Recently, in a strange twist of debilitating fate, I had to take one of the longest flights in the world: John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) on Cathay Pacific Airlines. It clocks in as the world’s eighth longest flight at an average of 16HRs and 8,059 miles. The day I flew the total flight time was 16HRs and 20min. The flight almost went over the North Pole, literally.
I’ve taken some long flights before–11, 12, 13HRs. And I’ve taken the dreaded back to back 8HR flights when flying from the US to Africa (Nairobi, Kampala, Accra). But this was my first “ultra-long haul” flight.
See the whole list of the World’s Longest Flights.
So in an effort to prepare you, here is my advice for surviving these beasts of a flight.
1. Try to get an upgrade or preferred seat. At the very least grab an aisle seat.
Use frequent flyer status or extra mileage to upgrade . Buy a preferred seat in economy class. Find a way to give yourself a few extra inches. Check out seat maps using SeatGuru.com and find a better seat. Seats in the bulkhead of the plane’s economy class are the poor man’s first class. At least get an aisle seat so you have the freedom to stand up, walk around, and stretch. You’ll be in this enclosed, metal cylinder for a long time. Trust me. Convince yourself to splurge a little.
2. Bring a small, carry on, bathroom kit.
Not all of us will fly first class where we’ll be given little toothbrushes (and showers in some newer planes). Being able to take out contacts, wash your face, or put on new deodorant will remind you what it feels like to be a human. A couple hours before you land grab that little kit and head to the bathroom with a bottle of water. Brush your teeth (with the bottled water). Wash your face. Freshen up. This will make the last two hours go a little faster and prepare you mentally to get off the plane.
3. Tech it up. Bring nice headphones. Bring a battery charger. Bring your iPad or Kindle.
I’m already a tech obsessed person, because of the nature of my job. But buy some new earbuds or headphones if you don’t have good ones. Skull Candy makes some nice earbuds that won’t break the bank. I don’t like noise cancelling headphones, but the noise-isolating earbuds are fantastic, especially if there’s a crying baby a few rows behind you.
Bring your Kindle or iPad. Load it with games or new apps to play with. Load it with some TV shows or movies. I always fly with my Kindle loaded up with movies. I don’t want to instill fear in you, but what if your head-back TV breaks while in flight? You need to be prepared with some movies or TV shows of your own. Get a free, month long trial of premium Spotify and load a bunch of playlists for “offline” listening.
Bring a 10000mAh battery charger for your phone and tablet device. Most of the newer planes will have USB outlets to charge your devices, but what if those don’t work? On a 6HR flight from Bangkok to Tokyo this happened to me–USB outlet broken. Having a backup battery to keep my iPhone working was a life-saver. Here’s a good list of batteries.
4. Get comfortable with some soft stuff. Neck pillow, eye mask, blanket, slippers, that kind of stuff.
I’m not usually a neck pillow guy. I make fun of people that attach neck pillows to their roller bags. But on a 16HR flight, you gotta do what you gotta do. The airline should have blankets and pillows for you, so know that. But some people like the neck pillows or extra pillows behind their backs. I like having a pillow on my lap to rest my hands on.
A key piece of my gear: a black out night mask. I like the kind that leave space around your eyes though–not the kind that sit right against your eye lids. I don’t carry an extra blanket–but if you get cold easily bring a lightweight blanket to use. Bring soft socks if that helps you. Or maybe some lightweight shoes or slippers to change into.
On such a long flight you need to embrace the fact that your time on-board should include at least a partial sleep cycle. Bring whatever you need to make this sleep happen. I never take anything to help me sleep, but some people swear by it: melatonin, Tylenol PM, chamomile, etc. Whichever you choose, do some research first on natural options.
5. Travel Compression socks. Do it, and buy nice ones.
Anytime I fly on a flight for more than 5HRs I wear compression socks. Every time I put them on I feel dumb, but after a long flight the benefits are huge. Maybe it’s just me, but these are critical in my opinion. Talk with your doctor if you have any medical issues that require a more intense alternative (e.g. circulation or blood clot problems). But compression socks with 15 to 20mm of compression will save your legs from being sore and numb during a flight. I actually wear compression socks designed for marathon runners, but you can find a ton of options on Amazon.com.
6. Do everything slower than normal. Let your mind and body slow down.
This is a weird thing I do, but I find it really helps. I do everything about half speed. There is no sense in rushing anything. Take your time picking a movie. Take your time eating. Drink your tea or coffee slowly. If you have work to do–do it slowly. When I fly I bring some extra cleaning cloths and spend about an hour cleaning my cameras. I take them apart, clean each part separately, and focus more on the details of everything I’m doing. If you need to work, do it slowly. Why rush any of it? Any decision you make, take about twice as long to make it.
7. Be social with those around you. Maybe. But be cautious.
You’ll be sitting next to these people for the next half of a day. That’s a long time. Feel free to strike up a conversation or chat a little. Be nice and kind. This can go a long way. But be careful to not talk too much. Last thing you want (unless you’re an extreme extrovert) is to let someone know you’re available for a 16HR conversation about politics and religion. *See earbud advice above.
8. Prepare mentally for what you are about to do.
I’m not going to lie to you. This is a long time to be in an enclosed place with no way to leave. Embrace that fact. Don’t get anxious, but accept what you are doing and know that it is your decision to get on the plane. I used to have a lot of military shoots, sometimes with active duty Navy Seals. They would often talk about the need to “not care” (they would use other words) to get through hard moments. Instead of trying to be tough, or even resilient, they would switch on the apathy. Be calm and be apathetic. When the moments are hardest, try not to care and accept where you are and what you are doing. If you need reassurance, look around you at all the other suffering people. You’re all in this weird experience together.
9. Electrolytes and water before the flight. And eat safe foods the night before.
Start preparing the night or day before. Drink a bottle of water on the way to the airport. And then bring a bottle of water with you onto the plane. Bring something with electrolytes–little gummy gels or gatorade powder that you can add to water. Stay hydrated. And bring ibuprofen in case you ignore my advice and get a headache on the plane.
Stick to foods or drinks that are safe for you to eat or drink. Don’t eat a bunch of Taco Bell right before the flight. Chocolate sometimes gives me migraines–maybe 1 out of 50 times. I would never eat chocolate the night or day before a flight like this. Why risk it? Peeing on a flight like this is easier than domestic flights; these big planes have ten or more bathrooms. Don’t be afraid to drink more than you would for a domestic flight. Also, don’t drink alcohol. That never works well for me–my advice would be to ignore alcohol altogether on such a long flight.
10. Start the flight well-rested. And sleep when you can on the flight.
A lot of people offer advice about avoiding jet lag. Opinions vary greatly on this. Often a pillar of this advice is to stay awake on the flight and sleep when you arrive. But this isn’t a flight to Europe or Hawaii. This is a 16HR flight. You’ll need to sleep. I tend to agree with those that suggest sleeping when you are tired and being awake when you feel awake. Worry about jet lag later and sleep when you can. Chances are if you are flying 16HRs you’ll be on a flipped time zone (opposite time from your home country). At this point it will be impossible to avoid jet lag (unless you switch time zones and sleep patterns to your new destination before you leave). I’d rather deal with that later at a comfy hotel or friend’s flat.
11. Leave your stuff in the overhead bin. And get it when you need it.
The overhead bins in these planes are huge. Don’t stress out about trying to squeeze everything in an overhead bin (don’t carry on your wardrobe either). Keep your stuff in the overhead for now. Put your 1) iPhone, 2) tablet, and 3) earbuds in the seat pocket in front of you. But leave your purse, backpack, or roller bag in the overhead above you. Having the extra foot room will really help.
12. Be prepared to join an elite club.
Seriously. Not many people get to say they flew one of the longest flights in the world. It’s a small group. Know this and embrace it. This is an adventure and a good bar story later. A friend text me before the flight, “enjoy the little slice of hell we call the ultra-long haul flight.” When I told one of the gate agents what I was about to do he gave me a weird look and a “god speed” type of blessing. When you’re cranky, tired, and facing the worst of what the flight throws at you know that it will be a good story later. Having a good attitude makes a big difference. Next time someone complains about their “exhausting 8HR flight to Heathrow” you can smile and silently make fun of them in your head. Welcome to the best of the best: the few that know what it’s like to be encased in a metal cylinder, hurtling at 40K feet, for an ungodly amount of time. Welcome to the little slice of hell we call the “ultra-long haul flight.”