How to Survive a Long-Haul Flight
Flying to Europe, especially from the US west coast, is one heck of a journey. If you have no direct flights from your closest city, the 5,000-mile journey can easily take 24-hours door-to-door. That’s been the typical scenario when I fly from Portland, Oregon to Paris, France with a four-hour layover. If my flight is too early and I haven't gotten enough sleep, it can take days to recover. Since I fly across the pond at least four times a year, I had to find ways to make the journey more bearable. Here’s some tips that help me arrive refreshed, or at least not feeling like I just ran a 10K.
Don’t blow your budget on a first-class fare
Some might say the easiest way to take a long-haul flight is to go first class. If you have the bucks, go for it. I fly economy, aka steerage. And even as I stare enviously at passengers in business and first class, I know I wouldn’t pay three to five times more for a cushier seat. I’d rather have the money, or frequent-flyer miles, to enjoy more trips to Europe.
Keep in mind, international economy is not the same as domestic economy. You receive several meals, free alcoholic beverages, a pillow and a blanket. And the seats are more comfortable than planes that only fly domestically.
Book the shortest route with the best departure time
Make it easy on yourself. I no longer do more than one layover on a trip to Europe. No more flights requiring a 5:30 am wakeup call. I’m not an early bird. But if you are, then choose an early flight. Do what works for you.
If you can take a direct flight to your destination, do so. If you have a layover, aim for one that’s at least an hour and a half, and no more than two hours. You’ll need enough time in case the first leg of your flight is delayed, you have to go through customs or your next flight is in a different concourse.
Choose the airline with the most direct route to your destination, and don’t forget about the smaller, affordable, European intercontinental airlines like EasyJet and Ryan Air. For my next flight to France, I am switching from United (which only flies to Paris) to Air France who has direct flights from Portland to Amsterdam and then to Rennes, France, which is only 35 minutes from my house.
Reduce your total travel time with TSA PreCheck and Global Entry
Your total travel time includes getting to the airport and arriving three hours before an international flight. I like being at the airport with plenty of time, so I don’t feel rushed. In larger airports you may need that three hours to check your bag, go through security and walk to your gate. In smaller airport two hours is plenty if you have TSA PreCheck and Global Entry. Having TSA PreCheck puts you in an expedited line where you don’t have to take out your electronics or liquids, or even take off your shoes. It’s a big time saver.
Global Entry expedites the process of going through Customs and Border Protection when you return to the US. When you sign up for Global Entry you automatically receive TSA PreCheck.
Long-haul flights where you’re sitting for over five hours puts you at risk for Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), a life-threatening condition. A housemate of mine in his 40s, some years ago, developed DVT that traveled to his lungs after only a five-hour, domestic flight. Two things can mitigate your risk of DVT.
One, wear a good pair of compression socks. I swear by these things. But talk to your doctor first if you have any medical issues. Compression socks promote improved blood flow in your legs. They also keep your calves from swelling. I learned this the hard way over 20 years ago when I arrived in Italy with calves the size of an elephant’s.
Two, keep moving. Before you board the plane for a long-haul flight, take a long walk around the airport. During the flight, go to the restroom. When your seatmates get up, use this opportunity to stretch your body or walk to the galley and ask the flight attendant for a glass of water. While you’re sitting, move your feet. Here’s some exercises, stretches and tips from the National Blood Clot Alliance.
Drink lots of water and avoid alcohol
All that free booze on international flights is tempting, but I don’t recommend indulging. Just one drink can lead to dehydration. On my recent flight to Paris, I enjoyed a glass of red wine with my dinner, followed by a hangover-type headache. Alcohol can also exacerbate what scientists now believe may be a mild form of altitude sickness as planes are pressurized, but it’s still like being at 8,000 feet above sea level. So keep drinking water throughout the flight.
Get as much sleep on the plane as you can
If you have a good night’s sleep before you fly, you’ll be off to a great start. Bring a quality travel pillow, a sleep mask and your favorite sleep aid. Some people like to bring ear plugs or a noise-cancelling headset. Right after the plane takes off, the pressure in the cabin decreases the level of oxygen and causes sleepiness, so it’s a good time to take a short nap. After the main meal is served and everyone is finished, generally an hour and a half to two hours after you board, the cabin lights are dimmed. Use this time to sleep as much as you can.
It’s tempting to stay awake the whole flight and binge watch free movies and TV shows, but don’t do it. If you’re flying to Europe from the US, you’re losing several hours, so when you arrive it’s generally the next day at your destination, but the middle of the night for you. You may not sleep well on a plane, but the rest or sleep you do receive will help you take full advantage of your first day in Europe.
I hope these tips help to make your next long-haul flight shorter, easier and healthier so you can step out of the airport ready to explore.