Long-haul Flights: Tips for a Comfortable Journey

While a vacation to Europe can be an exciting proposition, the long, usually overnight journey can leave you arriving in your dream destination in a fog. Most flights to Europe leave one day and arrive bright and early the next morning. There are, however, a number of small things that we have found help us minimize the transatlantic hangover and begin enjoying our vacation more quickly.

Minimize stress by being organized. One of the best investments you can make is to take the time to organize your information and documents before leaving home. I type out and print all the details of my journey in order. For the "getting there" part of the trip my list includes all information I may need between the time I leave the house and I am settled in my hotel. This means not just flight information but parking plans or shuttle details, any pre-flight hotel confirmations, directions and phone numbers, arrival and ground transportation details and hotel confirmations and finally, emergency numbers. I make two copies. I pack one copy in my carry-on and put the second in my passport pouch. Speaking of a passport pouch, it's not only good for securing your ID and credit card, but use of one means you'll never have to dig for your id . Another "pre-plan" step is that I try to arrive with enough cash in local currency to see me through to hotel check-in. For a recent trip to Italy, I simply went to my local bank a week in advance and purchased Euro. (But call ahead, as not all banks sell foreign currency and some others require a few days to complete your request.)

Selecting your flight(s). If possible, try to select a direct flight. This will minimize stress and provide the maximum opportunity for sleep. Many times, however, your affordable flight choices require at least one connecting flight. In this case, I recommend choosing a connecting flight in the U.S. instead of one abroad. This will put your connection earlier in your itinerary, before you become overly tired, and if you aren't a seasoned traveler, you will be connecting in less unfamiliar surroundings. I found that the big bonus was that by the time I was ready to sleep, I was on the last (and longest) leg of my flight.

Seat Selection: Part of preparing for the most comfortable flight for me means researching the type of aircraft for each flight. I find the website www.seatguru.com invaluable. It provides the seating layout of each aircraft as well as details of the amenities available. Planning to take your laptop? The site will tell your if some coach seats have power outlets (and which ones they are). Also you can find out if there are seat back video screens, food availability and more. And probably most importantly, it can help you identify seats that may be less desirable due to proximity to the restrooms, limited legroom or in a few cases, lack of recline capabilities. A window seat is often the first choice. You can rest against the wall and no one will be climbing over you to access the aisle. If you are willing to keep an eye on available seats even after you book, you can try what I try. I revisit the airline booking site and keep a close eye on how full the flight is. If it's an aircraft with three middle seats, it's not very full and I am flying with my spouse, we will often book the two aisle seats in the center section, leaving the center seat vacant. A single center seat will often be among the last seats assigned. More often than not, we have departed with three seats available between us. This makes sleeping much easier. In the worst case scenario, the middle seat was assigned, and we offered to trade one of our aisle seats with the passenger between us. We were still sitting together and still had good aisle access. This approach can be a gamble, but one that can really pay off. The other great "score" can be exit rows. We also do one last seat check 24 hours before departure, when exit rows and other previously held seats become available.  Another option is to arrive early at the airport to try and ask about the availability of exit rows.

Comfort items: My top five comfort items for long distance air travel are my own headphones (noise canceling are the best), a tooth brush, a supply of healthy snacks, an oversized sweater that can double as a blanket, and finally, a pair of warm & fuzzy socks (much more comfortable than shoes).  Additionally, be sure to wear loose comfortable clothing.

Ground Transportation: When you arrive, you will of course, need to proceed through immigration. I have found that once through this process, it's a welcome bonus to have a driver or organized ground transportation waiting to greet you, help you with your luggage and see you safely to your hotel. This is another thing that I find, is best planned ahead. In researching ground transportation options, I have frequently found the cost of well-reviewed, pre-arranged transportation is not much higher than a regular taxi or service secured onsite. And the peace of mind is invaluable, particularly after a tiring flight and arriving in an unfamiliar destination.

Getting Settled: When you arrive at your hotel, hopefully you are fortunate enough to be able to check-in right away. If so, you may be tempted to fall asleep and try and make-up for lost rest. I suggest you resist this temptation. Instead, wait until the afternoon, and then take only a short (one hour) mid-day nap. This will help get you on schedule with the local time. If you can't check in until later, most hotels will store your luggage until check-in time. Arriving in Rome over 4 hours before we could check in, we found a good way to use the time that was in line with our diminished energy. Many major destinations have "hop on...hop off" buses for tourists. Intended to give visitors flexible access to numerous sites, we boarded the bus and rode the entire "loop", not getting off until we returned to our starting point. This provided an excellent, but restful orientation to Rome and the experience was quite helpful when we began sightseeing in earnest the next day. Once we did check-in, it was a one hour nap, and then off for some casual exploration around our hotel. By the next morning we were refreshed, energetic and ready to soak it the wonders of Rome.

Long-haul flights can be tiring an difficult. But with some good research, organization and advance planning, you can arrive well prepared and ready to make the most of your international experience.

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Mark Cruz
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Posted on Feb 4, 2012