5+1 Comfort Aids to Carry On Overseas, International, Long Haul & Red Eye Flights
As a West Coast American living in Europe who has at times worked in the Southern Hemisphere, I've had ample opportunity in the air to reflect on, if not "lose sleep over," in-flight misery. There are lots of things you can do ahead of your flight to make it more pleasant and reduce jet lag--no coffee, melatonin, etc. etc.--and lots of great articles out there that cover these. But what I want to look at today are some simple items you can stick in your carry on to get you through the gruelling hours of the actual flight.
This article was inspired by Relache's question on how to sleep on an overnight flight from the USA to Europe, to which others have replied with a number of other clever, valuable tips.
For how to take long trips with just a carry-on, check out Packing Light Tips
For things you can do on a plane to make time fly, see How to Make Long Flights Easier
The Long Haul
First I have to confess that airports give me a high. I'm not talking about the palpitating rush that comes from running to catch a connecting flight. I mean hanging out in them, listening to all those languages, browsing some of the planet's few remaining bookstores, eating cookies the size of plates and chocolate croissants the size of men's shoes. Okay, so maybe it's a sugar high. It's a high nevertheless.
What brings me down to earth faster than you can say LAX-CDG are the eleven hours of air time between take off and landing. It's having a fidgety stranger elbow me in a cramped, noisy plane. It's trying deperately to close it all out and nod off, only to awake from a fitful simili of sleep with cotton mouth and my head on said stranger's shoulder.
The advantage to all that unwanted intimacy is that it gives you a chance to discuss, or at least observe what others are doing to allay the discomforts of long distance air travel. Over the years I've tried a lot of tricks and I've narrowed it down to 5+1 must-carry items. Why 5+1? We'll get to that...
5+1 Carry On Kit
If you fly first or business class, the airline will provide some of these. Air France provides ear plugs and an eye mask even to economy class passengers. But on most airlines these days flying coach is worse than the old horse drawn version. At least in the old days you could stretch your legs when they stopped at inns for normal meals and along the way for potty breaks in the fresh air. These days flying coach the only thing you can be sure of are cramped quarters. The following is my 5 + 1 kit to help you sleep through it.
1. Foam ear plugs
Studies show that noise is a leading cause of stress and stress a leading cause of health problems. Depending on the source of information and the type of aircraft, commercial airline cabin noise varies anywhere from 70 to 105 dB , reaching 115 dB at takeoff according to the Deafness Research Foundation. Considering that daily exposure to noise at the 90 dB can cause permanent hearing impairment, specialists recommend anyone exposed to noise levels of 90dB or more to protect their ears.
But even at lower levels it's easy to understand why the constant drone of airplane engines inside the cabin (worse if you sit rear of the engines) causes loss of sleep, loss of concentration and reasoning functions, not to mention irratibility and even temporary hearing impairment. Yet it's easy to avoid with plain foam ear plugs. Just roll'em, stick'em in and let'em expand and voilà, you're in your own snug little world.
2. Evian mineral water spray travel size
Years ago a friend threw down her backpack at my place in Paris at the end of a year-long round-the-world trip. By this time, she wasn't even interested in seeing the Eiffel Tower. "Why the Eiffel Tower?" she'd say, "when I've climbed the pyramids of Egypt." When I'd suggest Notre Dame her reply was "It couldn't possibly compare to the Taj Mahal." I think all she really wanted to do was take that last plane home, and as much as I love her, I was glad when she did.
My blasé friend did however turn me on to a fantastic trick for which I'll be eternally grateful. She told my how she always dunked a paper napkin in her glass of water and spread it over her face while she slept on planes. I tried it and couldn't believe how much fresher I felt on arriving at destination. Then I found a more discreet way to stay fresh: evian purse sized spray bottles. Granted, your neighbor--even if it's your partner--will still find you obnoxious with each ppffsshhhh you give yourself. Just tell them to mind their own elbow.
It was only later that I found out that the trick is not just a comfort saver, it's practically a life saver. The recycled air in planes contains just 5-12% humidity. This can cause a whole host of problems to passengers, only the least of which is dry skin and bloodshot eyes. Air this dry poses a real risk to asthmatics, but even for the healthy, it dries out your airways, reducing the mucus you need to defend yourself against all those germs circulating in the cabin.
I don't know if mineral water spray generates the negative ions our bodies crave and we get from walking near surf or a waterfall, but in a half sleep, it's close enough. The purse (travel) sized evian spray should not be a problem at security.
3. eye mask
There is a lot of discussion about using melatonin to reduce jet lag and doctors recommend the stuff for people with sleeping difficulties. So why not kill two birds with one stone, right? Well, maybe, but over time you can become dependent on outside melatonin and your body will have a harder time producing its own. And what, you ask, can you do to get your body produce its own? Block out all light. That's right. That's why doctors also recommend eye masks for people with melatonin deficiency. So just get an eye mask and let your body regulate itself.
Do get a contoured eye mask. They're more effective at blocking out light and won't rub your eyes or smudge make-up.
4. Inflatable Neck Pillow
The inflatable neck pillow is how you stay off your neighbor's shoulder when you doze. Of course a beany pillow would work too, but they take up valuable volume.
You know the story. You can't fit a bulky microbead travel pillow in your carry on without repacking other carry on contents in your suitcase. It's not until you're checking your bag through that you realize that the vase for Auntie Grizelda that you took out of your carry on was just heavy enough to push your suitcase over the weight limit and suddenly your realize the microbead pillow (or Auntie Grizelda) is costing you excess baggage. And once you settle on the plane with your pillow around your neck, if you forget yourself for a moment and buy some duty free, you still won't have room for it in your carry on. Finally, you'll end up one of those frazzled people you see standing in line at immigration after a long flight, still wearing their pillow. It's a wonder they're even admitted into the country! Just get inflatable.
5. Disposable Toothbrush
I hate waste and therefore anything disposable. But I'm also a hypocrite, and as far as brushing teeth on a plane goes, I must say nothing beats a toothbrush you can use without water and then just pitch. What more can I say about a disposable tootbrush?
+1 Noise-cancelling headphones or sound-isolating earphones
Why the +1? Very simply because these are expensive options that I wouldn't consider if I didn't travel long and hard unless I was rolling in dough.
A couple of years ago I bought Brookstone noise-cancelling headphones. They worked great. Not as great as the expensive Bose headphones a non-elbowing neighbor let me try, but pretty great nevertheless. I'd stick foam earplugs in my ears and turn the headphones on and they would block out the drone of the plane but oddly enough, I could still plug in the airplane adapter and hear a movie (sound travels through our bones). They were great while they lasted. But they didn't last. Not more than a few trips.
I've been in the market to replace them and was doing research on the wonderful Bose I'd tried when I came across a comparative study that suggested sound isolating in-ear phones. Noise cancelling technologies use batteries to actively drown out droning sounds without drowning out all sound, which is pretty great, when the wiring works. In-ear sound-isolating earphones block sound out, and way more effectively (see table below). And they do it passively. One guy said he unknowingly ran his through the washing machine in a pocket and they still worked.
From everything I've read, Shure is the best brand. Musicians use them to both to protect their ears and for their excellent sound quality, so if you like music, you can't go wrong with these. In terms of blocking out sound, they are apparently so effective that they have a model that comes with a "push-to-hear" control so you can hear the stewardess. But I won't kid you. I have not tried them. I'm currently weighing the cost and benefits. But if cost were not an issue, I'd already have them.