Travel Tips for Rookies: How to Survive An International Flight

Your bags are checked, and you made it through security without losing your shoes, boarding pass, or dignity. You've splurged on an overpriced Coke and magazines promising to keep you busy for about 15% of the upcoming flight. You're enjoying the last few minutes before climbing into a large metal tube with hundreds of strangers, soon to be hurtling through clouds at speeds faster than you can contemplate, while being served half-baked plates of mushy pasta and dry bread rolls. For twelve hours.

Welcome to international travel.

Long-haul flights over the Pacific have become something we are far too familiar with. I don't enjoy being stuck in an airplane, feeling my nasal passages drying up like the Sahara desert, sitting next to a stranger who has no concept of personal space or hygiene. But we've learned a few survival tactics along the way that help us get through international flights.

Maybe you're getting ready for your first long flight over the ocean. But preparing yourself mentally and physically will go a long way to making your flight an enjoyable, less-traumatic experience.

Before you get on the plane:

1. Choose your airline carefully.

Some airlines are more expensive than others - with good reason. It's up to you if an extra $200 is worth space, digestible food, and your sanity. Some airlines are notorious for late or cancelled flights, terrible customer service, and a delight in torturing their customers {*cough* chinese airlines}. Others have comfortable seats, decent food, and an inexhaustible array of free movies. When you're stuck in a plane for 13 hours, these things suddenly mean the difference between arriving at your destination with your senses intact or collapsing in your hotel with darkened lights and not budging for three days.

In our trans-Pacific experience, Korean Airlines is quality - newer planes, nice food selection {three choices!!!}, and no problems {as of yet} with lost bags or delayed flights. Just because a flight is $200 cheaper does not mean it is a better deal or equal quality. You get what you pay for.

Note: Don't assume you always get the traditional two-checked-bags for free on every airline. We were recently surprised to learn that Delta only allows one free checked bag flying in and out of Thailand {see their website for more details}.

Check your airline's website carefully!

2. Choose your seat carefully.

Aisle or window? My husband has to go for the aisle, because of his long legs and inability to sit still for longer than an hour. Which means I normally get stuck in the middle.

Try to avoid seats near the bathrooms - trust me, it may seem convenient, but you do not want to try to sleep next to the sound {or smell} of flushing toilets and airsick passengers for hours on end. Also, the front of the seating sections tends to be where the babies congregate. Not good for the noise factor.

3. Watch your layovers.

If you don't know airports very well, give yourself at least 2 hours for layovers - longer if you need to go through immigration once you've reached your destination country. For example, if your final destination is Kansas City, but your first US layover is in Houston, you'll go through immigration in Houston. Immigration and customs can take a loooong time. And you'll be brain-fried from your flight, so don't count on any strategic thinking to get through quickly.

Longer layovers also allow you to walk around, use a normal toilet, and eat food that doesn't come wrapped in foil. Maybe even grab a nap lying flat, which you will appreciate more than you know.

Prepare strategically:

4. Don't take overloaded carry-on bags.

When you have to walk 2 miles through an airport to make your connection, you will be glad your bag only weighs 10 pounds. I have serious spinal damage from carting around rucksacks full of unnecessary books, magazines, and pillows. Figure out what is essential, and stick with that.

And please, for all that is merciful, put your liquids in the correct zip lock bag and have it ready to pull out when you're in security. Liquids still need to be 100ml or less, and you can take as many as you can cram into a 1-quart ziplock plastic bag {see the website for more up-to-date information if you're traveling in the United States}. If it's bigger than 100ml, you need to check it.

5. Dress in layers that are easy to remove.

Don't be that one person who has to untie their shoelaces, unbutton two cardigans, and then forgets to remove their belt and keys from their pockets when going through security. Comfortable slip-on shoes also come in handy when you're struggling to put them on while scrunched in your airplane seat so you can go to the toilet. You could just wear your socks, but have you ever seen the floor of an airplane toilet? Gross. And wet.

Airports and airplanes get ridiculously cold. A large scarf can double as a eye mask, extra pillow, and a cardigan. And I've never regretted taking a hoody sweatshirt {jumper} with me. Most international flights will provide you a blanket and small pillow, but it's always nice to have something extra.

The TSA website also has some good tips on how to get through security faster, so check it out on their website.

6. If you are a light sleeper, take an eye mask and ear plugs.

Being on a jet for twelve hours is like having a hive of bees move into your head. The noise of the engines is absolutely deafening. I wear ear plugs nearly the whole flight, both to drown out other passengers and to muffle the engine noise. And because I'm a light sleeper, I always take an eye mask. Between those two, sleep is sometimes possible.

And while you're in the air...

7. Sleep as much as possible. And walk as much as possible.

Get up. Walk up and down the aisles. Do yoga stretches in the back of the plane. Do whatever you can to keep your blood flowing and muscles relaxed, because if you sit in that chair for twelve hours, you will feel like the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz when you attempt to get off that plane. I personally get motion sick if I don't get up and move.

And sleep - if you can. I am not blessed with that gift of being able to sleep anywhere, anytime, in any position. But if you have it, please share it telepathically with me.

8. Be creative about your food.

Warning - if you're flying on an Asian airline, the Western food selection is probably going to be pretty bad. So go with the fried rice option - but still don't expect too much. Most airline food has very little flavor or texture, so save your salted peanuts, crush them in your hand, and sprinkle some on your dinner. {I wish I'd thought of that myself, but I heard it on a food podcast.} And brings snacks that have some protein - granola bars, cheese, or beef jerky can tide you over between meals.

Drinking lots of water is a must - airplane air is so, so, so dry. Skip the coffee and tea, because it will just dehydrate you more and make you have to pee. The fewer trips to the airplane loo, the better. Unless it's because you're drinking water.

Bonus tip - for whatever reason, Incheon Airport in Seoul, South Korea, thinks it's necessary to remove every bottle of water from every passenger from every flight departing to anywhere. I can't tell you how upsetting it is to spend $2 on a bottle of water inside the terminal, only to have it removed from my bag because it's more than 100ml. But in every other airport I've been in, I buy the water and refill it on the plane.

9. Watch the movies - and take your own headphones.

Really, the only way to survive a long flight is to immerse yourself in mind-numbing entertainment. And luckily, on most airlines, it's free! And endless! And edited for family-friendly content! {which also means you should never buy a movie that you watched on a plane unless you're absolutely sure it really doesn't have any inappropriate scenes or constant swear words}

Personally, I hate the flimsy, uncomfortable headphones the airlines pass out. I like my ear buds. And you can use them on your iPod/iPhone/iWhatever as well as with the airline movies.

Another bonus tip - most airlines also have USB ports in the seats, so you can charge your devices on the go.

So to summarize what you really need to bring on an international flight:

  1. Comfortable, slip-on shoes and clothing in layers
  2. Light carry-on bags packed with protein snacks, ear plugs, eye mask, and headphones
  3. An expectation that, no matter how long it feels, the flight WILL eventually end, and your destination is worth the trouble it took to get there.

Do you have any tips on surviving an international flight? If so, please share in the comments below!

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