Tips for comfortable plane travel – and feeling good at the other end

Airplanes are the great necessary evil of modern travel. The modern jet airliner is a wonderful thing.

It will get you to the opposite side of the world in less than a day, at what any previous generation would have regarded as a ridiculously low price.

But we are ungrateful. We take air travel for granted. We forget how magical it is. We concentrate on the bad things. We like to complain about the lack of space, inefficient airports, stupid security measures, slow baggage carousels, long lines at immigration, and a host of other factors that are really quite unimportant when compared to the absolute luxury of going wherever you want in minimal time at a reasonable cost.

But we are human and that is the way we are. It is the aim of this blog to help you minimize discomfort when flying. It is for people flying at the back of the plane in coach class or the oxymoronic ‘premium economy’. If you are flying business or first class, the journey is often fun in itself. But I’m working on the assumption that we are saving money and flying cheap.

A key reason why modern flying is so inexpensive is that airlines become very good at squeezing lots of people onto a plane. There are two key determinants: seat size and load factor. Seats are getting smaller, and airlines are getting very good at maximizing the proportion of those seats that are filled. So there are usually lots of us squeezed in.

You are lucky

My most important piece of advice about flying is: get over it! It is a great privilege to be able to hop on a plane and travel thousands, even tens of thousands, of miles and arrive in an exotic location. This is a luxury no-one in the world had two generations ago. The rise of cheap mass-market air travel is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and we should consider ourselves fortunate to be part of it. It is one of the great social revolutions of the Modern Age.

But it comes with the inconvenient truth that you are going to be crammed into a small space that you are going to have to occupy for up to 15 hours (on some of the longer international flights). Big deal. The magic carpet of modern air travel is uncomfortable, but there are ways to make it less so. Just don’t forget how lucky you are, and stop complaining.

Time is your friend, not your enemy

This is really important and often overlooked in advice about comfortable flying. One the best things you can do is adopt a positive attitude (the Power of Positive Thinking and all that). Your attitude towards time can be harnessed for good to make your flight time pass more quickly, or at least more enjoyably.

Let me explain.

At home I am a very busy person. I never have enough time. When I hop a plane, I suddenly have too much of time. We all want plane flights to end as quickly as possible, but I realized many years ago that suddenly having nothing to do for five or ten hours or more is an absolute luxury, even if I am in a sardine can.

The problem becomes how to fill in the time, rather than the worry of not having enough of it. This was a revelation to me. Now when I fly, I think to myself how lucky I am to have all this time.

It’s all in the mind, as John Lennon said. Funny how a little bit of self-administered psychoogical conditioning can really help. It’s called making a virtue of necessity, one of my favourite concepts.

My favourite pastime when travelling is to read a good pot-boiling page turner. Crime novelss and thrillers and mysteries and geopolitical the-world-is-abou-to-end stuff. I have often read whole novels on flights. And I love classical music, but I rarely have time to sit down and listen to a whole symphony. You can do that on a flight. I can read Tom Clancy and listen to Beethoven’s Ninth at the same time. What luxury!

I am fortunate, if that is the right word, to have flown across the Pacific more than a hundred times. That means I regard any flight of less than 12 hours a short one. Often I fly seven hours and it seems like barely any time at all, and I didn’t even watch a movie. Time takes on a different dimension in a plane.

It is not wasted time, it’s added time. As they say at Apple, Think Different.

Money versus convenience

There is a close – but not absolute – connection between the amount you spend on a plane ticket and your level of comfort on board. If you are flying first class or business class you will be very comfortable. But you will pay a great multiple of the cost of a cheap seat. If you can afford it, good for you, but I basically work on the assumption that you are not on a plane for very long, and the money is much better spent on nicer hotels and restaurants or renting a better car at your destination.

But you can often spend small amounts of money to greatly increase your comfort. Many airlines allow you to pay extra for an exit row with lots of leg room. I routinely fly budget airlines on overnight flights, and I will gladly pay an extra hundred dollars or so for this convenience.

There is a great debate over whether it is worth paying extra money to fly with a full-service airline versus a cheap carrier. Sometimes it’s worth it, it sometimes it isn’t. There are many factors, such as layovers, arrival times, importance of service, etc. These are covered in another blog.

This is your personal space

You have a small seat. Even full-service airlines are reducing seat sizes to get more people on the plane. But there are a few things you can do before you hop on the plane to make things a little better.

The main one is seat selection. If you can, choose your seat when you book, or as far ahead of time as possible. You can do this online with most airlines. Choose an aisle seat if you want that little bit more room Those center seats are no fun. If there are two of you travelling together, two aisle seats across from each other is a better option than two together, when one of you is likely to be more cramped.

There is a great debate over whether aisle or window seats are better. The answer is – it depends. I usually prefer aisle seats on short flights and windows on longer flights, particularly overnighters. A lot of it has to do with how often you need to go to the bathroom and how comfortable you are with climbing over others or having them climb over you. I work on the basis that it’s my comfort that is paramount, and that if someone else has to move so I can go to the bathroom, so be it.

Inflight entertainment

A good movie or three will go a long way towards filling in the time on a flight. Classics like Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind and Dr Zhivago each go for nearly four hours. Most full-service airlines nowadays have great entertainment, even in the cheapest seats. Many budget airlines give you nothing, but you can always take your own.

The ubiquity of tablet computers in the modern world means the provision of in-flight entertainment does not matter. Load movies onto your iPad or Android tablet before you leave. Take one of those little battery pack power boosters so you won’t run out of juice (though increasingly you can charge devices on planes now). I watched the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy on my iPad on a recent return fight to Vietnam.

Many airlines are now offering Wi-Fi, though often it is too expensive. I don’t bother – I find the isolation a wonderful thing.

Noise cancelling headphones

These are wonderful, if a little expensive. They really do work. But I find that some good quality over-the-ear headphones from a top vendor like Bose or Sennheiser do almost as good a job. Any decent headphone is both much better than the crappy items issued by the airlines. Most in-flight entertainment systems allow you to plug in your own headphones – much better. Good headphones, noise-cancelling or not, are an essential on board item.

Sleeping masks and blow-up neck pillows

I don’t like either of these, but some people think they’re great. They are cheap and light, so you may as well take them if you think they’ll help.

Sleeping pills

I tried them a few times. I once did Frankfurt-Singapore dead to the world and they had to wake me when we landed. The airline staff don’t like people taking sleeping pills because they want to be able to wake you if the plane suddenly plummets from the sky. I think they muck you round too much – you don’t want to be groggy when you land. Don’t use them – embrace the flight.

To recline or not to recline?

One of the great issues of modern air travel, and the primary causes of disagreement between passengers, is the vexed question of reclining seats. If you recline your seat you have more room, but the person behind you has less. When is the right time to recline? You will read a lot about this in the letters and comments pages of travel sites.

The answer is, there is no hard and fast rule. Like many other things in life, it is common sense. When I was young I thought that the very fact your seat was able to recline meant that you could recline it whenever you wanted. But long experience and growing maturity have banished such thinking from my mind.

There are a few simple rules, but unfortunately still a lot of gray areas. I keep it pretty simple:

• Never recline during mealtimes (the airline staff will probably ask you not to do so anyway).
• Don’t recline at all on short flights (less than two or three hours).
• When you do recline, do it so slowly. Even in bits -a little bit at the first, a bit more five minutes later, all the way five minutes after that.
• When it’s dark and lots of people are sleeping, recline as much as you want.
• If the person in front reclines too quickly or at an inconvenient time, politely ask them to recline a bit less or do it a bit later. If they are stroppy or uncooperative, try to let it go.

As in life and travel generally, a little bit of common sense and good manners will go a long way.

To drink or not to drink?

Just about all the advice you will read says you should drink lots of water when flying and not drink alcohol.

The first piece of advice is very sound. You should drink as much water as you are comfortable with. Fresh juice is also fabulous – drink lots before you hop on the plane.

Regarding alcohol, it is certainly the case that you will feel better after the flight if you do not drink it. But the fact that you will always feel better the next day if you do nor drink alcohol, whether you are flying or not, does not prevent us from doing it. We drink because we enjoy it.  Alcohol can make a flight much more pleasurable, and make time pass more quickly. Do whatever makes you feel best. It can be great fun getting a bit sloshed while flying halfway around the world. But try to take it easy.

Unfortunately, the fact that many full-service airlines serve complementary alcohol gives many travellers some sort of license to drink to excess. Do not do it yourself and try to avoid such people.

What to wear – clothes and shoes

Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothes. I usually take my shoes off, because your feet swell when you fly because of the lower pressure and lower humidity. Trouble with taking your shoes off is, the bathroom floors are often wet with disgusting liquid you really don’t want to step in. So I usually take my slip-ons on board.

Tight clothing is a no-no. This includes constriction bandages. It’s good to wear a sweater – planes can be cold, and you always can roll it up and use it as a pillow.

Think about the climate you are going to arrive in. No big deal – but pack your bag such that you can easily grab that jacket from the top of it or from an outside pocket when you arrive – or stash it if necessary.

What to eat

I have a simple rule, which is not to eat anything hot when I fly. Airline food has improved, but it’s still crap compared to what you can get on the ground. We don’t fly to eat. Have a good meal before you leave or at your stopover, and eat only the bread and nuts and other simple stuff they offer you. I often have the bread and butter, with some jam if I am feeling adventurous, You’ll feel better for it. Some people actually like airline food, in which case go for it.

If you can, take on-board some fruit and chocolate and stuff. But a word of warning about fruit – don’t forget to eat it, or discard it before you go through customs. I was once hit with a $150 fine when I arrived in New Zealand for unwittingly carrying an apple I had forgotten to eat on the plane. And beware that some budget airlines don’t allow you to take your own food on board.

Set your watch to your destination time

As soon as possible after hopping on the plane, set your watch to the time at your destination. Try to get yourself that time zone’s mindset – when to eat, when to sleep. Think in terms of being there already. It will help you with jet lag. Psychology again.

I saw one stupid comment once about not looking at your watch when you fly. Silly idea.

Exercise and stretching

Finally, this is my big one. I think it’s really important. It is something few people do, but something I strongly advise. I have found it the single most important thing in feeling good on long plane trips.

Every few hours, get up from your seat, and get your blood moving around your body. Go for a walk the full length of the plane and back (down the other aisle if it’s a wide-body).

I try to find a small spot, even in the middle of the corridor, and spend five minutes stretching. I try to touch my toes (in vain, nowadays), I rotate my head around and around and stretch my neck and look as far as I can do the right and the left, I grab my foot and force it up behind my thigh, I stretch my Achilles tendons, I run on the spot, I put my arms out wide and do a spreadeagle, I do air punches – all sorts of things.

It may look silly but it feels great. And it guards against deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Blood clotting is an ever present danger on long flights.

Don’t be embarrassed – who cares if people think you’re a bit weird. At our age, we’re beyond that. You’re a lot smarter than they are because you are looking after your body and feeling good, while they are not.

Freshen up before arrival

This especially important on those really long flights, like Asia to Europe or across the Pacific. An hour or so before arrival, spend a bit of time in the bathroom. Wash your face and clean your teeth. Even change your socks and underwear (you have brought clean ones in a plastic bag in your hand luggage). You will feel so much better when you hop off the plane for that battle through customs and immigration and the trip into town.


That’s it. Not everything will work for everybody – we are all different. But travel is a state of mind, and so is the whole airplane part of it. You can grin and bear it and hate it, or you can embrace it and turn it to your advantage.

Have a nice flight!

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