I was at work the other day when a fellow colleague came up to me and said "Hey, Miss Cluster Fuss Travel, I need some travel advice!" It took me aback there for a second. I have been out of the "Travel Advice Zone" for over a year. My inner travel blogger was standing on a dark, rainy corner in a trench coat, taking a long drag of a cigarette before saying "Cluster Fuss Travel, haven't heard that name in years..."
I've shelved the travel blogging/advice giving/documenting for a while now. Mostly because our lives took this weird-ass turn, the world freaked out, and travel has literally been the last thing on my mind. But still... vaccinations are rolling out, the world is opening up, and people are feeling like it is time to start getting back to normal. So the travel-related questions are coming up again. And my inner-travel blogger, while she has enjoyed angry-chain smoking in a fedora hiatus, is feeling like maybe it is time to do something that doesn't involve sad jazz beneath a lone street light.
Recently I was asked about surviving long-haul flights in economy class.
This was actually a blog post I meant to write about after our epic trip to Israel. But... we all know what happened in the weeks following that trip. So yeah... Anyway, now is as good a time as any to talk about long-haul flights and how to survive them.
First of all this has been a long standing question of mine. Since Scott and I aren't business owners or have any other means to churn points through a credit card besides our measly Target runs and Instacart orders, he and I are mostly on our own when it comes to flying in any sort of comfort.
Considering the fact that it would cost upwards of $20,000 for our family to fly to Europe in a "lay flat seat" we are pretty much at the mercy of "status upgrades" and "points cobbling" and "airlines taking mercy upon us" if we want to fly anything besides Economy Plus.
Needless to say we have become pretty savvy at making it through long haul flights in "not First Class" without feeling like total garbage at the end.
We all know the feeling, don't we? We get on a plane walk through the gallery of Expensive-@$$ seats and think "This isn't so bad" and then as we keep walking towards the back of the plane the seats get increasingly smaller and smaller until you are suddenly staring down a 12" wide dining chair you will spend your night in. And then that feeling of dread sets in of "How am I going to make it???" It is an odd feeling, isn't it? We've all pulled all-nighters. But there is something uniquely horrible about spending 9 hours in a metal tube crossing multiple time-zones- we can all but feel the scratchy eyelids and disorienting mental state from here.
Maybe it is worth $20,000 after all... Or maybe there are a few things you can do to help feel less like garbage in a reasonably priced seat.
Both are true.
Here is what we know:
1. Fly a Dreamliner
This hack I learned from living near the Boeing HQ in Washington and talking with Boeing employees. Not only is this airplane gigantic with super-cool button-touch darkening window shades, but the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is pressurized at a lower altitude. Meaning: Part of the reason you feel like crap after a long-haul flight is the weird cabin pressures. Similar to scuba diving and getting the Bends when you don't acclimatize yourself on the ascent, you get the Travel Bends after spending a long time at a funky cabin pressure in a "regular" plane.
We took a Dreamliner on our way to Greece back in 2019 and noticed a big difference in how we felt less dizzy and disoriented when we disembarked. When we booked our tickets to Israel we specifically hunted for flights that were going to be on a Dreamliner.
The difference was that noticeable.
2. Drink water
Yeah, yeah... tale as old as time. Drink water. Look, if you have ever been dehydrated you know just how achy and miserable you can feel. (Hello, memories of backpacking in the Grand Canyon.) I always start the flight off nice and strong thinking "I'm so healthy, look at all this water I've had" and somewhere between 8 oz of the 16 that are actually in my water bottle I somehow give it all up for a chardonnay and scrunching myself in my chair, unbothered to reach down and get my water bottle, rage watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs.
Point is- take the path of least resistance and bring a CamelBak with you and just thread that hose up by your travel pillow and nurse that bad-boy until you land.
3. Compression socks
Oh yes... those sexy little things that old people wear after surgery will actually be your BFF during your travels. There is lots of cool evidence that it helps with circulation. I'm not 100% on the SCIENCE here, but I'm pretty sure that by wearing these bad boys you keep that blood circulating the way it needs to be and not just pooling down around your feet causing that sexy ankle bloat that we all know and love. (I've also heard tell that it can help with DVTs, but I am no physician, so definitely go talk to someone about that if blood clots are a thing for you.)
Thankfully you don't have to wear those white little numbers from the hospital anymore and Amazon is filled with cute designs that actually look like normal socks.
These help in a number of ways. For one they keep the ankle puff at bay. Making your shoes far more comfortable. I, personally, have never shuffled off a Korean Air flight from LAX to Incheon because I fell asleep mid-flight with my shoes off and couldn't fit them back in by the time we landed- so I tip-toe shoved them in and hobbled off the plane... but I've heard it happens to other people.
For two, it gives your heart a break at not having to pump and process all that excess blood whilst also managing travel stress. So it is really just a win all around.
4. Travel Foot Rest
If you are a Hobbit like me the feet dangle is just not fun. It puts stress on your knees and generally makes it pretty uncomfortable to sleep. Cue the inflatable foot rest. I found one of these bad boys at Marshall's approximately 5 years ago and I have never looked back. Once a figment of Sky Mall's imagination turned a factory reject in Marshalls turned my favorite travel item always. It has a regular one way valve to inflate it and a quick release valve for when you inevitably forget you have it inflated and the plane is disembarking and you need a quick getaway.
These help with the aforementioned travel cankles and knee-stress, but it also just helps give variety in the positions you can be in during a flight. That 12 inch dining chair only offers so much variety in terms of how you can sit. This takes a little pressure off your butt and lets you get that perfect angle up against that window panel for a few hours of sleep.
You can buy inflatable footrests that extend up to seat level. These are helpful in two cases:
You have an entire row to yourself to stretch out. This helps to extend your "bed" and make it a bit wider.
You are traveling with a small child. You can lean their seat back. Bring the footrest up to seat-level and make a sort of recliner for them.
5. Weighted Blanket
Yeah. No travel pillow talk here. (Although you should probably have one. There is no "best" one. They all low-key suck and are never as good as a lay-flat seat. The sooner you accept that limitation, the better.) A weighted blanket offers that security of being in a real bed. Helps with that "startling reflex" just as we drift off into dreamland. I've found them to be quite calming. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not bringing some 20 pound monstrosity from Amazon. More like a little 2.5 pounder just for a little extra "comfort".
6. Sleep Mask
I have a love-hate relationship with these. But it really does help when someone has their window cracked just enough for that easterly sunrise to blare right into your field of vision 5 minutes after you finally fell asleep. Best to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
7. Personal Items
Keep a travel toothpaste, lotion, and face wipes handy. Because while the airplane is incredibly dry, your skin will work overtime to compensate for that and produce an inordinate amount of face grease. The little dignities really do add up when traveling and a wipe and a spritz here and there really helps to feel less groady in the end.
8. Change of clothes
This one is tricky for me. Because while I loathe showing up to immigration in a stretched-out-cracker-crumbed shirt and yoga pants, I also loathe having to change clothes in a public bathroom. This is what I've learned: Unless something catastrophic has happened, don't change your underwear at any point during the journey. Bring a simple stretchy dress and change after you land. You'll feel a lot better about your dirty airport shoes touching your already nasty yoga pants and then pull a fresh clean dress over your head. (Now is also a good time to peel off those compression socks too. Just lean into any imprinted sock lines and keep moving.)
9. Travel Sheets
These are great for a extra layer when hunkering down for a long night in your dining chair. I like to wash them so they smell like "home". This seems to be especially helpful for my kids too. If you have a row to yourself it helps to kind of smooth out those crunchy fleece blankets from the airline (which begs the question of HOW can fleece be crunchy?!?!?) and makes things a bit more cozy.
10. Use a good airline and check Seat Guru
Sometimes it isn't always feasible to use your "favorite" airline. Sometimes it is worth a shot to use a good one. The best bit of advice I can give is to find an airline that you like and try and get status with them. That way you are on the list for free seat upgrades. If not, do your research with what seat would be the best option for you.
For example: We took Virgin Atlantic to Tel Aviv. We specifically picked a flight that was going to be a Dreamliner AND we upgraded to Premium Economy because we knew it was its own cabin on this particular aircraft giving us more space and privacy than back with those "regular economy plebs". This allowed us to stretch out and have first dibs on the good bathroom as well as a more dedicated crew. Had this been on an Airbus or something, oh hell no. Not worth the upgrade money. So it helps to research, call your airline, and especially use your prior knowledge to make the best possible travel decision.
I'm a big fan of voting with our dollar and I will always use Virgin Atlantic, Korean Air, Hawaiian Air, Southwest, and Delta when I can. Scott has some crazy status with United, and while I will never forgive them for their bogus "premium economy seats" (Which are really just exit rows- not kidding) I won't say no to a free upgrade either. So I'll go with them if Scott joins.
At the end of the day flying long-haul just kind of sucks. Accept that you'll feel tired and ragey by the end. But hopefully with a little extra planning you won't feel like total garbage.