How to survive a long-haul flight (& not let it ruin your holiday)

My brain is mashed. That’s the only way to describe it. I’ve been awake for over 48 hours now (ok, minus the cheeky nap I had earlier) and I’m still trying to power on. It’s 6pm and my flight from London to Melbourne (all 24 hours of it) touched down about 12 hours ago. So, with my limited capacity to concentrate right now, I’m going to bring you my well-seasoned advice on what you can do to ensure you don’t screw up your jetlag and ruin your holiday!

What actually counts as a long-haul flight these days? I roll my eyes when people complain about having to fly for 4 hours, let alone the 7 or so hours it takes to get from New York to London. As an Australian who has lived in London for nearly 12 years, I’ve probably flown spent about 10 whole days of my life traversing the hemispheres in one direction or the other. And this doesn’t include the time I flew from London to Los Angeles and then went straight into 6 hours of dance rehearsals! It’s actually pretty incredible how your body adapts to crossing so many time zones so rapidly – and with a little forethought, you can make sure you bounce back quickly, sleep properly and enjoy your destination!

Booking

Airline

Long-haul travel costs LOADS of money. Having worked as a travel agent for the last 6 months, I am still staggered by the money people spend on flights. But once you are on your flight, you really start to appreciate why. If you are going to spend 15+ hours of your life being transported from one side of the planet to the other, you want to make sure this is done with at least a minimal level of comfort. If you are good at sleeping on flights, then you want to make sure you fly with someone who has comfortable seats with a good recline. If find it hard to sleep on flights (like me!), you want to make sure you fly with an airline that has a really great in-flight entertainment system (both in terms of screen quality and oodles of content). You have a lot of time to kill and there is nothing worse than being uncomfortable or bored. Sure China Eastern Airlines may be able to get you to and from Sydney for £500 but what if it ends up feeling like the worst 24 hours (or longer depending on the connection times) of your life? Is it still such a bargain? Spending a bit more is definitely worth it, especially when you can fly with 4 or 5-star airlines like Emirates, Qantas, Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific for only a few hundred £’s more. If you’re ever considering flying with an airline that you’ve never heard of, always search for it on Skytrax. Also, always check your flight is operated by the airline you think it is. If ticket says you are flying with Qantas but the flight is "operated by" WestJet, for example, you definitely won’t have a comparable in-flight experience!

Aircraft

Some people get REALLY particular about the type of plane they are flying on, and after some pretty varied in-flight experiences, I totally understand why. Some airlines (I’m looking at you British Airways) are notorious for using some pretty old 747-type planes, with worn out interiors and very dated entertainment systems. I try to ensure my flights are all on an Airbus A380 these days, as they tend to be the airline’s newest planes. That said, there is a lot of excitement about the new 787 Dreamliners. Basically, you want to fly on the newest aircraft type possible, so if you have a few options, always google this as well. You’ll thank me later.

Flight times

Two days ago I flew out of Heathrow at 10pm and arrived here in Melbourne at 6am this morning. Which essentially means I now have to stay up all day to make sure I sync with Australian time. Which sucks. I only did this because of my work schedule this time but normally, no matter where I am flying to, I try to arrive late afternoon/early evening. This allows you to check-in, go for dinner, have a drink and then head to bed, waking fresh on local time the next day. If you’re exceptionally good at sleeping on flights, you may survive an overnight option ok but I never find it to be enough. Plus, an arrival day is always a wasted day. Don’t plan a whole load of tourist activities for the day your flight arrives. Your brain will be too mushy to really appreciate much.

The number of stopovers and the length of them is definitely something to consider here. There is no way you can fly from the UK to Australia non-stop (you would be surprised how many people don’t realise this). Planes need to stop, refuel, change staff, and pick up fresh meals and more booze. How long the flight will stop for will vary. 90 minutes is generally the minimum, which actually isn’t that long as by the time you get off one plane but have to start boarding for the next one. Up to 3 hours is easily done and some airports are actually fun to stop at (I LOVE Singapore’s rooftop bar). Longer can be pretty brutal but not always avoidable. Consider booking a lounge pass if you have to hang around for 3-8 hours. A hot shower, a comfortable seat, wifi and some proper food can make all the difference. Any longer than 8 hours and it is worth considering checking in to an airport hotel if there is one within walking distance. Bangkok’s Hotel Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport has a tunnel linking you straight to it and lets you rent rooms for part of the day. Getting some real sleep can really help you adjust, especially if the stopover only has a few hours time difference from your destination. Just make sure you set multiple alarms and get to airport 2 hours before your onward flight!

Seating

I love a window seat. They make take-off and touchdown that bit more special when you can see the lights of city splayed out below you or get the really gorgeous views of the sun rising as you land. But having just spent 5 of the 13-hour leg from Dubai to Melbourne trapped next to two sleeping strangers, it definitely stopped feeling so special. I really needed to get up, walk around, move my legs and get the circulation going. Thank goodness I didn’t need to pee! So if you’re on your own and it looks like it will be a busy flight (aren’t they always?) then go for an aisle option unless you’re a heavy sleeper yourself or are travelling with people you know (who will still get just as cranky about being woken up but they’ll get over it, right?).

I’ve had clients at work beg me to book them an extra-legroom seat before because they were considerably taller than little me. These extra legroom seats are essentially the seats at the front of each section, so they don’t have any seats in front of them. This not only means extra leg room but also no one reclining the seat in front of you. These seats generally cost more and can only be booked directly with the airline. I’d never really seen the value paying extra for these seats (the flip-up personal TV screens always look a little smaller and the aren’t used during take off/landing) until I actually sat in one! My Heathrow to Dubai trip felt SO AMAZING simply because I could stand up in my spot if I felt like it and move easily past the people seated next to me! It felt like I had been upgraded to Business Class it made such a difference to my flight experience. These seats often cost around an extra £15-£50 per person per flight, which is nothing when you consider the hundreds of £’s you have already spent to sit in a seat like the rows behind you. I’m definitely going to book early and secure one of those spots on all my future flights!

Before You Travel

Films

My husband laughs at me for doing this, but I definitely look up what films will be available on each flight. Each airline’s website usually make the list available a few weeks in advance and quite often these days there will be films that are currently or have recently been in cinemas. Why would you bother doing this? Well, firstly I am curious (I spent 12 years working in the film industry before moving into travel) and secondly, I don’t want to risk having already seen everything! 24 hours is a lot of film-watching time and there’s nothing worse than getting comfortable after boarding your flight, switching on your screen and realising that you saw a whole bunch of the films recently. Save your money and see them on the plane!

Packing List

What you take on board with you can really be the difference between 24 hours of heaven and 24 hours of hell! Try not to take to too much on board but make sure you think about what you might need!

– Alternative entertainment

Your own personal TV screen isn’t always a guarantee. Some of Air Europa’s flights to South America don’t have them, whilst WestJet will offer entertainment via an app on your device when they launch their budget flights between Gatwick and Canada this May. Yet, even on some of the best airlines, you can end up with a faulty system and if the flight is full they won’t be able to put you in a different seat. I’ve had this happen before and it can be an incredibly boring 10+ hours when you have to entertain yourself! I always make sure I bring a magazine and a book or iPad just in case.

– Clean socks and pants

Once you’ve spent 12 hours in the same clothes, it feels great to have something fresh to change into. Just don’t drop them in the queue for security as I did once…

– Comfortable clothes Tight jeans aren’t really that comfy (or allow for good circulation) when you’re seated for 7+ hours. I used to change into pyjamas just after take-off on flights. Some people rock a onesie. Whatever you like to lounge around in, make sure you are wearing that.

– Ear plugs

Kids scream. People snore. Get some squishy plugs and make sure you can sleep blissfully.

– Neck pillow

You’ll see some people rocking these in airports like they are some awesome new accessory. You don’t need to go that far – you can get inflatable ones and they really do make a difference. When your unsupported head has rolled around for a few hours, you’ll really wish you had bought one of these along for the ride.

– Pen

On arrival, many countries now require you to fill out paperwork (‘entry’/’arrival’/’landing’ cards) and there is nothing worse than queuing to use the one pen or begging someone to lend theirs to you when all they want to do is get out of the airport too.

– USB/Phone charger

Most airlines now have a USB point in your seat so you can charge your phone whilst in flight and you can make sure it isn’t totally drained on arrival (when you need it).

– Snacks

I recently flew to New York with Virgin Atlantic where they refused to serve any snacks for the 4 hour period between the departure and landing meal. I was starving!

– T-shirt for arrival

It’s 30 degrees when you arrive and you’re still wearing the jumper you had on at freezing Heathrow. Always have something fresh and destination appropriate to put on.

– Warm clothes

My first long-haul flight was from Sydney to LA. I boarded in shorts and a t-shirt, ready to move from one sunny place to another – and nearly froze to death on the flight. Most airlines will give you a small blanket but that only goes so far. The air conditioning is really strong on flights, to make sure all that gas and body odour is circulated, so layer up.

– Wipes

So you can freshen up festival style.

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