Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ten Tips for Surviving Long-Haul Air Travel

Travel is a wonderful, mind-expanding opportunity, but getting to far-flung destinations typically involves many hours confined to an airplane. Long-haul flights of seven or more hours are particularly challenging in terms of fatigue and jet lag -- not to mention boredom. Through years of trial-and-error, and making many mistakes, I've collected at a few tips which have helped me get through those long flights.

1. Premium Economy: It's unfair that we have to pay extra just to get airplane seats the same size as they used to be in economy class before the airlines decided they could get away with squeezing three people into space for two. Still, it's worth paying for the upgrade -- especially for a night flight where you really need to get some sleep.

Flying over Greenland
Flying over Greenland
2. Check the luggage: Many will disagree, but food and travel celeb Tony Bordain is on my side. The fad for carry-on everything started when airlines started charging fees for checked luggage, but the excess cabin baggage slows boarding and deplaning, and is generally a heavy, space-hogging nuisance. Read the fine print on your ticket booking regarding checked baggage weight rules and fees, and refer to those restrictions when you chose a suitcase and pack. That premium economy ticket should come with a reasonable checked-suitcase allowance.

These days, lost luggage is rare and bags are typically appearing on the carousel by the time you leave the aircraft and walk to the baggage claim area. Pack your carry-on with only what you need for the flight and immediately on landing (such as a jacket or umbrella), as well as valuable items such as a camera or tablet.

3. Clogs: They may not be fashionable, but clogs are ideal for flying. They're easy to slip on and off for TSA, as well as on board the airplane. Perhaps most important of all, clogs are roomy enough to fit feet that have become swollen after long hours in the air.

4. Elastic waist pants: Like the clogs, pull-on pants are not about fashion but rather about getting through TSA without worrying about removing a belt and having your pants fall down. Remember that you will be sleeping in whatever you wear for your flight, so rivets and any other fittings that might poke into you are best avoided. One also hopes to look at least marginally presentable on arrival, so synthetic blend fabrics have a lot to offer in the form of reduced rumpling.

5. Compression socks: Many types of compression socks are available on the market, including products specifically designed for travelers. These socks incorporate graduated elastic compression over the ankles and lower legs to help with circulation and so reduce swelling in the feet. They are the greatest things for air travel comfort since pressurized cabins.

In fact, compression socks probably would be a good idea for long car or bus trips as well -- any context in which you're likely to be sitting, largely immobilized for long periods of time.

6. Other compression wear: If you have arthritis or generally achy joints, a variety of compression garments are worth looking into. The principle is the same as with compression socks: an assist to circulation, which helps to reduce swelling and inflammation (and hence pain). Tommie Copper is my new best friend!

I do suggest though, that if you're planning to wear "copper-infused" clothing on your flight, take it through airport security in your carry-on bag and slip it on once you're in the departure area.

7. Layers: Aircraft cabins never seem to be a pleasant ambient temperature. Even worse, temperatures fluctuate from over-warm to downright cold during the course of a flight. Just like on the ground, layered clothing is the secret to staying comfortable in the air. Top a short-sleeved tee-shirt with a light sweater or fleece layer, and add a medium weight jacket for cooler moments. When not being worn, those outer layers can double as lumbar pillows.

8. Neck pillow: These are the little doughnut-shaped pillows you see for sale in the airport, but which are probably better priced at amazon.com. I finally tried one of these on our last trip and wished I'd done so years earlier. When trying to sleep in a semi-sitting position, the neck pillow will support your head and keep it from flopping over just as you doze off, only to wake up with an unpleasant start when your chin hits your chest. It will also prevent you from sleeping with your head at a totally awkward angle and so waking up with a stiff neck.

9. Snacks: Airline food ranges from not-that-bad to inedible. Even if the food is edible, you might miss a meal while sleeping -- and airline food is never worth waking up for. Having a couple of a granola bars and an apple in your carry-on is a wise back up.

Staying hydrated is even more important. One option is to take an empty water bottle through security and fill it from a fountain in the departure lounge. My experience is that cabin crews regularly circulate offering water or juice, and you can ask for a soft drink at any time, so I don't bother carrying my own water any more.

10. Kindles: Since this is a reading blog, I've saved the most important item for last -- a kindle loaded with an entire library of books. Most long flights on large aircraft now allow electronic readers to be kept on even during take-off and landing, but listen carefully for the pilot's instructions.

I have two kindles, and usually take both along when I travel. I have an older model traditional kindle with a keyboard and built in WiFi and 3G (for acquiring more books if I run out!). It's lightweight and easy to hold in one hand, and the battery lasts for days. I also have a larger Kindle Fire HD, which has the advantage of color for guidebooks and other illustrated works. I've never used it to take my own TV and movies along for in-flight viewing, but it does have that capability.

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