Long-haul flights are arduous. Wedged into an economy seat in the back of an aluminum-skinned aircraft (in 'steerage' I call it), can make a 10, 14, or 18-hour flight seem interminable – more so when you’re on your way back from your dream vacation, or on a business trip, since you have less to look forward to.
Being no stranger to these flights, I offer you some tips for your own long-haul trip:
Have your systems (and stick with them) – High altitude climbers have systems for everything (a sleep system, a cook system, etc.) and I have a “long haul flight” system. While a long-haul flight doesn't exactly have you hanging from a port-a-ledge on a big wall in Greenland, the concept of a 'system' for your needs comes in handy. If you are sleeping on the flight, what's your 'sleep system' (travel pillow, medications, slippers/socks for the cold, etc.) and where does it live in your carry on? What about your snacks and water? Any necessities or luxuries you like to have in the high, dry air, such as eye drops or a small lotion? Figure out where these things live in your carry on, how accessible you need them, then stick to that system - at least for this flight. You can always modify your system(s) later.
Bring snacks – Always, always. First, it will help augment the meager meals you'll get on your flight. Second, it's great to be prepared for emergencies. I can't tell you how many times I've been stuck on a tarmac, landing strip or bus station somewhere as a repair is made, a pilot is being woken up, or some bureaucratic snafu is worked out. Sometimes I don't even end up eating the snack myself, but end up sharing with a colleague or fellow traveler. In that situation, you can make friends quickly with the sudden appearance of a bag of trail mix or some spicy cashews.
Hydrate. Bring water – Same for water. Always have water. I have a collapsible, soft-sided water bottle that always goes from my carry-on to the seatback pocket in front of me, and then right back again when the flight is done.
Move – Move as much as you can. If you’re able to get an aisle seat, do. Get up and walk around. Don't stay cramped up in that little chair. If your seatmate gets up to use the bathroom, why not get up too? Line 'too long' at the bathroom? Great. Go stand in it anyway to stretch your legs. Better still, slide into the bulkhead area or the galley (when not in use) and actually stretch: touch your toes, do a quadriceps stretch, and just generally get the blood moving around. Even in your seat you can push your feet off the chair frame in front of you or flex your muscles to prevent cramping, frustration, and overall grumpiness.
Sleep aids – If they work for you take sleep aids to knock you out for a while, do it. While I can never sleep on aircraft, I have well-traveled friends that swear by certain brands of homeopathic or prescribed or over the counter medications (but please first check with your doctor before taking any medications). Do not take them for the first time on the flight, for some people they can be unpredictable.
Bring your favorite entertainments – and lots of them. I generally bring a book (a real one, to read during take off and landing), download a few movies or tv shows on my computer, treat myself to a new game app, and as back up for really dire situations, always carry a mini-deck of cards (remember those?). Always carry chargers in your carry-on in case of delayed flights (and don’t forget to pack not only plug converters for your destination, but also for any regions you have layovers in – just in case). While I generally travel light, I don't skimp on the diversions when it comes to long-haul flights.
Bring a great attitude – This one is probably the most crucial ‘carry on’ of them all. If you can be positive and upbeat, things really don’t get that bad. I mean, remember the fact that you’re, rather miraculously, traveling through the air at 35,000 feet and 700 miles an hour – to a whole other continent where adventures await (or, if you’re on the return, where home awaits). If weather or mechanical problems have delayed your flight, then good! I think it’s MUCH better to be safe and sound on the ground than in a broken aircraft or in bad weather. Make the best of it. Missed a connection? Don’t worry! There are other flights (or other routes) that will get you to your destination anyway.
Chris ‘Chez’ Chesak works with the Adventure Travel Trade Association, which powers the consumer adventure directory at Adventure.Travel. He travels nearly 100 days a year, including long haul flights to southern Africa.