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10 Tips to Improve Long Economy Flights

Transcontinental flights can be tedious and grueling, particularly if you can’t afford to splurge on business class. I was an English teacher in Malaysia for three years and flew multiple times between the central United States and Asia. There were usually several days and multiple legs to my journey. Especially if I was searching for the cheapest flight, my travel time could be more than 40 hours.

I would often arrive at my destination exhausted, smelly and feeling totally gross, less able to enjoy the brief time I had with family and friends.
After a while, I learned some things that made the journey not only a little bit more enjoyable, but also made my recovery time faster.

These include things like:

  • Don’t over pack your carry-on luggage
  • Spread your travel over multiple days
  • Make sure you move and hydrate
  • Wear multiple layers of clothing

1. Take short walks every few hours

No one wants to arrive at their destination with cankles. Swollen ankles are a common side effect for a long-haul flight, according to Mayo Clinic. One way to prevent this is the make sure you move. Standing, walking around the cabin or doing calf raises next to your seat can all help keep swelling down in your legs and ankles. You can set a timer for every hour or two so that you remember to move during your long flight. Also remember to drink plenty of water.

2. Switch up your entertainment options

While most long flights have a myriad of entertainment options available, there’s no guarantee your flight will have something that you really enjoy. It’s always good to have your favorite playlists and books downloaded to your device before you fly. I like to make special playlists of new music I want to listen to and also something chill in case I want to use it to drown out the in-cabin noise.

To give your eyes a break from screen time, bring a hard copy of a book. Sometimes I even splurge and buy a book in the airport. Another option is to fly with a journal so that you can write down your thoughts. If you are traveling with friends or family, travel-sized board games are a great way to pass the time.

3. Follow the food schedule of the airline

It can be tempting to avoid eating the on-flight meals, especially if it’s outside of the norm for the time zone you just departed. But nothing is worse than waking up from sleep and realizing you are going to have to wait a few more hours before you can eat again. Or if you decide not to eat on the plane, it could take a while for you to get through customs and border control.

It’s also a good idea to choose your meal beforehand if you have food allergies or intolerances. This step ensures that you will have food that you can enjoy without the stress of wondering how your body will react.

4. Break up the journey into several days

Although sometimes you are trying to get as quickly as possible to your destination, if you can, breaking up the journey can make your trip more bearable. Plus, you may even get to explore a new city. Some airlines offer free stopovers in connection cities and discounted travel packages. For a list of these airlines and their discounts, see this blog post by The Points Guy.

5. Practice self-care

I always try and pack some self-care basics in my carry-on that I can use on the airplane or in airport bathrooms. This helps me arrive at my destination feeling as fresh as I can. For example, I pack a hairbrush, facial wipes and deodorant. I also maximize the space in my clear liquids bag with travel-sized versions of my favorite toiletries. The TSA allows each traveler one clear, quart-sized plastic bag with containers of no more than 3.4 ounces each. I recently switched from using a sandwich bag to a more durable plastic makeup bag that had TSA-approved dimensions. I’ve had too many plastic bags get tears in them, so it’s nice to have something reusable that is going to lasts for many trips.

6. Snag an aisle seat

I get it, I too like a window seat for the birds-eye views of everything that is going on down below. But when I have a long flight, I prefer an aisle seat so that I can easily get up to walk around or go to the bathroom. If it’s not possible, of course you can wake up your seatmate and ask them to let you out, but I just find it easier to already be seated in the aisle.

7. Invest in a neck pillow

Airlines on transcontinental flights generally give you a small pillow to use during your flight. However, I would recommend buying a quality neck pillow. You will appreciate the extra support it gives you, especially if you are in an aisle or middle seat. There are lots of different brands and designs to choose from, so find one that is comfortable for you.

8. Put thought into how you pack your carry-on bag

It’s tempting to weigh down your carry-on bag down by stuffing as much as possible into it, especially if you are trying to not exceed the weight limit on your checked baggage. And while this may be necessary at times, I prefer to pack light when it comes to my carry-on baggage. The reason being that this bag has to come with me wherever I go in the airport and on any layovers, so I don’t want to be lugging around a heavy bag if possible.

I also try and pack one outfit into my carry-on in the off chance that my checked baggage will be lost or delayed. Then I at least have one change of clothing to wear at my destination.

9. Give yourself time to adjust after you land

If you are one of the few people who don’t experience jet-lag symptoms, I salute you. The jet lag I’ve experienced ranges from a general feeling of grogginess and discomfort to waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to go back to sleep. It’s a good idea to keep in mind that you could be affected by jet lag and schedule in some time to relax after you first arrive. It takes people an average of one to 1.5 hours to recover for each time zone that they’ve crossed, according to Sleep Foundation.

10. Dress in layers

It’s always good to have several different layers of clothing on when you fly. You may not need the warmer clothing when you depart, but there could be a layover in a cooler part of the world. Or it could be chilly on the airplane even though you’ve just departed from a tropical country. I remember one miserable, seven-hour layover where I forgot to check the temperature of my stopover, where it was a full 30 degrees cooler. The airport also left all of the windows open, so while everyone else was walking around in coats, I was shivering in my shorts and flip-flops.

Final thoughts

Traveling is one of the most enjoyable and life-changing experiences. There are steps you can take to make those long, economy flights more comfortable so that you have more energy when you step off the plane. That said, dealing with the unexpected is what gives you good stories after the fact. Be sure to take along your spirit of adventure and a sense of humor, and you can’t go wrong.

About the author

Samantha Bryant

Samantha Bryant is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. She tells the stories that showcase the heart of experiences, people and organizations. You can learn more about her services at