namely Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). DVT is the formation of a blood clot in a deep vein that can develop after sitting on long flights. There are many ways to help mitigate your risk for developing these dangerous blood clots, but one of the most important is getting up often. Ever couple of hours, make sure to walk around the cabin and in the forward areas near the bulkhead, be sure to do some simple exercises to help keep your blood flowing. The airlines have done a great job in educating the public about this risk and you can find some sample exercises in most in-flight magazines.

Water, water, water – Hydration is essential for all travelers and it starts on board the plane. Flying is a dehydrating experience so make sure to stay away from alcohol and instead grab some water or juice from the beverage cart. If you’re on a long haul flight, make sure you have a glass of water every hour or so. This will also help reduce your risk for developing DVT.

Comfort and Rest – A long flight is an exciting experience, at least it is for me. It means the beginning of an exciting journey to a new country or a return home after an amazing trip. This excitement and the desire to start exploring can make it difficult to get sufficient rest, but sleep is absolutely essential on a long flight. First, make sure you’re comfortable. You aren’t flying to compete in a fashion show, so don’t feel the need to dress the part. Either wear, or bring, comfortable clothes that will facilitate rest. I have a great pair of all-weather khakis I wear on long flights that are super comfortable and not at all constricting. I also wear socks specifically designed for air travel along with a slip on shoe of some sort. During the first few hours of the flight, avoid caffeine and too much alcohol and instead drink plenty of water. Finally, bring some tools that will help you create a cocoon of comfort. My in-flight bag always contains ear plugs, an eye mask and an inflatable neck pillow. It’s amazing the difference these simple tools can make on a long flight. Finally, allow yourself plenty of time to rest. When you land you are going to want to hit the ground running and, depending on your destination, you may have a full day ahead of you. When traveling more than 5 or 6 time zones, it is a struggle to quickly adjust to the new time and what you do on the flight over will help dictate how you feel for at least the first couple of days.

Unless you are a serious plane geek, most people don’t relish the idea of spending a long period of time in the air. If you plan ahead and take a few easy steps to make the experience more enjoyable, you will have the perfect start to a great adventure.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

19 thoughts on “Long-Haul Flights – How to Stay Sane and Healthy”

  1. Water water water! You know the 1.5L they use to fill cups, I ask for that bottle. They are hesitant to do it so then I show them my nalgene bottle and ask them to fill it and they just give me their bottle.

    Plus it means you have to pee all the time so you’re constantly getting up.

    It’s a win-win.

    1. Very good tip!
      I hate that they are so reluctant to give out more water, but I too have them fill my water bottle every time I get up. And you’re right, the more you drink, the more bathroom breaks, and the better your circulation in your legs!
      Take it from me – DVT is a lesson learnt for me!

  2. One word. iPad.

    Okay, a few more words. I think things would be much easier if one could always sit in the seats you pictured. For those of us that can’t (or choose not to), I suggest booking as early as possible and using seat guru to try to snag the most comfortable seat possible. Of course, many airlines are reserving these for “premiere” passengers, so it is also a good idea to do what you can to earn your status. We recently wrote about a mileage run we are taking for this very reason (and to see some destinations that have been on the list for along time as well.)

  3. Great tips!!! Longest flight of my life…Atlanta to Jo’burg. Would never in a million years do it again. Vodka, woops I mean water, was the only thing to get me through it. ;-)

  4. I’ve yet to take a long-haul. And the thought makes me twitchy as I’ve been a nervous flier in the past (recently just-about conquered). So the comfort & rest side seems impossible to me at the moment, even though I know I’ll get bored soon enough and that’ll take the edge off my nerves…

    The time management tip is a great one. Focussing on getting something done to a deadline is a good way to make the time fly. Doing the same on a long-haul would work a treat. I’ll be sure to take some work with me. :)

  5. Hi Matt – some great tips here. I always try to get night flights (where there’s an option) Gives me the best chance of sleeping through some of it!

  6. As a frequent transatlantic traveler I should think about this, but I drink to much coffee and then try to sleep all the way.
    Japanese on the other hand have really evolved their traveling. A few years back I was flying Amsterdam-Houston with a group of Japanese businessmen, about 4 hours in they all, 6 or 8 of them, stood up as on a given signal and started exercising in the isle

  7. Long Haul Flight Tips

    Vegeterians usually get fed first on a plane – worth booking the veggie option if you don’t like the wait!

  8. Water here is key…there are way to many distractions on the plane to help me to sleep, so I’ve given up. This is where I catch up on my movies. Longest flight was from NYC to India via Los Angeles and Tokyo and Singapore…it was nuts! Great tips!

  9. The longest haul that I’ve survived was Cairns-Brisbane-Houston-Amsterdam. Plus, I was able to worry if my bike was in the hold. One long leg, I had two seats to myself, so I could actually lie down (sort of). I had a paperback book and the movie was on a cabin screen. Then, dead knackered, I rode across Holland, sometimes on the left side of the fietspad.

    Recently, I discovered on a shorter red-eye flight that ear plugs make a world of difference. For the first time I actually caught a few hours sleep. What’s more it even works on overnight coach journeys.

    I’m close to pulling the trigger on another long haul to Vietnam. Maybe an iPad stuffed with movies and games. When airfares grow out of reach, I can always use it for bicycle camping trips.

  10. Some very interesting comments,

    Hydration is one of the most basic things any flier can take care of, but it isn’t done adequately.
    To answer some of the comments, FA’s husband the water because there is a limited amount on board and if they run out the only option is the potable water in the plane tanks – believe me it ain’t nice.

    Advice to stay hydrated is great but ancient, if you look at the label on plastic bottled water most have a total dissolved solid count expressed as a number at dry residue at 180 degrees C. Pure water is less than 10. If you can find any below 100 you’ve got liquid gold !

    Isotonic non sugar based drinks are a better option for a start and if you want to get fancy you could get some Hydrogen donor supplements and take them with any water you drink to improve its hydrating qualities. I would hazard a guess and say most people reading this know that if your urine turns yellow while flying its a sign of increased dehydration – unless you are on medication.

    Ps don’t forget to hit the coconut water for an electrolyte boost when you land (or half water half coconut water if you’re worried about too much sugar!).

  11. I agree – comfort is key. There is a great head rest called JetRest (just search for it on Amazon) and it’s one of the most comfortable pillows I’ve found. Also, a cashmere travel wrap is worth it’s weight in gold (great for chilly evenings as well :-)

  12. on the long flights 12 hours plus I take my ipod and iphone. I have oily skin so I avoid all fatty food including butter. I get so frustrated its so hard to take water on a plane anymore I drink it by the Gallon

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