It’s funny how things change—when I first started traveling on my own, I thought New York to Los Angeles was a "long" flight. These days I regularly travel routes that rank in the top ten when it comes to the world’s longest flights. I’m not talking the six hours it takes to get from coast to coast, I’m talking about 15- to 19-hour nonstop flights.
I’ve flown the 16 hour and 55 minute route from Johannesburg to Atlanta on Delta (world’s fourth-longest flight) as well as Cathay Pacific’s New York to Hong Kong, which—at 16 hours and 5 minutes—is the world’s tenth-longest plane ride.
But to top it all, I just returned from a trip to the Maldives, and part of that journey included Singapore Airlines’ flight 21 from Newark to Singapore, currently the world’s longest commercial flight. The journey is a mere 18 hours and 50 minutes. (Singapore Airlines is cutting this route—as well as its Los Angeles to Singapore route—in late 2013. After that, you’ll need to book Qantas’ flight 7 from Sydney to Dallas if you want to say that you, too, have flown the world’s longest flight.)
People are often horrified when I tell them that I regularly fly 15 to 19 hours straight, and they always ask how I do it without going stir crazy. Here are my tried and true tips for surviving the world’s longest flights.
The single most important bit of advice I can give travelers who will be on a plane for ten or more hours at a time is that you need to be comfortable.
Choose Your Seat Wisely—Whenever possible, buy (or cash in frequent flyer miles for) a ticket in a premium cabin (first, business, or premium economy) or carefully select your coach seat. You’ll be stuck on the plane for a long time, so you don’t want to be confined in a middle seat. If you’re the type who likes to get up and walk around, snag an aisle.
Study the seat maps at your airline’s website and be sure to check out the advice offered at SeatGuru and SeatExpert. Bulkhead seats—the ones with a wall in front of you instead of another row of seats—can sometimes be a good bet, but are often reserved for families. Exit rows also provide extra legroom but the armrests are often immovable and that can be a drag. Consult your plane’s configuration before selecting a seat.
Remember that seats that were previously blocked for selection by elite flyers will open up 24 hours before check-in. If you were originally assigned a less than ideal seat, check for new options at the 24-hour mark or with the agent at the airport.
Wear Comfortable Clothes—If you’re flying long distances, you’ll be on the plane for several meals and at least one sleep cycle. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing or bring pajamas and change into them before you settle in for a nap. Also bring a toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, and change of underwear. You’ll definitely want to freshen up before landing.
Temperature Control—The airline will provide you with a blanket, but you may also want to bring a lightweight sweater in case the cabin is cold. (This is especially true if you’re seated in an exit row, which can get chilly.) I also always bring a small paper hand fan (the type you can pick up in Chinatown), because I often find long-haul flights to be quite warm. Dress in layers so you can adjust to the cabin temperature.
Block Out the World—My carry-on bag always contains earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, and an eye mask. When I want to sleep, I can effectively block out the chatter and lights around me. I find this approach almost always works, but it also doesn’t hurt to ask your doctor about the various sleep aids on the market.
Tip for Smokers—If you smoke, the mere thought of a long-haul flight on which you can’t light up probably makes you feel pretty agitated. Talk with your doctor about ways to handle the trip. You may need the assistance of a nicotine patch, nicotine gum, or even electronic cigarettes.
After I’ve boarded and gotten comfortable, my next aim is to remain healthy throughout the flight.
Hydrate and Moisturize—Airplane cabins are incredibly dry, so drink beverages, preferably water, throughout the flight. It doesn’t hurt to apply moisturizing lotion to your hands and face.
Exercise—Okay, you won’t be able to do a full cardio routine in the aisle, but you absolutely must get out of your seat every hour or so to walk around. While seated, you can do simple leg and arm lifts to keep your blood circulating.
Plan Your Sleep—If you’re flying 15 to 18 hours, you really should try to get some sleep. Decide if you want to sleep when your body decides it’s time or if you’re going to try and get on the time schedule of your destination. I generally try to plan my rest so that I can quickly adapt to my destination’s time zone. That seems to work best so I don’t sleep away the first day of my vacation due to jet lag or simple exhaustion.
Work or Play
Prepare for the long flight and be sure your carry-on is loaded with your laptop, tablet or e-reader, books and magazines, or MP3 player.
How to Stay Busy During the Flight—Today’s long-haul airplanes offer plenty to keep you occupied from a bar/lounge to WiFi and inflight entertainment options that range from first-run movies to television shows and a slew of music channels. Your seat will also have a power port so fire up your laptop and get some work done, if you’re so inclined.
Patience is the Key
The most important tip I can give you for your next long-haul flight is this: patience is a virtue. Mentally prepare yourself. It’s going to be a long flight. Accept it and enjoy being relatively unplugged for the next few hours. Get some rest. Talk with your travel companions. Enjoy the journey as well as the destination!
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com and writes for a variety of outlets, including her website Luxury Travel Mavens. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.
Photo credit: Photos courtesy of Singapore Airlines.