How I Survived an 11-Hour Flight

by Gray Cargill on April 23, 2014

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Before my January 2014 trip to Honolulu, I had never been on a long-haul flight before, unless you count the 8 hours it takes to get to some European countries. Eight hours is grueling enough, but the idea of being cooped up on a plane—in economy class—for 11 hours sent chills of dread up my spine. Before my trip, I read lots of articles offering advice on how to survive those long-haul flights (including a series with great tips from Sheila Beal of Go Visit Hawaii).

So how did it all work out? And how did I survive that 11-hour flight?

Get Comfy

The key to being comfortable on any flights of four hours or more is wearing loose-fitting clothes and layers to adjust to temperature differences. I wore loose-fitting jeans and loose, layered tops, and was comfortable in them.

Food and Drink

Some people might say the best way to get through a long flight is with a cocktail or four. Others avoid drinking on planes so they don’t have to use the airplane toilets. Personally, I get crippling headaches if I don’t stay hydrated while flying.

The night before my flight, I drank a large bottle of Gatorade to make sure my electrolytes were balanced, and I drank plenty of water before and during my flights. I always make sure I have two bottles of water in my backpack for a flight. Naturally, I also took advantage of the beverage service. And yes, I had to pee every couple of hours, but at least I didn’t get a headache.

 

Snacks

Bring your own snacks and water–you’ll need them

 

I tend to get low blood sugar if I don’t eat every couple of hours. Have you heard the expression “hangry“? That’s me when I’m hungry. It’s not pretty. So I make it a habit to always bring my own snacks on the plane with me just in case. Well, thank God I did, because United didn’t serve a single meal on this flight–not even for purchase.

An 11-hour flight and no meal? That is inhumane. They had snacks for purchase, but they were pretty much the same kinds of snacks I already had on me (nuts, chips, granola bars, cookies and such). That is not sufficient nourishment for any human’s body to last 11 hours. I needed something a bit more substantive, but apparently, I wasn’t going to get it.

(Want to hear what’s really weird about this? My 5-hour flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, did serve a meal. In what universe, United, does it make sense to feed people on a 5-hour flight, but not an 11-hour flight??? Sheesh. Get your act together.)

Move Around As Often as Possible

Aside from the fact that your body gets stiff from sitting in one place for 11 hours, on long flights, you also have to worry about deep vein thrombosis. The last time I went to Hawaii, my calves felt weird the day I arrived home. I got a little paranoid about deep vein thrombosis. I had gotten up at least once per flight (times three flights), but maybe that wasn’t enough? Long-term, nothing bad happened, but it nagged at the back of my mind.

 

Compression socks

Compression socks are supposed to help prevent deep vein thrombosis

 

So this time, I bought a pair of compression socks to try out. When I first put them on, they were uncomfortably tight. But they’re supposed to be snug, so I went with it.

By about hour eight of my flight, the top bands were digging painful grooves into my calves. I shifted their position a bit, but I could not wait to get to my hotel and take them off. I refused to wear them home. I’m not sure I’d ever wear them again, deep vein thrombosis be damned. As long as you periodically flex your leg muscles, rotate your ankles, shift the position you’re sitting in, and get up and walk up and down the aisle a few times during the flight, that should be sufficient to keep the circulation flowing. (I did those things, too.)

I always book an aisle seat when I fly, because I know I’ll have to get up more than once, and I hate making other people get up if they’re trying to sleep. Unfortunately, that plan got shot to hell.

I initially had an aisle seat next to a woman whose husband was in the row in front of us; both were in window seats, but they really wanted to sit together. They batted their doe eyes at me, and I caved and swapped seats with the husband. I regretted it for the next 11 hours.

I had to get up to use the lavatory every couple of hours during the flight, so I had to keep waking up my poor seatmate to get out. I felt so sorry for her. If it hadn’t been for me, she could’ve slept the entire trip. Meanwhile, she never once got up to use the restroom or walk around the plane in 11 hours. How is that even possible???

 

Sleeping gear

Neck pillow, eye mask and ear plugs

Sleep? Ha!

The best way to survive an 11-hour flight is to book first class, but who can afford that? The second best way is to sleep for much of it. If you’re one of the lucky souls who can sleep on a plane, congratulations. I envy you. Because I can’t. (This becomes torture for me on red eye flights.)

Still, sometimes it helps if I can just shut out the light and noise of the plane and rest my eyes for awhile and let my mind drift. So I brought my sleep mask, ear plugs and neck pillow. (I don’t have noise-canceling headphones, because I carry so much gear with me on the plane there’s no room left in my backpack.) I wound up not needing the eye mask or ear plugs, but the neck pillow is always a great help.

Chat with your Neighbor

The person sitting in the seat next to you can either be a blessing or a curse on any flight, let alone a long-haul flight. I had the perfect seatmate—friendly, but not a chatterbox. She was from the Philippines and had been visiting family in the U.S. for a month. After a planned week in Hawaii, she would be heading home. Her husband had to stay home to run their business, and she obviously missed him. She seemed perplexed by the fact that I travel alone everywhere and am not actively seeking a husband. We chatted for a bit, but then she slept for much of the flight while I found other ways to keep myself occupied.

 

Gadgets

Tablet, mp3 player and external battery

 

Entertaining Myself for 11 Hours

I had plenty of reading material on my tablet, but I knew the battery would only last about 6 hours. So I also downloaded 3 of my favorite podcasts to listen to on my mp3 player (I could simultaneously rest my eyes and give my tablet a break); that was about 5 hours worth of listening. I also bought an external battery as backup for my tablet when its battery ran low.

As it turned out, I didn’t need the podcasts or the external battery on the 11-hour flight. The plane that United used for this long-haul flight was better-equipped than any I’ve ever flown before: It had electric outlets between the seat backs—so I could actually use my charger to recharge my tablet battery if needed. It also had TVs in every seat back with tons of entertainment options—music, games, a wide variety of TV shows and movies—all free.

Why aren’t all of United’s planes like this???

So it turned out to be very easy to keep myself occupied during the flight. Coming home on shorter flights and ordinary planes, I did need the podcasts and external battery, and I was glad I brought them with me.

What I Should Have Brought With Me

  • A sandwich (for reasons noted above)
  • A bottle of Purell
  • A small bottle of skin lotion

I usually try to avoid having liquids in my carry-on, so I have nothing I need to take out of my bag when going through security, but in this case, it would have been worth it to have them on hand. Antibacterial wipes create too much trash, and the plane was very dry.

So that’s it. I won’t lie to you: That flight was brutal. By hour 8, I was climbing out of my skin, and I still had 3 more hours to go. It is doable, though. Especially when you remember that your reward for sitting through an 11-hour flight is being in paradise. Believe me, Hawaii is totally worth it.

 

Waikiki Beach

Worth it.

 

Andy June 2, 2014 at 4:44 pm

I think that it is definitely important to stay hydrated on flights. So what if you need to use the bathroom, it helps you to beat jet lag. I can get pretty restless on long flights though needless to say.

Gray Cargill June 14, 2014 at 11:41 am

Agreed, Andy. It doesn’t matter how much you have to get up to use the bathroom, staying hydrated is really important. And on long flights it helps to have the excuse to get up and walk around.

Melissa | Suitcase and Heels May 22, 2014 at 8:43 pm

My experience with 10+ hour flights have always been overnighters so my coping mechanism is to book /hope for a window seat and sleep (thank you zopiclone). I was lucky to get a solid 8 hrs on a Tokyo-Toronto flight the other year. I watched a movie, had my dinner, fell asleep and woke in time for breakfast and landing. Win!

Compression socks should be very snug at the ankle and ease pressure as they go up the leg. They shouldn’t be cutting into your calf. Maybe the pair you have were the wrong size or compression amount? My doctor gave me a prescription to get some custom fitted ones because I told her I ended up with cankles after long flights or a lot of walking. Not fun to get on but my legs thank me.

Gray Cargill May 22, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Wow, I wish I could sleep on planes,Melissa. That is a gift. I can’t even get a solid 8 hours in my super comfy bed at home, let alone on an airplane! Sad, but true. That’s interesting about the compression socks. Since they were my first pair, I had to totally rely on the website’s advice on sizing; I suppose they could have been wrong.

Melissa | Suitcase and Heels May 31, 2014 at 6:59 am

I’ve always been able to fall asleep most anywhere. Probably from a childhood spent on long car rides. I’d read books and sleep for the whole two day drive from New Brunswick to Newfoundland. I find the sleeping pill just helps me get to sleep and stay asleep on a plane. I only use it on nighttime flights longer than 6hrs or so. They kind of freak me out but work.

Gray Cargill May 31, 2014 at 7:12 am

The ability to sleep anywhere is a gift, Melissa. Good for you. Wish I could do that.

Shelly May 22, 2014 at 7:49 am

Living in Australia we get experienced at long haul trips – I’ve done a few 24 hour ones to Europe! In my carry on I have started including a little tube of handcream, moisturiser and lip balm as the aircon does dry your skin out a lot. I also now take a saline nasal spray, to hydrate the nose. They say getting a dry nose is one of the main contributors to catching a cold on the plane, so keeping it hydrated is advised. As long you put all these items separately in a clear zip lock bag, there is no problem bringing them on board. Lastly, to help prevent possible thrombosis I take an aspirin the day before flying, and then one on the day of the flight – some doctors have said this may assist with preventing DVT, and in small doses does no harm. But .. importantly drinking plenty of water and regular exercise (even if it is just rotating your ankles while still in your seat), all helps to keep you healthy during the flight.

Gray Cargill May 22, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Shelly – I’ve got to hand it to you, it sounds like you’ve got this process down. 24 hour flights? That is brutal. I love the aspirin tip–it never would have occurred to me. Thank you!

Tracy Antonioli April 24, 2014 at 9:12 pm

First: you flew for 11 hours in an window seat?!? NEVER. That couple could have offered me CASH and I’d not have switched. That’s torture. And on UNITED???? So, so sorr.

Second: AHHHH! This is the post I’ve been waiting for. And this is why I’ve not yet been to Hawaii. I just can’t do a flight that long. My new plan is: next time I work on the west coast, take a week off around said work and fly from there (and then BACK to California for a couple of days and THEN home). That seems manageable. But 11 hours? Yeah. I fly more than anyone ever should, and I don’t think I could do it.

Also: I envy your ability to eat on planes. But still–for normal people (ie: not me) there SHOULD be food served on an 11 hour flight. That IS inhumane. (But hey–at least you didn’t make the trip clinging to the landing gear. What? Too soon?)

Kirstin April 25, 2014 at 4:36 am

He was a silly boy – I bet nobody served him food either

Gray Cargill April 25, 2014 at 6:06 am

LOL. I always wonder what those people are thinking. It’s so unsafe….You could wind up a candidate for the Darwin Awards.

Gray Cargill April 25, 2014 at 6:04 am

It’s definitely a better idea to stop on the West Coast on either end of a Hawaii trip if you can, Tracy. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the extra time or money to do that, so I just had to suck it up and deal with an 11 hour flight.

Jeff Broman April 24, 2014 at 9:04 pm

How does an airline have an 11 hour flight with no meal service? I though USAir was bad but at least they feed you on the long flights. The food sucks but at least it is something.

I also never understand the people that never get up during that long a flight. I always book an aisle seat so I can get up when I want.

I usually have a bag full of things to make flights more comfortable. Some work better than others. My latest favorite is a inflatable seat cushion. It saved my butt on a recent long flight that had the new slim line seats with not enough padding.

Gray Cargill April 25, 2014 at 6:02 am

This is what the state of air travel has come to, Jeff: When you even have to bring your own seat cushion…..

Jeff Broman April 25, 2014 at 5:27 pm

I know but those new “improved” seats are awful. It’s amazing I can still carry everything on with all my electronics and accessories.

Gray Cargill April 26, 2014 at 6:18 pm

I hear that. That’s why your inflatable pillow is a better idea than my solid neck pillow. Takes up less space until you need it.

Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren April 24, 2014 at 7:53 pm

I’m sorry, I just can’t get over how there was NO MEAL SERVED, not even for purchase! I’ve never been a fan of United. Great tips though! Thanks for sharing.

Happy travels 🙂

Gray Cargill April 25, 2014 at 6:01 am

I know, Lauren. If I thought they would give a damn, I’d write a letter to United. But I know they don’t.

Kirstin April 24, 2014 at 6:32 pm

One of the downsides of living in New Zealand is that once you fly past Australia all flights are horrendously long. I had one flight from LA to Auckland where lovely Qantas woke us at about 2am to say Mount Ruapehu (volcano) had blown its top and so we weren’t going to Auckland, they weren’t sure where we were going but they’d let us know later… Several hours later we ended up landing in Fiji where we sat on the tarmac for a few hours while they arranged to get airport staff in to work and then we were allowed to go and play in duty free for an hour. Then back on the plane for another 3.5 hours.

Gray Cargill April 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

Oh yeah, you live in a bad place for travel, don’t you, Kirstin? I don’t know how you stand it.

Danielle Withrow April 24, 2014 at 4:19 am

I’ve got a 15 hour 35 minute flight coming up from Chicago to Hong Kong. I didn’t know a plane could fly that long without refueling! And that’s only part of the trip – I’m on my way to Bangkok from Charlotte, NC. I leave Oct. 2 and get into Bangkok on Oct. 4 – just in time for lunch (and a long nap). I always book a window seat because I love looking at cities and landscapes – but I might take your advice and sit aisle this trip. Better start charging up the Kindle now. My favorite snack to take? – PB2 – powdered peanut butter. Some flights will let you take those little Justin’s-brand packs of peanut butter but I go with the powder – nice boost of protein. Add a little water in the empty coffee cup and instant PB! I’m a 65 year old solo traveler – love your website.

Gray Cargill April 24, 2014 at 5:24 am

It is pretty amazing that they can fly so long without refueling, Danielle. Makes me wonder just how tired the pilots must get. (Probably best not to think about that!) Powdered peanut butter?! I’ve never heard of it! Do you just buy that at the grocery store? Cheers, and have a great trip!

Shell April 23, 2014 at 9:23 pm

I am trying to get to Hawaii for my 50th birthday (still have a few years), and your tips for the extra long flight will be helpful. I especially liked the part about the compression socks. And yes, I also had a pretty crappy experience with United when I went to Alaska last year. Love your posts!

Gray Cargill April 24, 2014 at 5:25 am

Hawaii is a wonderful gift to yourself for your 50th, Shell. I’m glad you found the information helpful. Thanks for taking the time to post a comment!

Christine April 23, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I just thought I would tell you that I have done long haul many, many times but my worst ever flight was with United. It was so cold on the plane from that it was impossible to sleep. The cabin crew were extremely rude and would not listen to our pleas just telling us that they didn’t find it cold.
I have never been treated so badly or spoken to so rudely by cabin crew and I fly at least six times per year and usually more. I will NEVER use United again. I’m glad I got that off my chest at last 🙂

Gray Cargill April 23, 2014 at 6:07 pm

Wow, that sounds bad, Christine. I’m so sorry. I don’t understand why people who are in customer service positions have such a lack of it sometimes. Glad it didn’t stop you from flying altogether!

lee April 23, 2014 at 2:58 pm

wow, 11 hours you are truly brave… i thought the airline HAD to feed you if the flight was an extended one….shall check on that when i go to Japan…

Gray Cargill April 23, 2014 at 6:10 pm

LOL, not brave, Lee, just desperate to go to Hawaii. 🙂 The food thing was a big drag, though.

JoAnna April 23, 2014 at 1:19 pm

For what it’s worth, I carry liquids (lotion, eye drops, hand gel, etc.) onto every single flight I’ve ever been on and I’ve never, ever removed them from my bag during the security screening process.

Gray Cargill April 23, 2014 at 6:11 pm

GASP! JoAnna! You rule-breaker, you! I never would’ve guessed. 🙂

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