I have clocked hundreds of thousands of air miles in the past 40 years, and for those new to flying, I can attest that it doesn't get any better. Sorry. Some might say air travel is the worst it has ever been.
I've flown through most of the world's time zones, slept on airport floors, and feared for my life while my China Eastern 737 braved a tropical storm and was forced to land — I have seen it all.
So, with all my miles behind me, I have some insight for anyone with a long-haul flight coming up with these tips for flying in peace. Some of these thoughts may be helpful; others likely confirm that I am merely a jaded human being.
Things seem to be getting worse for the average jet-setter. Prices have risen, and in May last year, they reached the highest mark on record. This cost reflected the economic implications of the war in Ukraine and a surge in air-fuel expenses.
These have dropped but remain higher than a year ago. Oh, and your legroom is shrinking, according to recent reports.
Moreover, it isn't hard to find countless videos and memes featuring members of the flying public throwing shade, fists, or even drinking vessels at one another.
Mike Tyson made headlines after retaliating to a persistent fan throwing a water bottle at him on a JetBlue flight last year. The incident raises an important question everyone has been asking: Mike Tyson flies JetBlue?
Thankfully, I have not encountered any mile-high malice; I have yet to help duct-tape a hostile human to a chair or be at the whim of a patience-sapped air Karen.
Of course, the airline you use is a dealbreaker. Without naming names, we all know which ones to avoid — Mike Tyson will still fly JetBlue, though. He is Mike Tyson.
My tip: don't fly at night when people are more likely to drink before flying or in the early morning when they are irritable. However, it's a jungle out there — be safe!
The Luggage Sprawl of Shame
Nothing tees up a woeful journey more than the overweight suitcase at the check-in. Before you shake your head in disapproval, admit it: you've done it too. Every weary traveler has, at some point, suffered the sprawl of shame below the counter.
It is a bleak experience: trying to work out how to squeeze your running shoes (which won't be used anyway) into your hand luggage as a vicarious yet sympathetic audience looks on — some of whom will give their bags a skeptical glance in fear.
There are ways around this, but nothing beats a hanging digital luggage scale.
These are cheap and easy to use, but most importantly, you will never sprawl again.
The Jet Lag Question
There have been multiple studies on jet lag, with one from Clifford Saper of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Dr. Saper, with a team of colleagues, found that mice could regulate circadian sleep patterns better through a lack of food. This natural defense means the body reserves energy consumption until necessary.
Such a breakthrough has led to much-reported success using this method, although no clinical trials are complete as yet.
In short, fasting on flights is the key.
Jet Lag Freedom?
International English language arts teacher Jebediah lives in Hanoi, Vietnam, and spends summer and the occasional Christmas in Charleston, SC. He insists on using a method to beat jet lag in one day.
“My rule is to never eat on the flight, but always before at the airport of departure,” he explains. “I fast on the first flight, eating at the midway airport stopover; I fast again on the next flight too, then eat again at the usual mealtime at my destination.”
Regulating meals is only one part. You can do plenty of things to help with sleep on arrival, including exercise and deep breathing; even reading helps. Regardless, there is another, more accessible measure one can take to halt insomnia that night.
“Once I arrive, I will take between five and ten milligrams of melatonin before bedtime to help my sleep patterns,” Jason concludes. “So, a mix of eating right and melatonin works. I have tried this a few times, and it worked every time. I used to get struck by jet lag, too.”
For any American traveling to eastern Asia, this is sage advice.
Flying Solo With Children
All economy travelers have endured the familiar screaming-infant-on-an-airplane trope, and as hard as you may find it, spare a thought for the poor parent. Not only do we have to wrangle our infant traveler, but we also have to endure dozens of cold stares, even the occasional comment or word of “advice.”
I once had seven hours of a London to NYC flight alone with a colicky six-month-old. Thankfully, he slept for the first hour, just enough for me to eat the in-flight meal. As I took my last bite, he awoke in the bassinet, which signaled six hours of a wriggling banshee in my hands.
To save my poor sky neighbors' sanity, I spent much of this time standing at the forefront of the fuselage like a flight attendant, trying to calm my stressed baby, feeling every eye burning a hole through me. I was the destroyer of their peace — I understand.
Flying with a little one? Here's what you bring
My checklist for traveling long-haul with a child is endless, and some essentials cannot be missed.
I bring something to draw on, coloring-in books, small toys, teddy bears, comics or picture books, snacks, fruit, water bottles (milk if they are still feeding); finally, some kind of failsafe, fully-charged screen device, such as a Kindle Fire with a selection of movies, lest their personal screen not work.
Most importantly, you must bring your parent's game face and a deep well of patience.
Making Yourself at Home
I like to strike a balance between comfort and presentation when flying. While I would be happier wearing sweatpants, I don't wish to inflict this look on the world.
Loose pants with elastic (belts are a hindrance in security anyway) and a few layers are ideal — cruising altitude is cold, so keeping warm is crucial.
My wife holds the record for the number of neck pillows left on flights, though she still persists. I am no fan of the neck pillow as it is too warm and forces my neck into a rigid position. I favor taking a scarf, which I roll up and wedge behind my neck, and maybe a sweater (or airline pillow) behind my lumbar region.
Earplugs are useful on long flights and definitely help with keeping out some of the top-end noise, though you need to insert them correctly and hold them in as they expand. If I really must sleep, I use noise-canceling headphones with white noise on a playback loop.
To Lean or Not to Lean
There is a longstanding controversy over inclining seats on a flight. For some reason, those who are against it are so vehement that they lose all sense of reason. I can agree with their concerns — some travelers have zero seat etiquette.
If you push their seat back the minute the plane takes off, recline their seat the moment they finish their meal, or recline without warning or care, you are an enemy to the weary traveler.
Moreover, if you are that person who uses headrests to support your journey down the aisle, you are just as annoying. Please stop!
I like to think I have good etiquette about inclining seats. My rule goes that if the flight is short, there is no need to recline. However, if you are on long haul and it is lights-out time, I see no problem, especially if people are asleep. There is a time and place to recline, and reading the room plays a part.
So, there are some reflections of a weary air traveler. May your flights be comfortable, your luggage safe, and all your future journeys free of angry air Karens.
Raised in England and with a career background in international education, Ben now lives in Southern Spain with his wife and son, having lived on three continents, including Africa, Asia, and North America. He has worked diverse jobs ranging from traveling film projectionist to landscape gardener.
He offers a unique, well-traveled perspective on life, with several specialties related to his travels. Ben loves writing about food, music, parenting, education, culture, and film, among many other topics. His passion is Gen-X geekery, namely movies, music, and television.
He has spent the last few years building his writing portfolio, starting as a short fiction author for a Hong Kong publisher, then moving into freelance articles and features, with bylines for various online publications, such as Wealth of Geeks, Fansided, and Detour Magazine.