Me ’n’ my baggages, triumphantly arriving back home after our 30-hour flight odyssey from South Carolina to Dubai last summer.
Since the holiday travel season is upon us and I am now in my fifth straight year of traveling 24 hours each way to get home for Christmas - and also since I am currently scheduled to be on no less than eight 15-hour flights in the next four months - I feel imminently qualified at this moment in time to unleash my travel wisdom upon the interwebs.
So brace yourselves for Gubbi’s Guide to Surviving Long-Haul Flights:
1) Build up a sleep deficit before you go. This isn’t usually a problem for me, as I inevitably find myself either (a) on a flight that leaves at 3 AM, or (b) up until 3 AM packing / doing my nails / downloading TV the night before a flight, but for those of you who are more plan-in-advancey than me, I genuinely believe that going into a long trip a bit sleep-deprived improves the experience. Not only are you better able to sleep on the flight (True story: I once fell asleep around 11 PM on a flight from Dubai to Atlanta. When I woke up, checked my watch, and saw that it was only 11:30, I was really confused because I felt like I had been asleep for much longer than thirty minutes… then I realized it was 11:30 AM and I had, in fact, slept for over 12 hours) but I think your body also adjusts better to new time zones and “goes with the flow” a bit more when you’re tired to begin with.
2) Drink copious amounts of alcohol. Anyone who tells you not to drink on a long-haul flight hates you, hates freedom, and probably wants to kick your puppy in the face. The only way I survive any flight longer than 7 hours is to spend as much of it as possible in a dream-like, twilight haze of prolonged semi-awareness, and obviously alcohol facilitates this process. (The same goes for any prescription / non-prescription pharmaceuticals you may have at your disposal, but you didn’t hear that from me.) Sure, drink lots of water, too, and drink caffeine upon arrival if you touch down in the morning - but mostly, drink booze. Remember: on a long enough flight, it’s always five o’clock somewhere on your flight path.
3) When it comes to entertainment, set your intellectual pretenses aside. If I had a dollar for every issue of The Economist I had purchased in an airport bookstore and never read, I would probably be able to cover the cost of a business class upgrade for my 15-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Chicago this coming Tuesday, and that shit ain’t cheap. Same goes for New York Times best-selling non-fiction, NPR podcasts, and any critically acclaimed Oscar-winning documentaries or foreign films that may be available for viewing on the plane. Acquaint yourself with the fact that in your drooling, ambient, in-flight stupor, you are the lowest common denominator, and select your media accordingly. US Weekly, reality TV, and young adult fiction are all great choices. On an 8-hour flight from Dubai to Hong Kong last summer, I watched Justin Bieber: Never Say Never after a couple mini-bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and literally wept because I was so inspired by this compelling story of a humble young Canadian with a big dream. Truth be told, it was one of my most enjoyable flights in recent memory.
4) Dress comfortably. Let’s face it, the days of being upgraded because you’re a ”sharp dresser” (or whatever the old wisdom used to be) have long since passed. Nowadays you get upgraded because either (a) you have status with the airline, or more rarely, (b) the airline grievously wrongs you and you rage so explosively that they have no choice but to bump you into the fancy cabin to shut you up. Neither of these have anything to do with wearing heels or a blazer, or even real pants - and as far as I’m concerned, leggings become acceptable as pants on any flight that involves crossing an ocean. I think I stopped wearing actual clothes on long-haul flights about a decade ago - my standard uniform is yoga pants, running shoes, a cute t-shirt, a sweatshirt or pashmina, plus makeup and all my nicest jewelry - and I have yet to be laughed out of a business class lounge. (And ladies, don’t forget that the worst pain in our lives besides childbirth is underwire digging into your ribs as you try to nod off sometime around hour thirteen. Sports bras, always.)
5) Don’t talk to strangers… Ohmygosh, nothing strikes terror in my heart (ehrm… except turbulence) like hunkering down for a transcontinental hop and discovering my seatmate is a Chatty Cathy. Sartre and I don’t often see eye to eye, but I firmly believe that when you’re a captive audience hurtling through the sky in a metal tube, hell is other people, and I can’t tell you how many miserable hours I’ve spent listening to fellow travelers ramble on about their volunteer trip to Uganda / secret missionary work in Qatar / pharmaceuticals conference in Saudi Arabia when all I’ve wanted to do is zone the eff out. So do as you would have others do unto you - with one exception, below.
5 & 1/2) … but be kind when strangers really need to talk to you. Flying halfway (or even a quarter or a third of the way) around the world can be a daunting thing whether it’s your first time or your umpteenth, and sometimes the person next to you is the only source of comfort you have. On my last trip back from the US I was in a particularly angsty flying place (in general, I range between “mildly uneasy” and “bat-shit crazily terrified” as a flyer, and during this period I was trending towards the latter) and United - because they treat passengers as cattle rather than as human beings - was unable to sit Alex and I next to each other for our 14-hour flight from DC to Dubai. No one would switch with either of us because we were both stuck in middle seats, and I was suuuuuuuper stressy about the flight ahead, so I started peppering my neighbor - a big burly retired Dallas cop working in Afghanistan as a defense contractor - with really inane conversation (“What airline are you flying from Dubai to Kabul? Did you know that there are four different airlines that do the route because there’s so much demand? When I went to Kabul, I flew Pamir there and Kam Air back! Did you know that Emirates really wants to add Kabul as a destination, but the price of insuring their planes there overnight between flights makes it cost-prohibitive? Did you also know that Air Arabia used to do the route, but had to cancel it due to a security scare back in 2008?”) to keep myself distracted. He put up with me until we safely reached cruising altitude, then answered a final question - “So, what exactly will you be doing there?” - with the conversation-killing "I’ll just be trying to keep my men alive" and pointedly donned his Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the rest of the flight that he had humored me off the ground - especially despite my typical reluctance to do the same.
So there you have it - my learnings, distilled for you. Bon voyage, friends!