Whether you’re an infrequent flier or an airline aficionado, you probably know overnight flights in economy class are no joke.
I took my first long-haul flight, a red-eye from D.C. to London, when I was 10 years old. I remember stretching across two seats (ah, the glory days when my overnight flights weren’t fully booked) and dreaming the night away until the flight attendant came by with a glass of orange juice as pink streaks of morning light began stretching across sky. Outside my window looked like heaven. Inside the plane, I was rested and relaxed.
But that was then.
As an adult, I’ve embraced a life of travel whenever possible, but the magic of overnight flights has faded — parched skin, cramped legs, an inability to sleep sitting in a full upright position? These are a few of my least favorite things.
My flight experiences hit rock bottom last summer when I was hovering somewhere over the northern Pacific Ocean. It was the ninth hour in what would nearly be a 14-hour flight, my third segment of a four-flight journey home. Exhaustion hit me like a ton of bricks. Standing outside the rear bathroom, I felt actual tears prick my eyes. I did not want to go back to my seat. I did not want to fold my aching body between fellow passengers snoring six inches from my face. True story: I had a sudden, panicky feeling I was in a time warp and would never escape the flying metal canister, forcing me to an early death by sleep deprivation at 35,000 feet.
The thought passed, of course. But I have never felt my mind play such devious tricks. If I, a seasoned traveler, got sucked into the mind-numbing exhaustion of an overnight flight, I’m guessing it’s not uncommon.
There are a few tricks I’ve amassed over the years for making long flights bearable. So make sure your seatbelt is fully fastened, pour yourself a drink on tray that’s not locked in an upright position, and let’s dive in to my personal guide for surviving overnight flights:
Pick a good seat.
Preparations for a smooth overnight flight begin way before departure time. Whenever I book a long-haul flight, I check Seat Guru to find the best seat available within my price range. The site indicates which seats have more or less legroom, as well as which seats have smaller windows or no baggage space. Someday I’ll indulge in a ticket at the front of the plane — but until then, I’m all about strategic seat choices.
One of my favorite seating tricks? If you’re traveling with a companion, reserve a window seat and aisle seat, leaving the middle seat free. If you’re lucky and the plane isn’t fully booked, the seat could remain empty. If it books, offer to switch with the passenger so you and your partner can sit together — 99% of people will be happy to take the window or aisle and avoid being wedged between two acquaintances. Win-win.
Keep essentials close.
Sometimes turbulence prevents me from grabbing my bag from the overhead bin, so I always pack truly necessary items in my purse, which slides under the seat in front of me: book, lip balm, earbuds, gum, phone, and moisturizer.
Fill your water bottle.
Remember, you can’t take more than 3.4 oz. of liquid through security, so don’t fill your favorite reusable water bottle until you’re safely past the metal detectors. There’s no rule against bringing your water on the plane, so why wait until the flight attendants make their first rounds?
So you’ve boarded. You’re sealed in for the reminder of the flight. When you wake up tomorrow, you’ll be on another continent, or at least on the other side of this one. Now what?
And no, not that little bottle of chardonnay. While I occasionally indulge in an apéritif if I’m soaring the skies during supper (common for eastbound transatlantic flights), I try to go light on the alcohol and caffeine. I know, I know — two of the best holiday indulgences. But hydration is key to a smooth transition into your trip.
Skimping on water intake causes fatigue, headaches and irritated skin even when you’re on the ground. The side effects are compounded on a flight because the air circulated in the plane is incredibly dry. Physiotherapist Yasmin Badiani once told Marie Claire the relative humidity on flights is three times more dry than the Sahara Desert.
I’ve read recommendations ranging between eight and 16 oz. of water per hour in flight. While I’ve never measured my exact in-flight water intake, I do take a bottle of water on the plane (filled after going through security) and ask for a glass of water every time the flight attendant offers refreshments. Drinking regularly throughout the flight is better than chugging a 32 oz. bottle of water beforehand. Think of it as giving your body a continuous flow of hydration for optimum absorption. Your skin and cramped muscles will thank you. And remember, when you’re hydrated, you’re less likely to experience that “hungover” jetlagged feeling.
As for those resulting trips to the bathroom? They’re an excuse to get up and…
By now, we’re all familiar with the dangers of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The CDC sums it up: The longer you’re immobile, the greater your chances of developing a blood clot. But aside from preventing scary health problems, taking time to stand and stretch does wonders for your mental state. I try to be aware of my sleeping seatmates, of course, but get up to stretch every couple hours if I can.
I usually head toward the bathroom at the back of the plane, which tends to offer more space for stretching. As someone who has an unnatural fear of people staring at me, I don’t try anything crazy. A few neck rolls, a toe touch or two. Sometimes I slowly, nonchalantly lunge from side to side if there’s no one else in line back there. If there’s a line, I bounce on my toes and do a few calf raises. The main goal is to activate your muscles and get your blood flowing before you head back to your seat. Not only does moving help your physical state, it’s a good mental reset. Sometimes time seems to stand still on overnight flight, so “scheduling” a stretch break every two or three hours helps mark the time.
Remember that dry airplane air? It’s sucking the glow from your skin too. Now’s the time to be liberal with hand cream. If you’re brave, break out a new sheet mask and ignore the look of terror from your seatmates. If you’re timid like me, use a gel mask or cream that you can slather on your face, let soak in for an hour or two, then dab off with a tissue (if there’s any left — the dry air is no joke). Every few hours, I also apply a facial mist while turning away from my fellow passengers, who might not want to get in on the hydration action.
You are surrounded by strangers in all states of sickness and health. You are resting your head on a seat where many heads have rested before. Do yourself a favor and pack the hand sanitizer. Facial wipes can do double-duty by cleaning your hands and yesterday’s makeup.
And while you’re combatting germs, consider how in-flight meals could affect your digestion or cause bloating later.
When I flew from Canada to Guam last summer, I lost a day and gained a 14-hour time difference. My plane touched down in the evening, so I was able to settle into bed (my first “night” in two days) before midnight. Magically, I woke up alert and ready for the beach at 8am the next morning.
My secret? Eating as little as possible. The amount will vary per person — and please know I’m not a dietician, so give your body what it needs! — but my experience has been that the less I eat during my travels, the more quickly my body resets to a different time. Evening arrivals help too because I arrive just in time for a nice dinner before winding down.
Just because the flight attendant offers you four meals does not mean you need to take them. If you are hungry, go for lighter fruits and vegetables over protein and starch. Listen to your body, but try to eat according to your destination’s timezone. It’s a mind game, but somehow it works.
You’ve made it! You’re back on solid ground. Transitioning into a timezone an ocean away means you’re still adjusting though. Here’s what I recommend for bouncing back quickly.
- Wash your face and change your clothes. It’s a new day, so act like it! You’ll feel physically and mentally refreshed if you stop at the nearest airport restroom and give yourself a splash on the face (and while we’re at it, armpits) and a clean pair of underwear.
- Stretch. I know, you were a good traveler and stretched every two hours on the plane. But keep your body moving as you adjust to a new time, place, and day.
- Eat a solid, nourishing meal on local time. If you arrive at 4 p.m., try to hold off for an hour or two. Arriving at midnight? Well, OK, tuck into a light, nutritious dinner before heading off to slumberland. The last thing you want is to wake up hungry at 3 a.m. local time.
- Keep drinking water. Refill your bottle as soon as you arrive. Drink a glass of water before bed and keep a freshly filled glass by your nightstand. Hydration is important even on an ordinary day, but it’s crucial when you’re up against jet lag.
Will following my advice keep you healthy and prevent jet lag completely? Maybe. Every body is different. But whether it’s one of these things or several of them, I know when I’ve followed these routines I arrive at my destination healthy and minimally disturbed by jet lag.
In Flight Essentials