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Tips for Surviving a 16-Hour Flight in Economy Class

I recently got back from the Middle East, where I flew Etihad’s awesome business class product. Throughout my two week trip, I stayed at nice hotels and had a great time overall. So it was only fair that I got stuck in economy class during the 16-hour flight back home. It wasn’t planned that way – I was set to fly back in Etihad business class along with my parents and grandmother, while my sister was in economy. Well, my parents being the selfless saints that they are, felt bad about my sister being the only one in economy and insisted on trading with her. I couldn’t have that, so I gave up my seat instead.

Economy class seat on airplane

Only, she thought I was lying when I told her the gate agent said he couldn’t print a new ticket but we could switch seats onboard. She assumed us switching was against the rules somehow. So I asked the flight attendant to tell her she’d been upgraded and while she walked back to my seat in business class, I would sneak into hers. It worked out well. Except, now I was facing the longest flight I’ve ever endured in economy class. It wasn’t so bad, though, once I got comfortable. I thought I’d share some tips for surviving a long flight in economy class in case you ever find yourselves in this situation:

1. It’s all about the footrest. What I discovered during my 16-hour flight in economy class is that it’s all about getting comfortable and the key to getting comfortable is to have some sort of footrest. That’s right – it’s not so much about legroom or recline but rather positioning your feet at a comfortable angle. I make it a habit to put my laptop bag under my seat, which worked out really nicely because placing my feet over the bag created the perfect footrest/foot cubby. Once I found a comfortable way to position my feet and recline my seat, I was practically on an angled flatbed seat and slept for 7 hours straight. This is by far the most sleep I’ve ever gotten on any flight, including those in business class.

This works really well if your laptop bag has a hard case. At one point, I put my purse over the bag for added height but that was actually uncomfortable because my feet kept sinking into the bag. Also, a few folks have pointed out to me on Twitter and Facebook that this only works if you’re short. As a 5’3 girl I can’t really speak for tall folks on this, so feel free to chime in.

2. Dress for winter. Except for maybe Asian carriers, airplane cabins are always freezing cold. Those flimsy airline blankets do nothing to help you stay warm in a virtual arctic zone. Even on the business class flight to Abu Dhabi, where I had a warm blanket and pajamas, I was shivering most of the flight. On the return segment in economy class, I wore a sweater, jacket, and bundled up with a scarf. It went a long way in keeping me warm and comfortable enough to doze off for the majority of the flight. I highly recommend bringing a jacket and even a scarf on a long-haul economy flight. It goes a long way in making the flight more comfortable.

3. Bring an amenity kit. A few airlines have begun distributing amenity kits to economy class passengers, but unfortunately Etihad isn’t one of them. If I had known in advance I’d be flying economy class, I would have brought my own amenity kit with a toothbrush, floss, moisturizer, and an extra pair of socks to stay fresh throughout the flight. Luckily, my mom asked the flight attendant for an extra toothbrush and brought it to me, which I appreciated. If you count the time you’re awake, 16 hours is like two days. You don’t go two days without brushing your teeth, washing your face or changing clothes, do you? Being able to do at least a few of these things can help you survive a long flight in comfort.

4. Give your immune system a boost. Several studies have dubbed Airborne ineffective in battling the common cold. Maybe it’s the placebo effect, but I’ve had multiple close calls with colds and taking Airborne helped. On this particular trip, I was constantly surrounded by crowds of people and the #1 tip I got before I left was “bring Airborne and take it daily.” At the very least, I would take it on the plane because 80% of the time after I get off a flight, I get a cold. So whether it’s Airborne or Vitamin C tablets, give your immune system a boost when you’re flying long-haul economy class. There are more people around and more germs to combat. Preparing for this can help you (literally) survive a long-haul flight in economy class.

5. Pharmaceuticals? I’m not a fan of prescription or over-the-counter drugs. I’ll go months with a cold before I take anything stronger than Nyquill. But I know not everyone else has these reservations, in which case it might not be a bad idea to bring a non-habit forming sleeping pill to help make a long-haul flight pass quicker. 

6. Bring a Snack. “But they serve food on the plane” – yes but the term “food” should be used loosely here. There are limited food options in economy class and the last thing you want is to end up with leftovers from the prison chow hall that are so bad you end up eating “biscuits” for lunch. I’m not a picky eater and actually like airplane food – but the food on my Etihad return flight to San Francisco was inedible. I actually opened the package and almost passed out from the smell alone. A small bite of the Saag Paneer and I almost gagged. 

This isn’t a dig at Indian food – I know what Saag Paneer is supposed to taste/smell like. This wasn’t it. The salad was so terrible, my Indian seat mates and I just passed our trays back to the flight attendant. When I asked for a snack, she brought us biscuits and apples, so we ate those until dinner time. Dinner was edible, but if it hadn’t been, it would have meant more biscuits and apples for me. Don’t get caught in this: Stock up on snacks in case the food during your long-haul economy class flight turns out to be terrible.

I’d love your feedback on this – what tips do you have for surviving a long-haul economy class flight?

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Ariana Arghandewal

29 Comments

  1. Out of all the three major middle east carriers, I find Etiahd’s Y class to be the worst. Their seats seem to be best for carrying packed sardines. I think the best seat space and service was in Qatar Airways but that was just my experience.

    • I didn’t expect it to be so terrible. I’ve flown Qatar on short-haul flights and its always been a pleasant experience. The seats are spacious and they serve meals on 45 minute flights! If I have to fly long-haul economy to the Middle East again, I’d go with Qatar Airways.

  2. As a guy over 6 ft tall, Your footrest idea doesn’t work for me. Luckily on our 9 hour flight home in April on American I could upgrade to Coach Extra for $124 which gives me 6 inches of exctra legroom.

    I also have had success with No-Jet-Lag pills. You also forgot to mention to bring an MP3 player (I don’t have a smartphone) which has a long battery life and load it with a free “white noise” MP3 file to help you sleep.

    I liked your other ideas.

  3. On many long flights the lavatories become disgusting and that’s probably not water soaking the carpet. I often bring a cheap pair of shower shoes that I can discard. It’s more convenient than putting on your shoes.

    My wife uses the temporary ones she gets at the nail salon.

    • Airplane bathrooms are gross, I agree. I always put on the slippers they hand out in premium cabins with pajamas. But it’s a great idea to bring your own if you’re flying coach.

  4. I am 5’4″ and always use my under-the seat-bag as a footrest. Although it’s a soft sided Briggs & Riley, it is firm, rectangular, and thick denier nylon, and when it’s full–which it usually is–it makes a super footstool. My spouse doesn’t fill his softside B&R like I do, so I put bubble wrap in his empty compartments to firm it up.

    Travelling longhaul economy is tolerable this way, especially when combined with your other tips.

  5. I would add, try everything you can to get exit row and make sure you have your neck pillow. And as you have already mentioned, snacks; I always have a full backpack of enough snacks to last me my round trip.
    Personally I’m a quantity over quality flyer so I always fly coach, and it’s really not bad if you get the exit row and can sleep.

    • I’m probably alone in saying this, but those neck pillows are damn uncomfortable. Never really understood how others could get comfortable using those things in-flight.

  6. You should bring some this liquid called ALKALOL it’s not booze. It was invented by a dentist. Can use it to gargle as sinus spray and/flush to keep away nasty plane germs that get yo sick from the flight, it can keep your sinus passages moist on those dry flights as well.

  7. You forgot to add–make sure to get an aisle seat so you can get up without waking seatmates to stretch your legs.

  8. Just discovered your blog randomly, been reading through your flight reports, which are informative and entertaining! Will you be writing one for your Etihad Business class trip? Thanks!

  9. I try to drink one bottle of water per each 4 hours, so 4 bottles for a 16 hour flight. Also, I wear compression socks and I stand up and walk around every hour or two. Anyone of any age can get a blood clot when sitting for a long time. My compression socks were recommended by a travel nurse and fitted at a medical clinic. (I have no circulation issues. I just take precautions. I even wear the socks when I am in Business class, or on a long train or bus ride.). The compression socks also help to keep me warm.

    • I got a Blood Clot about 10 years ago from sitting too long on n 8 hour flight. Now on Warfarin. I do recommend compression socks but not necessarily from a Med Supply house. They are PRICEY. Even my doctor agrees that “15-20 ” socks are fine from mail order. I’ve been using http://www.foryourlegs,com and but them for about $12-$15 per pair. They have some with cotton in them.

      • Arianna: I need Mens socks so I got the Activa Men’s’ ribbed ones ACTIVA THERAPEUTIC MEN’S RIBBED DRESS SOCKS 15-20 MMHG at For your legs. They will match any price and give you free shipping and 180 days to return. If you find a sock anywhere check them out. I’ve been a very happy customer.

  10. As I understand this, and they even say it themselves, “AIRBORNE” was developed by a SCHOOL TEACHER ! So if you ‘think it works’ are you smarter than that school teacher?

  11. Ear plugs, sleep mask, padded hospital socks and a RidgeRest mat in addition to those pharmecuticals and amenities you have already mentioned. The Ridgerest is essential for me because of my chronic back condition. I use it as seat enhancement and practice Yoga every day wherever I am including airports

  12. I have done many 10 – 16 hr flights in coach. If you are tall, leg rests are a nuisance (I hit my shins on them and I’m 5’11”). Plan to have nothing under the seat in front of you so you can stretch out. Put all the odds and ends you need (chargers, cables, toothbrush, Tylenol, earplugs, eyemask, headphones, etc.) in a floppy cloth drawstring bag and keep it at your feet (behind your feet after takeoff). As for temps in the plane, some are hot, some are cold, with it usually being on the cool side. Plan to layer up or down accordingly. Bring energy bars – great meal substitute for bad food or just for a snack. Most airlines usually leave extra snacks out in the galley between meals. Get up, walk around and stretch now and then. Finally, be friendly and gracious to all – especially to the flight attendants. They have to cater to and clean up after several hundred people.

  13. I carry the following:
    Backpack to keep beneath legs
    Empty bottle of water that I fill post security and later from plane’s galley (FA’s are more than happy to top up bottles)
    Noise cancelling Bose headphones
    Trtl Soft Neck Support Travel Pillow
    Pressure Reducing Ear Plugs (my ears hurt during descent)
    MotionEaze herbal liquid (for descent as well)
    Scottevest jacket (over 20 pockets, holds all electronics with chargers, headphones, ipad and all junk I can carry)
    Ricola or halls for change of taste
    LISTERINE POCKETPAKS Breath Strips
    100 ml of any drink I like
    Any dry snack
    Small toilette kit

    Sounds like a lot but I keep most of them together so that I don’t have to worry and Scottevest can hold everything (except pillow) easily

  14. When i was flying EY eco longhaul(AUH-MEL) in October 2015, they had amenity kits. Probably trying to cut costs.

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