How to handle the long haul

How to handle the long haul

(Image © Chris Rowlands)

Take a helping of hearsay evidence, add a pinch of pseudo-science, stir until it sounds coherent. What have you got? Modern Traveller‘s guide to surviving painfully protracted flights.


Aviation enthusiasts and in-flight meal-lovers aside, few travellers truly revel in the clammy, exhausting experience that is long-haul flying.

Sure, if you’re reclining in Business or frolicking in First the aches might hurt a little less, but – let’s face it – you’re still sitting in a pressurised can for several hours, as it bumps and bounces at hundreds of miles an hour towards your destination.

What’s more, whilst screens are getting bigger and leg-room, well, roomier, airline freebies are disappearing quicker than a teacher’s tan after half-term, meaning flying – especially in cattle class – can be a true labour of travelling love.

Not keen to touch down feeling worse than a student after Spring Break? Take our top tips and you might, just might, make it through the long-haul feeling a little less like a dry-skinned, sleep-deprived shell of a human being.

H2O you go

Worth the frustration of regular visits to the conveniences, constant water intake is an absolute must in the air. In the words of New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority: “Be prepared to drink more than originally anticipated.”

Humidity on most aircraft sits at around 20% – a fair bit below the usual 40-60% which the human body prefers. Whilst not drastically dehydrating, this is plenty low enough to put you (and your body) out of kilter.

Prevent a parched throat and dry eyelids by regularly drinking down the clear stuff. If you’re smart, you’ll scope out the location of the water tap, to prevent hostess hostility as you repeatedly request nature’s finest.

And, if you’re a severe sufferer, it’s no bad idea to pack rehydration powder: whilst the glucose isn’t necessarily super if you’re looking to get some sleep, the influx of electrolytes will help to keep your body working as it should.

Keep it creamy

Where’s all of that water going? Right out of your skin. Whilst air-con might keep you from sweltering in your seat, it can also stop you from noticing just how dry your body barrier has become.

Don’t leave it until landing to address the issue: some airlines still provide mid-journey moisturisers, but it pays to bring your own just in case. Any decent cream – likely labelled “rehydrating“, “nourishing” or “delightfully un-drying” – ought to work wonders.

You’ll feel the discomfort on your face and arms first, as these tend to be the most exposed areas, so lather up with wanton abandon to stave of dryness in those delicate places. If you’re feeling a little flushed, a quick pre-wipe with a cleanser is no bad idea.

Lucky enough to have access to a shower? A brief body butter session is both fun and healthy, so go wild. Oh, and don’t forget the lips: balm them up to prevent chapped smackers.

(No) spirit in the sky

The jury’s still out on whether drinking up high is really more intensely intoxicating (though most aviation authorities agree that it is), but, as with sipping the tipple at ground level, there’s no question that it does dehydrate you.

What with the pressurised cabin, the altitude and the air-conditioning, the last thing your body needs in the mix is a strong fix of G&T – no matter how tempting the complimentary booze bar might be.

Regardless of the risks of getting rowdy from one too many Merlots, it’s best to save the nectar until you’re down on the ground and properly rehydrated. Jet-lagged hangovers are no fun at all, particularly when you’re feeling drier than the desert after too much drinking: stick to the fruit juice and water.

Nap like you need it

Some find sleeping in the air a doddle. Others fear the fitful tosses and turns, choosing instead to defer the drowsiness in favour of films and food.

There is, though, a happy medium: the power nap. New fad turned health recommendation, a short session of shut-eye offers the clued-up traveller a host of health benefits, in conveniently brief bursts.

It’s no substitute for proper sleep, and an upright seat won’t help, but a few sessions of 30-minute snoozing throughout the flight could be just what’s needed to keep you alert and awake, before a lie-in in your new location. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “a study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%.”

MT top tip: if you’re a light sleeper who needs some somnolent assistance, be sure to pack your own eye mask and ear plugs. Many airlines have altogether ceased distributing goody bags to passengers, meaning no more branded pads, plugs or pillows.

Jiggle and wriggle

We’ve long been regaled with the risks of DVT and inactivity in the air – and that’s not to mention the dreaded pins and needles.

Whether or not you’re at risk from more serious conditions, staying active at altitude is always a good idea. As the NHS reports, “research has suggested that remaining seated for too long is bad for your health, regardless of how much exercise you do” – and that’s as much the case at 39,000 feet.

How should you be moving? Some airlines provide cards (such as this advice from Virgin Atlantic) complete with movement inspiration – usually ankle rolls and calf raises – for in-seat action, but there’s really no substitute for some up-and-down-the-aisle strides.

If you’re feeling brave, a few lunges in the vestibule will get the blood properly pumping.

Chew, chew, chew

This one’s a classic, but remains a tidbit of high worth: pack a pack of gum for pain-free ears.

If your canals go a poppin’, the repeated movement of your jaw can help to relieve the pressure build-up, easing the discomfort – without the yawns. Just be sure to chomp quietly, though, so as not to drive your neighbour to distraction

Gum munching can, of course, cause hunger pangs, as your tummy thinks something substantial is on the way, so limit your chewing to takeoff and landing or you’ll be craving a dastardly airline bun.

Where to put your gum when you’re done? A source close to MT swears by hanging a plastic bag (or, better still, the blanket wrapper) from the seat-back coat hook: organisation from the moment you sit down keeps your space smart and your feng shui just right.

Sugar? You shouldn’t

Finally, if you are trying to get a bit of shut-eye, try to avoid sugar-packed snacks. Not only will these flood your body with a burst of energy, but, as sugar breeds bacteria, it could see you waking up with a bad taste in your mouth.

It’s well known that sugar isn’t super if you’re trying to stay healthy, and that’s as much the case on the plane. Not only does it give you an unnecessary rush, but, in higher quantities, it can also accelerate the effects of dehydration.

What’s more, if your flight is an overnighter, all that extra energy when it’s midnight on your internal clock is only going to confuse an already baffled body. So, steer clear of the soda and sweets for a happier long-haul.

Do you have an in-flight routine you swear by? Be sure to share it in the comments below.

Categories: Journeys

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