a survival guide for transcontinental torture — er, travel

Long distance air travel must be some kind of minor, unintentional form of torture. Sure, they make it manageable with in-flight films and radio stations, free beer and wine (although this is phasing out), snacks, and even duty-free shopping so you can almost persuade yourself that you’re in some mall-and-movie-theater complex rather than stuck in an upright seated position between strangers for hours, maneuvering as if in a child’s playground each time you need to use the bathroom or massage the growing crick in your neck.

I travel a number of times per year to visit family, for work, and of course for play and, although I consider myself youthful and active, my body has one too many times come off a plane feeling like it got bulldozed over by one of those little luggage carts gone wild. A recent 9-hour red-eye flight from West Africa to New York straight up nearly killed me. Something had to change. I had always followed along when the little video recommended doing small exercises with your feet, but honestly, I needed much more than a couple calf raises every hour. And then there are the completely unrealistic suggestions I found on the internet, such as “avoid alcoholic beverages” – hello? Free alcohol? No one is going to give that up.

So I developed a few of my own tips for how to get the best out of those pesky long flights –  in terms of your health and productivity, and without taking away all the fun and free perks of being stuck at 35,000 feet.

1.      Drink what you want. And then drink that much in water.

I’ve recently started drinking much more water than ever before (I’m up to about 3 large water bottles a day) and I’m amazed at how much better I feel – less dehydrated, less tired, less hungry in-between meals. The air on planes is dry, so staying hydrated is important in general, and critical for keeping your blood flowing to prevent swelling, pain, and potentially fatal blood clots (I speak from experience here, it is not fun to rush from international flight to emergency room). If your legs get swollen easily, drinking extra water may help. I still feel comfortable having a (single) beer with my in-flight dinner, but I wouldn’t overdo it since alcohol causes dehydration, which, um, is what you want to avoid here. But one or two can’t hurt, and I always take a juice and water along with the beer to re-hydrate. Each and every time they offer more drinks, I always take water, at least.

Hey, plane tickets are expensive – might as well get your money’s worth of beverages, even if your seat is overpriced. Smile sweetly to the flight attendants. But seriously, don’t let 2 hours pass without downing some fluids or you may regret it later. Keep a water bottle with you, if that helps, and fill it each time they come around.

2.      Get used to getting up.

An added side benefit of drinking tons of water and fluids is having to pee it out. Whether you like it or not, this will force you to get up at least every couple hours and take the 15 second awkward walk in the dark past sleeping and drooling passengers to the bathroom. Be careful not fall on them in the case of turbulence! You may find the bathroom pleasantly breeze-scented, or retch-inducing B.O. scented, but in either case you seriously need to go there regularly if you want a pleasant flight. Get used to getting up, climbing over your neighbors, whatever it takes, and once you get into the bathroom, take your time. Well, don’t take a novel or anything, but plan to spend at least 10 minutes: do your business, then perhaps wash your face, brush your teeth, put on some lotion, stretch your legs and arms… in short, rejuvenate.

I have almost a routine at this point including rolling my ankles, head, and shoulders, stretching my arms and back, and leaning forward to let my head hang down over my legs until I can feel the blood flowing in new directions and returning to areas where it had become stagnant. Do whatever works for you, even if that’s just standing still and feeling your blood flow. “Flow” is the key point here – I’m not sure what sitting still at high altitudes for an extended period does to your blood biologically, but it can’t be good. Swelling and pain then appears, from said lack of flow. So do what you have to get your blood going again, at least every couple hours. One of my bathroom treats is to bring in a washcloth and wet it with hot water to wipe my face… it’s like back in the day when they used to bring out “hot towels.” Even in an age of airline budget cuts, I still make sure I get my refreshing hot towel.

3.      To sleep or not to sleep – let your body decide

After a lengthy bathroom ritual, you may not make many passenger-friends (except for your neighbor, who likely appreciated the extra breathing room in your absence), but you will feel more relaxed, focused, calm, and far less of the lethargic, groggy, I-only-had-my-eyes-closed-now-don’t-you-dare-skip-giving-me-my-meal feeling that usually takes over the last half of my long flights. In your newly peaceful state, you may find it easier to do what is nearly impossible in small, cramped positions: sleep. Now, personally, I cannot sleep on a plane if my life depended on it. I may dose off for 30 minutes or so until my head loses its position and swings violently forward (note: inflatable travel pillows help tremendously), but generally the anxiety of travel and transition keep me up. I also, previously, tried to watch every movie offered, (since, hey, it’s free!) which didn’t help. Others may pass out for hours at a time (as I stare at them jealously), but awake swollen, groggy, and hungry because the flight attendants didn’t give them their meal.

For both “sleepers” and “non-sleepers” I suggest sleeping whenever possible, but in small amounts. I let myself watch a movie after drinking a ton of fluids, then get up for my bathroom ritual, and then sleep for 30 or 60 minutes or whatever I can get in. Then I get up for my bathroom ritual again, and if I can’t sleep, I don’t force it. I let my body tell me what to do: I may read or do some work, listen to music, or just sit quietly and eavesdrop on the kids playing video games across the aisle. Whatever suits me. When I feel tired, I stop and sleep. And all the while, I’m still drinking fluids (which will wake me naturally every few hours) so I know to get up and stretch. The sleep is crucial for obvious reasons, but don’t force yourself to sleep all the way through a red-eye flight if your body doesn’t want to. When you really need sleep, you’ll find it. And even 4 or 5 rounds of 60 minutes of sleep will give you enough energy to make it to your destination as a non-zombie.

So it’s really quite a basic set of concepts – drink fluids (especially water), get up regularly, and follow your body’s urge to sleep. And although I cannot say anything here that will reduce the outrageously priced ticket you’ve purchased, nor guarantee that you won’t be “randomly” selected for a pat down in the security line, nor that previously cute babies will not scream their way through your entire flight, I do hope that these tips will help your flying experience. Pay attention to your body and experiment with what works best for you, for only you knows your body best.

Bon Voyage!

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