How to Survive a Long Flight

There’s no question about it: traveling opens our eyes and minds to new cultures, landscapes, and people. That being said, getting there isn’t always fun.

Most people don’t exactly look forward to long flights, but they don’t have to inspire dread, either.

If you’re like me and can’t afford to upgrade to business or first class, here are a few tips to keep you going while you’re stuck in coach.

Buy Right 

Airlines that aren’t based in the United States tend to offer better amenities on long flights — like personal televisions, eye masks, slippers, and free wine with dinner. All other things being equal, go with the international option. And take note of your departure and arrival times — and time differences — when booking your flight. Paying close attention to these details can help alleviate the effects of jetlag.

Get the right gear

Just because you can’t splurge on business class doesn’t mean you can’t splurge on other things — like quality sleep gear. Eye masks, earplugs, neck pillows, and blankets are a must on a long haul. I recommend the Nap travel flight kit. In addition to being incredibly soft, the inflatable items won’t take up valuable carry-on space.

The Early Bird Gets the Exit Row

The best advice I received as I prepared for a flight from D.C. to Bangkok was to arrive at the check-in desk four hours early to request an exit row. Note: sitting in the exit row means accepting the responsibility to assist in the event of an emergency, but if you are happy to help, the extra leg room is worth it — especially if you’re tall. And, if you like an aisle seat, the people next to you will not have to climb over you to go the bathroom.

Test Before Take-off

If you’re planning to use a sleep aid to snooze through your flight, be sure to test it out at home. That way if you have an adverse reaction, you won’t experience it at 30,000 feet. Another tip: don’t take any sleep aids until you’re in the air. If your flight gets waylaid on the runway, you’ll have a hard time staying awake to deplane.

Embrace Your Inner Couch Potato

Don’t underestimate the power of movies, music, television, and books to help you through your sedentary slog. Your airline may provide movies or even a personal television screen, but it might not take long to exhaust your options. Before you leave, load a robust array of digitized entertainment onto your laptop, tablet, or handheld device. You won’t regret it.

To Work… or Not Work

There’s nothing wrong with using your down time to get some much-needed work done. And hey, you may even be ahead of the game by the time you land. But most people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs when it comes to working

on a flight. Be realistic: bring other things to keep you occupied.

Follow Your Instincts

Listen to what your body is telling you. If you feel tired, sleep. (Don’t fret about missing meals when you’re sleeping: You can always ask the flight attendant to bring you some food or snacks when you wake up.) If you are wide awake, watch movies or read. But whatever you do, it’s important to find small ways to exercise on long flights. Arm circles, leg lifts, and walking are all good options.

Lose the Hangover

Many international flights offer complimentary wine or beer with meals. Tossing back a drink may seem like a good way to pass the time or calm anxiety, but beware. Surviving a long flight is about being comfortable the entire time, not just the first couple hours — and a plane is just about the worst place to cope with a hangover.

Erin Block is an editorial assistant at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow Erin’s story on Instagram and on Twitter @ErinSBlock.

Do you have tips to add? Leave a comment to share your insight with our travel community.


  1. Copa Airlines
    April 5, 2014, 8:43 am

    I always use Neosporin and rub it around inside my nostrils. Kills the germs.
    and has kept me cold free. That tip came from a flight attendant.

  2. Jorge
    October 17, 2013, 6:24 pm

    Great tips! But more importantly than getting to relax in the flight is making the whole process easy… Have a plan for it… and include getting through security as easy as you can it sounds simple but it might take you longer than it should. Great tips for this you can them here.

  3. John Gunter
    September 11, 2013, 11:15 pm

    I just stumbled upon this article. . . great stuff! I wrote my own thoughts out here for my TIPS for LONG flights.

  4. Starsky
    May 25, 2013, 6:19 am

    Sitting in the seats mid-way or dividing wall can sometimes mean you will be near where bassinets are attached for babies though, so worth bearing in mind. Front row exit seats also means seat-arms can’t be raised if are lucky enough to have an empty seat next to you.

    Middle exit rows near the loos is often a bit of a bad move as people congregate.

    I find sitting near the back can often feel quieter (depending on how big the rear galley is).

    i always take my Bose noise cancelling headphones and iPad now as a ‘just in case’ as you never know when the IFE might go down.

    Hydration is definitely key! You can never get enough water!!!! Yes you may have to get up for the loo more but as some people said, the exercise is good. I always always take a little bottle of fave moisturiser for hands and face as its comforting and obviously moisturising I also have a little herbal roll on by someone like Aesop of the Como Shambhala ones are good for putting on temples and pressure points to make me feel calm – not sure what fellow passengers think of the scent but occasionally they enjoy the aroma too!

    I can hardly ever sleep on flights – I just have to accept it now and think optimistically how nicest is to have the time to watch and listen catch up etc. it sounds so simple, but listening to favourite music really does help me nod off sometimes.

    And can I just say….. Note to all fellow passengers – please try and remember to putout your overhead light on a flight if you can, as having someone else’s light beaming down on you when they are asleep is painful…….

    I know this is about economy, but sometimes the airlines might have a premium-economy class which can really make a difference – often emptier, more space/leg pitch, better food, happier crew! I tried Vietnam Airlines one-way for example London-Saigon and made a real difference.

    If travelling with Air New Zealand is an option, also don’t forget their “cuddle class” where the 3-seats in economy can easily be made into a bed/comfy area so its easier to spread out.

    Lastly,I know they are not cool, but I do find less swelling and aching in my legs if I wear compression socks!

    Happy travels

  5. Redsoxbernie
    April 13, 2013, 7:13 pm

    Next Sat I am flying Phx to New Delhi…15 hours in the air…lots of water and lots of movement will make it more tolerable.

  6. Arlette
    Ontario, Canada
    April 13, 2013, 6:51 pm

    I pretty much do all those things listed. Another thing I find helpful is to dress as comfortably as possible. I like to wear nice loose fitting sweat pants and a t shirt with a light fleece sweater with a hood that can double as a pillow or privacy covering. I also like to bring some fruit or other healthy things to snack on at my leisure. I find some plane food is very unhealthy: full of salt and fats which can’t be good for your body while travelling.

  7. Dhaval Patel
    Bethesda, MD
    April 13, 2013, 12:09 pm


  8. eliza
    March 28, 2013, 4:51 pm

    omg i am petrified of flying but have a flight of about nine hours in a couple of days and am DREADING it. thanks for the tips, i think they’re going to come in handy.

  9. Mompreneur
    March 26, 2013, 7:47 am

    Great tips! The only thing I would add is a golden rule for any successful flight – check-in as early as you can! Only thus you can get best seats. And one more thing about the seats – my favorite are usually at the wall that separates cabins, as there are much more space for legs there. I also follow these tips and find them very helpful!

  10. Amber
    January 27, 2013, 8:40 pm

    I think getting the timing right is the best way to avoid jetlag – The last time I left Chicago for Japan was on an 8am flight (10pm in Japan) so I stayed out all night prior to the flight, and easily fell asleep once the flight took off, for a good amount of time. When I landed in Tokyo at 5pm the next day, I was awake enough to get out of the airport, to the hotel, and spend some time planning for the next day & other details before bed. I woke up at 6am the next day – a little early for me, but not awful!
    Maybe this is just me, but also carefully think about what you’ll really feel like doing on the flight – I always tend to bring several different things to occupy my time, etc., and almost always end up using just 1 magazine and my ipod… & wishing I wasn’t hauling around so much stuff in my backpack!

  11. David B
    Charleston, SC
    December 22, 2012, 2:07 am

    One comment on mid-plane exit row seating. I got airport early enough hoping to score exit row seating. Assigned exit row seating I thought I was in for a comfy ride. However, my exit row aisle seat was located mid-plane adjacent to many lavatories, which is a crowded area of people waiting, chatting it up and stretching invariably bumping into your legs, sometimes trying to sit on edge of the aisle side armrest of yours, drinking, and stretching invariably with their backside encroaching into your personal space – forget about a minute of sleep in this type of exit row seat located mid-plane if your aircraft is configured in this way! Hope this will help other not make same mistake. I would’ve rather have had a cozy window seat with the wall to rest my weary head. Also, careful with sleep aids – they can make you drowsy, yet cpvery cranky if your in an uncomfortable, non-reclining, etc. seat. You will wish you had not taken a sleep aid guaranteed!

  12. Robert vA
    The Netherlands
    December 9, 2012, 3:01 am

    My best tip to frequent travellers is to buy a headphone with noise cancellation. I’m using the Bose overeat type one.

  13. Tim
    December 6, 2012, 7:10 pm

    I did a story a while ago on 10 tips to survive economy including
    – wear loose comfortable clothes
    – eat before you get on board
    – bring spray on water or moisturizer

  14. teresa
    December 3, 2012, 2:53 pm

    I make sure that I get up at least once an hour. Even if I only stand in the aisle next to my seat, it seems to help. I can’t sit still for hours on end. Must move or bust. Plus, occasionally, especially during hot weather my ankles will swell. I walk to the back of the cabin and return to my seat, too. Gotta love arriving to places on the other side of the world, but getting there, not so much.

  15. Kurt Varner
    San Francisco
    December 3, 2012, 2:21 pm

    One comment on the exit row – yes, you get more leg room, but the first exit row’s seats do not recline. So if leg room is an important factor for you, I’d recommend only sitting in the second exit row :)

  16. Sheryl
    November 30, 2012, 8:10 pm

    I just endured JHB – DKR – IAD … In Dakar, you cannot deplane if your boarding pass says JHB to IAD so total time we were in the plane was 17 hours!

    1) don’t forget to hydrate 24 hours before & during the flight. The air is so dry in a plane plus getting up to use the lav every couple of hours will keep your circulation going!

    2) essential in your on-board toiletry kit: disposable toothbrushes, baby wipes, moisturizer & hand sanitizer (travel sizes under 3 fl. oz.), extra underwear, deodorant (travel size). You’ll be amazed at how refreshed you’ll feel after spending 10 minutes in the lav a third of the way into the flight and just before landing.

    3) peanut butter crackers!! Airplane food is so high in carbs & sodium … get your protein & fiber by snacking on your own peanut butter crackers packed in your carry on!

  17. William
    November 29, 2012, 1:39 pm

    I have used many of these tips on international flights. Very well stated!

  18. pavankumar
    November 28, 2012, 9:03 pm

    Great tips.Have a long flight in Dec.Will try to follow them.Thanks

  19. Meghan
    November 28, 2012, 1:55 pm

    Hi!!!!! LOL

  20. Jeannie
    November 28, 2012, 11:32 am

    Great post. Just did 21 hours of flying getting home from Singapore and did use most of the suggestions which helped me survive. .

  21. Christian Rene Friborg
    November 27, 2012, 8:24 pm

    Nice post you got here! Will definitely keep these tips in mind the next time I have a long flight, which will be early next year. :)

  22. ed
    November 27, 2012, 3:41 pm

    excellent advise ,will use them on my next international sprint.

  23. Avinash
    November 27, 2012, 2:33 am

    Hey Erin Block,

    Isn’t it dangerous to take sleeping aid in flights?

  24. Peggy Coonley/Serendipity Traveler
    November 26, 2012, 8:55 pm

    Excellent tips to make flights comfortable.