I watched 79 “long-haul flight survival essentials” YouTube videos, so you don’t have to
I fly more than the average American.
That’s an understatement, since the average American does not fly at all, in a given year. But I’m not among the 15% of Americans fliers (about 7% of all Americans) who, according to the IPSOS Status of Air Travel in the US report (PDF), flew nine or more times in 2015.
The average flier, says the report, takes about five plane trips a year. I take about seven. So I fly more than average, and I fly mostly for work.
And let’s not fool ourselves: airplanes are mass transit. They are buses in the sky. Expensive, arid, cold, noisy buses in the sky.
Plus I fly with a vestibular disorder that makes me so sensitive to motion that even long elevator rides make me nauseous. To fly, I drug myself into a stupor (a combination of hyocine hydrobromide and prescribed psychiatric meds). I need routinized flying habits that I can use while medicated into semi-consciousness.
Seeking advice on how to fly as effortlessly as possible, I disappeared down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos on “how to survive long-haul flights” and “in-flight essentials for surviving air travel” and things like that. I watched so many, and they said so many of the same things — and I am such a nerd — that I made a spreadsheet of the videos and their advice. My spreadsheet lists seventy-nine videos and their “in-flight essentials” list.
And I decided, since I did all this work, I might as well share the results with the internet. So. Here’s what I learned. (Bear in mind nearly all of the videos were made by young women, mostly white, many affluent, all straight-size rather than plus-size. This is not remotely a representative sample of people who fly, but it might be a representative sample of people who make YouTube videos about travel tips.)
The two big takeaways were: where you sit and what you keep with you.
Where You Sit
Of the things you can control (so not, for example, structural inequality or the weather), much of what decides your in-flight experience is the quality of the airline and the quality of your seat. Most of us choose both based on the cheapest available, and only debate whether window is better than aisle. (There’s no debate. Window is better if you want to sleep; aisle is better if you want to move around.)
But consider blowing part of your travel budget on a better seat or a better airline. It will significantly improve the quality of your flight experience, which, crucially, will be approximately the last experience of your trip. According to the peak-end cognitive bias, we tend to remember the overall quality of an experience based on the average of the best part of the experience and the last part of the experience. If your flight home sucks, your memory of the entire trip may be tarnished.
Here are some unhelpful but ubiquitous tips:
- Be rich (or else not the person paying for your flight). Fly business- or first-class. You get lounges in the airports and, on long flights, seats that lie flat, giving you the best possible chance for actually sleeping.
- Be organized. Choose your seat ahead of time (seatguru.com is your best friend), pack carry-on only whenever possible, and get Global Entry and/or TSA PreCheck.
- Don’t be shy. If you’re sitting in economy, walk around as soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off and look for empty seats — or even an empty row! — and ask the flight attendant if you can snag it. Or just snag it!
Basically, to get a good seat invest time and/or money to find the most comfortable seat on the most comfortable plane.
Sorry. Sometimes the true advice is not helpful, and this is one of those times.
What You Keep with You
No matter where you sit, there are things you can do and have with you that will help make the experience less terrible. Here are the top ten recommendations, based on seventy-nine YouTube videos about “in-flight essentials for long-haul flights.” (I put a * by ones I always do, and a + by ones I sometimes do, and showed the percent of videos that recommended it.)
*1. HEADPHONES (84%) were the winner by a mile. There were diverse opinions about the kind of headphones — earbuds, noise cancelling headphones, Bose, Beats, etc — but the consensus was that any headphone the airline might give you suck, and you need headphones, so bring your own. In fact, bring two: a pair of earbuds that take up almost no space in your personal item and whatever real headphones work for you.
Of the seventy-nine video, not one mentioned the headphones I use, which are “sleep phones” or “cozy phones”— essentially a fleece headband with shitty little speakers in them. I actually put in earplugs, put the sleephones over the earplugs, and crank up the volume on my music. Does that seem weirdly contradictory? Remember I have that vestibular disorder, so noise-cancelling headphones actually make me motion sick, so they’re out. Non-noise cancelling headphones are bulky, and earbuds are uncomfortable after a few hours and don’t block enough sound, and I can’t sleep with either. My solution, after three years of experimenting: Earplugs and “sleep phones.”
So this is my one and only tip that absolutely no one mentioned: sleep phones.
Why are headphones so essential? Partly to shut out the noise of the plane and fellow passengers, and partly so you can consume your…
*2. DOWNLOADED MEDIA (67%). The airline may or may not provide entertainment, and if they do, you might not find things you like. Caveat: With downloaded media comes the necessity for the electronic devices to play it and the charging cords and/or external batteries to charge those devices. YouTubers showed us pouches crammed with cords and batteries, all so they could consume hours of video on their tablet or laptop or phone. (Seriously, get an external battery.)
So download TV shows, movies, audiobooks, ebooks, music, everything you’ve been wanting to consume but haven’t had the chance. Now’s your chance.
Unless you want to do the opposite, in which case:
+3. A SLEEP MASK (60%) lets you control the light and dark coming into your eyeballs, whether from the window, which you may or may not have control over, or the lighting in the plane, which you definitely won’t have control over, or from the screen-use of your neighbors. It also communicates to the flight attendants and everyone else, “Please leave me the fuck alone.” (My sleep phones serve the same function as a sleep mask.)
4. IN-FLIGHT SKINCARE (58%) varied from “take off your makeup when you get on the plane and wash and moisturizer your face an hour before you land,” to full-on spa treatments, complete with masks, serums, and the application of a full face of make-up.
Again, nearly all of these videos are made by young, affluent women. Even so, this surprised me. Are people really exfoliating on the plane?
But people offered two genuinely sensible reasons for engaging in some kind of skincare on the plane: First, as one YouTuber put it, “Skincare is my main entertainment.” If moisturizing and masks and stuff are fun for you, why not? After all — and this is the second sensible reason — airplane air is drier than the air almost anywhere on the surface of the planet. It will suck all the moisture from your body. Why not try to ward off the ill effects?
Which brings us to…
*5. A WATER BOTTLE (57%). Did I mention airplanes are dry? You’re gonna wanna hydrate. It helps with jetlag and prevents you from looking quite so much like a zombie when you arrive at your destination. A mixed blessing: it will make you have to pee more, which is good because you should get up and walk around sometimes anyway, but also means you have to bug your neighbors unless you have an aisle seat.
*6. LIP BALM (54%). Um. Did I mention airplanes are dry? And also nearly all of these videos are made by (young, white, affluent) women? Like them, I tend to carry lip balm with me everywhere I go, so it’s just in my bag no matter what.
+7. A TRAVEL PILLOW (53%). People had a range of opinions about the best kind of travel pillow, from the inflatable kind that takes up no space in your bag, to the J pillow to the TRTL pillow, which isn’t so much a pillow as it is a neck brace. I have a TRTL and can vouch for its comfort — it allowed me to sleep while sitting in the dreaded middle seat! — but it’s so bulky that I don’t bother bringing it unless I fail to get a window seat.
8. TOOTHBRUSH & TOOTHPASTE (52%) Maybe the second-most commonly used word in these videos, after “hydrate,” was “fresh.” Do things to help you feel “fresh.” The most common freshness-enhancer was brushing your teeth in the bathroom.
I have never done this. I am not convinced I will ever do it. I just don’t want to spend that much time in the bathroom. And hey look, I don’t want to be a downer, but on my last flight there was a sign near the bathroom sink with a person drinking water and a big red NO symbol over it. Frankly, I wouldn’t even want to put that water on my face. So I hope all these seekers of freshness are not using the bathroom tap to wet their toothbrushes. Use the water you brought with you in that water bottle.
9. SNACKS (51%). The airline might not provide food, or not provide enough, or not provide food you like, or not provide it when you want it. Bring your own. There were highly varied opinions as to what constitutes a good plane snack, but the word “bars” featured prominently.
*10. SOCKS, either warm socks or compression socks (or both) (48%). It’s cold on the plane, and there’s high pressure that can cause deep vein thrombosis. First things when you get on the plane, take off your shoes and put on warm, fuzzy, comfy socks over your compression socks. (Please don’t have stinky shoes or feet.)
*WIPES. These don’t fit into a single category, because people talked about all kinds of wipes, from disinfecting wipes to clean your tray and armrests to facial wipes to remove makeup to plain old hand wipes to clean your hands when you can’t/don’t want to get up and go to the bathroom. The glory of wipes is they provide wetness without adding to your strictly limited “fluids,” unlike hand sanitizer (which tied at #14, with “wear layers; it’s cold on the plane and the climate you’re leaving is probably different from the climate you’re traveling to” (41%).)
Some YouTubers were taking four different types of wipes! But of course I’d recommend bringing just one kind that you can use for everything. (For me that’s these or these.) I beg you not to use anti-bacterial ones, since they’re more likely to contribute to the evolution of super-bugs and probably not more likely to keep you healthy than plain old cleansing wipes (extrapolating from hand sanitizer v. soap and water).
So there you have it. Countless hours of my life sucked down a YouTube rabbit hole, transformed into this piece of writing. I hope it helps you prepare for and experience a flight with slightly less dread and misery.
Happy travels on that expensive, arid, cold, noisy bus in the sky.