5 ways to be comfortable on an international flight

One of the hardest things to prepare for in my business travel career was my first flight to Manila. I was anxious for days 4-29-14beforehand. To be fair, it’s 26 hours of travel time, with the longest leg about 14 hours. Before then, the longest I had been in one plane was seven hours on the way to Europe. Before that first trip I spent hours on the internet, scouring travel websites about what would make my trip the most comfortable. I brought some crazy stuff on that first trip, including a seat cushion and seatback organizer. Seven (or eight?) trips to Manila later, experience has shown that while I do need more things than for a short flight, staying comfortable on an international flight comes down to a few key tricks.

  1. Wear comfortable clothes. The single most important thing you can do to be comfortable on a long flight is to wear the right clothes. Yoga pants, sweatpants, leggings, jersey dresses, maxi skirts…as long as the fabric is soft and it doesn’t pinch you should be fine. My new favorites are yoga pants that look like regular pants (pictured:  Athleta Bettona pants). I try to stay away from any buttons or zippers, including on my shirt, because they tend to dig into the skin after ten hours on a plane. Compression socks are very helpful—they help keep up circulation in your feet and legs, and minimize swelling in your feet and ankles.
  2. Bring sleep aids. If you need to hit the ground running when you land, do your best to sleep on your flight. Anything that makes you feel like you’re in a dark, quiet room will help you sleep. Whenever I take long flights I bring an eye mask, pillow, and blanket, and listen with noise canceling headphones to a white noise app on my iPhone. And of course, there is always pharmaceutical help: I prefer to travel with Tylenol PM, while my best friend prefers wine, and a coworker uses Ambien.  Slippers help too—keep my feet warm and cozy without having to wear shoes the whole flight.
  3. Entertain yourself! Before you go to sleep, there will likely be some time to kill. There are usually movies available to watch (one of my favorite things about international flights!) but if you anticipate needing other things to do bring them as well. Knitting, a book (or eReader), Sudoku….there’s not much worse than sitting on a ten hour flight with nothing to do!
  4. A few key toiletries. I don’t need my entire toiletry bag, but a few items will make a flight much better (I call it my Comfort Bag): face wipes, moisturizer, disposable toothbrushes, lotion , and lip balm. Another idea: put a hydrating face mask on as the flight starts (last week’s beauty tip!).
  5. Stay hydrated and fed. Drinking plenty of water is key on long flights. Also, I always pack a few snacks (almonds, crackers, dried fruit) in case the meal service is taking a long time.

Tip: On the last international coach flight I took, it seemed like there was way less room between my seat and the one in front of me. Sitting by the window it was basically impossible for me to get to anything under the seat in front of me, so I would recommend getting your most important things out ahead of time.

With planning, it is definitely possible to travel internationally in relative comfort. Pack a few key items and you will arrive refreshed, excited, and ready to go!

Readers, what are your tricks and tips for being comfortable on international flights?

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  1. Awesome post, Warriorette!

    You make a good point re: having the things you’ll want ready and accessible. For my trip to Europe a few weeks ago, I had an extra ziplock bag (large) that I had put the things I’d want for the 9 hour flight into, and moved some of my liquids into (after going through security). When I got to my seat I pulled out that ziplock and put my regular bag in the overhead, never needed it, again.

    Sleep aids are huge, as you mentioned. I asked a pharmacist at Walgreens and he recommended one (I can’t spell it to save my life but I’ll repost with what it was later) and it took it about an hour into the flight, and woke up an hour before landing- how perfect can that get? I didn’t even remember falling asleep- I was just out!

    One thing I’m still trying to figure out– is something you can put under the seat in front of you that you can move closer to you after takeoff to rest your legs on. My back starts to kill me about 2-3 hours into a flight, and being able to prop my feet up even a few inches helps. I’ve done with with my backpack but it’s never worked out well for the overall flight and when you wanna stretch your legs out a bit… backpack is in the way- any thoughts?

    Love your blogs!


  2. Agreed, with the reduced seat pitch these days, its not easy to get stuff out from under the seat in front of you without annoying your seatmates. In addition, you want that space for your feet. So the trick is to organize before you board and know what you want to take out to try and hold onto. Make the rest accessible from your bag should you need to go into the bin to get it. Common mistake is to take too much stuff. Most flights now have IFE, so you really just need a snack, book or tablet, and limited toiletries.

  3. Sorry but in my opinion there are only 2 ways to be comfortable on an international flight: fly first class or fly business class. Other than that you can make travel less painful but never comfortable.

  4. I read that an inflatable beach ball (partially inflated) could work as a footrest on long flights. I forgot to get one before my latest long-haul (2 flights back to back–7 hours and 17 hours) and regretted it. At 5’2″ I struggle to get my feet on the ground as it is. I will surely buy one before my return trip.

  5. I find the sleep aids a great help – eye mask, I prefer soft ear plugs, a blanket and for me a neck pillow. I use Benadryl for pharmaceutical help.

    I use a small bag with the stuff I need and I don’t put anything under the seat in front of me. I’ve had FA’s tell me to store my backpack (computer bag) under the seat because it is a smaller bag and I’ve politely refused. That area is for my feet. (I’m 6’3 by the way and I check my suitcase for long flights – short flights I put my backpack under the seat.)

    One question: about the knitting needles? Don’t they get confiscated?

  6. @Miami Flyer I have never had knitting needles confiscated, but people have told me they have. One time when I was flying back from Mexico I saw a sign that said “Knitting needles must be in checked baggage.” Maybe others can weigh in?

  7. I’ve flown long-haul international flights in coach and in addition to what you said above, I do the following:
    1) Always ask the check-in agent and gate agent whether someone is sitting next to me and if the flight is full. If the flight isn’t full, I kindly ask to be seated in an empty row or at least next to an empty seat.
    2) I always bring a backpack that I stow underneath the seat in front of me. It acts as a foot rest (I take my shoes off and rest my feet on my backpack.)
    3) I always use the provided pillow and/or blanket as lumbar support on my seat (yes I take the plastic off.) I bring my own foam neck pillow to use for my head/neck. The one from brookstone is GREAT!!! I never have neckaches whenever I use that one.
    4) I hydrate before the flight departs and throughout the flight.
    5) I bring my own sleeping eyemask so I can sleep comfortably.

  8. Adding an extra suggestion in the same vein as Amy’s idea – I use the Design Go inflatable footrest, which I got on amazon. I’m on my phone so I don’t have a link but it should pop up on a search. It’s pretty sturdy (held up through a few TATL & TPAC flights) and has both a good width & slightly velvety texture which prevent my feet from slipping off.

  9. Get Global Entry. Not so much good while in the air, but it is absolutely necessary on return.

    Last Sunday, I returned CDG-IAH and while the line at passport control looked to be close to an hour, it took me 2 minutes at the kiosk.

    And then, with no checked bags, I avoided the mayhem of baggage claim and whisked past the customs line into a GE line. The walk past the “normal” line took longer than clearing the customs desk, and the normal line stretched the entire length of baggage claim.

    Plus, you automatically get TSA PreCheck.

  10. When I am flying with my kids, the thing that helps keep us most comfortable is bringing a plastic grocery sack on the plane with us (or a few).

    Kids especially produce a lot of garbage and it is nice to have a bag to put it all in rather than just shoving it in the seat back pocket and waiting for a flight attendant.

    If it is a shorter flight, I usually keep the bag through landing and give it to a flight attendant as we are getting off the plane.

    It’s simple and doesn’t cost anything but it makes a big difference.

  11. I used to fly cross-Atlantic every 3 weeks and agree with everything Joey says. I am reliant on my “flight bag” which is actually a United BusinessFirst amenity kit from a couple years ago that holds everything well. It contains freshening wipes, thick moisturizer (Gold Bond Ultimate), comb, toothbrush, toothpaste, mints, pen, barrettes, tissues, concealer, etc. Always packed and ready to go. Sleep aid is melatonin and red wine.

    I have recently added a ThermaRest travel pillow and travel cushion. They compress to almost nothing and make a big difference. I have a wheeled laptop bag that stays upright and is where I rest my feet.

    I also bring pajamas with me and wear them for any long overnight flight. I feel cleaner and more prepared for sleeping/relaxing when I wear them. Worth the space in my carry-ons for sure.

  12. I tend to travel a bit between LA and Hong Kong, so I have my set travel kit for the long haul flight.
    *I wear a zip hoodie to keep my body and head warm. If I think I may have to start work as soon as I arrive, I wear a wrap cardigan that is warm but gives the comfort of a blanket.
    *Pre-flight, I wear minimal makeup, usually just heavy duty moisturizer, some blush, and tinted lip balm. I curl my lashes to look more presentable.
    *During the flight, I will wash or wipe my face to feel refresh, then apply a sleeping moisture mask. Several skincare brands now offer this mask. I get sample tubes of it. It goes on clear and provide lots of hydration to the face. I try and sleep at least 40% of the flight.
    *As for the shoes issue, I don’t really swell since I like to do some like exercise on the plane. I gotten in the habit of bringing on the hotel disposable slippers to wear. Right before we land, I will throw them away. I always pick up another pair during my trip to wear on the flight back.
    *Before we land, I wash my face again and put on my general skincare. I keep travel size with me of BB cream with SPF to double as my foundation. curl my lashes, put some mascara, blush, and tinted lip balm. Throw my hair up in a ponytail and I feel ready to get the day started.
    *Super important to have eyedrops, lip balm, and hand lotion with me on the plane. With the air being so dry, these three items make all the difference in how I feel during and after the flight.

  13. Like Joey I take a bag in a bag. My long haul journeys take me to work locations that I will be in for 3-4 weeks so luggage in the hold caters for that.
    For flights of more than 7 hours in my 4 wheeler carry-on I have a ‘just in case’ change of travel clothes : T shirt, loose blouse top and joggers , spare socks, plus my small cheap lightweight duffle bag aka back pack, and soft pull on shoes. If I buy any duty free goods they go into the wheeler bag that goes into the overhead locker, locked, as it also has my wallet, kindle, charger and phone all strapped together ready for the customs.
    I wear a small ‘fanny pack’ that keeps my reactolite glasses , seat docket/s, passport and credit card together.
    The duffle bag is pre packed for each trip with some Bath in Bed-wipes ( larger wet wipes, kept in a small ziplock bag), heavy duty moisturiser/ face mask decanted into a small container, eye drops, comb , toothpaste and brush. I add to this my iPad and small earphones for white sound, if I need it, plus a magazine or unputdownable book. This smaller quantity goes under the seat in front and I can rest my elevated feet on it. Im 5’2””, that helps as I dont pay extra for travel in ‘longer legs’ seats e.g bulkhead because its where children’s cots are placed, nor at escape doors as it means having to keep any bags overhead. I prefer aisle seats and pre book starboard side where I can.
    I take a long cardigan that I use as a blanket, ear plugs ( Ive sewn a holder into the strap of my blackout eye pads to keep them together) , and don’t wear earrings or any other jewellery. I use the airline pillow as a small of the back rest and have my own C shaped neck pillow.

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