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How to make your flight less miserable

Drew Limsky
March 12, 2013

Air travel has become so uncomfortable that preserving your sanity means perfecting your flying ritual. Be prepared and methodical, and once you deplane you’ll barely remember the trip even happened.

Quick change

Refrain from being one of those annoying people at the check-in counter having some protracted negotiation with the agent, or one of those couples or families who expect five passengers to change their seats to accommodate you. If you’re traveling with a group, or think that your itinerary or seating might be the least bit complex, handle it over the phone before you ever get to the terminal. Once at the airport, use the check-in kiosks (sometimes they even work). Frequent fliers know to approach the counter only to ask for something specific and quickly achieved, like a seat in an empty row, a seat in the emergency row, or to check on upgrade status.

Loyalty matters

Attaining a frequent-flier level in which you’re routinely upgraded is the holy grail of flying. For me, it’s not about the food; it’s only marginally about the free liquor; it’s all about the seat and the sleep. Even paying for a pricier ticket on your preferred airline to maintain your elite status is worth it, because each upgrade to Business is worth several thousand dollars and priceless peace of mind.

Carry on my wayward son

Nothing signals an inexperienced traveler more than checked baggage. Avoid it at all costs; it’s expensive in both time and money. Observing this rule for a long weekend trip is easy. Paradoxically, using a carry-on for a month-long trip is also a no-brainer, because then I know it’s incumbent on me to find a cheap laundromat or agreeable housekeeper in my final destination. It’s those trips in between those two durations that are a challenge. Still, you should resist the urge to check luggage. Shop around for the biggest bag that will legally fit in the overhead compartment and supplement it with the most expandable shoulder bag that you can find.

(See also: Confessions of an airline lost-and-found agent)

Smart security

The key to getting through the security line quickly is to mentally rehearse your ritual beforehand. Be sure that you can easily slide your computer out of your bag, that you can slip out of your shoes in seconds (laces are the enemy), and that your toiletries don’t exceed 3.4 ounces each. (In my experience, most airports have relaxed the toiletries-in-the-clear-bag rule, so I’d risk dispensing with it.) Belts, mobile devices, and other metals go into your bag or coat before you ever get out of the taxi.

See no evil

Sensory deprivation, Part 1: unless you have work that absolutely can’t wait or you spy someone on the plane you’d like to get to know, the best way to experience flying is not to. Make over-the-counter sleep aids and/or controlled substances your friends, and use a sleep mask or a baseball cap pulled down low to get to your dark place and alert talkative neighbors and solicitous flight attendants that you’d like some privacy. Your choice of flight plays into this, too: the first flight of the morning, after you’ve gotten barely three hours of sleep, will almost guarantee coma, and red-eyes are fine opportunities to avoid consciousness.

See more: Bring Your Own Water, and other ways to avoid flight misery.

Hear no evil

Sensory deprivation, Part 2: You should never get on a plane without earplugs. Untested fliers tend to project as if they’re onstage. There are all kinds of things you just don’t want to hear onboard, beyond the ubiquitous crying babies: couples arguing, strangers flirting, flight attendants gossiping, and businesspeople relentlessly talking about revenue goals and optimization.

Rockin’ and rollin’

A lot of people get nervous during turbulence even if they don’t show it. First off, take the announcements about “chop” with a grain of salt. Often, by the time the pilot or flight attendant finishes describing how bumpy this patch is, the bumpy patch is done. Second, when you feel some bumps, stare at your water bottle in the seatback pocket; notice that the water is barely moving. This reality check will give you some perspective. Another self-soothing strategy: Consider how much bumpier a ride on Metro North or the subway is than the choppy flight you’re on—and remember that those modes of transport don’t even require seat belts. Third, if you feel that your anxiety level will become intolerable, see above note about controlled substances.

Hydration, hydration, hydration

There are a lot of things you don’t need for the flight, but water is essential. Flying is notoriously dehydrating (bring chapstick). I’ve found very few airports in the world that don’t sell bottles of water beyond the security checkpoint, so buy it even if it’s overpriced (it always will be). Don’t be at the mercy of the flight attendant rolling down the aisle with “free” beverages (something that costs you anxiety is not free). And what if you run out of water just as it gets choppy and you need to swallow a controlled substance, now?

Fliers’ digest

In my opinion, the food is never so good on the plane—even in First Class—that it’s worth missing out on sleep. It’s just plain uncomfortable to have a full belly in a tight seat, and if you’re a nervous flier, that speedy infusion of calories will make your heart race even faster. On the other hand, it’s wise to bring some trail mix or other snacks in case you get into one of those rare time-consuming scenarios—delayed on the tarmac or circling in the air. Either way, choose a seat that’s close (but not too close) to the plane’s restroom.

Temperature control

It doesn’t matter if you’re flying to and from the hottest places on Earth; once you’re at 35,000 feet, it’s cold. So don’t make the common mistake of under-dressing because you’re on vacation. Always layer. Always wear socks. I’ve found a hoodie indispensible for warmth, comfort, and versatility—you can use it as a blanket over your legs. Bringing a blanket for the plane is a waste of space and makes you look like a tool. (A hooded sweatshirt just makes you look like an overage skateboarder, or a Californian, which is better than looking like a tool.) A travel item that has multiple uses is worth its weight in gold; your hoodie does double duty.