Clive and I regularly take long-haul flights between Sydney and Europe, the U.S., and Asia. Other than within Asia, our average journey time, including stopovers, is between 26 and 30 hours.
So how best to pass the time? What can we passengers do to make time on board the airplane as painless as possible?
We’ve developed a range of strategies to keep this part of the trip smooth. Two are done before you get to the airport. One is done after you go through Security. The rest are done in-flight.
[Note: this is my longest post. I had fun writing it, condensed as much as I could, and hope you enjoy reading it. I have a lot to say on this subject. If you just want the summary, please skip to the end.]
1. Choice of airline
This is number one in our travel planning checklist.
Our first priority is safety, and we only fly reputable airlines with excellent safety records. Clive even looks at the age of an airline’s fleet.
Price is not the only important factor. It’s one of them, but there’s often a trade-off between price and getting a reasonable base level of service. We highly recommend considering non-U.S. airlines, many of which offer significantly higher levels of service and cleanliness, not to mention better food. I wrote about this in ‘U.S. Airlines, Infrastructure, and Attitude’.
My first flight on an Asian airline was on Singapore Airlines in 1996. I was bowled over by the attentive but never intrusive service, the excellent Asian food, and the way the flight attendants constantly cleaned and sprayed the lavatories, keeping them clean throughout the long flight.
We also try to manage our frequent flier mileage accounts as efficiently as possible. It’s not a primary consideration in choosing an airline, but with partner programs like One World and Star Alliance, you can travel on an Asian or European airline and accumulate miles towards future flights.
Whenever possible, we do our own seating assignment via online check-in.
This is fast becoming the best (and sometimes only) way to go, and is number one on our departure checklist.
If you can’t do online check-in, the next best solution is to get to the airport as early as possible. It’s worth being towards the front of the line to get the best seat assignment of those that are left.
Clive and I travel Economy class. If we win the lottery, it will be Business, but until then, we try to at least get ‘premier economy’ seats, which many airlines now offer to frequent flier members. They are closer to the front of the plane and provide a little more legroom.
Everyone hates middle seats, for good reason. Our favourite is a two-only ‘AB’ configuration. These are hard to come by.
Clive and I both have fairly long legs, and my highest seating priority is to have an aisle seat (which Clive kindly lets me have every time). If there are two of you together and the seating configuration is ‘ABC’, it’s much better to get the ‘D’ and ‘E’ seats across the aisle. No-one other than your partner has to climb over you to get out.
My 6’5” son loves the exit row, with its additional legroom. Despite my height, I don’t like it. It’s true that with no seat in front, no-one is reclining their seat into your face. But there’s also no seat in front under which to put a small bag; everything must be put in the overhead. And exit rows are often by the lavatories, with groups of people waiting their turn and a constant flushing noise. Ugh.
I also don’t like bulkhead seats, which are torture for someone with long legs. Similar to the exit row, there’s no seat in front. With the bulkhead, there’s nowhere to stretch your legs; there’s only a wall. I prefer to have a seat in front, use the seat pocket for reading material, and have space underneath to stretch my legs and store a small bag.
It’s general practice on most airlines to make the best seats available for high level frequent fliers.
Seating can make a huge difference to the in-flight experience. It’s worth giving some thought to your seat preferences, then doing whatever you can via online check-in or early airport arrival to get the seats you want.
3. After Security
As I wrote in ‘A Passion for Travel, Part 7: Airport Survival Strategies’, we buy bottles of water after we go through Security.
On long journeys, flight attendants on most airlines come around regularly with water and juice. We’ve found it’s still prudent to have some of our own. Staying hydrated is one of the most important aspects of being comfortable and staying healthy on the flight.
We also recommend buying a few edible treats before boarding. We usually take on a few sweets and I try to find a bag or two of rice crackers. I cover this more in ‘Food’, #8 below.
4. Boarding & Overhead Compartment Wars
Nothing is more maddening to me than when we board and find the overhead compartments above our seats already taken.
As every traveller has noticed, carry-on bags are getting bigger and bigger. Most now have wheels, which take up more overhead space. Airlines specify maximum size allowed, but limits don’t seem to be enforced. The biggest joke of all is the massive amount of shopping you can do after Security, all of which is then carried onto the plane.
Many people never go near their carry-on bags during the flight. Sometimes people sitting towards the back of the plane put their bags into overhead compartments near the front. Flight attendants don’t stop this, and despite my best efforts to remain calm, inside I am fuming. I think it’s rude, unfair, and the height of selfishness to have such disregard for fellow passengers.
To avoid this situation, we board as soon as possible. On long flights, boarding begins as much as 45 minutes before take-off. In my experience, it’s worth it to board early, if you want to get decent overhead space that’s above your seat.
In addition to claiming your fair share of overhead compartment space, the other main reason for boarding as soon as possible is to get settled and make sure everything you want during take-off is handy.
5. Other Passengers – People Should Be Weighed, Too
Other passengers and their behaviour can have an enormous influence on the in-flight experience. In the worst situations, other people can cause the most distress or anger (usually but not always supressed) during a trip.
Because Clive graciously insists I take the aisle seat, he is sometimes stuck in the middle, with someone else in the window seat.
He dreads what he calls an oozer.
There are two kinds of oozers.
5a. The Excessively Overweight Oozer
The first oozer is the excessively overweight person who simply can’t fit into the seat. He or she oozes into the adjoining seat for the duration of the flight.
On a 14+ hour flight, sitting next to an obese person makes for an impossible situation. Clive says, “Short of building a fence, you cannot get your space back from this kind of oozer”. And they know it. They cannot fit into the standard economy seat. No matter how early you take your seat, they are going to ooze onto you when they take theirs.
Why aren’t passengers weighed, along with luggage? It may sound extreme, but we think there should be some sort of screening at booking time, verified at check-in or boarding. Anyone who exceeds a certain weight limit should be required to purchase two seats.
Passenger weight is also a safety issue. We saw a documentary about a U.S. plane crash which occurred partly because of excess weight. The crew followed the proper process for weight estimates, but the estimates were faulty because they used 1930’s individual averages. Everyone knows people are much heavier today than they were in the 1930’s. The average weights were updated, too late for those who died in the crash.
5b. The Inconsiderate Oozer
The second kind of oozer is the one who, regardless of weight, thinks, “Your space is my space”. These people let their legs drift into your space and stick their elbows into your space when they’re typing on giant laptops or eating their meals.
With these oozers, it’s worth getting to your seat early and establishing your space. As soon as the person’s arm or leg pushes against yours, you can push back gently and possibly prevent them from doing it during the flight.
On one trip, we had a passenger who repeatedly fell asleep with his head lolling on Clive’s seat (and shoulder). We had no choice but to keep waking him up and telling him to face the other way.
Getting seated early also helps establish whether you’re a talker or a hermit. I learned from business travel to start as I mean to go on. I get settled and take out a book or magazine, so it’s clear I’m reading, not looking for conversation. Other passengers love meeting new people and chatting during the flight. I’m just not one of them.
I love flying on Japan Airlines. Japanese passengers talk and laugh, but they do it quietly. They’re polite, calm, and almost never overweight.
Taking my seat early helps me get centred both physically and mentally. I know we can’t control other passengers or their behaviour. Millions of different individuals fly on airplanes every day. We can only try to find a balance between tolerance and assertiveness with respect to what little space we have.
6. Sleeping (or Not)
Neither Clive nor I can sleep on planes. At best, we try to doze on and off. We don’t want to take sleeping pills, though many of my Australian business colleagues routinely took mild ones on long-haul flights.
For passengers who are able to sleep, there are various aids available including neck pillows, eyemasks, earplugs, and headphones.
We relax by having wine with the main meal (unless it’s in the morning). I try to lean back, close my eyes, and breathe deeply when I can’t sleep but want to rest.
Even if you’re able to sleep on planes, on a 12+ hour flight there’s still a lot of time to fill.
This is an area where it’s like chalk and cheese between some airlines. The vast majority provide a screen on the back of every seat, with hundreds of movie, audio, and game choices. This is much less common on U.S. airlines. We expect a minimum of a screen on each seat, as opposed to United’s screen up front, a showing of only three airline-chosen movies, and no choice about watching times.
As I wrote in ‘Travel and Books, Part 1: Will There Be Room for Clothes?’, my favourite part of long flights is being able to read for hours at a time without feeling guilty. I’m not a big headphone user, except when Clive and I start a movie at exactly the same time so we can watch it together.
We review the entertainment guide first, to see what movies are available. Then Clive checks out the audio channels. He likes Monty Python-type humour, which he calls his ‘warped British humour’. He also listens to what he says is “my final BBC news, before I get starved of world news in the U.S.”
Clive also likes listening to the air traffic control channel on some planes, and watching the live video from cameras underneath and in the nose of others. I’m the opposite. I can’t explain why, but I don’t want to hear what air traffic control is saying, and I don’t like looking at what the pilot is seeing, especially when landing.
Many people use laptops on board. I’ve resisted this, preferring to read, but I might use my new netbook on our upcoming flights.
The most important thing is to bring along a few special treats for yourself. These could be anything from new books or magazines you don’t normally read to small gifts or games for children to your own favourite music.
I’m passionate about books as the perfect entertainment for children. Books don’t require batteries (at least traditional ones don’t), they’re quiet, and for children who don’t yet read, books encourage closeness between parent and child. Electronic games are so prevalent today and I understand children love them. They will also love books if they have the right ones, suited to their age and interests, on board.
Three meals are served on most long-haul flights, with the middle one being a light snack.
The best general rules are: drink lots of water and don’t eat too much.
Some passengers avoid alcohol and some drink too much. We tend to have a glass or two of wine, as much to relax as to go with the meal.
Airlines offer so many special meal food choices there’s usually something for everyone. Sometimes I decline the main, hot item for dinner and breakfast, taking just the tray with side dishes. The salad, roll, crackers and cheese, fruit, or yoghurt are more than enough from which to choose. I love Asian food and usually eat the main dish on Asian airlines.
I recommend taking some of your own edible treats for mid-flight hunger. The airline ‘snack box’ can be a depressing source of a shrink-wrapped mystery meat roll, though it usually comes with a piece of fruit and a little sweet that is edible.
9. Air Quality, Moving and Stretching, and the Loos
One of the worst aspects of long-haul flights is the dry, recycled air. Drinking water is important in keeping hydrated, which in turn helps in keeping comfortable.
I also learned from a female colleague to take a small container of Vitamin E oil, and dab a few drops inside my nose every couple hours. It may sound funny, but it works beautifully in keeping the air passages from going completely dry. I also take a small tube of hand lotion and use it every few hours.
It’s important to stretch and move around as much as possible. Airlines regularly show reminders about this, especially in recent years with the higher awareness of the risk of deep vein thrombosis.
Most airlines provide little slipper socks, so you can take off your shoes. I always leave my shoes on for the entire flight. Feet tend to swell, for one thing. Also, I hate it when passengers with bare, smelly feet take their shoes off, even if there is now a rule that shoes must be worn into the loos.
As for the loos, as mentioned above, I’ll take an Asian airline over a U.S. one any day, especially where lavatory cleanliness is concerned. If you drink a lot of water and move around the plane, you’ll visit the loo a few times. This is another great reason to consider a non-U.S. airline when you’re planning your trip.
10. Breathe, Meditate, Visualise
Finally, given the length of time you’re on a long-haul flight, sometimes the best strategy is the simplest.
When in doubt, sit back, close your eyes, and practice breathing, meditating, or visualising something peaceful, beautiful, and positive (or active and noisy, if that’s your preference).
The minutes will turn into hours, and before you know it, you’ll be making your way off the plane.
A Look at the Future
We recently read that an organisation called ‘Satisfly’ is piloting a new idea with the staff of Hawaiian airlines: signing up ahead of time for either a talkative or a quiet seating area.
Apparently SNCF, the French national train service, is also offering ‘idTGV’, a similar approach offering two ‘atmospheres’: iDzen and iDzap. British Rail has had for some time a ‘quiet carriage’ in which mobile phone use is not allowed.
In the meantime, here’s a summary of our top ten in-flight insights.
Top Ten In-Flight Insights
1. Choice of airline – consider a non-U.S. airline as part of travel planning.
2. Seating – think about your preferences. Do online check-in, or get to the airport as early as possible to get the best available seat.
3. After Security – buy water and a few special treats, including ones to eat.
4. Board as soon as possible to get your fair share of overhead compartment space.
5. Get settled in your seat. Be tolerant but not a pushover if other passengers ooze into your space. Worst case, ask a flight attendant to help.
6. Sleeping (or not) – use aids like neck pillows, eyemasks, and headphones, if they help. If you can’t sleep, try to rest by closing your eyes and breathing deeply.
7. Entertainment – in addition to movies, don’t forget audio for comedy, news, and air traffic control channels. If you like video, see if the plane has cameras underneath or built into the nose. Bring special treats like books and magazines, and small gifts and games for children.
8. Food – bring extra water, drink lots of it, and don’t eat too much. Consider taking the meal tray without the main item, just side dishes. Don’t rely on the airline for mid-flight snacks; bring a few of your own edible treats.
9. Air quality, moving and stretching – use Vitamin E oil and hand lotion to prevent air passages and skin from drying out.
10. Breathe, meditate, visualise – sit back, close your eyes, and the minutes and hours will pass (even if you check your watch frequently and it doesn’t seem that way). Soon you will be getting off the plane.
We have a number of family activities coming up in the next few days, before we depart.
My next post will likely be from the U.S. early next week. I’ll cover our tips for managing jet lag on arrival and long-distance personal business while away.
Cheers and more to come.
A Passion for Travel, Part 1: Introducing the Series
A Passion for Travel, Part 2: The Master Trip Calendar
A Passion for Travel, Part 3: Travel Planning Checklist
A Passion for Travel, Part 4: Packing without Panic
A Passion for Travel, Part 5: Travel Technology
A Passion for Travel, Part 6: Departure Checklist
A Passion for Travel, Part 7: Airport Survival Strategies
A Passion for Travel, Part 8a: Eleventh In-Flight Insight
A Passion for Travel, Part 9: Jet Lag Jambalaya
Filed under: A Passion for Travel |