How to Thrive on a Long-Haul Flight

If you’re wondering how to survive a long-haul plane flight, here’s your answer: Fly first class!

I kid.

While the lie-flat bed and special check-in line do wonders to boost morale for the elite flyers among us, I’m a firm believer that thriving on a long flight starts at home, a couple of days before take off.

Last year I flew to six continents, mostly in economy-class seating. Just recently—for this Urban Insider assignment, in fact—I faced the longest flight I’ve ever experienced, on Qantas, from New York to Los Angeles, and then directly on to Melbourne. I would be en route for 16 hours on that last non-stop leg alone.

Since Melbourne is so far from where I live, the thought of traveling there filled me with giddy anticipation, as if I were an explorer setting off to chart new territories. But I was also a little worried about how I would fare in the air.

After this epic journey, added to dozens of other long-haul flights I’ve hopped to various points around the globe, I’ve become a bit of an expert when it comes to staying sane and healthy while getting from here…to way over there.

Here are eight hard-won tips to help you do the same:

1. Embrace your inner kid.

Want to watch the original three Star Wars movies in a row? Go for it. Feel like asking for two helpings of ice cream? That’s your call. I know some people who swear by refusing alcohol, and even fasting, on long-haul flights. I say it’s the time to live it up. My strategy? Enjoy wine with dinner and pretend like it’s a snow day—the best excuse ever to binge-watch TV, or whatever else feels like pure indulgence.

2. Bring two levels of books.

I used to watch hours of television and movies to pass the time on long flights, but now I really savor the opportunity to read. As time wears on in the air, my brain begins to crave lighter reading material. I start with books that I need to be fully engaged for, like Booker prize finalist A Little Life, and then move on to page-turners like The Girl on the Train.

3. Pack your own snacks even if the food is good.

In a welcome development, many airlines—including Qantas, with Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry on board as advisor—have brought in top-shelf cooks to up their culinary game. I think there is something ceremonial about meal service on a plane, and look forward to the diversion a food break provides.

That said, I still like to pack my own snacks to have one last feeling of home when I’m en route, especially if I’m on my way to an unfamiliar place. My arsenal: mini peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, homemade granola bars, and roasted vegetables in biodegradable containers that I can toss.

4. Have your plane outfit down pat.

You won’t find me boarding a plane in yoga pants and slippers—not for fashion reasons, but because they make me feel tired (why compound the problem, when jet lag will take care of that on its own?). Make sure to wear clothes that are comfortable, but that also make you feel like workaday you. Though my travel uniform changes, it always centers around a huge scarf (love the bright prints by Theodora and Callum) that can double as a light blanket.

5. Chug water.

You’ve probably heard this piece of advice a zillion times. But I’m here to reiterate it.

I used to get a subtle headache on nearly every long flight I took—until I forced myself to drink a ton of water. My tip: Overpay for a super-size bottled water at the airport newsstand before take-off and ask the flight attendants refill it for you throughout the trip.

6. Embrace your “plane-motional” self.

I am pretty sure I made this up. Either way, it’s a great descriptor for what happens to me mid-flight, when the cabin lights dim and meal service is over.

I’m convinced that there’s something in the recycled air 35,000 feet up that magnifies your life and makes it feel more significant, especially when you have hours and hours on your hands. Seated among a sea of strangers, I seem to find newfound appreciation for family and friends, ruminate on past mistakes, and evaluate future opportunities. Use your air time to do the same.

7. Channel your creative energy—and give yourself a break.

I’m often the one awake person on my flight, typing away at 1 a.m. I’ve written speeches, stories, love letters, to-do lists, and long overdue emails. But I also give myself permission to just veg when I’m not feeling particularly creative. My advice: When you feel motivated, lean into it. But also give yourself permission to just think or listen to music. Trust me; some of your best ideas and light-bulb moments will come in the quiet peace of a disconnected night, way above the clouds.

8. Savor the final descent.

By the time the flight attendants turn on the jarringly bright lights to signal the beginning of the “descent phase,” my eyes are usually bleary and my energy nearly sapped. No matter how tired I feel, I make a point to use the final 15 minutes of the journey to mentally prepare myself for the adventure ahead. My vitality returns when my passport is finally stamped, a sound that, to me, represents total freedom. That, plus a large cup of coffee, sets me on my way, wherever I land.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures in Victoria, Australia, on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

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  1. Wai
    Hong Kong, China
    April 13, 2:30 am

    As a frequent traveller as a private tour guide, I work hard in the lead up to getting on the flight, and then take the flight as a well earned break. Noise cancelling headphones and an aisle seat are a must for me.

  2. Rod Pope
    February 6, 4:19 pm

    Great advice – I will be traveling Brisbane to London later in the year and this is the first practical advice that I have seen. Whilst I am flying economy I have purchased additional leg room seating so I will hopefully be a little more comfortable. Sleep will be a problem for me as I snore badly and this may be a problem for other passengers. Will also be ultra excited and like a (54) year old kid in a candy shop. I won’t want to miss anything.

  3. Sam
    February 6, 10:11 am

    Very useful tips – especially the one about keeping yourself hydrated with water! Your body will thank you later. A couple of additional tips that could help – having a travel pillow and a good pair of headphones to kill time watching a movie or two.

  4. Annika
    February 2, 5:45 am

    Finally a nice list for flying! Love to embrace my inner kid – that’s a great idea. However, to number 8 I would add – wait for that coffee until you actually land and have a chance to find a decent coffee on ground – plane coffee is the worst!!

  5. Vince
    February 2, 12:39 am

    I also like to sleep at times according to my destination. If I arrive at 7am then I try “sleep” the last 7 or so hours of the flight, for example. I did this successfully once and barely had jetlag for a day, on a 27 hour journey. Sleeping is another issue though

  6. Nina
    Calgary, AB, canada
    February 2, 12:03 am

    I bring face wipes, LaRochePosay face lotion, anything with B5, Cicaplast Baume B5; does wonders to your face and hands! Chap stick for lips! Bulk nuts, bulk caramel popcorn and empty water bottle – all good to bring trough security in your carry on. Also iPad with Monopoly downloaded- you can play by yourself or a buddy before they turn tvs on. Bring your own ear phones, cuts down on time you have to wait before those get distributed… Preload iPad with books or material you have to read. Couple of disinfecting wipes to clean up your seat arms rests, table and everything you touch… Seems a bit much, but people watching me do that say it is a good idea and ask me to share…

  7. Keith
    Brisbane, Australia
    January 30, 4:59 am

    One thing that I would like to suggest is to get very little sleep before a long haul flight and pack some natural sleep helper tablets such as valerian to assist in chilling out and possibly getting some sleep if you want. Doing this, I have been able to sleep well over halfway during the Brisbane to LA flight and this is in economy and in packed planes.