How to Stay Sane on a Long Flight

The mere wording “long flight” is a subjective one, I’ll admit. For one person, a long flight might be anything more than 2 hours, and for another it might be anything longer than 6 hours. For me, a long flight would be anything more than 5 or 6 hours, so for the purpose of the rest of this post, we’ll go with that length of time.

The longest flight I’ve ever taken was when I flew to New Zealand, which was really two consecutive long flights. I flew from North Carolina to San Francisco, California, then from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand. The flight to San Francisco was 6 hours and from San Francisco to Auckland is a 13 hour flight. These were both long flights, but surprisingly, they didn’t seem that long. I’ve also flown across the United States many times including going from the east coast to Hawaii twice, flown from the US to Europe multiple times, and from the US to Chile. What are my secrets for surviving on long flights?

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12 hour flight time to get to Chile but we got views like this in return!

I always try to book direct flights whenever possible. Stay with me here. I realize this makes for longer flights than if you have a couple of shorter flights with layover(s) in between, but you get to your destination quicker with less layovers, and that’s the ultimate goal for me. If I have to pay less than $50 per person more for a direct flight versus one with a stop, it’s a no-brainer that I’ll take the direct flight. When it’s more expensive than that, it gets a little trickier. I will say that very rarely have I ever had more than two stops on a flight to anywhere I’ve flown. I avoid flights with four or (god forbid) more stops like the plague. I’d rather have one stop (or less) on a plane and drive for 4 hours in the car than two stops on a flight and not have to drive when I got there. Maybe that’s just me, but that’s how I roll.

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11 hours flight time to get to Hawaii- so worth it!

In my smaller carry-on (I never check my bags) I pack my tablet, a paperback book (I’m old-school and prefer paper to electronic books), and a magazine or two. By the end of my vacation, the magazine will be finished and recycled, and if I finish reading the book, that will either be recycled or donated before I return home (less to carry back). Between all of this I always have plenty of reading material for the plane and rest of my vacation. I always watch a movie on the plane as well, but usually one is plenty for me unless it’s a really long flight.

OK so reading material and the in-flight movie should come as no surprise. I also adjust my watch to the time zone I am flying to as soon as I get on the plane and have found this to be extremely helpful. When I flew to New Zealand I ate when it would have been dinnertime in New Zealand (versus Pacific time where I flew out of), and I slept when it would have been my bedtime in New Zealand. That way when I landed I had already given my body a head start on the new time zone.

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19 hours flight time to New Zealand!  Worth it?  YES!

I swear by my eye mask and wear it not only on long flights but every night at home as well. Ear plugs, ear buds, or noise-canceling headphones are all great for long flights as well. I’ve tried various travel pillows and none of them have really worked for me, but they are an option as they do work for many other people. I usually just crumple up my jacket and use that as a pillow. A window seat is great for leaning your head against too. All this being said, I think I’m going to try an inflatable travel pillow again since it’s been a while since I’ve used one and I’d like to see how it goes.

My daughter and I have also passed the time on long flights by playing card games, coloring when she was younger, playing Pictionary, and just goofing off being silly. My husband is a much better sleeper on an airplane than either my daughter or me so it helps that she and I can help entertain each other.

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Photo taken from the plane somewhere over the midwest en route to Colorado

I limit alcohol consumption on a plane to one small glass of wine with dinner at the most. Your body doesn’t process alcohol as quickly on a plane as on the ground so you feel the effects more profoundly and I have no intention of getting drunk on a flight. I also limit the use of sleep-aids on flights and only use Benadryl when I’m exhausted but just can’t sleep at all. Most of all, I have low expectations for sleeping on a long flight. If I get a couple of hours of sleep, that’s good for me.

Another thing to pack in your carry-on is plenty of snacks. I like to pack nuts, Kind bars, and dried fruit for just about every vacation I go on. Depending on the regulations of the country you’re flying to, dried fruit may not be allowed into a foreign country so if you bring it just be sure you finish it before you get off the plane.

Wearing comfortable clothes is also a must-do for long flights. Since airplanes are usually freezing cold, I’ll wear comfy pants and a short-sleeve shirt with a nice, soft hoodie or sweater so I can adjust if I get too warm. Compression socks are also great to have for long flights to help with circulation in your feet and lower legs. I personally like CEP compression socks and have found them to be some of the best ones out there.

The final thing that helps me survive a long flight is actually what I do when I get off the plane. As soon as I get off the airplane I adjust completely to my new time zone. If it’s time for breakfast at my destination, I will eat even if I’m not that hungry.  I don’t drink coffee but a cup of tea helps me stay alert. One of the worst things you can do is check-in your hotel and sleep for a few hours. A 20 minutes nap would be fine but any longer is just going to make it harder to adjust. If it’s nighttime then of course go to bed and try to sleep until it’s as close to your usual wake-up time as possible.

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Las Vegas is one of our “shorter” cross-country flights at 5 1/2 hours

What about you all? What tips for surviving a long flight do you have? I love to hear tips like this from fellow travelers so please share.

Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

12 thoughts on “How to Stay Sane on a Long Flight”

    1. If you don’t get up and walk around the plane, you can develop deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in the legs. Compression socks help with circulation. A lot of runners wear compression socks to help with circulation as well.

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  1. Great post as always Donna…we love hearing about your travels and adventures. In terms of long flights, I try to view them as an opportunity…a chance to catch up on the all the stuff that I complain about never having enough time to do! Like blogging, reading the past 3-4 months of Runners World, designing a new training plan – those kind of things. For me, having my laptop really helps. Paula and AJ do well with movies but I tend to prefer my laptop and I’m usually good for an hour or so of sleep. Never been to New Zealand but would love to go sometime…we love Hawaii, we’re looking at Kauai next.

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    1. Thank you, James. That’s a great way of looking at long flights. I really should do more of that kind of thing like blogging and catching up on other things. I’ll have to keep that in mind for my next long flight! New Zealand is without a doubt the most beautiful, most unique place I’ve ever been. Hawaii is incredible too, as you know. We went to Kauai on our second trip to Hawaii and loved Waimea Canyon there. Take a boat tour around Napali Coast if you can, or at least hike around there. The views are fantastic!

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  2. It was in 2004, when I visited there with my granddaughter two week. My daughter worked there three months. She was an IT trainer.

    We had great time together and enjoyed it. We also made a bus trip to Valparaíso, which was beautiful. My daughter received there heartily, because her first name was the same than a street in Santiago de Chile.

    Street was El camino del Inca and Inca is the name of my daughter. Can You imagine that my daughter has her own street there? 🙂

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  3. I wish I could sleep on a plane, but the movement keeps me awake. These are fabulous tips. I’m a gamer, so I always have games downloaded, as well as watching the movies they have available. 😊

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    1. Thank you, Paula. It’s tough to sleep on a plane for sure. I don’t know how people can sleep so soundly for hours on end while flying! They must be the type that can just sleep anywhere, anytime. My daughter is the gamer in the family, so she’s always playing games on her tablet or recently her phone. I don’t complain when we’re traveling, though, because it’s keeping her occupied!

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  4. I started wearing ear plugs and eye masks when I go to bed and now I never travel without them. 🙂 It’s funny as I’m reading this at the airport in anticipation of my “long flight,” which would be about 6 hours. I didn’t bring any reading material because motion sickness is a real thing for me. I’ll probably just be listening to podcasts as well as watching movies on my computer. 🙂

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    1. Ear plugs and my eye mask are definitely two things I always have on hand when I’m traveling and they’re probably the most important ones for me. My husband has really bad motion sickness. We’ve discovered Bonine works great for him and doesn’t make him so drowsy he can’t function. I’ve taken it once or twice and found it makes me a little sleepy but not as bad as the “less drowsy” version of Dramamine. It’s been a life-saver for my husband anyway.

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