How to Survive Long-Haul Flights (Advice from a Management Consultant)

Editor’s Note: This post was not written by me, but was instead written by a friend who travels a lot for his job. I am posting his note with his permission, and I have to agree that wearing a medical face mask is a life changer on airplanes (I tried it for the first time on an ANA flight a number of years ago, and now I don’t fly long-haul without one). The only thing I’d add is that a neck pillow is required if you’re flying coach (I use this one:

So, I fly a lot. And, false humility aside, I’ve gotten pretty good at it — particularly long hauls. After giving one-off advice to friends too many times, I’ve decided to codify what I’ve learned. For best results, do all of the following. Just trust me. Do everything. I’ll explain why at the end.

Two+ weeks before you travel, go online and buy:
1) Medical face masks — regular face masks that doctors or nurses use to cover up their faces. Buy the cheap ones — they’re fine for what you need them for. E.g.
2) Low dose, extended release melatonin pills (5). Extended release means that they should last about ~6 hours. This is critical because melatonin passes out of your system relatively quickly (~30 minutes), so you need a constant dosage. Also, buy a low dose — 300 mcg (that’s micrograms) is plenty. Most commercial melatonin products are way, way too strong. Here’s the one I buy:
3) Regular strength NyQuil pills (yes, the regular over-the-counter cold medicine): 3 full doses (6 pills) — see full description below
4) If your flight doesn’t provide (though most long hauls do): buy eyeshades and earplugs (Editor’s note: here are the eyeshade ( and earplugs ( that I personally use); consider also getting noise-cancelling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort25

Before you head to the airport:
* Take a shower and wash your face well
* Put on a very thin layer of facial cream
* Wear loose fitting layered clothes. It’s a good idea to being extra socks or a light jacket in your carry-on, particularly if you’re in an exit row
* Wear glasses, not contacts

At the airport, after security:
* Buy a Gatorade and a water bottle. If it’s available, Vitamin Water Revive (purple) flavor (only) is even better than Gatorade
* I’d also recommend buying a deli sandwich as these flights frequently don’t feed you enough
* If you forgot to buy NyQuil pills earlier, you can often find them in the gift shop

As you board:
* Look in the overhead bins for extra stacks of blankets. If you see them, grab them. Use them to pad your seat and provide lumbar support for your back
* Most important of all: put on your medical face mask soon after getting on board, and keep it on for basically the entire flight, pulling it down only to eat/drink
* Drink small sips of the Gatorade / Vitamin Water Revive frequently, and “finish” it with your water (so you don’t rot your teeth over the very long flight)
* No alcohol or coffee under any circumstances

When you are ready to sleep:
* First, consider your sleeping time carefully. Some people adjust better to “big bang” adjustments (trying to switch to the new time zone completely, immediately) — I’m like this. Some people try to adjust a few hours per day. Either way, have a considered strategy. Once you’ve decided that you need to get your 8 hours…
* Take 2 of your NyQuil pills (1 full dose = 2 pills) and your 1 melatonin pill. Make sure you have at least 7 hours to sleep as the medications will leave you disoriented and sick if you try to get up and do too much. Remember that flight attendants will wake you up about an hour before the flight lands, so make sure you’re doing this at least 8 hours before landing!
* Use the bathroom, and while there, grab some tissues and jam them in your pocket — just in case you need them
* About 20-30 minutes after taking the medication, you’ll start to feel sleepy. When you feel it coming, put the earplugs in and then put on the eyeshade. Take your glasses off and put them in the seatback in front of you. If you have noise-cancelling headphones, now is the time to put them on. Your medical face mask should already be on. Try to make sure that it’s relatively sealed around your mouth. It’s better if there’s some slack in the mask as you’re trying to create space for moisture to accumulate inside the mask.

Then sleep!

So, what on earth is this strategy all about? It’s based on two key ideas:
1) Hydration levels are critical. Airplanes are dryer than the desert. They are kept artificially dry so that the aluminum alloy the planes are made from don’t rust. The impact of this choice is that you will constantly dehydrate over the course of your flight, and you will be very dehydrated by the time you land, which is one of the main sources of discomfort. Wearing a mask will help dramatically at counteracting this effect. The mask will trap in your own moisture and help keep you much more hydrated. This is also why you are buying a Gatorade or Vitamin Water Revive — they are loaded with potassium, which helps your body absorb water more effectively. It goes without saying, then, that you should not drink alcohol or coffee on your flight — this will just dehydrate you further. Also, the alcohol may help put you to sleep, but it won’t keep you asleep. In fact, it makes you more likely to wake up!

2) Do whatever it takes to sleep. Sleeping on an airplane is hard. This is why you should A) have no shame in taking drugs to sleep on the plane, and B) use all the sensory deprivation you can. For A), look, these drugs are harmless if you take them infrequently. So do it. Melatonin is a naturally occurring chemical in your brain that triggers your body’s nighttime readiness. Use it shamelessly to counteract jetlag. (Obviously, don’t take it more than a few days, but it is very safe to take over the short term.) Speaking of safe, NyQuil is fantastic for flights. When you look at the active ingredients of NyQuil, the container will note that it has an antihistamine. Funny — that “antihistamine” is also the active ingredient of Unisom, an over-the-counter sleeping drug. Look, again, don’t abuse it, but the combination is very useful. Literally the only time I ever take sleeping drugs is for flights. Use them. For B), you have the eyeshades to block your sight, and the earplugs (and ideally noise-cancelling headphones) for sound. I particularly like the Bose headset because it goes over and around your ears, making them comfortable to wear for hours at a time. Plus, you can wear both earplugs and the headset at the same time for double noise cancellation. The medical mask is also critical here, because without it, you will take up every hour gasping for water because the air has dried out your throat. Wear the mask and you’ll be able to sleep 6-7 hours without waking up and gasping for water because your throat is dried out.

Again, the single most important piece of advice in this entire note is the medical face mask. It really does make a huge, huge difference. If you feel weird about wearing a face mask in public, what I often do is bring a bunch of extras with me (they’re cheap!), explain what I’m doing to the passengers around me to reduce their concern that I’m sick in some way, and then offer them the extra face masks. They often take one!

If you use this strategy, when you land, you will be 1) rested, and 2) not dehydrated. You’ll arrive feeling 85% instead of 30-40%. And, the grogginess from the NyQuil will pass in a couple hours.

Also, once I land, I tend to keep using the drugs to help with the jetlag:
* Nights 1+2: Melatonin pill + half dose NyQuil (1 pill)
* Night 3: Melatonin pill only
* Nights 4+: Nothing (What to do with the last NyQuil dose and Melatonin pill? They’re for the flight back!)

4 thoughts on “How to Survive Long-Haul Flights (Advice from a Management Consultant)

  1. DaninMCI

    Wow I’ve been doing it all wrong. I didn’t know so many drugs are involved. I usually try to get plenty of sleep the night before the flight. I eat a light meal before I board along with bringing a bottle of water or the Lemon flavor Vitamin water zero. I will get on the plane, eat if hungry when they do service. Try to avoid much alcohol. Once done eating I’ll get up chance into the PJ’s they give me or what I’ve brought. Use the lav, brush my teeth, take out my contacts, put on noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs. I will take melatonin if I’m worried I won’t sleep. I will sleep until I don’t feel tired anymore or awakened by FA’s. I’ll go to the lav, change back, put in contacts again and enjoy the rest of the flight. When I get to where I’m going I’ll stay up until evening bedtime no matter when that is after landing. My Garmin watch will adjust to the local time when we land. I typically don’t drug myself into a coma, wear a face mask or suffer much jetlag. Occassionally I will need my asthma inhaler but that isn’t really due to the flight. I have been known to use the eye mask if the plane is too bright and I don’t usually sleep on daytime flights if possible unless they are more than 8 hours. Nice topic. It’s always good to learn what works for others.

  2. henry LAX

    @DaninMCI : i’m guessing that advice was mostly targeting coach flyers. you don’t need to deal with all that in a flat bed.


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