As flight attendants, we know how to survive long flights in economy.
Not only do we use our inside knowledge to make long flights as passengers more tolerable, but most of us have also amassed a lot of experience slumming it in economy when we fly standby.
Luckily for you, dear reader, I don’t gatekeep our tips. No, instead I have compiled them here to share with you, so you can make the best of a flight in economy.
Table of Contents
1) Choose the Right Seat
Surviving a long flight begins when you book your flight and select your seat. Unfortunately, there is no universal “right” seat because all aircraft are laid out differently and there are even variations in the configuration of the same aircraft from airline to airline. So it’s impossible to say 11C is the “right” seat.
Picking the right seat comes down to balancing a few very important factors.
- Location relative to lavatories:
You want to be as far away from the lavatories as you can get. They can get really smelly on long-haul flights, they are loud, and people always invade your personal space while they try to navigate in and out, or around other people waiting in line.
- Row number:
Picking a row closer to the front of the cabin means that you will get served faster and be more likely to have your choice of meal before they run out of the good one (if you didn’t pre-order). You are also less likely to be close to a lavatory and are far enough away from gallies that you won’t be kept awake by chatty flight attendants.
- Bulkhead or Exit Row:
A lot of airlines charge extra for the bulkhead and exit rows, so they must be better, right? Not necessarily. If you are taller than 6ft2 (188cm) you may want to consider a bulkhead or exit row, because you will have more legroom. But there are downsides.
- Bulkheads and exit rows tend to be located close, if not next to, the lavatories.
- If you sit in the middle section of a mid-cabin bulkhead row, people will cut through your legroom to get to the unoccupied lavatory on the other side of the plane.
- Exit rows tend to be much colder than the rest of the cabin.
- Aisle or Window:
The age-old debate… Sit in the window so you can rest your head on the wall, but you have to ask everyone to move anytime you need to pee. Or sit in the aisle, so you can move about freely without bothering anyone, but you can’t lean your head against anything… What will it be? The discomfort of holding it, or neck pain…
💡 Pro tip: go for the aisle seat and invest in a good, ergonomic travel pillow. Those U-shaped things are useless. My personal favorite is the Turtle travel neck wrap. It keeps you warm and supports your neck. So you can sit in your aisle seat and sleep well too.
Now that you can narrow down the “right” seat from a seating chart you have to be able to get that seat.
Pay for your seat selection if you have to, so you can get the seat that checks all your boxes.
I know it’s annoying to pay to select a seat when that used to be free. Now that airlines are offering multiple economy fares (basic, standard, and premium) you either have to buy a more expensive base fare or pay the fee to pick your seat.
Unless you are aiming for a seat in an exit or bulkhead row, the fee shouldn’t be more than $40 or $50 and trust me that money is worth it, especially for flights longer than 6 hours.
2) Wear Comfortable Clothing
Wearing comfortable clothing is essential if you want to survive a long flight in economy. There are some really cute and practical outfit ideas out there that are perfect for long-haul flights.
The key is to avoid tight-fitting clothing because long flights tend to cause water retention, meaning the snug jeans that fit perfect in the airport may start to feel unbearable by the time you land. Instead, opt for stretchy and loose-fitting clothes that you can layer. And always bring a jacket!
Here’s a quick run-down of my personal go-to long-haul outfit.
- Lose t-shirt
- Button up flannel, cardigan, or zip-closure layer
- Soft jacket
What NOT to wear on a long-haul flight
These are some outfits that you just should not wear on a long-haul flight. Here are the ones I’ve seen people wear, and I can only imagine they regret their life choices.
- Rompers: unless you are a contortionist it is impossible to get these off in the confines of an airplane lavatory.
- Leather pants: too hot when it’s hot, too cold when it’s cold. Not to mention, probably not very fun to sit in for hours and hours.
- Hoodies: pulling a hoodie on and off, especially in a middle or an aisle seat can be challenging. I made this mistake once pulled a muscle trying to wiggle out of it without disturbing my aisle mates.
- Shorts: Unless you run really warm, I’d avoid wearing shorts, even in the summer. It can get really, really cold on long-haul flights. Even light-weight pants are better than shorts.
3) Bring Snacks
Yes, even though there are typically at least 2-3 food and beverage services on long-haul flights, it is a good idea to pack some snacks you enjoy eating to help keep you from getting hangry between services.
The truth is you never know what will happen on a long-haul flight. Even though we do our best to make double-check the catering to make sure we have enough food onboard to last the flight, sometimes things go wrong, and we run out. Therefore, it’s always better to be prepared with a few things to munch on.
If you have special dietary needs it is even more important to bring snacks that you know you can eat safely (and remember to pre-order your meal). More than once I have had to ruefully let a passenger know that I did not have any snacks that were gluten-free onboard.
Here’s a shopping list with snack ideas to help you prepare for your next long flight.
- Fresh fruits (apple slices, oranges, pineapple, mango)
- Fresh veggies (carrots, celery, broccoli, tomatoes)
- Crackers or chips
- Protein bars
- Something sweet
Just remember you are not allowed to bring anything classified as a liquid through security. This includes peanut butter!
4) Stay Hydrated
It’s also good to stay hydrated. Long-haul flights can be very dehydrating, and truth be told, other than water, most of the beverages we serve are dehydrating, making things worse. This is why I recommend bringing a refillable water bottle to the airport so you can fill it up once you’ve gone through security.
Although it’s also a good idea to splurge a little in those over-priced airport convenience stores to get something that also has electrolytes in it, like Vitamin Water or coconut water.
Alternatively, you can bring Emergen-C packets to mix with your water. They not only contain electrolytes but also Vitamin C and Zinc which support your immune system, so you don’t end up getting whatever flight-flu may be going around.
5) Bring Your Own Entertainment
Long flights can be extremely dull if you don’t have anything to occupy your time. Although we have grown accustomed to the fancy seat-back entertainment systems that have become a staple for most airlines. There’s always the chance yours will be broken. Furthermore, some airlines are starting to actually take the seat-back tablets out, in favor of letting passengers use their own devices.
To prevent yourself from the hell of having nothing to do, you can take measures to prepare your own entertainment. Here’s how I prepare for a long flight.
- Download some movies and TV episodes to watch offline if needed. Most airlines offer a media library that you can access from your own device, but these might not be reliable if the inflight wi-fi is down. Don’t forget to bring a charger for your device!
- Bring something to read or download e-books on your device.
- Pack a flight-friendly hobby. Knitting is a common favorite, my dad brings crossword puzzles, I love an adult coloring book and a fresh pack of markers.
- Make sure you have playlists downloaded so you don’t need a connection to listen to your music.
- Download a sleep sounds app so you can play relaxing music or white noise while you are trying to sleep or rest.
6) Bring Comfort Items
I’ve referenced travel pillows, layers, and scarves already, but it’s worth emphasizing the value of bringing comfort items with you on long-haul flights.
A soft jacket is a necessity no matter what the weather is like outside. It’s miserable to be cold on planes.
Other comfort items that are worth bringing include:
- An extra blanket (this one is perhaps the perfect travel blanket for getting stuck in economy).
- A soft eye mask I like the ones that go all the way around your head so they don’t pull on your ears.
- Something to cuddle (like a large pillow or plush)
- Earplugs (these Loop ear plugs are my favorite I travel with them everywhere).
- Headband headphones are a great two-in-one for flying. They play music without putting a lot of pressure on your ears like earbuds, and you can wear it as an eye mask.
If I know I am going to be on an airplane for longer than 6 hours I bring my squishmallow. Sure I may look a little silly walking through the airport with a plush hedgehog under one arm, but I promise you it’s worth it. Before I started bringing Hans with me, my arms would go numb from crossing them while I slept. Cuddling my plush has helped prevent my arms from falling asleep in weird positions.
7) Try to Adjust to the New Time Zone
Once you board the plane manually set your phone to the time zone your destination is. You can use the flight to start adjusting, which will significantly reduce your jet lag when you arrive. The best way to do this is:
- Eat when you would normally eat in the new time zone.
- Stay awake if it isn’t nighttime in the new time zone, or sleep if it is.
This might be hard to do when you have no control over the timing of meal services but trust me it does help.
8) Stay Organized
Most long-haul flights are international flights, making it extra important to stay organized after you get on the plane, so you don’t risk losing important items like your passport, visas, or phone.
To help you stay organized, keep a personal item with you that is easy to organize and has lots of designated pockets for things, so you always put things back. If your personal item is too big it will be hard to access during your flight so, try to bring something you can pull up through your legs while seated. That way you are less likely to put things in the seat back pocket.
This Baggallini tote is just about the perfect size and has plenty of pockets to help you stay organized.
Surviving Long Flights FAQ
➡️ How can I minimize jet lag during long flights?
The best way to minimize jet lag during long flights is to set your phone to the new time zone and try to eat and sleep when it would be “normal” to do so in that time zone. Staying hydrated will also help minimize the fatigue of jet lag.
➡️ How can I sleep better on a long-haul flight?
Pack an ergonomic travel pillow, an eye mask, headphones or ear plug, a blanket, and something to snuggle. It’s also possible to take gentle sleep aids like melatonin to help you fall asleep. Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine before and during the flight.
➡️ Are there exercises I can do during the flight to prevent discomfort?
It’s good to get up and walk up and down the aisle to stretch and prevent blood clots if you can. If not, try gently marching your legs up and down while seated and do a few foot circles.
Shoulder rolls, shrugs, and head circles are also helpful.
If there is room to stand and stretch it is okay to do so when safe, but never use aircraft doors or flight attendant jump seats to support you.
➡️ Is it advisable to sleep for the entire flight?
No, sleeping the whole flight can make it harder for you to adjust to your new time zone and prolong your jet lag symptoms.
Though you may arrive well rested by sleeping through the whole flight, it’s better to assimilate your sleep schedule with that of your destination, even if it means less sleep.
➡️ Can I bring my own food on the flight?
Yes! Just make sure they are able to pass through security.
If you choose to bring fruits, veggies, and/or dairy products onto an international flight, be aware you may have to consume them or discard them before you land. And remember, no peanut butter!
➡️ How can I make the most of layovers?
If you have a stop-over it’s a good idea to walk around the terminal between flights, use the rest room, and hydrate. It’s also much easier to stretch in the terminal than it is the airplane.
Some airports, like Chicago O’Hare, even have designated rooms where you can do some Yoga or Plates between flights.
➡️ What can I do to stay entertained during long flights?
Read, write, watch movies, work on an activity book, try a new hobby, meditate. There are plenty of things you can do to occupy your time while on a flight.
I have written an entire term paper on a flight between Germany and the US before.
➡️ How can I maintain good circulation during flight?
Make sure you get up and move once every few hours, even if it is just to go to the bathroom. Wearing compression socks is also a great way to improve your circulation and prevent blood clots on longer flights.
➡️ Is there a recommended skincare routine for long flights?
It’s refreshing and can feel really good to do a little skincare on long flights. I personally tend to pack gentle cleansing wipes, moisturizing mist, and little jelly under-eye masks for long flights.
After the arrival service, I cleanse my face and apply the jelly masks for about 15 minutes, then I spritz my face with the mist.
Flying economy on long-haul flights can be brutal, but there are ways to make the trip comfortable.
I hope these tips are helpful the next time you have to slum it in economy on a longer flight.
If you have any tried-and-true tips that have helped you survive long flights in the cheap seats, let me know in the comments!