A flight attendant’s secrets to surviving long-haul flights

Any air travel can be stressful, but facing down a long-haul flight can be especially intimidating.

Should you prioritize sleeping or eating, or both? Should you attempt to exercise in the aisle? Is it ever acceptable to take off your shoes?

Kris Major is a British flight attendant with 25 years’ experience. He’s worked short-haul hops and spent 14-hour stretches in the sky. He’s endured journeys with an unenviable number of layovers, and he’s become an expert in refueling via power naps at 30,000 feet.

As many of us prepare for long-haul trips over the summer, Major tells CNN Travel his tips and tricks on surviving multiple hours in the sky.

Should you eat before or during an overnight flight?

If you’re catching a night flight and you want to maximize sleep on board, Major suggests eating before boarding.

This is particularly important if the flight is on the shorter end of the long-haul scale: if you’re traveling from New York to London, for example, at best you’re looking at around five or six hours sleep, so you want to make the most of that rest time.

Major, who also represents European flight attendants and pilots as chair of the European Transport Workers’ Federation’s Joint Aircrew Committee, says it’s telling that most business travelers shut their eyes as soon as they get on board.

“The seasoned travelers, after takeoff, you go down the cabin and you can see that they’re gone – they’ve covered themselves up and they’re asleep,” he says.

Still, Major admits that eating before flying isn’t always doable, because of long security lines and busy airport terminals. Even if you have the best intentions, you can end up settling for a sad-looking sandwich as you run to the gate.

If you’re flying business or first class, you also might be tempted to make the most of food and drink offered on board – it’s hard to turn down complimentary champagne, after all.

But realistically, the cabin food and drink service can take a good two hours, so you’re losing valuable rest time – and your Business Class ticket should give you access to an airport lounge, so max out those facilities instead, and board the plane well-fueled and ready to rest.

So when should you eat on the plane?

It might be tempting to make the most of business class culinary offerings, but flight attendant Kris Major says you should prioritize sleep. - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images
It might be tempting to make the most of business class culinary offerings, but flight attendant Kris Major says you should prioritize sleep. - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images

If you’re flying long-haul, you’ll likely be offered more than one meal during the course of the flight.

Meal times start to feel a bit arbitrary when you’re crossing multiple time zones, but should you eat whenever food is offered to you? Or should you turn meals down if you’re not hungry or trying to sleep?

Major says passengers should do whatever’s right for their travel schedule. If you’re exhausted, you’re better off sleeping than forcing yourself to eat dinner at the equivalent of 3 a.m.

“Most airlines don’t particularly plan their [food] service around the passenger and acclimatization and time zones crossing,” explains Major.

Should you bring a travel pillow or rely on the airline offerings?

Airlines usually provide pillows for long-haul travelers, no matter the cabin, but Major says bringing your own eye mask, travel pillow and/or a blanket could be a good idea depending on your preferences.

Eye masks are great if you’re trying to sleep when the cabin lights are on, while you might prefer your own travel pillow to the airline version.

Plus, while it’s rare, there’s always the chance that pillows are unavailable – something that could be a big problem on a 14-hour flight.

“It happens,” says Major. “So I would say, cater yourself for your own comfort and your own needs as much as you possibly can.”

What if you can’t sleep?

Many of us find it difficult to sleep on airplanes, whether due to unfamiliar noises or, for the cheaper seats, limited leg room and upright positions.

Struggling to sleep on a long flight, knowing you’re going to pay for the lost hours when you land, can be an unpleasant cycle of worry.

Should you persevere and keep trying, or give up and watch a movie?

Major says there’s no point trying to force sleep, particularly if your body clock thinks it’s the middle of the day and you’re simply not tired.

But he cautions that it’s important to bear in mind what you’re doing at the other end. If you’re going to be driving, for example, or going straight to a meeting, you should try and rest as much as you can.

What are the flight attendant rest areas like?

Flight attendants on long-haul flights are provided with spaces to rest. Here's a photo of the crew rest area on a Boeing 787. - Boeing
Flight attendants on long-haul flights are provided with spaces to rest. Here's a photo of the crew rest area on a Boeing 787. - Boeing

Crew rest areas exist on all airplanes, but what these rest areas look like depends on the airline, aircraft and the length of the flight.

“If we’re going somewhere over, say, 13 hours, we need to have good rest areas,” says Major, who explains flight attendants should typically be entitled to breaks that allow for 90 minutes of sleep. That way, they’ve completed a full sleep cycle before they’re back to work.

“You need at least one sleep cycle scientifically to be of any use, to keep your ability to operate safely, your decision making processes, your communication skills,” says Major.

Flight attendants need to be alert throughout the journey, so they will take it in turns to refuel via mid-flight power naps.

Major says he finds sleeping in crew rest areas pretty easy, but he knows flight attendants who find it tough to sleep in beds that Major calls “technically coffins.”

“There are some crew that really struggle with the bunks, they’re not pleasant,” says Major.

“You push yourself right in, so they’re long and thin, because they’re up in the aircraft, so there’s not a lot of space. They are like what you’d imagine you’d see on a submarine.”

Flight attendants will usually opt to get changed out of their uniform and into loungewear before squeezing into the bunks. Major says he always packs a T-shirt and some comfortable lounge pants.

As he’s a senior flight attendant, Major will hang his tie on the exterior of his bunk’s curtain before he closes his eyes.

“So that if there’s any emergency whilst I’m in the bunk, they know exactly which one I’m in, even though there’s usually one designated for the senior,” Major explains.

Do you have any tips on feeling fresh after sleeping on a plane?

We’ve all experienced waking up after a mid-flight sleep, groggily heading to the airplane bathroom to freshen up, and alarming yourself when you catch sight of your exhausted reflection.

Major’s top tip for feeling refreshed following inflight rest might sound obvious, but he insists it makes a world of difference.

“Cleaning your teeth is always the one that freshens everybody up the most,” he says, adding that flight attendants will always have between five and 10 minutes to freshen up before they’re back on duty.

That’s enough time to get dressed, wash and, if you need to, comb hair and refresh makeup.

Flight attendants will greet a returning colleague with a cup of tea or coffee. Then they’ll head off duty for their own rest period.

Should you exercise on a long-haul flight?

Sitting in the same upright position for hours on end is uncomfortable, but it’s not always easy to get up to stretch. The seat belt sign might be switched on, or you might want to avoid disturbing your seat neighbor.

Major stresses that even just wiggling your toes while sitting in your seat is worthwhile.

“Do move around in your seat, move your legs, do what comes naturally – wiggle, move, get the blood flowing if that’s what you need to do. For people that have got circulatory issues, talk to your doctor,” he says.

What’s your perspective on passengers taking off their shoes?

For many passengers, this is a controversial question due to concerns about smelly feet. But Major encourages anyone on a long-haul flight to remove shoes for comfort, and to help their circulation.

Flight attendants don’t care, he says.

“We do it ourselves. I think most people do it themselves. It’s the right thing to do if you’re going on a long-haul flight,” he says.

“One would hope that you’ve had the common decency to have a bath or a shower and put clean socks or stockings or tights on before you get on the aircraft. That’s the only issue, if your feet smell.”

Major adds that it’s polite, if you think there’s a chance of feet odor, to “go to the washroom and do something about it.”

But flight attendants, he says, are more worried about passengers sticking out their feet into the aisle.

“On a night flight particularly, if you put your feet in the aisle and you’ve got dark socks on, we won’t see you, and we’ll trip over you, and it’s a bit of a nuisance for us.”

What’s the best seat to book for a long flight?

If you’re worried about turbulence, Major advises that you try to sit near the front of the aircraft.

“You could be standing at the front and feel nothing, and down the back they’re bouncing all over the place – the aircraft moves differently down the back,” he explains.

If you’re tall, booking the emergency exit seat for the extra leg room could be worthwhile, although Major says it’s worth remembering “you can’t put your bags down at your feet or anything because it needs to be clear as an evacuation run.” Airlines also sometimes charge extra for seats with leg room.

Major’s personal choice on a long-haul flight is booking a window seat.

“That’s purely preferential, I can lean up against the bulkhead, pull my head down and go to sleep. Whereas you can’t when you’re in the aisle seats or the middle seat,” he says.

The middle seat is never enviable, but it’s perhaps particularly unappealing on a long flight. Major reckons it’s worth paying extra for the aisle or window, especially “if you need to sleep on the flight.”

Should I invest in noise-canceling headphones and bring my iPad on board?

Some passengers choose to watch movies on their personal devices, rather than the built in screens. - Nick Morrish/British Airways
Some passengers choose to watch movies on their personal devices, rather than the built in screens. - Nick Morrish/British Airways

The way we consume TV and movies has changed drastically over the past decade, but inflight entertainment has largely stayed unchanged.

While many of us still enjoy watching new movie releases on board flights, it’s less of a novelty than it once was. Many passengers prefer binging a pre-downloaded streaming show on a personal device.

“Most people self-cater flights now when it comes to entertainment,” says Major.

Your own devices are also a good back-up in case there are issues with the in-flight entertainment system, which Major admits “might not always be working.”

Flight attendants usually have handbooks that advise how to operate the inflight screens, but they’re not always able to fix the problem.

“There’s only so much we can do on the aircraft to kick it back to life if it starts to play up,” says Major. “There’s very little we can do, apart from the usual scientific ‘turn it off, turn it on again.’”

Most aircraft today have USB charging sockets, but a portable charger could also give you added piece of mind.

As a flight attendant, do you judge passengers’ movie choices?

Major says in his experience, crew aren’t paying too much attention to what you’ve opted to watch on board, but occasionally he’ll comment on a traveler’s choice.

“We can use it as an ice breaker,” he says. “If I’ve seen a movie and it’s good, it’s something to use to strike up conversation.”

Major does recall once noticing a Business Class passenger reading a book which included some graphic descriptions.

“The words were pretty pornographic although I couldn’t see enough to follow the thread,” Major says.

The man was reading the book quite openly, and made no attempts to hide the contents.

“I was quite shocked,” says Major. “Turned out we were taking a group of sex therapists to a conference.”

Should you bring your own food and snacks?

Absolutely, says Major.

“On most flights, people forget that you get on the plane, you’re not going to eat for the first hour, at least – it’s probably going to be an hour and a half after takeoff before you eat,” he says.

If you have a health condition like diabetes, bringing your own sustenance is particularly key. It’s also important to pack snacks if you’re traveling with kids.

I’m taking my kids on a long-haul flight, what should I do?

Major has young kids of his own, so he says he can answer this question both as a father and as a flight attendant.

“If you’re tense, your child will be tense, it’s as simple as that. If you’re stressed, and you’re feeling anxious, your child will be anxious,” he says.

Flight attendants are experienced at talking kids and parents through the flying process, Major adds.

“Because we’re just generally very relaxed, we can calm them down very quickly,” he says.

When babies are crying, parents are panicking and other passengers are sighing, Major says he’ll always handle the situation in the same way.

“I’ll make sure it’s audible for everyone else to hear, I’ll say: ‘Please don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about your child crying. It’s helping your child rebalance their ears. It’s the only way they can do it, through screaming. We’ve all been children, we’ve all cried, don’t worry about it.’ I’ll try to put the parents at ease. By putting the parent at ease, we can hopefully settle the child.”

Major says bringing favorite toys and blankets on the aircraft can also help calm a child, as it helps the alien airplane environment seem more familiar and comforting.

How do you deal with nervous passengers on long-haul flights?

Some travelers find the prospect of long-haul flights daunting. - Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Some travelers find the prospect of long-haul flights daunting. - Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Those with a fear of flying are, in Major’s experience, worried about one of two things. Either it’s the “lack of control” and the “alien environment.” Or it’s fear of the airplane crashing.

Some people are reassured by Major walking them through the mechanics of the aircraft – explaining that unknown engine noises are normal, or that air travel is generally very safe and there are many fail-safes in place.

Others would rather not know the ins and outs, they just need distracting. Major once spent two hours on board a flight chatting with a nervous passenger in the galley, taking their mind off the situation.

Even for those who aren’t generally afraid of flying, long-haul journeys present their own set of pressure points that can drive people into panic mode.

Crying babies might be viewed as more of an annoyance on a short flight, but passengers can “freak,” as Major puts it, if they think that’s set to be their soundtrack for the next 12 hours.

Delays to any flights are frustrating, but on longer flights, delays can suddenly hammer home “the reality of distance and time,” says Major.

But Major says it’s important to remember that “there’s always taxiing time built into the flight time.”

“You can make up time on long-haul a lot easier than short-haul,” he adds. “You can pick up a good half hour.”

What’s your opinion on AirTags?

Major’s never used an AirTag, but he understands the attraction – especially for passengers who’ve dealt with a lost bag in the past.

Although it’s a different story when he travels with his family, Major says he usually travels carry-on only, even on long-haul flights.

That’s less because he’s worried about losing luggage, and more for ease and speed.

“On my own, I’ve got one bag that I can live for a week out of, it’s so finely tuned,” he says. “I fly with hand luggage only so I can get through the airport as quickly as possible.”

If you’ve got a layover, how should you maximize that time?

If you’ve got several hours before the next leg of your journey, it could be worth booking a hotel room to catch up on sleep, says Major, who also advises stretching your legs and walking around as much as possible.

If there’s enough time to leave the airport and get some fresh air, that’s worth doing too.

Major knows what he’s talking about, he once did a mammoth journey with multiple airport layovers, “from Cairns - Brisbane, Brisbane - Sydney, Sydney - Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi - Vienna, Vienna - Frankfurt, Frankfurt - [London] Gatwick.”

“When I got off, I was nearly dead,” he jokes.

What’s your perspective on the super long-haul flights that could be a thing of the future?

The longest flight Major’s ever worked was around 14 hours. The longest scheduled flight currently in operation is Singapore Airlines’ New York to Singapore flight, which lasts 18 hours and 40 minutes.

Australian airline Qantas is preparing to launch its ultra long-haul “Project Sunrise” flights, which would span upwards of 19 hours flying passengers from New York and London to Sydney, Australia. For flight attendants, Major says, that will involve working over periods in excess of 24 hours.

“You’re missing two nights of sleep,” says Major. “The impact of that we don’t fully understand.”

It’s still early days, says Major, and these details need to be ironed out. But he sees ultra long-haul as the “evolution of flying.”

“We’ve got the aircraft to do it now, so we need to find ways of doing it,” says Major. “And we will. There’s a lot of work going on to do that.”

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