Booking Flights
Booking Seats
Eating and Drinking
Moving It
Getting Rest
Waking Up
Comfort Bags


I’ve been bumped up to First Class only once in my life. Unfortunately I was too sick at the time (reason they took pity on me) to enjoy the fresh prawns and Belgian chocolate. Back in the cheap seats is where you will normally find me, so over the long hauls, from one hemisphere to another, I’ve developed strategies that give me the energy to hit the ground running.

You can get away with pretty much any kind of abuse to your body on a 3-4 hour flight, but if you’re planning a trip that keeps you in transit 12-36 hours, some planning makes a world of difference.

Booking Flights

For particularly long flights I look at what’s available and try to tee it up with normal sleep patterns. For example, on my next long haul I am flying Vancouver to Los Angeles to Auckland to Brisbane.

The Vancouver flight leaves at 11:30 am ...and we end up sitting around Los Angeles for 8 hours because we don’t leave again till 9:30 pm. That is a lousy length of time to sit in that airport, but the reason why I took this particular combination is because by leaving Los Angeles at 9:30 pm we will be flying all through our own natural night hours. Sleeping will be that much easier.

We arrive in Auckland at 6:30 am and immediately change planes, arriving at our final destination, Brisbane, at 8:30 in the morning. That’s Brisbane time of course. In Vancouver it’s still 2:30 am of the day before, but after a long sleep over the ocean I am landing at the beginning of the day, so it’s a perfect fit and I should have a good first day Downunder and be ready for sleep again by evening.

I don’t expect to miss a beat in terms of my waking / sleeping patterns and will not experience “jet lag.”

I’ve managed to score a similarly favourable itinerary home, boarding the plane in Auckland at 10:30 pm for the long overnight flight to Vancouver.

Booking Seats

Book your seats as far in advance as possible – more choice.

At the time you are booking, request bulkhead seating on the aisle. There is more room in front of you – downside is that there is no seat in front to stow your carry-on, it must go up in the overhead bin. Upside is that no one will be lowering their seat to sleep in your lap.

If there are two of you, find out from the airline's website or your travel agent, what the seat configuration on the plane is. Then think about what seat booking would make the most sense for you in terms of that aircraft. Some aircraft have a two-seat per row configuration on the outside. With the extra room of bulkhead you can actually make quite a cosy little home in these. On very long hauls my husband likes to sleep on the floor in this configuration.

Some travelling companions prefer to take aisle seats in the same row so they can both get up and walk about at will and still talk easily over the aisle.

If the seating configuration has three-seat rows on the outside, it is sometimes worth booking seats on either side of an “empty” seat. Ticketing agents will not usually put someone between you unless the plane is very full so it is worth asking how full this flight usually gets.

Most airlines will not let you book exit-row seats until you actually check in – they say they need to eyeball you to make sure you are physically capable of assisting others to deplane in an emergency. But ask about this anyway because these are the best seats in economy – lots and lots of leg room. If you can only book these on check-in, do that early and request them then.

Seats can usually be changed at check-in, especially if you get there early. I am a big fan of self-check-in kiosks because they usually provide you with a schematic of the plane that shows which seats are still empty. This gives you the opportunity to improve your situation.

Be aware that these days airlines are shifting their planes around quite a bit. That carefully chosen seat was perfect on a Boeing 747 ...but if you suddenly find yourself boarding an Airbus you might find that same seat number lands you in the middle of a long row. Always check in early and always ask what kind of plane it is and where your seat is located. This is your chance to "fix" it if the aircraft has been changed.

Once you are actually on the plane, watch to see how the plane is filling up. If it's not full, this is your chance to once again, improve your situation. But you will have to move fast because all the other savvy travellers are eyeing the empty seats too - and they won't be shy. Better to "claim" an empty row and be asked to move by a late arrival then to watch while someone quicker than you grabs the row for a fully-stretched-out sleep over the Pacific.

Eating and Drinking

Eat lightly the day of departure and keep the food intake minimal-to-light throughout the trip. Your digestion slows down and you do not need all that bulk congesting your abdomen and pelvis. Very uncomfortable.

Make sure that what you do eat includes whole grains and fruits/vegetables to keep all systems moving. The kind of food you are likely to pick up in the airport or that the airlines provides in their meal service (white starches, sugars, and over processed carbohydrates) is like cement to bowel function.

Carry your own light, nutritious snacks onboard with you so that you can look at the airline meal with a critical, rather than a starved eye. Pay attention, however, to where you are travelling – the regulations around bringing food onboard – particularly fruit, vegetables, and unhomogenized cheeses. It’s very sad indeed, to walk away from the beautiful picnic you packed into your bag ...with plans for a mid-ocean feast ...because it has been confiscated and dumped in the garbage bin.

Drink lots of water, period. Leave the pop, and beer on the trolley. They make you sluggish. And the $5 they charge you for beer these days? You’ve got better places to spend that. Caffeine is a similarly bad idea on a long haul – at least until it is genuinely time to wake up. I always tuck some decaf / herbal tea bags into my “comfort bag” because while airlines always have hot water I’ve seldom found one that had anything but full-caff tea – in economy anyway. I’ll bet they have herbal tea upfront!

Carry your own water bottle on board so you always have a good supply at your seat and keep drinking. If this makes you get up to go to the toilet, that’s good. Walking is good – helps reduce the likelihood of deep vein thrombosis. Have the cabin attendants refill your water bottle with their filtered water.

Moving It

Every few hours get up and move it. Your booty that is. Drinking lots will help remind you to do this, but if you have capacity of a camel, get up and move it anyway. Walk around, go down to the galley at the end of the plane where there is usually extra room and do some yoga moves ...or whatever works for you. Bend over and stretch, rotate your shoulders, flex your feet.

These days they usually have a video at the beginning of the flight that demonstrates anti-thrombosis exercises you can do in your seat. Watch the video – they have some good ideas. Then do it ...watching alone won’t prevent thrombosis ...or stiff muscles and joints.

At the airport waiting around for the next flight? Here's your chance to move it - walk briskly from end of the terminal to the other - outside if possible. Find a quiet corner to go through your yoga moves and stretches - no, people won't think you are strange. They will be thinking, "I wish I had a routine like that for stretching because my back / neck / butt is killing me."

Getting Rest

When you’re on the plane, rest. Read a little if you want, but don’t turn an 18-hour flight into a movie-marathon and try to see every movie they are showing. You will arrive bleary-eyed, headachey, and out-of-your-mind with exhaustion.

I never try to make myself sleep. Instead, I prepare myself to “rest”. That is all I commit too. If I tried to make myself sleep it would never work. So, rest is the goal and sleep is generally the result.

I take the following steps:

  •  wait for the plane to quiet down (i.e., food service to be over, etc.)
  •  shoes off, but warm socks on
  •  light fleece on
  •  take pain-relief medication to help keep my body from hurting too much when I am “resting” in cramped conditions
  •  ear plugs in
  •  neck-pillow (one of those blow-up rings) on
  •  eye-mask on
  •  blanket up to chin
  •  stretch out

    Now, rest.......

When I waken, which I frequently do, I just tell myself to rest some more ...and before I know it, the attendants are banging breakfast trolleys up and down the aisle. Coffee? You bet.

Waking Up

When I awaken from my rest ...I do what I would do at home in morning – short of an actual shower. To the back of the plane for some yoga stretches then into the lavatory to brush teeth, wash face, moisturize, fresh makeup, etc. If it’s been a long flight I may change my underwear and put on a fresh shirt as well. It all makes me feel like I’m ready to just fly off that plane ...and that is what I usually do, bursting with energy.

Jet Lag?

I never have jet lag when I am embarking on an adventure, never. I do all of above and it seems to work. Coming home, however, is a different story. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline at the beginning of a journey. Perhaps it is following my own advice on the “going to” but getting sloppy on the “coming home.” Perhaps it is knowing how much work is waiting for me when I get off the plane. For me, there seems to be a big difference.

Next trip: I’ll follow my own advice coming home too and see if it makes a difference. Stay tuned.

My “Comfort” Bag

When I travelled with children I always put a "comfort bag" together for long trips. I included their favourite toys, blanket, treats, a clean t-shirt, and a few surprises. One day I realized that I'm entitled to that kind of treatment too.This is what I carry in my comfort bag for the long hauls:

toothbrush, toothpaste
face cleansing tissues
makeup kit
fresh underwear
sleep mask
ear plugs
blow-up neck pillow
light fleece jacket
water bottle

Light snacks – like granola bars, whole-grain crackers and cheese, fruit, nuts, licorice, meal replacement bars, decaff / herbal tea bags

Medications – On a long trip I use something like Tylenol 3 for arthritis pain relief and because it makes me feel so comfy I fall asleep much easier. I also carry any other meds we are currently taking (never trust them to checked baggage). Some people like to take sleeping pills on long flights but since I never take them normally I’m afraid I’d awaken too groggy to land the plane if called on to do so – you know, like in the movies. If you want to take something, talk to your doctor about what meds (if any) would be appropriate for you.

Extra set of clothes – in case my bag is “lost” or I spill something all over me.

REALLY interesting book – something light-hearted, trashy, and absorbing that I've been dying to read - but save for "the trip." This is for those long airport waits as much as for the plane.

Guidebook (like Lonely Planet) and map for reading about where I am going. Notebook and pen - or more recently a PDA.

Headlamp for reading and reading glasses.

So ..what have I left out? Share your own survival strategies by sending me an email and I'll post them here.

Carolyn Usher