How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight in Economy

Flying on a long-haul flight in economy class is the uncomfortable reality for the majority of passengers. You know the feeling. Can’t sleep. Aching back. Knees tucked into the seat in front. Staring vacantly at the screen map flying over some obscure part of the world. Time to destination 8 hours 49 minutes…

So what can you do to make your flight more comfortable? Here are 28 essential tips on surviving that long-haul flight in economy.

1. Choose an airline with 34″ seat pitch – If you find the standard economy class a bit cramped then consider using an airline with a slightly more generous seat pitch. Some Asian airlines have an economy seat pitch of 33-34″ compared to the 31″ pitch of Western airlines. That extra couple of inches can make a big difference over 10+ hours.

2. Avoid high density configs – Be aware of the economy class seat configuration of your aircraft. A number of airlines (for example Air Asia X, Air France, Air New Zealand and Emirates) are now cramming an extra seat across the cabin of some aircraft. This can mean 11 across an Airbus A380 lower deck (3-5-3 instead of 3-4-3), 10 across in a Boeing 777 or Airbus A350 (3-4-3 instead of 3-3-3) and 9 across an Airbus A340/A330 or Boeing 787 (3-3-3 instead of 2-4-2). This higher density seating can make economy feel more uncomfortable.

3. Fly composite not metal – Try to fly long-haul on one of the new generation of aircraft, namely the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Airbus A380 Superjumbo or Airbus A350. Because they use composite materials instead of metal these planes can take higher humidity levels in the cabin and are pressurised to a lower altitude, thus decreasing the effects of flying. They also have quieter engines as well.

4. Go premium economy – Looking for some extra comfort? If you can’t afford a business class ticket but want a little more legroom (typically 38″) then consider a premium economy seat. Airlines include Air Canada, Air France, ANA, Air New Zealand, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, EVA Air, JAL, Lufthansa, OpenSkies, Qantas, SAS, Turkish Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Class leading seat pitch for premium economy are OpenSkies (47″), Turkish (46″), Air New Zealand (42″) and JAL (42″).

5. Use your miles – If you have a stash of frequent flyer points or miles then consider using them to either upgrade your economy class ticket to a higher class or to buy a premium ticket outright. Spending miles for premium long-haul is one of the best ways to use them.

6. Choose convenient flight times – You are in control as to which flight you book so where possible choose flights which offer the most convenient timings. Do you really need to depart at 6.30am to save a few dollars/pounds? When flying long-haul in an easterly direction then try to arrive in the afternoon or early evening – this means you can get to your hotel, go for a light walk, have a meal and then go to bed.

long-haul flight seat map

7. Check seating options – Analyse the seat maps of your aircraft (use SeatGuru, SeatPlans or similar) to get an overview of the best seating. Ideally you should be doing this before the booking phase so you know exactly what to expect. Seats can vary widely even across the same airline.

8. Assign an exit row – These days, many airlines such as British Airways, Qantas, KLM-Air France, Singapore Airlines will allow you to purchase the sought-after emergency exit row seats before online check-in opens. Expect to pay $50-120 per flight. These seats can offer significantly more legroom although you won’t be allowed to keep your hand baggage with you during take-off and landing. Note that on some window seats the exit door slide can protrude into your space – so once again do you homework before buying.

9. Be first to check-in online – Try to check-in online as soon as it opens, typically 24 hours ahead of flying (double check with your airline) to get the widest possible selection of seats. You really don’t want to end up in a middle seat.

10. Aisle vs window seat – If the exit row is not an option then choosing the best economy class seat can be a dilemma and very personal choice. Do you go for the window seat which gives you a nice view, space to lean against but requires having to ask your seat mates to let you out. Or the aisle seat where you can easily get up but you may be disturbed by your neighbour or passing foot traffic. For long-haul flights getting easy aisle access is probably more valuable.

11. Beware the baby zone – The bulkhead rows at the front of each mini cabin are often reserved for families with babies and young children. As babies can cry at any time you might want to assign a seat away from the bulkhead area, perhaps at the back of the cabin.

12. Arrive early at the airport – Travelling is stressful enough without having to make a mad rush to the airport hoping that you can make the flight. Allow yourself plenty of time – if flying long-haul get to the airport 3 hours before departure and try to stay calm and relaxed.

13. Walk then fly – You are going to be sitting on a cramped metal (or composite) tube for 10-15 hours. Spend your time at the airport doing as much walking (rather than sitting) as you can. With their long corridors, airports are actually great places to take a walk.

Europeans and Asians often bump into each other at airports. why? when approaching someone, Europeans tend to keep right whilst Asians tend to keep left. this leads to some awkward shuffling!

14. Don’t board too early – It can take a good while to board a large aircraft with hundreds of passengers. If you get on board immediately you could be sitting down for an hour before you even take off. So take your time boarding unless you are worried about baggage space in the overhead bins. This leads on to our next tip…

15. Travel light – These days airlines limit the amount of hand baggage you can bring on board. If possible bring your valuables and essentials in a micro style pack or similar. A bulky bag will just encroach your legroom space if you have to keep it constantly with you. If you need more room in the seat pocket then take out the airline magazines and place them in the overhead lockers.

16. Snag an empty row – If the flight is not full and there are empty rows available then ask the flight attendant whether you can move there. It’s best to do this when the doors close before push back or after take off when the seat belt sign first comes off. Being assigned an aisle seat will give you more chance of snagging an empty row. Air New Zealand sells a special 3 seat row “Skycouch” that converts to a bed-like form – it is also available on China Airlines. However you can create a similar effect on your empty row by putting the armrests up and using the spare pillows and blankets available.

17. Body clock management – If you are staying at your destination longer than a week then you should start adjusting your body clock a little in the days leading up to travel. For example, about a week before flying from say London to Hong Kong (an easterly flight) try to get up a bit earlier each successive day – this will bring your body clock slightly towards Hong Kong time. As soon as you get on board the aircraft set your watch to the destination time. You can also help override your circadian body clock and reduce jet lag by fasting on board – only start eating again at the destination’s breakfast time.

18. Go west – It is easier to fly long-haul in a westerly direction as you are travelling in the direction of the earth rotation. This means you are extending your day rather than turning it upside down (which is what happens when flying easterly). If you are booking a Round The World ticket then choose a westerly route to limit the effects of jet lag.

19. Food/drink strategy – Economy class airline food is not exactly renowned for its quality although some airlines do a reasonable job. If you are not fasting then try to avoid any carbohydrates (the pasta option and bread roll) and the dessert. Consider ordering a special meal such as fruit, vegan or vegetarian – you will be served first and sometimes the meals are slightly better quality. Or bring your own healthy snacks on board.

In terms of drink, avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine if possible – yes, if you are travelling for leisure then one glass of wine with your meal is probably ok.

“give them bread and circuses. self-loading freight (passengers) can be pacified with generous meals and entertainment screens.”

20. Hydrate and hydrate some more – Drink water. Often. Bring your own bottle on board if the rules allow. Keeping hydrated is one of the most important ways to stay healthy on board your flight. You need 1 litre for every 4 hours flying – that means 3 litres on a 12 hour flight. Also moisteurise your face regularly to counter the dry cabin air.

21. Get on up – You should try and get out of your seat at least once an hour to stretch your legs – this will be a lot easier if you have an aisle seat. Go for a short walk around the cabin and go to the bathroom. If you are drinking enough water then you will need to empty your bladder. Watch out though for peak use bathroom times – just after the meals have been cleared and around the time the descent starts. A good time to go is immediately after finishing your meal before the trays are taken away.

22. Clothing – You should wear loose fitting clothing (preferably natural fibres) in layers as the cabin temperature on a long flight can fluctuate. You may also want to bring a pair of pyjamas to change into for extra comfort. Take your shoes off as ankles can swell up.

23. Avoiding DVT – Consider wearing a pair of flight compression socks to reduce the risk of blood clots. The airline magazine or entertainment screen may have a range of in-seat exercises to follow to help your blood circulation. Stretch out. Keep moving. Tense and relax your muscles.

24. Time for sleep – Try to get some sleep on board if you possibly can. Recline your seat, put the airline pillow under your back for support, bring your own neck pillow and some good earplugs. Wear a quality eyeshade to block out light from screens, lighting and windows. Wrap up in the airline blanket with seat belt over the top fastened (so you won’t be disturbed by cabin crew). Or bring your own lightweight blanket or scarf.

Some flyers swear by melatonin, a natural sleep inducing supplement available over-the-counter in US/Canada, on prescription elsewhere. Alternatively bring your own chamomile tea bag (ask for hot water) or place a few drops of lavender essential oil on your temple and back of your neck.

25. Noise cancelling headphones – Get a pair of decent noise cancelling headphones which reduce the ambient engine noise and will help you rest. The best in class is Bose Quiet Comfort series, they are not cheap but worth the investment.

26. Let me entertain you – If awake then alleviating boredom can be an issue on a long-haul flight. Most airlines these days have entertainment systems with a sufficient library of video and audio programs. You may however want to bring your own laptop, tablet or e-reader with your own media files. Ensure your devices are fully charged before you travel. Do bring some non-electronic reading material – a book or magazine as well. Avoid eye strain by looking out of the window or further ahead in the cabin every so often.

27. Make plans – The quiet time on a plane – being away from work and family life – can be good for brainstorming and making future plans. Take a pen, notebook and get creative. Getting into a positive mindset will also make you feel better.

28. Freshen Up – Towards the end of the flight clean your teeth and put on a fresh pair of socks. If you can get access to an arrivals lounge at the airport then take a shower.


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