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Making Long Distance Air Travel Less Stressful
Long distance flights suck
Pretty much everyone who has ever had to take one is likely to agree. Unless you are extremely rich and can afford first class, it's hours of your life crammed in like a sardine. In most cases, a long haul flight is a price being paid for a business trip or a globetrotting vacation.
How do you make the experience less stressful for you and your family?
Get to the airport in plenty of time. Allow a little extra for international flights. The last thing you want is to be standing in a stalled security line glaring at your watch.
This goes, of course, for all flights, not just long-haul ones. A bit of extra time at the airport may not be that much fun, but it is less stressful than running up to your gate just as they make the last boarding call. Or, worse, missing the last (or only) flight that day.
Most long haul flights are international. If you do not need a visa and don't have a passport, order your new passport at least four months before your planned travel date. Expediting a passport is very expensive. If you do need a visa, look at how long your destination country suggests to allow for processing...then double it.
Keep visas with your passport in carry-on baggage. (I suggest also making a photocopy of your passport and sticking it in your checked luggage. It's always handy to have a photocopy and can save your bacon if your passport is lost or stolen). Some overseas destinations require vaccinations. If going to the tropics, always make an appointment with your doctor two or three months beforehand to discuss required shots and whether you should take anti-malarials.
Pack Carryon Carefully
Avoid the current list of TSA prohibited items. If you have medications, they should be in your carryon baggage in their original packaging with the original label. For liquid medications and injectables, take a note from your doctor, as these items can easily be mistaken for drug paraphernalia or security hazards. If you are, for any reason, carrying prop weapons, check them.
Make sure to check and double check any size requirements your carrier might have for carry on luggage. These can vary between domestic and international flights.
The things you should carry are:
1. Your own entertainment. Even with modern in-flight systems you can't guarantee that there will be a movie or television show to your liking. Or, for that matter, that your seat's in-flight system will work. Some airlines no longer provide any in-flight entertainment other than expensive wi-fi on domestic flights. Take a good book, or a DVD you can watch on your laptop. Portable gaming consoles are also a good idea. However, make sure that any electronics are put into flightsafe mode before you board the aircraft.
2. A travel pillow. Airline pillows are generally useless.
3. Headphones. Ideally noise canceling ones. Many airlines now charge for headphone rental and, in any case, they tend not to provide the best quality gear.
4. Snacks or candy. Gone are the days when airlines handed out candy to suck on before the descent - take your own. Do not, however, take fresh fruit, meat or cheese on international flights...if you forget you have it this can cause an embarrassing incident at customs.
Check to see if the airline you are traveling with still provides free meals. If you have any special needs (kosher, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc) you will need to let the airline know at least three days before your flight.
If they do not, then take your own food. Remember that low air pressure makes your taste buds less efficient - it's not entirely the airline's fault that plane food is bland - and take food that is a little spicier or stronger tasting than you normally prefer. Airlines will charge through the nose for extra food.
Choose Your Seat Carefully
If the airline allows it, select your seat at the time of booking. If you don't, you risk ending up in the dreaded center of the center, with neither a view nor easy access to the aisle.
Read user reviews and check sites such as seatguru to find the best seats.
For example, if flying Virgin, avoid the row just behind the bulkhead between premium and economy. They have infant cots that secure to the bulkhead...need I say more? Seats at the far back of the plane are often the most cramped. Those prone to airsickness should consider sitting right over the wing - this tends to be the most stable part of the plane. If you are tall, it can be worth paying the extra for exit row seats. If you are taking a laptop, be aware that some seats may not have power outlets. Seats right in front of bulkheads may not recline...unlike the ones immediately in front of you. Another thing to avoid is the rows right next to the lavatory or galley, especially on night flights.
The air on planes gets very dry. Although you generally can't take bottled water through security, you can take an empty bottle and fill it from water fountains once inside the cordon. (Buying water past security will cost you). Cabin crew will also provide water on request, even if it is not a scheduled serving time. Do not drink water from plane bathrooms.
Avoid alcohol as it will dehydrate you. If you do have a glass of wine with your meal (some of the better airlines even still offer this perk) then be sure to also drink a glass of water to counteract the effect.
If you are prone to dry eyes, take eye drops, and if you normally wear contacts, switch to glasses for the flight. You may also want to take lip balm or hand lotion.
Get up and stretch at intervals during your flight. This will help you avoid arriving at your destination stiff and help prevent potentially dangerous DVT (deep vein thrombosis), which is sometimes associated with being immobile for extended period times. There is sometimes space in the back of the cabin to do exercises.
You may also have enough space to do some seated yoga or similar exercises.
Try To Sleep
If it's a night flight then the best way to pass it is asleep. However, that can be almost impossible. These tips should help you get some shut-eye:
1. Take noise canceling headphones and a good blindfold (the ones airlines provide are mediocre).
2. Wear comfortable clothes and loosen them. Remove your shoes. Some people find they benefit from an extra set of socks. Most airlines still provide blankets.
3. Avoid using alcohol to assist sleep as it does not work. I would also recommend against using any kind of drugs (even strong herbals) as then somebody might not be able to wake you in an emergency. If you feel the need for chemical assistance use something mild...chamomile or catnip tea or lavender oil dabbed under each nostril are all effective.
Deal With Neighbors
The worst part of long-haul flights is noisy neighbors. Ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones help. It's sometimes possible to dart to a seat with no neighbor right before the seatbelt sign comes on, but if you do it too soon you're likely to find that seat did belong to somebody and be shooed back to your original assignment.
On a full flight, there's often nothing you can do but live with it. Some people prefer the window seat so they will not be disturbed. Others would rather have an aisle seat so they can get to the lavatory without having to wake their seat mate.
Don't be the obnoxious neighbor yourself. Don't recline your seat too far if you can avoid it and the person next to you probably doesn't want to hear all about your kid's first words or Cousin Bart's moonshine (or, worse, Cousin Bart's marijuana farm. Ahem.) Don't get drunk. Don't start trouble, or you may find yourself offloaded into a police cell. Or tied down with seat belts for the rest of your flight.
Deal With Jet Lag
Jet lag is one of the worst things about long distance travel. Our bodies simply aren't designed to jump across timezones.
As soon as you get on your flight, set your watch to the destination time. Then repeat that time to yourself a few times. Trust me, this really does work. Some people find a dual time watch particularly helpful. (Many business travelers use them so they know what the time is in the office).
Try to sleep on night flights even if it's only a brief nap. Personally, I find this almost impossible, but it's usually worth trying. If crossing more than three or four zones, then don't plan anything important for the first day. Most people find jet lag is worse when traveling west, but there are exceptions. A rule of thumb that is often used is to allow one day per timezone...which sounds really sucky if flying to the other side of the world.
Consume caffeine in moderation - don't overdose on it and give yourself insomnia.
When at your destination, try to spend at least fifteen minutes outside as soon as possible. This will give your body a good look at where the sun is and what time it is. Do not go to your hotel and 'nap'...chances are you will sleep all day, especially if your flight was a red eye.
I have found that the best tactic is to plan nothing important for the first day of the vacation and then force myself to stay awake, no matter how I feel, until a normal sleep time for the destination. Also, make sure to eat at a normal time for the destination. Your body likes regular meal times. Changing over as quickly as possible may avoid being groggy for several days. (Now if it only worked for daylight savings time...)
Some people are more affected by jet lag than others. People with very rigid schedules and accurate body clocks tend to be hit worst. Children are often apparently immune.