Guide: How to Survive Long Flights in Economy

View from Plane window
Photo: UpSplash

I’ve taken a lot of I’ve-been-on-this-plane-forever flights through the years, and while the ever-shrinking legroom and lack of amenities are frustrating, here are some tips from me and some of my fellow travelers, on how to survive long flights in economy.

Updated January 2020

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What to Wear on a Long Economy Flight and Still Look Stylish

This is crucial.  When choosing your flying ensemble to avoid belts, ties or big buttons, anything that can pinch, poke or constrict. Plush fabrics with stretch are ideal such as fleece, soft cotton or cashmere, any material that inspires you to hug yourself.

My go-to ensemble is a pair of black yoga pants, ballet flats, a sports bra (no irritating hooks or under-wires thank you), a silky tank top and a yummy cashmere sweater to top it off. Warm or cold, I’m prepared.

I also take my shoes off for the duration and put on warm footies. I recommend the ones with the little treads on the bottom so you don’t slip when walking around the cabin.

Set up Your Seat Before Take-Off

The seats in coach are shrinking but you can make the best of a bad thing by spending a few moments setting up your space. Think about what you’ll want throughout the flight and have those items easily accessible from the get-go.

I put water and my DOP kit (more on that later) in the seat pocket in front of me.

Make Yourself Comfy

Since my lower back suffers the most on long trips I use a travel pillow for support. I also bring a  lightweight throw to drape over an armrest (they’re impossibly skinny) to make it wider and comfier and if the cabin gets too cold I have a blanket handy.

Are You A Neck Pillow Person?

I’m not a fan of neck pillows; they don’t work for me. I always seem to have a stiff neck afterward. That said, fellow writer Vicktoria Urbanek of Chronic Wanderlust swears by her Ostrich Pillow and has been using it for five years.

Here’s why.

Ostrich Pillow

The Ostrich Pillow Light has to be my favorite travel accessory to help me survive long flights in economy. It’s not a neck pillow as many would think, but a fluffy circular pillow that you use just like those sleeping masks. The great thing is that it blocks light completely, gives you a bit of sound protection and because you wear it around your head, you can rest your head comfortably on any surface, wall or window.”

A stranger on a plane I sat next to was using the J-Pillow and said it was incredibly comfortable. *Note to self: Try one of those.

Another tip….. I use my carry-on bag as a footrest—it makes a world of difference on my back to have my feet elevated.

Avoiding Germs

I’m pretty laid back when it comes to germs but for travelers who worry about what’s been left behind by previous passengers, A Taste For Travel founder Michele Peterson suggests the following:

“One of the best things to do to help avoid contact with microorganisms during a flight is to wipe down your tray table with an alcohol-based or antiseptic disinfecting towelette. Wet Ones and Clorox produce disinfecting wipes in travel packs of 20. If you have space in your carry-on, another good option is Green Works, a biodegradable version.  Also be sure to turn on the small air vent above your seat as the airplane’s air is circulated through a HEPA filter creating an invisible protective barrier around you, helping you to stay healthy during the flight and post-trip.”

Long Haul Flight Essentials: Bring First Class with You

Surviving long flights in economy means treating yourself to a little luxury. Make your own customized comfort kit for the flight.

Visit my Insatiable Traveler Amazon Store where you can find everything below in one place to create your own comfort kit.

Here’s what’s in mine.

  • Travel toothbrush and toothpaste ( Tip: Buy travel sizes by the pack it’s so convenient.)
  • Lotion: I  put a small amount in a tiny plastic travel container and during the trip, I regularly apply it to my face to combat the dry plane air.
  • Lip balm
  • Travel-sized eye drops (Systane is fantastic).
  • A few Ibuprofen packets
  • Face wipes to freshen up before landing.
  • Sleep mask if I am flying during the day.
  • Melatonin to help me sleep
  • Earphones I use the Aiwa Prodigy One Premium Earphones. They’re comfortable and fit into my pocket. They do an amazing job of canceling ambient noise in the plane. Lena Dre from Salut from Paris has been using Skullcandy’s noise-canceling headphones after receiving them for her birthday. ” I have to say they are a real game-changer, I finally can fully focus on films and tv shows while flying without being distracted by the noises around me. I am using them for a year and travel time passes so much faster!”
  • A tiny flashlight (a lifesaver if you drop something on the floor or need to search your carry-on bag in the dark)
  • Daniel James from Layer Culture, adds Evian Face Mist to his in-flight kit. ” I love it because on most plane journeys my skin tends to get very dehydrated. The great thing about the mist is that it sprays micro-droplets of mineral water that refresh and help care for your skin without the use of harsh chemicals.”

Visit my Insatiable Traveler Amazon Store where you can find everything below in one place to create your own comfort kit.

Consider Your Food Choices

It’s no secret that plane food on average is not the best in the world. I usually eat the desert because that’s what ends up having some flavor. But, my thighs don’t support this strategy.

In conversation with Nina Ragusa of Where in the World is Nina, who is a vegetarian, thinks vegetarian or not, surviving economy means “We have to take all the wins we can get and an easy win is ordering vegetarian meals. Or vegan, or any other specialty meal. For starters…the number one gross thing about airplane food is the mystery meat, so this is an easy way to avoid that plus you get fed first! Take the win and run”

Pack Snacks

Speaking of food, I always pack snacks for long flights. Granola bars, homemade scones, trail mix, they’ve all found their way into my bag. During a 16-hour flight when breakfast is a distant dream, you’ll be happy you thought ahead.

Curate Your Own In-flight Entertainment

Most carriers have a myriad of movies, TV shows, games, and the like, but even with a lot of choices, there may be nothing that interests you (think Netflix on a bad day). I schedule a half-hour prior to every trip to delete anything I’ve already used and download new books, movies, podcasts, and music.

A few times I’ve waited to watch a TV series I like so that I can binge an entire season on a long journey. And if you’re stuck in an airport with delays, your library of goodies will be a low-cost lifesaver.

Mindfulness Apps Are Good Too

If you’re looking to practice a little mindfulness, Ingrid whose been doing so for 22 years says “Meditation recordings and apps help me diminish travel stress and relax enough to sleep. I recommend mindfulness meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh. The Headspace app also offers easy guided meditations.”

Don’t Sit Too Close to the Restrooms

Sometimes you don’t have a choice but when you’re booking flights, you’ll do yourself a big favor if you avoid sitting too close to the bathrooms, especially on a long-haul flight, you could come to regret it says Theresa McKinney from Fueled by Wanderlust. “I’ve been stuck near the bathrooms once or twice, and while it’s convenient, you get the occasional unpleasant waft and hear the constant sound of flushing. In addition, there are often people standing right over you in the aisles while waiting for their turn.  On one recent flight, a girl was wearing a large shirt over barely existent shorts.  I could not turn to my right without a very “cheeky” view. Avoid this situation by either paying for seats or checking into your flight as early as possible.

Literally Surviving A Long-Haul Flight

I used to think that doctors’ warnings about blood clots forming during extended flights were a tad overstated until two close friends had it happen to them. One on a flight from Los Angeles, another on a really long flight from India. Both were hospitalized, both were put on blood thinners and from now on they always have to be careful. A way to avoid such an unhealthy predicament is by making sure to get up at least a few times during your flight and to wear compression socks–clots tend to form in the legs first and then travel to the brain or heart where it’s really bad news.

I was using QUXIANG Copper Compression Socks and I did not like them because they were itchy. Retha Charette of Roaming Nanny, on the other hand, loves hers.

“I recommend PRO Compression. I’ve been using them for travel and running for over four years now. I love my PROs because they’re super high quality and don’t stretch out like other brands do. Some of my socks are 3 or 4 years old and I can still use them!

Learn Something

Nothing makes time fly faster than enjoyable conversation, and while it’s more the norm to stay in your own lane and not fraternize with your seatmates, Story at Every Corner’s Jyoti Baid prefers to strike up a conversation. “I sat next to a 70+ gentleman, a lawyer who was heading for a marathon in Rome. I found he started running at 45 when he saw an older man running down a path surrounded by beautiful women. Now he is ranked top 10 in the world in his age group. I learned so much about running and tuning the body. “

Bonus: Bring a Bag of Candy For the Flight Crew

This is something I read about and since adopted. I bring a large bag of individual packs of M & M’s with me on every flight. As soon as I board the plane I give it to the head flight attendant and tell her that it’s meant to be shared with the rest of the crew.  It will make their day and that good karma inevitably results in a nicer, friendlier flight.

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97 thoughts on “Guide: How to Survive Long Flights in Economy

  1. James Walker says:

    A good thing to know – even in Economy in Europe you are protected against delays and cancellations, and often can get flight compensation from the airline. All you have to do is to request this compensation. Rules are the same both for budget airlines and full service airlines like KLM, Air France and Lufthansa.

  2. batoolzquotes says:

    Pack of M&Ms for everyone! Sending out the perfect vibes. Though.. I wouldn’t give em to the person on the adjacent seat who kept playing irritating songs on his cellphone and glancing at me every now and then in one particular 3 and a half hour journey -.-

  3. Still a Runner says:

    Agree on the snacks. I also make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich for long flights. It sees me through in a pinch and if I don’t need it, it’s not a big waste. Also have a pair of compression socks packed and put on my feet as I settle in.

  4. Image Earth Travel says:

    Great post; I’ll be back!
    I’ve been flying for 30+ years and the only thing I haven’t done from your list is give flight attendants a pack of M&M’s – great tip.
    Yes, the seats have definitely shrunk over the years on most airlines (I haven’t put on that much weight!). The smallest I’ve found so far is on Cathay.

  5. sophiAaa says:

    Thanks for the tips! I will definitely use them. I am going to use the tip of setting up my seat before take off as I don’t want to be uncomfortable during the plane ride or having to set it up how I want to when we are flying! I really like the idea of giving candy to the flight attendants.

  6. us4p says:

    Good! I’ve taken a lot of long flights too! Living in Argentina is impossible to be near. Another thing I do is walking or moving. Not drink things with gas, only water. Lot of water!
    It’s really work well for me

  7. The Puget Sound Papers says:

    Hahahaha…l-lysine. But for me, the trick to beating jet lag is to take Benadryl about an hour (or more or less, depending upon how long the flight will be and how many time zones I cross) after taking off. I’m not sure about taking an amino acid. I tend to think that there might be more going on with the addition of a nutrient. It might seem harmless, but I don’t know. Sorry…Anyway, an antihistamine keeps me out for at least 3 hours.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hmmm.. could you be mistaking this for another article. I’ve never talked about L-Lysine. I have a few friends that use Benadryl too but I find that I have a huge hangover with it. Great that it works for you. :))

  8. Peppermint4Tea says:

    Dear Susan,

    Thank you for sharing. My hubbie travels a lot and I will share you tip about the candy, but I’m afraid they wouldn’t last to be a gift to the crew. I likes candy, specially chocolate with caramel.😉


  9. Chris & Paul Riley says:

    Great post, and very timely. My spouse is leaving fom Australia for the UK next week. I’m sure your post will be inspirational for a couple of tips that might decrease the insanity that usually goes with long haul flights.

  10. francetaste says:

    I aim for the clothing comfort you describe but try to look at least dressy casual. Too many people look like they’re on the way to the gym or to clean their garage. It’s possible to be comfortable and at least a little bit classy. There are yoga pants that are revealing and yoga pants that could be mistaken for dressy trousers.
    I put on compression socks before the flight. They really help keep my feet from swelling. I also tend to wear ballerinas, and I slip them back on to walk in the cabin.
    Although I take toiletries, the only thing I actually use is lip balm.
    A blow-up neck pillow doesn’t take as much space as one that’s full of pellets (why do people bother with those for 2-to-3-hour flights?). It’s great for keeping your head from suddenly dropping down (I also use one on long roadtrips–when I’m the passenger of course). The little flaps on the back of the seat are good for keeping you from slumping into your neighbor.
    For snacks, I bring an assortment of raw vegetables cut into sticks (carrots, peppers, cucumbers). Usually some fruit, too. It helps keep your intestinal transit moving when you can’t move for hours on end. Remember to throw away leftovers before landing–you can’t bring fresh fruit or veggies into the U.S., for example.
    I like your candy idea, but if everybody does it, the flight attendants will be like nurses at hospitals–“oh no! Not more candy!” I suppose they could redistribute it in turn. Think what a good-humored flight that would be.
    I used to take half an Ambien for transatlantic flights but once I had a child with me I needed to be alert the whole time. Half a pill was just enough to help get past the cabin noise and fall (and stay) asleep, but not sleep so hard as to be groggy 7 or 8 hours later.

  11. Laura says:

    Great tips! Love the idea of a small flashlight in case you need to look through your stuff in the dark. I always hate turning on the overhead light when the cabin is dark.


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