Surviving Long Haul Flights

Tea sir? Tea? Would you like some Tea? Tea? Ceylon tea? The final stretch of long-haul flights is excruciating. Braindead, muscle numb, squirming in anguish. There is nothing at all enjoyable about long-haul flights. I have had the misfortune of flying with 15 individual long-haul carriers in the past 10 years. Every flight as agonising as the last. Today’s flight is Sri Lanka Air. As always the cheapest flight available. The plane with obvious wear and tear looks like a hand-me-down from one of the bigger airlines. As long as it gets me there. As always I follow the same routine; my survival guide to Long Haul flights.

1. Direct or Multi-Stop

If you can afford direct flights go for it. For the rest of us, we opt for the cheaper multi-stop flights. I’ve only twice stumbled on cheap direct flights to Bangkok (Thai Airways and Eva Air). If you opt for a multi-stop flight make the most of it. Connecting flights at New Delhi? Add a day for the Taj Mahal. Price comparison websites (Skyscanner) rarely offer flexible multi-stop options but do make it easy to find the desired flights. Find the desired flights then phone the travel company direct to organise a longer duration on the stopover. Price shouldn’t change. On today’s flight, we take a short stopover in Negombo, Sri Lanka. For multi-stop my favourite destination is the United Arab Emirates.

2. Arrival at Airport

I generally turn up two hours before departure (international). I am yet to miss a flight (long haul). That being said it is hard to determine queues; check-in, security, passport control. Advice from airlines is as good as any. Also don’t expect online check-in to speed up the process – dropping off baggage takes just as long. A personal pet peeve at airports are the moving walkways (conveyors). Designed to speed up traffic – not to transport fatties. If lugging heavy baggage on moving walkways keep it to the side. Do not block the flow of traffic.

3. Seat Allocation

Window seat. Nice views, sturdy headrest, away from aisle activity and no chance of neighbours clambering past. An easy decision. I also go with back seats on the plane. The back seats are always last to fill so there is better chance for empty seats next to you. Obviously a huge bonus on long haul flights. Be sure to secure seats in advance or you will be handed the leftovers on arrival.

4. Baggage

I’ve had baggage totalled (Jet Airways, India), baggage delayed (Air France) and excess baggage charged. All a pain in the ass but accept it as part of travel. To be safe keep valuables in hand luggage. Valuables are not covered by airline insurance (can later be claimed under personal travel insurance). For hand luggage I take as little as possible. A small backpack with clothes and toiletries to refresh on stopover. On my person; wallet, passport, pen and tissues. Most countries require immigration and custom forms to be completed so the pen is important. Noone likes a Bic moocher.

5. Airport Prices

At the airport you will have few choices but to pay extortionate mark-ups. I tend to avoid spending altogether. With large liquids binned at security it maybe necessary to pick up refreshments. If you do be sure to buy from pharmacies – the least likely to mark-up their goods. E.g. Boots at Bangkok airport sell water a 1/3 of shop and vending machine prices in the airport.

6. Personal Space

For those sensitive to noise and smell it maybe best to avoid airlines from South Asia (sorry to enforce stereotypes). I remember one scene not so different to a flee market; a large group trading baggage allowance at check-in to fly home with plasma TVs. The same group celebrated later at the boarding gate with large bags of a spiced nut mix. Body odour and spices are not overly appealing. Not an isolated incident. I found comfort zones don’t exist on many South Asian flights. Twice I have wakened to feet digging into my thigh from my cross-legged neighbour. Once an older lady had her foot on my knee. Completely bizarre.

7. Comfort On-Board

Neck pillows, circulation socks, compression clothes, apparently they do help you sleep. But I’ve never used any of them. I think if these products helped Long Haul flights then the savvy airlines would include them… or at least sell them onboard, and profit from them. Instead, airlines provide reclining seats, adjustable headrests, a pillow and a blanket. They work fine. I always fly in a hoody to block light and annoyances around me. I put on headphones, watch in-flight movies then neck extra-large whiskeys and cuddle the window edge like a hobo. Not ideal but the best sleep I can find. Don’t hesitate to recline your seat but often best to hold off until after eating.

8. Airplane Food

I don’t get why people complain about Airplane food. It is the one part of Long Haul flights that excites me. Some of the best Chicken Methi I’ve eaten was on a Kingfisher Air flight. I’ve been desperate to visit India since. Airplane food offers a glimpse of the countries without actually visiting. Understandably not great for bland tastes but there is always a plain option on the menu. Most importantly the decent booze selection. Unlimited on most (but cabin crew may not hurry to serve you). I always go for whiskys the size of apple juice. No ice. “Large Whisky Please” and signal a full cup size with your fingers.

9. The Stopover

Probably the most confusing part of long haul flights (but simple). Just follow the signs for transit, transfer or connecting flights until you reach your next departure gate. Security checks along the way. Checked baggage will pass to the final destination so not a worry (unless organised otherwise). The stopover is a good time to stretch legs, refresh and change clothes for the next destination. Note, this doesn’t mean plopping through airports in beachwear and flip-flops.

10. Arrival

Know your VISA requirements before flying. Only some countries offer VISA on arrival (completed at airport immigration). Pass immigration, grab your bags and best of luck with taxi. Every airport has their own. Bangkok has a legitimate taxi rank (50Baht surcharge), Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are better reached by bus or train and Saigon (HCM) expect to haggle. Never accept the first taxi and always have a guide price before you arrive. And for those a little apprehensive about flying, “Statistically you’re more likely to get killed on the way to the airport” (Lloyd Christmas, Dumb and Dumber, 1994).

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