25 Travel Tips for Surviving Long International Flights

Passports, Visas and In Flight Comfort Oh My!
August 1, 2019
25 Travel Tips for Surviving Long International Flights

Whether it's your first overseas adventure or the dreaded leg of your international commute, here are 25 survival tips for long flights. Here's to smooth sailing.


Pack Smart.

1. First and foremost, always know where your passport is…at all times.

Before your trip, designate a location (front pocket, side pocket, interior pocket, waist strap, whatever). This is your lifeline and the number one priority to keep track of so don't cause yourself any unnecessary panic by recklessly moving it about and having to constantly search for it. If you don't find it or end up misplacing this little book of paper you will be in a world of hurt. If you have anywhere near 6 months left (or less) remaining on your passport, get a new one. Though counter intuitive, several countries require this as the minimum remaining validity to enter and you don't want to chance it, especially if border patrol is having a bad day.


2. A close second, know what the visa requirements are for your destination (and any other possible destinations for your trip). 

Don't be ignorant here, you can't just stroll up to any border and walk in. Some visas require pre-approval, interviews and advance paperwork to acquire so prepare accordingly and don't leave this to the last minute or your trip might be in some serious jeopardy.


3. Bring extra passport photos.

This is something I cover in my backpacking guide - but people are often unaware that foreign visa paperwork, even if it is a no cost tourist visa, can require passport photos that will be stapled on your paperwork/application. Don't subject yourself to long wait times and hefty fees to get it done in the airport, or, even worse, border rejection if those services aren't available. Head to a local provider and get a pack of 10 for $10 and keep them in your carry on - they will come in handy at some point.


4. Pack emergency necessities in your carry on.

Sometimes the airline misplaces your baggage. Contacts, glasses, medications, deodorant, toothbrush….just bring those with you. Even if it means you get to freshen up on an international layover, you'll be happy you did.


5. Leave things you need handy and accessible, not at the bottom of your roller bag stacked in the overhead.

Keep your chargers close (most flights overseas have charging capabilities, even in Economy), bring snacks (meals are served, but you're internal clock will be screwy and you never know when hunger will strike) and don't forget your headphones (annoying aisle mates, movie/entertainment needs, crying babies, enough said).


6. Pack an extra layer.

Sometimes you're flying to a tropical destination and you are already set for the beach…well guess what, 30,000ft ain't the beach so make sure to pack a cover up, or you could regret it.


7. Check your in flight entertainment status.

Most planes now have built in on-demand devices, but some still have the communal TVs with on demand services only available via prior app download (example: see United's app). Don't get caught with your pants down here, and no, most carriers have zero external wi-fi capability over international waters - so don't count on unlimited wi-fi , no matter how expensive, as your savior. Quick cheat: some airlines still charge for movies and/or in flight TV service so if you are traveling with a companion and don't wind watching the same movie, bring a headphone splitter. Odds are those few dollars will go a lot further on the ground at your destination.


8. Bring a pen.

Yes - this sounds silly, but having a pen handy is a convenient luxury. Fill out your entry forms in flight, jot down notes, thoughts and reflections for your travel diary or test yourself on the crossword puzzle. At some point, you will need something to write with and you will not want to poke your snoring neighbor to borrow his.


9. Carry Cash, but don't pay to change it at the airport.

Cash is still global and the ultimate emergency currency. If you know you need foreign cash immediately upon arrival, go to your home bank and get some foreign currency over the counter. DO NOT do it at the airport as heavy fees and unfavorable rates await unknowing and naïve travelers. The best way to get cash is to find the ATM in the airport once you land and withdraw foreign currency. You get the bank exchange rate and do not have to pay service fees. These days, everyone has an ATM card (if you don't, get one now) and many banks cover or waive ATM fees (which is a perk you should seek out). Beware, just remember to get your card back - some machines require you to push a button to return your card and jet lag can lead to forgotten or eaten cards - I've seen it happen and it is not the best way to start your trip.


Fair warning, not everyone plays by the book. I've been caught at a border crossing where patrols have demanded over 5x the entry fees in cash to cross (yes, these are officials…not pirates). Corruption is real, it exists and it is something you want to be prepared for.

Side note: spread out your cash and credit cards in different bags and pockets in case you get held up or robbed. You never want to show all of your cash at once and many times, robbers or crooked officials will only want what you can show them you have.


10. Monitor your destination time zone days prior to your flight.

10+ and sometimes 20+ hours of travel are required for serious international destinations. Three to five days ahead of your trip, start gradually transitioning your sleeping patterns. Force yourself to stay up later or get up earlier as you prepare to completely turn your schedule upside down. More on continuing this process on the plane to come.


Seat Selection

11. DO NOT pick a seat right next to the bathroom.

I don't think I need to explain this but I will. So you love the aisle, and there is one towards the front of the plane - hell yeah! You sit down and you are right next to the bathroom - you think, that's convenient! Wrong. You are on a 12 hour plane ride with hundreds of other people and they are all coming right next door to you to do their business (and wait in line, and move about…). Let's just say the scent lingers and your recommended sleeping and eating patterns can be ruined before you even take off.


12. General seating recommendations:

AISLE for those who favor mobility and all you taller individuals (window seats have less head and shoulder room); WINDOW for those that favor unbothered sleeping and views, but don't mind bothering other people for your bathroom breaks; MIDDLE for those you have a travel companion to sleep on, other wise avoid at all costs; EXIT ROWS for the lucky ones for added room, but never pick the row in front of the Exits as those have restricted recline to allow for the exit path behind you.


13. Scope out empty rows.

As the boarding process comes to a close, keep your eyes open for vacant rows (usually towards the back). Ask the flight attendant if you can move to the row once the doors close and lock that puppy up. Great for sleeping, mobility and that window view upon arrival.



14. Layer up, layer down.

Because you packed like a boss and your layers are handy, make yourself comfortable and adjust accordingly.


15. Walk and stretch regularly - keep that blood flowing!

If you have them, wear compression socks to help your circulation…sitting for 12 hours or more doesn't leave your feet very happy.


16. Be conscious of your neighbor, but do not be afraid to take care of yourself.

International travelers, from all countries, can be very rude and selfish. Mind your space, ignore the crazies and don't be afraid to tap somebody on the shoulder and get up when you need to use the restroom, grab something out of your bag, or take a little walk to stretch it out. Trust me, they will fall back asleep.


17. To minimize jet lag, continue acclimating your sleep schedule on the plane as best as possible.

Get some sleep when it is night in your destination, and try to stay awake during destination daylight hours to speed up your time zone change. On really long flights, don't be afraid to use sleeping aids in attempt to sync up with local time zones (not recommended for shorter flights). It might save you an entire day of adjustment on land but try not to miss your complimentary meals in flight. You'll be really pissed if you miss your dinner, wake up hungry and still have 5 hours left until your destination (see above tip on carrying snacks in case this happens).



18. Drink tons of water, even if that means more bathroom breaks (see "keep moving" above).

A huge component of jet lag is dehydration - this is an easy step to combat that. Bring a water bottle and continually ask for a glass of water with whatever beverage you order (yes, you are allowed to do this and it will save you).


19. Take advantage of the free in flight beverages.

On most airlines, beer and wine are still complimentary, along with meals, on international flights. Don't be shy…you need to cozy up and get some sleep remember?



20. If your international flight has power outlets, use them.

You don't want to walk out to the taxi stand in Tokyo with 4% battery left. Plug in your gadgets and walk of the plane with a full battery. You never know how long you might need it. 



21. Have an escape plan.

Know where you're going before you get there. You didn't travel all this way to feel lost in an airport. You will need a destination address for your entry form - trust me, this is important, some countries will not allow you to enter without one.


22. If you need to take a cab or shuttle, have your address prepared in native language.

You think you have your bases covered with the English address, but hand that to a cabbie that only speaks Thai, and you're still screwed.


23. If you don't have a definite destination, at least have an area in mind.

Know what metro stop you need to get off (so you can buy your ticket accordingly) or have a neighborhood landmark picked out to give directions to the cab.


24. Stay connected

Pick up a foreign SIM card or rent a pocket Wi-Fi. Airport locations are usually the most convenient so you can pick up and drop them off easily.


25. Smile, and enjoy the hell out of your trip. You got this.

About the author

Austin Chow

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