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?
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.
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.
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???
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.
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.