Unless you were lucky enough to take the Concorde before it was grounded, you rightfully equate international travel with flights of six hours or longer. Much longer in some cases – some regularly scheduled flights approach 20 hours in length.
Although the psychological burden of taking such long flights diminishes the more often you fly, the fact remains that unless you always travel in first or business class, you will likely encounter discomfort on such flights. This is compounded by the fact that the age and quality of planes, as well as the number (and size) of people around you, change from flight to flight.
For these and other reasons, you shouldn’t go into a long-haul fight expecting it to be pleasant, no matter how adept at intercontinental flying you are. Developing best practices, however, will help you more swiftly and effectively deal with discomfort and annoyance as they arise.
Flight Time and Length
The extent to which a long-haul flight is tolerable or unbearable depends not only on its length, but also on the time of day or night it happens. If you depart from the U.S. to Europe at night, you arrive the next morning, and flight times are usually around the length of a good night of sleep. Flying westward from India back to the U.S, on the other hand, often involves a departure just after midnight and an arrival the same morning, U.S. time, but after as many as 18 hours in the air.
The Spare Seat Dilemma
One or more empty seats is perhaps the best fortune that call fall upon a long-haul traveler in economy class. If your entire row is empty, then it’s set – you essentially have a lie-flat bed. If, on the other hand, the middle of three or four seats is empty, then you need to share with the person sitting closest to you. Rather than claiming the spare seat(s) for yourself (or letting the other person else do the same), draw clear boundaries about which of you has use of the seat(s) and when.
To Sleep or Not To Sleep?
If you take one of the overnight flights I mentioned earlier, it is not only to your advantage to sleep, but it may actually be quite easy to do so – the flight takes place during your normal sleeping hours. Daytime international flights make it harder to catch Zs, which can be doubly disastrous – if you arrive to your destination in a state of unrest, you may find it difficult to stay awake long enough so that you can beat jet lag. When in doubt, sleep as much as possible on the plane.
Moving About The Cabin
Safety cards in seat-back pockets recommend that you move about the cabin periodically to avoid life-threatening conditions like deep-vein thrombosis. Overhead safety announcements, on the other hand, advise you stay in your seat whenever possible and to avoid aimlessly congregating in the aisles. Personally, I stroll up and down the entire economy cabin every few hours during the flight – it not only keeps you sane, but helps prevent cramps and aches.
Upgrades on International Flights
If you have elite status with an airline, you have probably been awarded at least one upgrade, either to first or business class, during your time as an elite flyer. Unless you are a platinum or even executive platinum elite, however, these upgrades are likely on domestic sectors. Airlines generally charge sky-high fares for first- and business-class seats on international flights, so although it is possible that you’ll be upgraded to a more comfortable premium cabin, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
About the author
Robert Schrader is a travel writer/photographer and editor of the blog Leave Your Daily Hell, your source for destination information, travel photos, practical travel advice and inspirational travel essays. Robert’s writing and photography has been published on websites such as CNNGo, Tripping and Shanghaiist and in print publications like That’s Shanghai and East & West magazines. Robert’s travels have thus far taken him to more than 40 countries and to all six inhabited continents. Follow the Twitter feed, “Like” the Facebook page or add Robert to one of your Google+ circles.