For the past several years I have been fortunate enough to be able to fly business class on my long haul trips. However, I recently found myself in a position where this just wasn’t an option and instead had the conundrum of trying to figure out how to survive a long flight in economy instead.
I flew economy for many years (and still do on short haul flights), but I traded up for my long haul flights a while ago now and honestly, I love it. Travel is my chosen luxury in life and I really enjoy and look forward to the whole flying experience now it is so comfortable, even as much as the holiday itself.
I was therefore a little hesitant as to how this was going to go. I decided to hedge my bets and go with two strategies to make my flight as pleasant as possible; pretend there is no real difference with flying business and prepare for everything.
The latter worked as well as it could (when in doubt, always prep well I say) and the former, well…. I think I semi deluded myself until I saw my seat. Like many people, I am really not a fan of being in close proximity to that many people, especially for an extended period of time. I am also useless at sitting still; watching a movie with me is taxing as I will jump up at least a couple of times convinced that there is a job that urgently needs doing.
Why I Flew Economy on a Long Haul Flight
Very simple answer, cost! A post for another day, but I have never payed anything close to full price for a business class flight. In fact, I hit a new record with my recent flight bookings to South Africa where two return business class tickets cost less than two economy tickets on the same route.
It took a few years for me to learn the whole point hacking game and follow the sale trends, but for me it was definitely worth the time investment. My go-to website is The Points Guy who has taught me so much on this and saved me an absolute fortune, or rather, allowed me to travel in luxury more than I would have otherwise!
My friend and I were due to have a few days away together and after stumbling on some awesomely priced £260 return flights to NYC, decided to go there rather than Europe as we would have usually done. I wasn’t able to find any decent deals for business class and couldn’t justify the cost differential for a four day hop across the Atlantic, so economy it was!
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Tips for Surviving Long Haul Flights in Economy
I applied a lot of the hacks I use when travelling short haul in economy (I don’t find business class good value on short haul), but with some extras and even a thing or two I learned on the flight itself. I’m not going to lie, I still won’t class it as a pleasant experience, but it was manageable with some fleeting moments of joy thrown in!
Anyway, these are my long haul flights tips and tricks to make your economy class experience as comfortable as possible, with a bit of luxury sprinkled on top!
Choose your Seat Wisely
This is absolutely critical for coping with long flights; check Seat Guru as soon as you book your flight and see how much it is to reserve a good seat with your airline in advance. You might think you don’t want to pay to choose your seat in advance and I get it. However, it can honestly make the difference between a manageable flight and a brutal one.
Before you do this, double check the cost to upgrade to premium economy on both your outbound and inbound legs separately, I have got lucky on a couple of occasions in the past when booking trips for other people and found the upgrade cost to be less than buying a seat in advance. Unfortunately I was not so lucky on this journey!
If you want a no cost option, set an alarm for half an hour before your flight check in opens, have your airline browser open in one tab and Seat Guru in the other. Have a look at which seats are already pre-reserved on your flight and which ones are recommended on Seat Guru that aren’t already taken. These are your target seats. Write them down if you need to.
As a general rule of thumb, don’t book seats near the bathrooms (noisy, busy and could smell better) or in front of an exit row (they often don’t recline). Remember that bulkhead seats are also where parents with babies are seated, so try and stay away from them unless you are able to snag an exit row, which is worth the higher noise risk. Don’t forget some noise cancelling headphones!
Enter your booking details into your airline website, make sure your Advance Passenger Information (API) is completed for all passengers and you are all set to check in as soon as it opens. If you’re first in, you’ll get the best seat selection.
If you are travelling as a couple, book the window and aisle seat where the seats are a block of three (most long haul aircraft have a 3-4-3 configuration in economy). No one opts for the middle seat unless they have no other choice, so if your flight isn’t full, you have a good chance of having all three seats to yourself. I always do this when flying economy on short haul and it works most of the time. On two occasions we were on a full flight but both poor people that had the seat between us almost bit our hands off when we offered to switch so we could sit together!
Airport Lounge Access
I always make sure I have lounge access in an airport, short or long haul, economy or business. Even if you are flying in economy, there are a few options.
There are two lounge types, airline lounges and airport lounges. An airline lounge is generally if you are only flying first or business class (or you are a premium member of their frequent flyer programme) and an airline lounge anyone can get access to, for a fee.
Related Post: Fast Track Services for a Luxury Airport Experience
Airport Lounge Membership
I have a membership to Priority Pass, for which there are a few tiers. The basic one (which is the one I have) is currently £69 a year and then it is an additional £20 per lounge visit. You can also bring guests into the lounge for an additional £20 per person. I am a Silversmith member with Mr & Mrs Smith, the boutique luxury hotel booking website, so I get complimentary membership to Priority Pass, although I still have to pay the £20 per person lounge entry.
My first thought was that this was quite expensive, however bear in mind that you have a complimentary bar, food and WiFi as standard in the lounge. Many also have additional facilities such as showers, kid’s play areas and computers to use. Some even have conference facilities and cinemas.
I don’t know about you, but I generally always have something to eat in the airport and a couple of glasses of something sparkly which comes to over £20, so it actually works out more cost effectively for me.
Pay-As-You-Go Airport Lounge Access
If you don’t travel frequently enough to make Priority Pass work for you, the other option is to use a pay-as-you-go service such as Lounge Pass. You can get the full list of lounges at airports around the world, see what facilities they have and compare costs across lounges operated by different companies.
Try and book in advance if you can, as at peak times they can be at capacity and you won’t get in if you just turn up, or there is a wait.
Top Tip: Keep an eye out for discounted lounge access being offered when booking your airport parking or your fast track security passes.
What to Wear on a Long Haul Economy Flight
You will have heard this before, but you need to be comfortable on long flights. However, as I also refuse to walk through the airport looking like I just rolled out of bed, a compromise needs to be found.
What works best for me is wearing whatever I want to the airport, packing a comfortable set of clothes in my carry on and then as soon as those seat belt signs switch off, I’m up and getting changed! I also like changing back into my airport outfit again before landing, it makes you feel a bit fresher after a long plane journey.
How to Be Comfortable on a Flight: Plane Outfit
My go-to plane outfit to is a cotton t-shirt, cashmere socks and sweatpants (I know, I know, indulgent as hell, but oh my god, my legs feel like they are wrapped in clouds) and a yoga bra (best things ever, please do not even attempt to wear anything with an underwire on any long haul flight). I always wear dark colours on the plane as every time my red wine is served we hit turbulence and half of it ends up on me. I care much less when dressed in black!
Top Tip: Take a pashmina or wrap, they are invaluable for combatting changing temperatures, covering said red wine stains, acting as a pillow and still looking a bit glam in sweatpants, making it an essential addition to your long haul flight outfit.
If you don’t want to change on flights, the best of both worlds outfit is black leggings (if still not dressed up enough for you, go for a faux suede pair, they have more structure but are still super comfy), a long sleeved cotton t-shirt and a cape (cashmere, obvs). A cape is stylish, comfortable and can also act as a blanket or rolled up as a pillow.
Food & Water
Good news, all of the tricks I apply for short haul flights work for long haul economy flights as well, just with a higher quantity needed!
I bring Kind Bars with me on the plane (dark chocolate and sea salt flavour for life) otherwise I tend to graze on god knows what crappy snacks the airlines provide that do nothing for making you feel fresh and energetic post flight.
Make sure you bring a big bottle that you fill up after you pass security; you will get thirsty on the plane, ask for water and ten minutes later be served three slurps worth of the stuff. I love the S’well (pricier) and Chilly’s bottles (mid-range); they come in multiple colours and sizes, don’t leak and keep water cold or coffee hot for longer than you’ll ever need. The also have the best designs, which are the reason I have so many!
Everyone says don’t drink alcohol on flights, however I feel like being on a plane is a celebration and a treat (not sure I would call economy a treat, so here you need to drink for a whole different reason), so I always do. If you stick within your own limits (you know what they are) and keep smashing that water (this is key), you’ll be fine.
I sometimes bring my own meals on board as well, depending on the airline. There is no getting around it, economy food is just crap. I go for something healthier as well as few different treats, usually popcorn and dark chocolate. Flying can make me feel sluggish and you don’t need that coupled with jet lag. Smash some more water while you’re at it as well.
Long Haul Flight Essentials
Ok, what to take on a long haul flight is a whole separate post to be honest (I do not believe in packing light when it comes to hand luggage), but there are a few travel essentials that become even more key when travelling in economy to ensure a comfortable flight.
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I have yet to find a good one you can buy off the shelf, so I create my own. As a minimum, I pack a toothbrush, toothpaste, face wipes, hand sanitiser, lip balm, eye drops (and contact lens gear if needed), general moisturiser, painkillers and any prescription meds.
Noise Cancelling Headphones
I didn’t think I needed these for ages and then borrowed a pair for my latest flight and won’t go back. Not only are they better at blocking out sound than ear plugs if you need to sleep, it is a lot easier to forget you are in a metal tube with hundreds of people you don’t know when watching a movie/listening to music. If, like me, you thought these were a luxury for the music enthusiast, think again, they can make a real difference to the comfort of your economy flight.
I am reliably informed that the Bang & Olufsen Hi9 are the very best noise cancelling headphones around, however they’re pricy. A lot of what you are paying for is the sound quality which I have to admit, I am no expert on.
Personally, I am more fussed about how they look, comfiness and not being able to hear that crying baby next to me, so I’ve ordered the Libratone Q Adapt Wireless On-Ear ones which have excellent reviews on the quality of their CityMix noise cancelling technology. They are also less than half the price. I shall report back!
Again, another thing I went for years without as sleeping on short haul isn’t essential and it is not needed when flying on the lie flat seats. I decided to invest in one for this flight and I honestly could not have slept without it. I would go as far to say if you only pack one thing to help you sleep on long flights in economy class, it needs to be this.
Not sure about you, but I have a lot of hand luggage, so I was keen to find a neck pillow that was compact as well as comfy. I found two that fit this criteria, the Trtl Pillow that looks more like a scarf than a traditional neck pillow and the Air Comfy, a compact inflatable.
Airplane Seat Back Organiser
A fellow passenger had one of these and let me have a nosy at it and I decided it was pure genius. I am constantly fighting a battle between wanting to keep my floor area clear (I am loath to give up even an inch of my allocated economy size space) and not having everything up in the overhead locker so I am having to jump up (carefully without hitting anyone) to fetch something every three and a half seconds. This solves both of these problems completely and I was so impressed with it I have invested in one for my next flight.
Just because you’re flying in economy there is no need to pretend you’re not in first class, even if you have to make your own (yes, the delusion is real)! I have been giving these as gifts for years and used to use them with colleagues on Friday night train journeys back from London. There is nothing better than a little cocktail treat to perk yourself up mid-air.
There are two brands that I love for these kits; The Cocktail Box Co. and W&P with options such as Old Fashioned, Moscow Mule, Gin & Tonic and Champagne Cocktail. They each have enough ingredients to make up to six cocktails and can be taken on planes in your hand luggage, just add alcohol!
Spa Like Atmosphere
Ok I’m stretching it here, but I had to kid myself or I would have been very depressed about this flight. To transport yourself into this dreamworld you need an the following items:
- Eye Mask: I love a silk one one for lightweight comfiness. I have a few, but this one is understated, comes in a range of colours and you can’t argue with the price.
- Essential Oils: One of my at-home favourites, I get them in rollerball format when travelling for zen on the go; they are also very helpful for keeping your personal space smelling pleasant. I am a Neal’s Yard fan, they do great blends for different occasions, including one specifically for travel.
- Calm App: as well as meditation options, this app also has sleep music and stories, although I have had it for about four years now and have yet to hear the end of one before dozing off. Best used with your noise cancelling headphones.
- Cashmere Socks: you may have gathered I’m quite partial to this fabric, honestly it feels like floating on a cloud. These ones come in pink, grey & black and when properly cared for, last for years.
Add the aforementioned travel pillow and noise cancelling headphones and if you can swing it, bring a blanket too, I have a (surprise, surprise) cashmere roll up one. Doll yourself up and even the fussiest of sleepers will doze a bit.
Exercise Before Your Flight
Now this is a long haul flight tip I rarely hear, but I have found this invaluable when flying, even more so the longer the flight and the lower the flight class.
If you struggle to sit still for longer periods (me) or just want to feel a bit for settled and fall asleep more easily, exercise right before you leave for the airport. Try and do something more high intensity, but this is definitely not the time to try a new exercise or train harder than you usually do, the last thing you want is to hurt yourself. I notice a real difference on long flights, especially when I have exercised a mere few hours before take off.
If you are leaving at some ungodly hour in the morning, work out as close to your bedtime the night before if you can, it should still help some.
This is the time to plan out your entertainment as if you were going to spend the entire weekend with your duvet on the sofa. Which you kind of are, except in a small chair with hundreds of people you don’t know and the flight will only feel as long as a whole weekend.
Download books to your kindle, playlists from Spotify, movies to your iPad and games to your phone. At least double the number you think you will need (or triple for bonus points) and diversify across your devices, nothing is worse than underestimating how many you will need or getting bored of watching movies and then realising you have run out of things to do…. plus you need to factor in potential flight delays.
A couple of people have also recently let me know that airlines are starting to do away with individual TVs in economy as it saves them money and nowadays many people prefer to use their own device anyway. You have been warned!
General Travel Tips for Long Flights
- Reclining. Ok, I know this is a contentious one, but there is so little space in economy, have a little consideration for the person behind you. Making yourself slightly (and let’s be realistic here, slightly is as much as your comfort level will change) more comfortable is not worth sacrificing the comfort of the person behind you.
I am not saying you absolutely shouldn’t recline, just check the person behind you, are they six foot plus in a middle seat? Are they eating with their tray table down? Would just reclining your seat half way be a nice compromise?
I know some people get very hung up on their own personal views regarding their “rights” on the position of their seats, but as a decent human being, employ a bit of empathy for the person sitting behind you before smashing your seat back all the way.
- The minute you cruise down that runway, you are in your destination time zone. Your meals are usually served based on that and do yourself a favour and try and mimic the sleeping patterns as well. You will be on the front foot already when it comes to getting over the jet lag.
- Order a car for when you land. Honestly, give yourself a bit of luxury, you have survived a long haul flight in economy. Have a bottle of champagne for that matter. This is often not as an expensive service as you think, read my article on Fast Track Airport Services for some tips. Blacklane is always a good bet and services most airports worldwide.
Final Thoughts: How to Survive Long Flights in Economy
I flew with a very understanding and long time friend who is much less of a travel diva than me and looked on at my approach to this flight as if it was some kind of comic horror. She quickly got on board when she realised all of my planning resulted in a never ending supply of cocktails and water though!
I was interested to see how I would deal with this as it had been a while since I have done a long haul economy flight and I do love a good travel challenge.
I’m going to say the whole experience was manageable; the planning helped and giving myself a few treats like cocktails, dark chocolate and every conceivable fabric touching my body being cashmere definitely perked me up a bit. It still wasn’t something I would want to repeat in a hurry though!
Luckily I didn’t have to, on our return leg we had a stroke of luck and managed to get upgraded. Honestly, I could have kissed the BA ground crew that gave me the good news, my absolute heroes and what brilliant timing (this is only the second upgrade I have ever scored and I travel a fair bit).
For those that love a bit of luxe in life, but the budget doesn’t always abide, I hope you find this useful!
– For frequent flyers, Priority Pass is the service I recommend for lounge access.
– If you will only use airport lounges on an adhoc basis, Lounge Pass lets you compare lounges all over the world and get access on a pay-as-you-go basis.
– You can check out my full list of tried, tested and recommended Travel Resources here.