View from economy seat on a long-haul flight

How to Survive Long Flights Comfortably

For someone who loves to travel, I’m not built for it at all.

I have fibromyalgia, for starters, and a whole host of other issues that may or may not be related. I even landed in a hospital in Uganda thanks to swelling in my ankles after 24 hours of flights and layovers that led to an infection. So when it comes to surviving a long flight, I’ve had to learn a few tricks the hard way. 

Getting up and walking around the cabin isn’t always feasible (and when it is, it doesn’t help me much), so I especially rely on a few pieces of gear to alleviate the discomfort of existing in just 17.2 inches for a day or two. I’ve wanted to go to Australia since I was a little girl, and the long-haul flight in economy is not going to hold me back!

How to Survive Long Flights Comfortably

If you want to be comfortable on a long flight, then for the love of God wear loose-fitting pants. Elastic waistbands are your friend! They’ll allow for normal digestion when you have to sit folded in half for hours on end. And it’s so much easier to pee in a tiny stall when you don’t have to deal with zippers, buttons or a belt. Joggers are my favorite.

Wear layers. It’s always too hot or too cold in airplanes and airports. Be your own personal thermostat by wearing a comfortable tee shirt with an easy-to-remove cardigan or soft jacket over the top. (Avoid a pullover or hoodie unless you want to risk punching your seatmate while wrestling in or out.) An oversized scarf can serve as a blanket or a backrest (more on this later).

Try to find clothes with pockets — ideally, ones that zip. Not only can you stuff your hands inside to stay warm, but you also can stash earbuds, your phone, your boarding pass or whatever else you need to juggle when you get up for the aforementioned walkabout on the plane. 

Slip-on tennis shoes are my all-time favorite travel shoe. Since I got Global Entry, I no longer have to remove my shoes in airport security, which always skeeved me out anyway. But to survive long flights, I like to slip my feet out of my shoes here and there and wiggle my toes. Note: Travel etiquette dictates that you do not put your stocking feet up on someone else’s seat or in the aisle, and please put your shoes on before you go to the bathroom, where the floor is often wet. (That’s not all water.) Slip-on shoes are the best. And because you likely have a long layover or three during an international flight, comfort is key.

Compression socks are a must. Yes, I was wearing graduated compression socks (the highest non-medical compression, at 20–30 mmHg) when I ended up spending a day being treated for swelling in Uganda. I have very poor circulation in my legs and feet. (Thanks, heredity.) So I have a few tips and tools for managing swelling and avoiding blood clots or deep vein thrombosis on long flights. But above all, I always wear compression socks. They’re like knee socks, so if you want them to look semi-normal with your joggers and slip-on tennis shoes, might I suggest basic black? My brilliant turquoise and navy plaid pair are good with boots, but they’re a fashion faux pax with shoes. Bombas makes a great pair of compression socks and gives away a pair for every pair sold.

Airplanes are dehydrating, and the food on board and in airports tends to be full of sodium. This leads your body to suck up and store every bit of moisture it gets. Drink plenty of water — more than you think you need. I love the collapsible silicone water bottles from Anntrue. Not only do they squish small for packing, but they also have a handy hook, they screw tight, they can go in the dishwasher after your trip, and you can open them with one hand. Staying hydrated will encourage your body to release fluids, reducing swelling; and as an added bonus, you’ll improve your circulation every time you get up to go potty. A long-haul flight is a good time to get an aisle seat.

Speaking of food: You’re going to be sitting for hours. Maybe days. How many calories are you really burning while reading your Kindle? Try to scale back how much you eat before and during long flights, to minimize digestive distress. Pack snacks from home that are water-based, such as a washed apple, celery sticks or orange sections. (But be sure to eat them before you arrive; foreign produce isn’t allowed in sensitive ecosystems such as Hawaii and many international destinations.) Don’t get the French fries until you land.

And while I love the free wine on international flights as much as the next person, go easy. A hangover is no way to start a trip, navigate a crowded airport or deal with jet lag.

If you do eat too much or you have a queasy stomach, bringing an acid controller like famotidine along with a few Tums is a move you’ll thank me for.

I have piriformis syndrome. What’s that, you say? It took *so much Googling* to figure out what was causing my literal pain in the arse on any car ride or flight longer than an hour. (I really wasn’t built for long-haul travel — I would have died in the pioneer days), It’s not the sciatic nerve, but a muscle nearby that can spasm painfully, and then also inflame the sciatic nerve. Also, thank you heredity. To make matters worse, I have no backside despite zillions of hours doing squats, and a prominent tailbone that I don’t want to talk about.

Long story short, I can’t sit still comfortably on long flights for very long. If you’ve ever had lower back problems, a spinal injury or hip problems, you feel me. To the rescue, an inflatable seat cushion like this one from Klymit! I used to carry a small pillow to sit on, but it took up way too much space in my carry-on. Call me a dork. I don’t care how it looks. I need it.

I found another piece of gear to help alleviate the ankle swelling and arse aching on long flights. This crazy little foot hammock from Sleepy Ride hooks over the tray table in front of you. Wrap the strap around, then close the tray if you want; the foot hammock will dangle below and let you change the position of your feet. It’s not first class (or even business class), but the extra blood flow in your legs and the different pressure point on your backside can be lifesavers.

Hopefully you can sleep on long flights. I’m usually unconscious before we get to our runway. But with the amount of gear I’m hauling to stay comfortable on long trips, I don’t have room for a big pillow. That’s why I love an inflatable neck pillow with a washable cover (of course it’s washable — check out my blog on cleaning up after a trip). I may get funny looks from fellow passengers while I’m blowing up all my cushions and ensconcing myself in a little fortress of comfort, but as long as I’m able to still walk when I arrive at my destination, I am beyond caring. 

You can aid sleep on a long-haul flight by bringing earbuds and an eye mask. Comfortable noise-canceling headphones and a playlist that includes some soothing, monotonous music (I like a Vivaldi album or the Calm app’s soundscapes) can send you to dreamland in the sky. And sleep masks help block out your neighbor’s reading light or the actual daylight that you might need to sleep through to adjust to your new time zone.

I learned this trick from my mom, who’s been dealing with all of these pain points for decades but who is also an avid traveler: Stick a Salon Pas lidocaine patch or two on your neck, shoulders, lower back or wherever you feel it most. It can buy you hours of relief on long flights. And maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but Advil is an old friend, as long as your doctor approves.

My mom is also an ace at turning a large scarf into a lower back cushion. I’m not sure why airplane seats curl you forward rather than following the natural arch in your lower back, but a scarf can fill that void if need be.

The next two little luxuries might not be necessary to surviving long flights, but they’re ever so nice. A travel-sized rose water spray for your face is soothing and refreshing. And a body butter bar can work on parched lips, cheeks and hands. 

Other ways to stay comfortable on a long flight: Bring your contacts case prefilled with a splash of solution; clean your hands with hand sanitizer, let them dry and pop out your contacts before you sleep. A makeup remover wipe (Neutrogena has singles) can take off the gunk of the day. A small comb or brush can smooth the nest that’s developed atop your head after snoozing for several hours. And popping in a toothpaste tablet before you go to the restroom where you can spit will have you feeling fresh as a dandelion, if not a daisy.

Use your layovers between long flights to get in some movement. Some airports have exercise classes or gyms. More likely you’ll need to walk acres from one gate to another or sprint through customs. (Unless you’re on a layover in Rwanda waiting to fly to Uganda, in which case you may have to stay squished in your seat for an hour.) Look at every moment that you’re not in your seat as a chance to stretch your legs and get the blood flowing. Consider getting in a workout or at least a walk on the day before you leave, as well. Just don’t overdo it. You don’t want to add muscle soreness to flight stiffness. 

Finally, I recommend a fanny pack, aka a waist pack, aka a belt bag, for all flights, short and long. I still think they’re not super flattering — even the really cute retro one that I bought from Mountainsmith — but their convenience can’t be beat. If you don’t have enough pockets; if you’re flying with a carryon and a personal item and have to hang onto them all the way to your gate; if you’re a solo traveler and don’t have a spare set of hands … a fanny pack is invaluable for your boarding pass, ID, phone, hand sanitizer and whatever other tiny things you need to constantly access.

A picky gate attendant may tell you that you need to put it into your carry-on as you board the plane, but when you get to your seat, you can pull it back out and clip it on to keep essentials handy and hands-free while your carry-on is in the overhead bin.

Flying first class to far-flung destinations could alleviate some of the discomfort of sitting in one spot for a day or so. (I still stand by elastic waistbands.) But the next time you have to fly economy from Denver to Atlanta to Amsterdam to Rwanda to Uganda with very long layovers, or you have to sleep in the airport in Madrid between your flight from Barcelona and to Chicago, these tips could help you survive long flights comfortably. When your flesh is weak but the spirit is willing to fly long distances, some gear and some smart prep can make it a manageable and even comfortable experience.  

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