The image above depicts a long-haul economy class that only exists in the minds of those who work in the Cathay Pacific (or some other airline’s) marketing department. For everyone else, the reality is a cramped and dark environment that’s crammed full with irritating passengers and irritable flight attendants. As the flight goes into its umpteenth hour, you’re uncomfortable from sitting in the same place for hours; you can’t feel your legs anymore and your butt hurts. Meanwhile, you’re floating in and out of consciousness as you try to fend off boredom. The worst moment comes when you’re tired and hungry and miserable, but there are still three hours remaining in your flight. Gah!

Thankfully, you don’t have to suffer such an unpleasant fate! Here are 10 (or so) ways that will help minimize the agony that comes with sitting in a cramped metal tube while hurtling through the sky.

10. Travel exclusively in a carry-on (and personal item)

I realize that a lot of people who are flying in long-haul economy class are probably going on longer vacations, and correspondingly, need a good amount of clothes for the time they’re away. This is especially true in the winter time, and it can be hard to cram a week’s worth of winter clothing into a relatively tiny carry-on.

briggs reilly carry on
My go-to carry-on, the Briggs & Riley Domestic Carry-On

But if you can get away with only using a carry-on and personal item, you’ll be thankful. When you minimize the amount of bags you have, you’ll probably enjoy the fact that…

  • You won’t have to schlep unwieldy bags through the airport
  • You probably won’t lose your luggage
  • You won’t have to wait at the baggage carousel after a long flight
  • Airport staff won’t be rummaging through your bags (that happens a lot more than you might think)
  • You’ll save on checked bag fees
  • Everything you packed will be right there with you every step of the way

All that together makes for a much more pleasant travel experience.

10a. If you must check bags, keep some toiletries and two changes of clothes with you

Imagine you just boarded a plane in Los Angeles that is going to Tokyo. The trip is anticipated to take 13 hours, but the main meal service starts shortly after takeoff; within the first 45 minutes or so. You ask for the noodles with tomato sauce and a side of garlic bread. You eat the bread, only to find it overpoweringly garlic flavored. Then, you accidentally drop some pasta in your lap, staining your clothing with red goop. You probably would not want to have bad breath and soiled clothing for the remaining 12 hours of that plane ride.

Think that was bad? Now imagine you just got off that 13 hour flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. You don’t know a word of Japanese, haven’t slept in almost 24 hours, and after navigating to the baggage claim, you realize that your luggage has disappeared. If you didn’t think to bring toiletries and a change of clothes in your carry-on, you would still be in the clothing covered in tomato sauce, plus you’d still have atrocious garlic breath.

By keeping travel toiletries, you could change and brush your teeth immediately after the first incident, and then not feel gross for the rest of the flight. Feeling good goes a long way in surviving long-haul economy (and long after that), so keep a just-in-case bag for when something goes awry.

UA Amenity Kit
Use leftover amenity kits to make just-in-case bags with all the essential toiletries!

9. Invest in a travel wallet

A travel wallet complements a just-in-case bag pretty nicely. When you don’t have your important documents organized (i.e. passports, boarding passes, emergency credit cards, etc), international travel can get pretty chaotic, regardless of which class you’re flying in. Losing your passport in the middle of an international trip would be awful, and a travel wallet can help you keep your belongings organized and in place. They’re not too expensive either, and you won’t ever have to worry about misplacing something in the seatback pocket again!

8. Board early (or die trying)

Unless you have elite status with an airline or own one of its co-branded credit cards, you’ll be among the last people to board an airplane. Thankfully, most airlines will let passengers pay to board early, and it’s in your best interest to pay for that privilege.

But everyone is gonna board the plane just fine! Can’t I just save that money?

Yes, but if you’re flying in economy class, not everyone is gonna have space for their bags in the overhead compartments.

But I can just put my carry-on under my seat if all the overheads are full!

Yes, but you’re gonna have a bad time if there’s a suitcase restricting your legroom for hours. In economy class, every last inch matters, and you don’t want to lose any more of the valuable space in front of you. It’ll make huge difference in terms of how comfortable you are for the duration of the flight.

gate lice
What’s worse than waiting in lines like these? Not having overhead space after you make it through! Do everything you can to board early.

7. Don’t be afraid to sit at the very back of the plane

The rear section of the plane has an undeserving bad rap. Sure, you’re usually the last one on the plane (but not if you have priority boarding) and then the limited overhead space for your bags has been taken already by others (but not if you have priority boarding), but besides that, the seats and quality of service are exactly the same as economy in the front-cabin (barring some exceptions, consult seatguru.com on a case-by-case basis).

Because most travelers have aversions to sitting in the back, you’re more likely to have an empty seat next to you, or better yet, an empty row. Then you could stretch out, and maybe even properly sleep flat. Either way, with more available room, you’ll feel more comfortable as you slog through your long haul flight.

seatguru.com is a great resource if you need help deciding on the best spot on the plane. I always check this website before selecting a seat to ensure that I won’t be without a window, too close to the lavatory or galley, or with limited legroom or recline.

sleeping in economy class
Use an empty row to sleep fully flat…even in economy class! You’re more likely to be able to do that towards the back of the plane… but nothing is promised

6. Find a way to exercise on board

Obviously there’s no room to do some intense workout regimen in economy class, but you should at least aim to walk around the cabin every two or three hours. Otherwise, you risk subjecting yourself to Deep Vein Thrombosis. This occurs when you continuously sit in one position for too long (like in an airplane), and blood flow slows and collects before eventually clotting. With low cabin pressure and perhaps dehydration, the risks are even further elevated. Every now and then, you’ll hear stories about passengers dying from pulmonary embolisms, or blood clots that block the lungs.

Don’t let either of these happen to you. Walking the cabin every now and then is a good way to ensure you won’t get hurt, as is stretching the muscles in your lower body. Your legs will thank you as you move around a bit, plus it will make long haul economy class a little less agonizing.

 

airplane stretches
Suggested stretches you can/should do in your seat, courtesy of Eva Air.

 

5. Sleeping aids might be your friend…

valium
Valium is a popular sleep aid for frequent flyers.

Taking sleep-inducing medications is a controversial topic among frequent flyers. I never take them, but I know plenty of people who do. If you only want to sleep during the flight, then by all means, take a sleeping aid. Just be aware that…

  • You might be very groggy upon waking up/landing
  • You might wake up stiff and uncomfortable after sleeping so deeply in an economy class seat
  • Being knocked out for so long might facilitate Deep Vein Thrombosis, which could be dangerous

If these aren’t issues for you, then sleeping your way through a flight in long-haul economy is a nice alternative to putzing around for hours. You can also try using anti-anxiety drugs, like Valium or Xanax if you don’t want to commit yourself to a sleeping pill. I don’t use these either, but I know plenty who do.

It should go without saying, but don’t abuse any prescription medications!

4. …But noise cancelling headphones definitely are

Noise cancelling headphones are pretty expensive; I’ve never seen a pair cheaper than $150 before. That said, if you fly a lot and you can afford them, they are worth every single penny. All of the annoying sounds associated with airplanes: crying babies, annoying seat mates, the endless drone of the engines… all of them fade away with a quality pair of headphones. You’ll quickly realize that not listening to all that noise for hours is a significantly more comfortable and pleasant way to travel.

For what it’s worth, I own a pair of Bose QC 35s and I couldn’t be happier with them. In fact, no matter if I’m flying in economy class or first class, I won’t leave home without my headphones. I’d highly recommend them!

3. If you want entertainment, come prepared

Catching up on TV shows and the newest films is one of my favorite ways to spend the really long flights, but I’ve learned the hard way not to take those options for granted. Things are liable to break, and a 12 hour flight with non-functioning in-seat entertainment, dead personal electronics, and nothing to read other than the SkyMall catalogue and a safety card is brutal.

So, before you leave for your trip in long-haul economy, bring a surplus of things that would entertain you: phones, iPads, laptops, and of course, their chargers. I also keep a portable battery pack too, just in case the in-seat chargers are broken as well. You’d feel genuinely awful and cranky if you had nothing compelling to do for such a long flight.

2. Bring water on the plane with you…

I know that you’re not allowed to bring liquids with volumes greater than three ounces past security, and airports are notorious for selling overpriced goods, but it would greatly behoove you to bring lots of water onboard the plane with you before a long flight (in any class, actually). Being in a dry airplane cabin with recycled oxygen and low pressurization is a great environment to become dehydrated, and simply put, this…

DL f regional water bottle
Water bottle given out to Delta passengers

…isn’t enough water to last for a long-haul flight. Within a few hours, you’ll start to feel dazed and foggy and sick. Most flight attendants will usually pass out glasses of water every few hours, but that isn’t enough either.

To stay healthy and mentally-sharp, I’ll buy a liter of water prior to boarding a long-haul flight, just in case I can’t get enough to drink while in the air. Being dehydrated on an airplane feels worse than on the ground, which is to say it sucks, but yet it’s so common. Don’t let this happen to you.

2a. … And minimize your alcohol consumption

Despite what pop stars and celebrities might say, getting drunk on an airplane isn’t glamorous. To be honest, it actually kinda sucks…

I was getting ready to go on a trip shortly after I became old enough to drink. Before I left, my mom posed a question to me, almost as if she was sensing my intentions. “Paul, do you know what’s worse than being hungover?”

“What, Mom?”

“Being hungover on a plane.”

I was young and stupid, so obviously I ignored her warning.

Unfortunately for me, she was right. That flight (a redeye between Washington and Munich) was one of the worst of my life. Aside from the feelings of self-loathing and misery, I thankfully didn’t get into any trouble. If you’re a surly/angry drunk, be very careful. You can’t get thrown out of an airplane like you can at a bar, but you can be arrested and detained once the plane lands though. Don’t be that guy.

Even if you’re not prone to drunken rages, consuming alcohol at altitude hurts travelers in a number of other ways. It’s no secret that booze will dehydrate you, and the effects of that are compounded by the already dry air (see point #2). The pressurized cabin air is also less oxygen-dense, meaning that you’ll feel intoxicated faster, and heaven forbid if you hit turbulence and/or get motion-sickness.

I’m not saying don’t drink at all when you fly, because who doesn’t enjoy a little something with lunch or dinner? But for every serving that you have, I’d have two more of water.

DL f regional white wine
A healthy amount of airplane white wine, offered by Delta.

1. Be nice

As cliché as it is, it should definitely go without saying that you shouldn’t be a jerk when you’re flying (including in long-haul economy class). A positive mindset can go a long way in surviving the discomforts that come with the cramped seats, mediocre food, dehydration, and perhaps hours upon hours of boredom. But if you try to stay happy, or at least in a positive frame of mind, the issues that come up — many of which are addressed in the above points — won’t seem as bad.

A nice passenger is also more likely to be considered for preferential treatment by the flight attendants. Maybe they’ll bring you extra water or extra snacks, or, if you’re having seat issues, they might move you to the front of the plane for the remainder of your trip. Don’t expect bonuses like these, but be aware you could become a lucky beneficiary.

Conversely, nothing ever gets solved when passengers become unruly and clash with the flight crew. Don’t be that guy who gets detained for inappropriate and abusive behavior, especially when the issue at hand doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.


A long flight might seem awful, but remember, you’ll eventually make it to your destination just fine, and that’s ultimately what matters. These above points are just suggestions to help make the experience more bearable for you. I hope you can put my suggestions for use!

Did I miss any points? Feel free to add them in the comments!