17 Tips for Surviving a Long Flight in Coach

by on December 13, 2010 · 22 comments

in How To Guides, Travel Health, Trip Reports

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While I usually try to fly business or first on international flights, once in a while a great coach fare comes along and I have to hop on it and deal with the impending doom that I’ll be packed in like a sardine for a number of hours. However, over the years I’ve learned some tips to maximize the coach experience on long flights. In fact, occasional long-haul trips in coach help me stay grounded and appreciate the fortune of knowing how to maximize the value of my points.

I’m 6’7″, so for me, riding in a regular seat with someone reclined in front of me is hell. In fact, I did it recently on a relatively short MIA-JFK flight and at the end of the 2.5 hours, I was about to have a panic/claustrophobic attack. However, I flew to Dublin this weekend for my year-end mileage run and used the following tips with great success.

1) Choose exit row or premium seats. Exit rows have miles of extra leg-room and seats towards the front of the plane or in mini-cabins can provide nicer flying conditions (and may also have power outlets, which are a nice perk). While most airlines block them for elites, some (like Delta) will let anyone choose them at purchase for international flights. If you can’t select an exit row seat, call the airline and ask. Tip: if you snag an exit row, pack an extra sweater- it can be freezing in flight- I have learned this the hard way.
2) Use to make sure the seat you choose isn’t bad. Some rows (like the ones in front of exit rows) have limited or no recline. You also may want to choose a seat that’s away from the galley or lavatories, as those areas can become crowded and who wants to be near a lavatory? Note: seatguru doesn’t always get it right. I find that they give negative remarks to some of my favorite exit rows, just because “it might get really cold”.
3) Check in 24 hours before departure. A lot of airlines open up premium seats for selection at this time.
4) If you can’t get an exit row, ask the gate agent for a bulkhead seat. These are usually held for gate assignment in case there are any families that need to use the bulkhead bassinet or for disabled people. While bulkhead seats may have limited legroom, you won’t have to deal with someone reclining their seat into your limited space. Also, bulkheads are usually closer to the exit, so you can get off the plane and get to immigration before the masses.
5) Find a sleep aid that works for you.I have a difficult time sleeping on planes (especially in coach), so I had my doctor prescribe me Lunesta, which works amazingly for me. One pill at takeoff and within 30 minutes I drift into a comfortable sleep, but I am still aware and can wake up if needed. Some travelers recommend non-prescription aids, such as melatonin or even a swig of Nyquil might work if you are in a bind. Whatever it is, I recommend you use the sleep aid at home first to see how your body reacts. You wouldn’t want to take a strong sleeping aid for the first time on a plane and then realize it makes you crazy. You always hear about people sleepwalking and doing crazy things like urinating in public areas- I wonder how many are looped on drugs and don’t even realize what they are doing.
6) Use an eye mask and ear plugs. I always keep amenity kits from my first/business class flights so that I can bring them when I travel in coach. I used to laugh at people with eye-shades, but my US Airways Envoy Class shades are amazing and block out all light. I also like ear plugs and actually put on my Bose headphones over them to provide extra noise protection. Which leads me to…
7) Get a great pair of headphones. I don’t leave home without my Bose OE Audio headphones, which aren’t fancy, but work well for me. If you want to splurge, you can go for noise canceling QC Bose headphones for $300. If you get the QC 15 headphones, make sure you get points through your airline, such as the 2 miles per dollar spent at Bose through American.  The QC15 make a great gift for the frequent flyer in your life. Be sure to also have a double pronged adaptor in case the airline doesn’t have normal jacks.
8) Don’t be afraid to switch seatsonce the boarding door closes. If you find yourself wedged between two lumberjacks in a middle seat, be proactive and ask the flight attendant to be reaccommodated. If there are open seats after everyone boards, its okay to switch, but do so before the plane pushes back from the gate. I did this on my flight today and ended up with an entire 3-seat middle row of a 767 to myself. Also, if you have a premium exit row or bulkhead seat and the flight attendant asks you to switch seats, make sure you are accommodated in an equally good seat (i.e. business class). Don’t be a jerk, but don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and your personal comfort if you run into a situation where someone is in your seat- more often than not, they are probably looking at the seat assignment from their prior flight.
9) If you get a row to yourself, spread out! Don’t worry, its not gauche to be comfortable. What personally works for me is buckling in the middle seat and then sleeping with my head on the arm rest of the aisle seat (either one- in fact I usually switch a couple times to keep it fresh). Tip: Make sure your head doesn’t protrude into the aisle- getting woken up by a food cart is not a pleasant experience- trust me! You will also want several pillows, so try to snag some from other seats. Also, laying a blanket down over the seats will help the belt buckles from sticking into your side. Make sure you put your seat-belt on over your blanket because if the flight encounters turbulence, the flight attendants will check to make sure everyone is buckled in.
10)Don’t assume your seat assignment is set in stone. Equipment swaps happen all the time. In fact it happened to me twice on the Dublin trip. On the way out the 757 was changed to a different model 757, so my exit row aisle seat was just a regular seat. On the way home, the 757 was up-gauged to a 767 and by the time I checked in, all the exit rows were taken. Luckily, the plane was empty so the gate agent felt sorry for me and helped block off an entire middle row. You can always do a dummy booking on your airline’s website to see if the seat map is still the same, or ask a gate agent/lounge attendant to make sure your seat assignment is good.
11) Don’t eat airline food. Airline food (in all classes of service) is loaded with sodium, so combine that with a dry cabin and alcohol and you can end up with a major case of dehydration. For European bound red-eye flights, I always eat healthy food (as much as possible) in the airport, so I can get to sleep right away on the plane. I also invest in a mega-size bottle of water, because it may be over an hour in the air before you get service from the flight crew. By that time, my sleeping pill is in full force and I’m getting quality Z’s.
12) Don’t drink a ton of alcohol. While traveling internationally is exciting and you can’t wait to begin your trip, loading up on booze will have negative effects for days. Dehydration can wreak havoc on your body and it can enhance and prolong jet-lag. Save the partying for your destination!
13) Dress comfortably and practically. I always dress in layers so I can adapt to the temperature on the plane. Sometimes it is freezing, especially by the exit, and sometimes its brutally hot. You want to be prepared for either situation. Personally jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt/long sleeve button down/sweater combo works for me. There is nothing worse than being too hot on a plane and not being able to do anything about it.
14) Wear shoes in the bathroom! I always see people walk into the bathroom in socks, or god forbid barefoot, and I cringe. Have you ever seen the floors of an airplane bathroom? I’m not a germaphobe, but I also don’t  like to test the boundaries of my immune system. There is no worse feeling than getting your socks wet with bathroom byproducts and then having to deal with it because you have no other pairs of socks to put on. Which leads me to..
15) Always have an extra pair of socks, underwear and extra toiletries in your carry-on. You never know when your overnight trip will turn into a multi-day event due to flight cancellations or delays. It’s always great to have the essentials on you can adapt to anything thrown at you. And in the case you do make the mistake and walk on a wet bathroom floor, you can throw on a fresh new pair of socks and forget about your mistake.
16) Always bring along your own entertainment. Make sure your Ipad is fully charged and you have reading materials, because even if your flight is supposed to have In-Flight Entertainment, often these systems fail and spending many hours without any form of entertainment can make the time creep by.
17) Have a good attitude. Even if you get stuck in a crappy seat, be thankful that you have the means to travel and aren’t part of the 75% of the world’s population who will never step foot on an airplane. We take a lot of perks for granted, so sometimes you just need to suck it up and be thankful. Being angry for an entire flight isn’t going to make the time go by any quicker. I firmly believe in travel karma, so having a good attitude will pay off in the long run.

Do you have any tips for surviving coach?

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  • Lena

    they make QC headphones? Must purchase immediately….

  • Anne

    Massage your legs. My feet will be puffy for days sometimes after a long-haul in coach, but I got a good tip of a Thai in-flight announcement. Every few hours I will massage my legs from toes to knees, to encourage circulation. In an exit/premium row it is easy to do in-seat, otherwise head to the galley when no one else is congregating there. In general doing a good set of stretches mid-flight is a must for me, also after landing if possible.

  • The Points Guy

    Great advice Anne! I agree- I’m 6’7″ and constantly need to stretch/massage frequently. I always try to get an aisle seat in coach so taking a quick walk is easy and I don’t have to climb over people.

  • Alex

    I was on a KLM flight from IAH to AMS, and every few hours the in flight entertainment would have videos on how to stretch while you are sitting down if you are unable to get up and walk about (although you almost always can). I wish more flights would do that.

  • Mighty Mouse

    Purchase a pair of compression socks and put them on just before take off. I know Walmart carries a very inexpensive brand. Prevents puffy toes and “cankles” during long flights.

  • Jyotipethe

    Jeans make me very uncomfortable on a long flight. I don’t know if this is more a woman thing. But the button digs into my belly (bloated most times). I wear track pants with elastic though I wish I could wear my jammies on the plane :)

  • Lisajwright

    Black yoga pants!!! Most comfortable clothing item.

    I like to take a good face wash and toner. This is a great treat for your face after a long night in coach. Remember to take small quantity of each, (under 4 oz) I just put some in a baggie.

    Also, I always take a little cuticle cream and good, moisturizing chap stick.

  • robin.joshua

    Interesting! I like the choices, I love to carry my iPad first and my handy small vanity bag. If its long journey them I would definitely, prefer to watch some interesting videos or movie, thus I carry these things in my memory card.

  • NguyenVanFalk

    Personally, at 6’3″, I empathize with the lack of comfort in Economy classes. But I prefer on long hauls (anything over four hours, in my book) to sit at the rear of the aircraft in close proximity to the galley/lavs. Since I can’t sleep in more than short increments of 30 mins at most, I find it extremely beneficial to be able to get up and stretch at least once every 90 minutes. Not only does this keep me mentally more active/sane, it prevents DVT and cramping later on. I always choose an aisle seat so I have the freedom to get up whenever I like. On a 15-hour leg JFK-HKG, it’s a lifesaver.

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  • Anna Potthoff

    I usually make sure I am extra tired when I board a long flight so I “crash” out for a good chunk of time. I usually wear a coat and a sweater over my regular clothes–why? the coat makes a nice “blanket” and the sweater is a lovely pillow

  • Anna Potthoff

    Lounge pants (such as yoga style or a linen loose fit) with a tie string waist or wide band elastic are always comfy

  • Mary

    Individually wrapped hand wipes! i feel so gross if I don’t have these with me. I wipe off the armrests and the tv screen, etc.

  • Bhess

    As long as it’s not a low level ride in a C-130 in the desert, it’s not that bad.

  • guest

    Give the flight crew candy (especially dark chocolate) and they will take care of you the entire flight. I usually invest in the fancy artisan kinds, and they, quite literally, eat it up…

  • Tricia

    I get the aisle seat in a bulkhead with extra leg room, and get up and walk from the front of the plane to the back and return at least once every hour.

  • Jules44ca

    I am not a germa-phobe. I used to always get an illness or bug when travelling. It would last a couple days into my holiday. I ALWAYS pack a small pack of disinfecting wipes. As soon as me and my family sit down, I grab a wipe and wipe down EVERYTHING: TV Screen, console, arm rests, window, window shade, tray, seat belt, plastic parts, fabric parts… EVERYTHING. The other tip I got was from my doctor. Take along a saline nasal mist cleaner and good Kleenex. Rinse your nasal passages every 3 hours. It is one of your body’s primary defences against germs. I rarely get sick after a flight anymore.

  • Mech42Ace

    I second that…
    Also, I like your profile pic. Clan Ghost Bear, Nice!



  • Lyric

    This information is godsend. I’m reblogging some of it as a neophyte international traveler soon with reference here, of course.

  • Lyric

    Too cute. Thanks for the visual. ;-)

  • Lyric

    WOW; good looking out, Mighty Mouse. I’m definitely making note of this on my blog for my upcoming trip. Thank you.

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