The short truth about long-haul flights

In World

A few months ago, I took my very first long-haul flight – before flying to Canada, the longest I’d ever spent on a plane was 6 hours across country (and a free-drinks policy made that flight a party). So the prospect of being in transit for over 22 hours total was somewhat intimidating, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

So here are some things I wish someone had told me.

Check your baggage allowance:

This might seem like an obvious one, I know. And as someone who is usually diligent about these sorts of things, I thought I had it under control. I was prepared for everything – I had printed visas, copies of my passport, and a full itinerary with addresses and numbers of the people meeting me at my final destination just to be safe. One flight down, and I didn’t expect there to be any issues with my bags of all things – until I went to check in at 6am, groggy and without a coffee, only to be told “I’m going to have to charge you to check that second bag”.

I then had to do the very dignified shuffle (aka undoing all my careful packing and cramming everything into a single suitcase) of rearranging my bags before I lost my place in the lengthy line. Trying to jam sneakers and coats on at the check-in because they won’t fit in your bag is not the best way to begin any trip.

My issue was a change of airline provider between my domestic and international trip – although they were booked through the same ticket, the shift in provider meant an entirely different baggage allowance that I hadn’t anticipated, and could have seen me lumped with some nasty fees if I hadn’t already packed lightly. Which leads me to my second point.

Be practical about packing (and remember who has to carry it): 

Whether you’re travelling for a week or a year, think carefully about what you’re packing and what you need. Make sure clothing is versatile, and if you’re settling in one place for a time, don’t be afraid to pack some dressier items. My main regret in packing was being too practical – especially as those dressier items are generally the more expensive ones to replace when you’re away. That said, especially if you’re away for a while, make sure you’re prepared for everything. I’ve had friends here who have battled blisters the size of their heel because they made the silly mistake of not packing practical shoes – you don’t want to say no to things just because you don’t have the basic necessary gear.

Also remember that you’re going to have to be lugging this bag around – I saw far too many people trying to balance three suitcases and a handbag across airport floors and up hotel stairs, and thanked my personal reluctance to spend cash on extra bags that I only had my single modest suitcase. Now that I’m thinking about going home and looking at friends who are going to spend upwards of $300 to ship second or third suitcases home, and I’m thanking my own fiscal nature yet again for saving me some cash and stress. I can assure you that you’re never going to need as much as you think – as someone with way more clothes than she needs at home, the thought of only having a few drawers to last me across two seasons was somewhat daunting. But I can honestly say that several months in, a limited wardrobe has not posed a problem for me at all.

Don’t get the emergency seat:

Unless you don’t like sleeping. Or sleep like a vampire. Then it’s the perfect seat for you.

When told that there were no window seats available, I jumped at the opportunity to be seated in the emergency row. Trepidation about the responsibility that it entailed aside (the plane won’t go down, right?), the prospect of not having to have that awkward ‘can I get out’ conversation several times throughout the flight with the person trying to sleep next to me meant that I immediately jumped on the opportunity. What I didn’t think about was that on a plane that size, the emergency row is wide open.

As someone who sleeps something akin to a startled echidna – curled and buried under whatever I can find – not having anything to lean on meant a very long, sleepless overhaul flight, made even less pleasant by the middle aged man next to me that had a tendency to lean on me every time he nodded off.

Further, as the only place with standing room on the plane aside from the attendants kitchen, I had regular guests into my personal space who were rarely welcome – every crying child and every lusty couple or gossipy group of girls on the plane came and made a stop just close enough to step on my outstretched feet.

Unless you’re absolutely not interested in sleeping, don’t do it to yourself. Check in early and get a window seat.

It will wreck your skin:

The circulated air, the disruption to your sleep schedule and the stresses of travel will wreak havoc on your skin and your health. Be prepared for it. Bring facial wipes, and drink lots of water. The attending staff can be scarce once the lights go down, so don’t hesitate to ring your service bell or wander down to the back of the plane and ask. Your skin will thank you for it later.

Bring an overnight bag:

One thing I did do right was to bring an overnight kit in my carry on, for all the extra effort that it entailed, having to find small containers to get it through the international security. Stuck in LAX for seven hours after a 16 hour flight, there were few things nicer than being able to clean my face, brush my teeth, and change my clothes. Having these will also be a small life saver if something happens to your luggage while in transit.

Account for jet lag:

I had been warned about jet lag, but like most people, brushed it off as something for other people to worry about. I didn’t experience it as badly as some of the stories say, but trying to focus my brain the next day was basically mission impossible. Luckily for me, I had a persistent friend who insisted that I keep to regular sleep schedules, meaning that I adjusted to the change very quickly. My advice would be to force yourself into a normal routine as quickly as possible – getting up and going to sleep – to combat the effect of the timezone change in the shortest time possible; but also recognize that it might not happen for you immediately, and don’t schedule anything too intensive in the few days following, so you can adjust.


These are my personal experiences of flying, and by no means universal. So I’d love to hear your advice – what has helped you survive long-haul flights?

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