Getting Comfortable on Long-haul International Flights

If you don’t travel very often, everything about a long-haul flight experience can seem intimidating—the long hours in the air, the choice of seats, choosing an airline, wondering if and how well you will be fed, dealing with boredom. And then there’s the price. Long flights can put you into sticker shock within seconds of clicking “Search for Flights.” If you don’t know how to prepare for a long flight, your trip can quickly turn into a nightmare.

To keep long-haul flying from becoming a nightmare, here are some tips to consider before booking your international flight.

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Choose Your Long-haul Flight Based on More Than Just Price

The numbers involved with long-haul flight pricing start to become a little scary—there are almost no three-figure long-haul prices out there, and the sticker shock can sting.

However, when you start to think about a long-haul flight as a by-the-hour experience, a higher cost on comfort with stellar entertainment and good food may start to seem attractive. The alternative is a hellish flight on a cramped plane with bad movies showing on overhead screens.

Review your options carefully when weighing price vs. amenities. If you’re going to be on a plane for a total of 30 hours coming and going and it costs an extra $150 to get a better flight on a better airline, ask yourself if a better seat, with better food, better movies, and better service are worth just $5/hour more?

Watch Out for Hellish Connections

Sometimes it’s impossible to get from one point to another on a single flight. You may have to choose a connecting flight. On a long-haul flight, where you will in many cases make your connection on foreign soil, changing planes can headache. Often it will involve clearing customs, picking up your luggage, getting to a different terminal, rechecking your bags, clearing security again, etc.—this can take hours sometimes.

You may see a connection that the airline thinks is reasonable—but often these decisions are made based on computer-imposed time frames, and simply aren’t possible. A connection may be “legal,” but that doesn’t mean you can make it happen, or even come close.

A new tool called Hipmunk has come up with a rating it calls “Agony Index.” They take into account a combination of price, duration, and the number of connections to display their rating. You see the results graphically as multi-colored bars that show you the lengths of layovers for each of your flight segments.

All Airlines Are Not Created Equal

You find the greatest differences between airlines when it comes to international long-haul travel. When shopping, you should consider the following with three things:

  • Food
  • Entertainment
  • Comfort

For food, almost all international flights include a nice frequency of meals. However, you will want to do some research on the meal offerings of your various airline options if you are a picky eater. All airlines have this information on their websites. Another cool tool is AirlineMeals.net. They give you thousands of pictures from different meals on countless airlines.

Also, plan on packing additional snacks. For instance, if you eat a handful of trail mix every morning to get you through to lunch when you’re at home or work, plan on packing some when you fly.

After ensuring you’ll like the food, you will want to think about how you’re going to fill the hours on the plane, which will pass more slowly than you think. In particular, a decent choice of in-flight movies is critical. Having a seatback screen rather than overhead screens on a long-haul flight is of the utmost importance. Seatback screens offer two significant advantages:

  • Over the course of several hours, you’re less likely to end up with a sore neck.
  • Seatback systems usually offer much greater variety, so you are able to choose what interest you. This means you’re not stuck watching whatever bad movie that has been loaded for everyone to watch on an overhead screen.

An excellent resource to help you here is SeatGuru. Its seating charts include information about seat locations, sizes, and whether the aircraft has seatback or overhead screens. They can also tell you whether your seat will have an outlet to charge your phone or tablet. This is especially important if you’re bringing your own movies, music, or TV.

Choose Your Airline Wisely

Research what type of plane your airline options fly and how they have configured the aircraft before purchasing your international flight. This information will not only help you when you select your seats immediately after your purchase but in choosing between competing airlines for the same route.

There are a few other seat considerations to take into account. Having a seat that reclines, without foot area obstructions, and does not have a ton of passenger traffic, and has a window, etc., will make a massive difference over the course of 15 hour long-haul flight as opposed to four or five-hour flight. Make sure your aircraft and your specific seats do not show any yellow or red flags on SeatGuru.

Do What You Can to Get an Upgrade on a Long-Haul Flight

The only international flight I was ever sorry to see come to an end was the one where we upgraded to first class. It was a game-changer. Having seats that reclined into a flat sleeping surface made all the difference in the world when we arrived in Barcelona, Spain with 6 hours of sleep under our belts.

We almost accidentally didn’t get it! My husband had read online that the airline had a flat-rate upgrade fee, so he casually asked about it at the ticket counter. As it turned out, it was true, and they just happened to have two seats left. At first we were told we wouldn’t be sitting together, but they were able to find a way to arrange that anyway. After getting on the plane and seeing that even though we were next to each other, we still weren’t necessarily close, we both decided that for international travel, proximity isn’t as important as comfort.

Check for upgrades before, during, and after you book your flight. Also, see First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade for some ideas.

Loyalty Program Perks

If you are going to endure 14 hours in the air both coming and going on a long trip, you might as well get some frequent flyer benefit from it. You may even want to choose an airline with which you already have a membership or at least one that’s in the same alliance as the airline you belong to.

Choose Your Travel Clothing Carefully for Long-haul Flights

When it comes to a long-haul flight is hugely important to choose comfortable clothes. These choices become critical when you remember that you will likely want to do the following:

  • Fall asleep. Choose clothes that are forgiving of slumping in your seat and “rolling over” without clinging.
  • Take off your shoes. Go for footwear that can be easily removed and slipped back on again, all without having to strain to reach under the seat in front of you.
  • Walk around. Pick shoes that are comfortable and easy to balance in case the plane hits some turbulence.
  • Stretch. Choose clothes that move with you.

Bringing It all Together

So my real advice to you for faring an international flight and retaining your sanity comes down to three things:

  1. Plan carefully
  2. Upgrade if you can
  3. Dress comfortably

What are your tips for making the best out of your international long-haul flights? Discuss in the comments.

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