Airline SeatsTips

How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight in Economy Class (7 Strategies)

Flying on a long-haul flight in economy class is the uncomfortable reality for the majority of passengers. Our long haul flight tips below will help you make your experience more comfortable.

World’s Longest Flights

Flight routes are getting longer. This is mainly due to the advent of new fuel efficient aircraft. These are the current top 5 longest flights you can take:

  1. Newark-Singapore – Singapore Airlines SQ21/22 17h50-18h30 9,534 miles Airbus A350-900ULR
  2. Doha-Auckland – Qatar Airways QR920/921 16h40-17h50 9,032m Boeing 777-200LR
  3. London Heathrow-Perth – Qantas QF9/10 16h50-17h25 9,009m Boeing 787-9
  4. Dubai-Auckland – Emirates EK448/449 16h15-17h10 8,824m Airbus A380
  5. Los Angeles-Singapore – United Airlines UA37/38 15h45-17h15 8,770m Boeing 787-9

What is a long haul flight? We would define long haul as meaning any flight over about 7 hours, usually an intercontinental route. We would regard any flight over 15 hours as ultra-long haul, such as the 5 global routes above.

You know the long haul 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 lets begin with our 7 long-haul flight essentials which include many tips and tricks for surviving a long flight:

1. Fly composite not metal

If possible try to fly long-haul on one of the new generation of aircraft, namely the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Airbus A380 Superjumbo or the 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.

Airline cabins normally have very dry air which is like being at altitude in desert conditions. The atmosphere in a composite aircraft can take the edge off these effects and give you a more pleasant flight.

On top of this these new aircraft have quieter engines as well. If you’ve ever tried to sleep at the back of a Boeing 747 with its 4 engines roaring then by comparison the Airbus A380 feels incredibly quiet and smooth.

singapore airlines a380 take-off
photo credit: Martin Widenka/Unsplash

AirTravelGenius Tip: AirportSpotting publishes list of Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 routes whilst Airbus lists the A380 routes here.

2. Study airline seat maps

Analyse the seat maps of any potential airlines on your route to get an overview of the best seating. Remember that seats can vary widely even across the same airline.

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

You also may want to avoid high density seating configurations.  A number of airlines (for example Air France, Air New Zealand, Emirates and long-haul budget Air Asia X) are now cramming an extra seat across the cabin of some aircraft.

This can mean 10 across in a Boeing 777 (3-4-3 instead of 3-3-3) and 9 across an Airbus A330 (3-3-3 instead of 2-4-2). Even the Airbus A380 can potentially be configured with 3-5-3 (11 seats) – instead of 3-4-3 – although no airline currently offers it. This higher density seating can make economy feel more cramped and uncomfortable.

airline seat map

AirTravelGenius Tip: You can check seat maps at SeatGuru.

3. Secure the best seat possible

Once you have chosen your airline and flight you need to try and secure the best possible seat.

When flying economy we always try to get seated at the exit row.  In the old day you were simply able to ask before flying – nowadays many airlines (British Airways, Qantas, KLM-Air France, Singapore Airlines) will allow you to purchase the sought-after seats on the emergency exit row 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.

If you can’t pre-assign the exit row then do try and 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.

Choosing the best economy class seat can be a dilemma and very personal choice.

Aisle vs window seat – Nobody really wants to end up in a middle seat. So 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 what it’s worth, we prefer the window seat.

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.

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.

airline seat row
photo credit: Douglas O/Unsplash

Air New Zealand sells a special 3 seat row “Skycouch” that converts to a bed-like form – it is also available on China Airlines. It comes at a hefty price though and you can create a similar effect on your empty row by putting the armrests up and using the spare pillows and blankets available.

AirTravelGenius Tip: If you are not happy with your seat assignment then just before boarding quietly ask the gate agent if there are any better seats available – such as an empty row or even an exit seat. You can use a seat availability app (such as ExpertFlyer) to check your flight’s load.

4. Consider flying 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 offering a premium economy class 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

Typical configurations for premium economy are 2-2-2, 2-3-2 or 2-4-2 on wide-body aircraft.

Class leading seat pitch for premium economy is OpenSkies (47″), Turkish (46″), JAL (42″) and Air New Zealand (42″).

Premium economy ticket holders also have more chance of an operational upgrade to business class than those in economy class.

5. Pre-flight strategies

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. You don’t want to be getting up in the middle of the night just to save a few dollars or pounds.

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.

airport terminal
photo source: chuttersnap/Unsplash

Walk then fly – You are going to be sitting on a cramped metal (or composite) tube for 10-18 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 international airports. Why? When approaching someone, Europeans tend to keep right whilst Asians tend to keep left… this leads to some awkward shuffling and bowing!

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

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.

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

6. Managing health and body clock on board

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.

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.

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), any salty foods 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.

“Airlines give them bread and circuses. Self-loading freight (economy passengers) can be ‘pacified’ with generous meals and entertainment screens.”

Hydrate regularly – 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.

Get on up – You should try and get out of your seat at least once an hour to stretch your legs – this will probably 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.

Consider wearing a pair of flight compression socks to reduce the risk of blood clots and DVT. 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.

7. What to do on a long flight

You need to occupy yourself for the 12+ hours and there are a few things you can bring on a long flight.

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.

long-haul flight seat map

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 and consider bringing an extra power bank.

Do bring some non-electronic reading material – a book, magazine or puzzles as well. Avoid eye strain by looking out of the window or further ahead in the cabin every so often.

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.

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

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/headphones. 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. Ask your flight crew for a second blanket and pillows if you need them. 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.

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.

Long flight tips & essentials: summary

  • Fly on the latest generation of aircraft – Boeing 787, Airbus A350 or A380.
  • Study airline seat maps and configurations.
  • Pre-book the exit row if possible.
  • If not then check-in online as soon as it opens.
  • Prior to or just after boarding enquire about changing to a better seat.
  • Consider premium economy class.
  • Choose convenient flying times.
  • Arrive at the airport in good time, feeling relaxed.
  • Go for an airport walk before you board.
  • In terms of carry-on bags, travel light.
  • Wear loose fitting, natural clothing in layers.
  • Consider fasting to override your body clock and avoid jet lag.
  • Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol, carbs, salt and sugar.
  • Stretch out and get up for a walk regularly on board.
  • Consider flight compression socks or slippers.
  • Bring your own entertainment.
  • Invest in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones.
  • Get out your notebook/journal and make some plans.
  • Try to sleep using pillows, eyeshades, ear plugs and blankets.
  • Use a natural sleep aid such as melatonin, if so inclined.
  • Clean your teeth and put on new socks near arrival time.
survive long-haul flight
original photo source: Nils Nedel/Unsplash

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