How to Handle Long Flights Without Losing Your Mind

View of airplane seats and passengers

As most hardcore Francophiles will tell you, France is a state of mind. But the real France, the one you travel to whenever you can, requires traversing a big ocean and, if you’re a West Coaster, also a continent. You’ve got to saddle-up and endure a long-haul flight. They’re exhausting, disorienting, soul-crushing, and the older you get, the harder they get. But not if you’re smart. 

The number one rule of stress-free long-haul travel is to make an effort to figure out how to make it better. Some people just accept that they’re going to spend those double-digit hours in the tenth circle of hell. If that’s you, I salute your stamina and willingness to deal, but I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I want my long-haul travel to be as comfortable as possible. I’ve lived in France for five years, and have flown back and forth to the States a dozen times or so. Here’s what I’ve learned:

How to Prep for Long-Haul Flights

Closeup of man holding passports and boarding pass at airport

Plan to dedicate a part of your budget to your own comfort and sanity

Whether this means taking a non-stop flight or booking a “comfort” level ticket, don’t be afraid to spend a little more. Saving a hundred bucks on a flight, only to drag around for three days with your eyelids held open by clothespins and a crick in your back, isn’t worth it. 

If you need drugs to fly, get drugs

I’ve yet to meet a doctor who won’t give you something for flying. My panic-slayer of choice is Xanax. I take a quarter of a .5 mg tablet an hour before boarding. If there is “unexpected rough air” (GAH!), I take another quarter. Lately, I’ve forgotten to take it altogether, but it’s good to know I have it if I need it. If you’re leery of opting for a Class IV controlled substance, you might try Melatonin or Benadryl. The key thing is to keep experimenting until you find something that works. (Just be warned that a glass of wine and a couple of Benadryl will send you into an instant coma… do with that information what you will.)

Commit to an airline

The more you fly with one airline, the more routine your long-haul flight will become. (Not to mention whatever benefits their mileage plan offers.) You’ll get to know the planes they fly, how the seats are arranged, and where the best seats are. Delta/Air France flies Airbus 330s and 350s, with a 2-4-2 seating arrangement. This means that when I fly with someone, as I usually do, it’s just the two of US in one row. The bulkhead seat in Delta Comfort is big enough to host a small dance party. However, if you’re less of a princess than I am, French Bee is one of the best discount airlines flying in and out of France. Jenny, a hard-core long hauler friend who flies back and forth to the states several times, a year swears by it. She also doesn’t bother to pay extra to choose a seat, and sits wherever. Jenny is the friend you’d want with you during a Zombie apocalypse – most people I know who swear by discount airlines always pay extra to book a window or aisle seat. Otherwise, you’ll wind up in the middle of the middle section (in which case maybe you’ll want that Xanax after all).

Do keep in mind that if you fly a budget airline, you may not have a meal provided, and you definitely want to check the carry-on bag measurements, which keep shrinking year after year.

Trick yourself out like a long-haul flight boss

For years, I traveled without a neck pillow, preferring to scrunch up a sweatshirt and wedge it between my head and the window. Neck pillows always seemed slightly ridiculous, and I had resigned myself to being miserable rather than be seen toting one around. Then one day an “older” globe-trotting friend reported that she always clocked a good night’s sleep on her many trips from San Francisco to London for work. Her secret: making herself comfortable. (It seems obvious, but think how many people simply don’t put in the effort!) Neck pillow technology has come a long way since my scrunched-up sweatshirt days. Designers who know how the neck actually works now give us gel-infused memory foam. A good pillow of any kind can help you relax which, of course, is the key to drifting off to sleep. On my globe-trotting friend’s recommendation I bought this neck pillow. A good eye mask is also a must for me. I forgo ear plugs purely due to my own neurosis: I’m convinced that I need to keep an ear open for any change in the engine noise, or other sound of impending doom, in case I need to quickly text someone my last will and testament. That said, if you’re not crazy like me, you might try these, which also help relieve the pain and pressure of altitude changes.

What to Do the Day of Your Flight

Back view of happy family standing near a large plane with two suitcases outdoors.

The airport is not the beginning of your adventure

Emerson philosophized that life is a journey, not a destination, but he never sat wedged in Row 42 E between a squalling infant and a farty HR manager. Treat flying like the task it is: stay focused. Yes, you could sidle up to an airport bar for a dirty martini at 8:00 am, or splurge on a giant cinnamon roll, but all that booze and sugar plays havoc with your system. At the airport, purchase only water and a bag of nuts, if that. All airports have refillable water stations where you can charge up that massive Stanley cup of yours after going through security, and a stop at Trader Joe’s for snacks beforehand could save you quite a bit. Maybe get a magazine, if you’re so inclined. It breaks my heart to say this, but skip the Twizzlers. Furthermore, don’t even think of treating yourself to some airport sushi before that ten-hour flight, because whether at home or abroad, the risk of salmonella poisoning is never anyone’s idea of a good time.

Self-care is the name of the game

I wrote an entire book unpacking the American urge to fetishize self-improvement and self-care. Last night for dinner I had a whiskey and a bowl of buttered popcorn. My exercise for the day: walking the dog around the block. And yet, when I have to fly, I adopt the self-care habits of the Virgin Mary. The day before I travel, I don’t drink, I get a good night’s sleep, I eat a protein rich breakfast, and I even exercise before leaving for the airport.

Form an opinion on plane food and act accordingly

If the idea of eating the rubber chicken served by a harried flight attendant on a long-haul flight stresses you out, consider bringing your own food. Sandwiches that aren’t too sloppy, bananas, apples, bags of nuts, and protein bars are good choices. As you’ve probably realized by now, I’m lazy, and am pretty happy eating whatever they put in front of me, even airplane food. Note: when flying outbound from Paris on Air France, the repas aren’t half bad. 

Wear the most pajama-like outfit possible, without looking as if you’re in your actual pajamas

Forgive me, but this is the result of having lived in France for a while now. When grown-ups travel around here, they dress like grown-ups. If you’re not about to go that far, check out Pact for relatively grown-up chic and comfy plane attire. On the matter of compression socks, I have no real opinion, but if it makes you feel less stressed to wear them, get yourself a pair.

How to Handle Long Haul Flights in the Air

Young woman with travel pillow resting while listening to music in airplane during flight

Change the time on your watch or phone to the time at your destination

This always makes me feel a little like breaking up with someone. That old time? Don’t even think about it. That time is dead to you! The only time you’re concerned with now is French time.

Pretend you’re a champion long haul-sleeper

Until recently I was one of those “I can never sleep on a plane” people. In saying that, of course, I was reaffirming something that didn’t serve me. Actually, I had never even tried to sleep on a long-haul flight. Now, after the meal is cleared away, I get my fancy neck pillow and eye mask in place, pull the blanket up to my chin, and imitate my regular sleeping position the best I can (right side leaning toward the window, hands curled beneath my chin). I do some yoga-ish breathing, conjugate some French verbs, and hope Mercury is not in retrograde. Usually, I’m able to sleep between three and four hours. But even if you aren’t able to sleep, resting in the dark will help your body adjust to the new time zone, and combat jet lag. And let’s not forget getting cozy: if you have a special scarf, shawl, or blankie that comforts you, you won’t regret making room for it in your carry-on.

How to deal with jet lag

The more you’re able to sleep and rest, the better, but the human body wasn’t built to travel across multiple time zones in a day. After you’ve arrived in France and stowed your bags, go for a walk or run. Exercising in sunlight is the best thing you can do to reset your internal clock. In addition to staying hydrated, eat when the locals eat, and try to stay awake until 9:00 pm. 

Handling annoying airplane passengers

Even if you score a sweet seat assignment, there’s no guarantee a seat-kicking toddler or tubercular-sounding cougher won’t be sitting right behind you. If you’re flying from France, and the plane is full of French people, you can get away with sending a thin-lipped death glare of Gallic disapproval at the offending passenger (or their parent), and the message will be received. No one understands the wordless implication of a death glare like the French.

However, when the offending passenger is American, this isn’t very effective. What does work – or has for me, anyway – is a little bit of passive-aggressive in-flight theater. I always have cough drops with me, which I’ll offer to the coughing fiend. “That cough sounds terrible. Here, take these Ricola cough drops. They really work for me, and hopefully they will give you some relief.” The seat-kicking kid receives an offer of a notebook and a pen. “He seems pretty restless, maybe he might like to draw. . .?” Sometimes the mother takes the notebook, but more often she just starts paying more attention to her kid, and hopefully his restless feet.

Don’t be afraid to disturb your seatmate by moving around

I say this as a life-long fidgeter and leg-bouncer with excellent circulation (ask my doctor). Get up and walk around. Be that weirdo who stretches in the aisle. Perhaps forego burpees and jumping jacks, but you wouldn’t be the first person to do a mini-HIIT workout near the lavatories. If the seatbelt sign is on, do some leg exercises in your seat.

Flying with children

I flew from Seattle to Paris in early February, and on the other side of the aisle there was an elegant French mother in black leather pants, with three children under three. Somehow, the toddler and the three-year-old were perfectly happy to sit and color, play with their toys, eat the airplane meal, then nap. The baby slept soundly in the infant bed provided by the airlines. Even the flight attendants marveled at the ease with which the French mother managed her brood. Do you hate her as much as I do? When my daughter was little, I spent enough time researching how to manage small children during a long flight that I could have earned a degree. I brought along a “magic travel bag” from which I produced little presents (they weren’t expensive, just new), so she would never be bored. I also bribed her with candy and treats I never allowed her to eat at home. It worked (except for the one time she threw up Swedish Fish). Thus, think about how you can distract and entertain your kids before you fly. Consider saying no to things in advance of the flight, so you can say yes to them in the air. And if worse comes to worse, and you’re That Family, with the crying babies and seat-kicking grade schoolers, remember that the flight will end eventually.

Final Thoughts on Long Haul Flights

It’s the definition of privilege to be able to fly halfway around the world in half a day, even with the minor discomforts and inconveniences. So, sit back and enjoy your flight (as they say), drink some water, watch a gentle movie, and feel the magic of time passing, knowing you’re that much closer to that croissant and café crème.

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