From the US to Australia to Thailand and back to Germany again, I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately. As glamorous as this sounds, flying so far so frequently is anything but glamorous, especially when I’m flying in economy class. Here’s how I make the most of my experience and survive long-haul flights in economy:
1. Take your shoes off
I take my shoes off immediately after boarding and put on a pair of slippers. Yes, your foot odor will be noticeable, but only for the five minutes or so it takes for it to recirculate across the airplane cabin. Take your shoes off, deal with the short awkwardness, and you’ll be better off for it.
2. Ask for a better seat assignment 10-15 minutes prior to boarding
Unlike domestic flights, international flights are rarely full. I’m often able to grab an empty row of seats to lounge on or at least get an empty seat next to me. Just ask the gate agent if there are any open seats and if you can move. Do this 10-15 minutes prior to boarding, when all passengers have been assigned seats and if (only if) the gate agent isn’t busy.
Pro tip: Some airline apps show you a live seat map. When I fly United, I find the seat I want and simply ask the agent, “Can you reassign me to 33G?” This is much less work on the agent’s end.
3. Brush your teeth (seriously)
Do you brush your teeth twice a day? Good. You can do this in the air, too. There’s no reason why dental hygiene should go out the window just because you’re in a flying metal tube. The 18+ hour duration of many long-haul trips is long enough for a cavity to develop. I make it a point to brush and floss at least once during my journey. And yes, you can even use teeth whitening strips, too.
Pro tip: Many airlines distribute toothbrushes. Use it. Or bring your own travel-size mouthwash.
4. Be proactively nice
Inevitably something will go wrong during your flight. Even if everything is perfect, smile and be nice to the flight attendant proactively. Say hi and smile. Don’t complain. So far this has gotten me:
- Free meals, even on pay-to-eat flights (thanks Delta)
- Drinks from first class (thanks British Airways)
- Invitations to move to an empty row of seats (thanks KLM)
Complaining to the flight attendants usually gets you a vanilla Coke at best. If you have a reason to complain, write the airline after the flight.
5. Don’t dress up—wear comfortable clothes instead
Dressing up may have made you more likely to get an upgrade in 1982, but in 2017 it will just make you more uncomfortable. I usually wear a comfortable pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a sweater. Wear whatever makes you at ease—go commando if you want.
6. Check for premium economy and business tickets—they’re sometimes cheaper than economy
Airlines use complicated and sometimes counterintuitive algorithms for managing inventory. This can mean that if economy class is nearly booked but premium cabins have many empty seats, the premium cabin will sometimes be less expensive. It never hurts to check.
This is more likely to happen on tourist or leisure routes.
7. Don’t sit near bulkhead seats
Many airlines seat families with babies in the middle bulkhead row in economy. It’s great if you can book it for yourself. It’s not so great if a family with two babies booked it and you’re sitting behind them. There’s a lower probability of encountering loud children if you sit in the back.
Pro tip: You can use Seatguru to find the best seat on any aircraft.
8. Ask for a second blanket
Airplane blankets are thin and cover only half your body. Bringing your own isn’t always practical. The great thing is airlines usually stock extra pillows and blankets. Assuming you didn’t already score an extra blanket from an empty seat next to you, you can always ask for another.
9. Make preparations to avoid jet lag
I try to book an overnight flight whenever possible to beat jet lag, though this might not be sensible if you have trouble sleeping on planes. A tough workout the day before or morning of a flight also helps me feel at ease and rest more easily on the flight. I’m also testing a light called Lark that supposedly helps you avoid jet lag.
10. Reconsider arriving early
How you spend your time prior to departure can make a big difference later. Airlines usually recommend arriving 2-4 hours prior to departure. This is almost always overkill. And should there be an excessive security line or other issues, the airport staff will usually work to accommodate you. I recommend arriving 1-2 hours before departure instead, especially if you’ve downloaded your boarding pass online and have no bags to check.
11. Check in strategically to get a better seat
Airlines are sometimes forced to upgrade passengers to premium seats if economy class is overbooked. I recently checked in early for a Finnair flight and was surprised to be upgraded to business class, for example.
US airlines will often allocate premium economy seats to the last passengers to check in if the normal economy cabin is full. The trick is to check the flight’s seat map online or through the airline’s app prior to boarding. If you see only a few middle seats available and plenty of room up front, it’s best not to check in early.
Note that you may also end up with a middle seat if you use this method. It’s the risk you take.
12. Bring your own entertainment
Don’t count on the airline to entertain you. Sometimes in-flight entertainment fails and sometimes you might not like what’s available, especially if you’re flying on an airline for the first time. I always bring my own Kindle or paperback books. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. I once traveled with a friend who brought only a magazine for a 12-hour flight. He both overestimated the length of the magazine and the entertainment that would be available on the flight. He wasn’t a happy camper.