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

Passengers are seen in their seats in the cabin of an airplane. (Domenico Bandiera / Pexels) Passengers are seen in their seats in the cabin of an airplane. (Domenico Bandiera / Pexels)

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鈥 experience. He鈥檚 worked short-haul hops and spent 14-hour stretches in the sky. He鈥檚 endured journeys with an unenviable number of layovers, and he鈥檚 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鈥檙e 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鈥檙e traveling from New York to London, for example, at best you鈥檙e 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鈥 Federation鈥檚 Joint Aircrew Committee, says it鈥檚 telling that most business travelers shut their eyes as soon as they get on board.

鈥淭he seasoned travelers, after takeoff, you go down the cabin and you can see that they鈥檙e gone 鈥 they鈥檝e covered themselves up and they鈥檙e asleep,鈥 he says.

Still, Major admits that eating before flying isn鈥檛 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鈥檙e flying business or first class, you also might be tempted to make the most of food and drink offered on board 鈥 it鈥檚 hard to turn down complimentary champagne, after all.

But realistically, the cabin food and drink service can take a good two hours, so you鈥檙e losing valuable rest time 鈥 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?

If you鈥檙e flying long-haul, you鈥檒l likely be offered more than one meal during the course of the flight.

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

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

鈥淢ost airlines don鈥檛 particularly plan their [food] service around the passenger and acclimatization and time zones crossing,鈥 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鈥檙e trying to sleep when the cabin lights are on, while you might prefer your own travel pillow to the airline version.

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

鈥淚t happens,鈥 says Major. 鈥淪o I would say, cater yourself for your own comfort and your own needs as much as you possibly can.鈥

What if you can鈥檛 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鈥檙e 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鈥檚 no point trying to force sleep, particularly if your body clock thinks it鈥檚 the middle of the day and you鈥檙e simply not tired.

But he cautions that it鈥檚 important to bear in mind what you鈥檙e doing at the other end. If you鈥檙e 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?

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.

鈥淚f we鈥檙e going somewhere over, say, 13 hours, we need to have good rest areas,鈥 says Major, who explains flight attendants should typically be entitled to breaks that allow for 90 minutes of sleep. That way, they鈥檝e completed a full sleep cycle before they鈥檙e back to work.

鈥淵ou 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,鈥 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 鈥渢echnically coffins.鈥

鈥淭here are some crew that really struggle with the bunks, they鈥檙e not pleasant,鈥 says Major.

鈥淵ou push yourself right in, so they鈥檙e long and thin, because they鈥檙e up in the aircraft, so there鈥檚 not a lot of space. They are like what you鈥檇 imagine you鈥檇 see on a submarine.鈥

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

鈥淪o that if there鈥檚 any emergency whilst I鈥檓 in the bunk, they know exactly which one I鈥檓 in, even though there鈥檚 usually one designated for the senior,鈥 Major explains.

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

We鈥檝e 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鈥檚 top tip for feeling refreshed following inflight rest might sound obvious, but he insists it makes a world of difference.

鈥淐leaning your teeth is always the one that freshens everybody up the most,鈥 he says, adding that flight attendants will always have between five and 10 minutes to freshen up before they鈥檙e back on duty.

That鈥檚 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鈥檒l 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鈥檚 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.

鈥淒o move around in your seat, move your legs, do what comes naturally 鈥 wiggle, move, get the blood flowing if that鈥檚 what you need to do. For people that have got circulatory issues, talk to your doctor,鈥 he says.

What鈥檚 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鈥檛 care, he says.

鈥淲e do it ourselves. I think most people do it themselves. It鈥檚 the right thing to do if you鈥檙e going on a long-haul flight,鈥 he says.

鈥淥ne would hope that you鈥檝e 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鈥檚 the only issue, if your feet smell.鈥

Major adds that it鈥檚 polite, if you think there鈥檚 a chance of feet odor, to 鈥済o to the washroom and do something about it.鈥

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

鈥淥n a night flight particularly, if you put your feet in the aisle and you鈥檝e got dark socks on, we won鈥檛 see you, and we鈥檒l trip over you, and it鈥檚 a bit of a nuisance for us.鈥

What鈥檚 the best seat to book for a long flight?

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

鈥淵ou could be standing at the front and feel nothing, and down the back they鈥檙e bouncing all over the place 鈥 the aircraft moves differently down the back,鈥 he explains.

If you鈥檙e tall, booking the emergency exit seat for the extra leg room could be worthwhile, although Major says it鈥檚 worth remembering 鈥測ou can鈥檛 put your bags down at your feet or anything because it needs to be clear as an evacuation run.鈥 Airlines also sometimes charge extra for seats with leg room.

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

鈥淭hat鈥檚 purely preferential, I can lean up against the bulkhead, pull my head down and go to sleep. Whereas you can鈥檛 when you鈥檙e in the aisle seats or the middle seat,鈥 he says.

The middle seat is never enviable, but it鈥檚 perhaps particularly unappealing on a long flight. Major reckons it鈥檚 worth paying extra for the aisle or window, especially 鈥渋f you need to sleep on the flight.鈥

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

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鈥檚 less of a novelty than it once was. Many passengers prefer binging a pre-downloaded streaming show on a personal device.

鈥淢ost people self-cater flights now when it comes to entertainment,鈥 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 鈥渕ight not always be working.鈥

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

鈥淭here鈥檚 only so much we can do on the aircraft to kick it back to life if it starts to play up,鈥 says Major. 鈥淭here鈥檚 very little we can do, apart from the usual scientific 鈥榯urn it off, turn it on again.鈥欌

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鈥 movie choices?

Major says in his experience, crew aren鈥檛 paying too much attention to what you鈥檝e opted to watch on board, but occasionally he鈥檒l comment on a traveler鈥檚 choice.

鈥淲e can use it as an ice breaker,鈥 he says. 鈥淚f I鈥檝e seen a movie and it鈥檚 good, it鈥檚 something to use to strike up conversation.鈥

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

鈥淭he words were pretty pornographic although I couldn鈥檛 see enough to follow the thread,鈥 Major says.

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

鈥淚 was quite shocked,鈥 says Major. 鈥淭urned out we were taking a group of sex therapists to a conference.鈥

Should you bring your own food and snacks?

Absolutely, says Major.

鈥淥n most flights, people forget that you get on the plane, you鈥檙e not going to eat for the first hour, at least 鈥 it鈥檚 probably going to be an hour and a half after takeoff before you eat,鈥 he says.

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

I鈥檓 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.

鈥淚f you鈥檙e tense, your child will be tense, it鈥檚 as simple as that. If you鈥檙e stressed, and you鈥檙e feeling anxious, your child will be anxious,鈥 he says.

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

鈥淏ecause we鈥檙e just generally very relaxed, we can calm them down very quickly,鈥 he says.

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

鈥淚鈥檒l make sure it鈥檚 audible for everyone else to hear, I鈥檒l say: 鈥楶lease don鈥檛 worry about it. Don鈥檛 worry about your child crying. It鈥檚 helping your child rebalance their ears. It鈥檚 the only way they can do it, through screaming. We鈥檝e all been children, we鈥檝e all cried, don鈥檛 worry about it.鈥 I鈥檒l try to put the parents at ease. By putting the parent at ease, we can hopefully settle the child.鈥

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?

Those with a fear of flying are, in Major鈥檚 experience, worried about one of two things. Either it鈥檚 the 鈥渓ack of control鈥 and the 鈥渁lien environment.鈥 Or it鈥檚 fear of the airplane crashing.

Some people are reassured by Major walking them through the mechanics of the aircraft 鈥 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鈥檛 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 鈥渇reak,鈥 as Major puts it, if they think that鈥檚 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 鈥渢he reality of distance and time,鈥 says Major.

But Major says it鈥檚 important to remember that 鈥渢here鈥檚 always taxiing time built into the flight time.鈥

鈥淵ou can make up time on long-haul a lot easier than short-haul,鈥 he adds. 鈥淵ou can pick up a good half hour.鈥

What鈥檚 your opinion on AirTags?

Major鈥檚 never used an AirTag, but he understands the attraction 鈥 especially for passengers who鈥檝e dealt with a lost bag in the past.

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

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

鈥淥n my own, I鈥檝e got one bag that I can live for a week out of, it鈥檚 so finely tuned,鈥 he says. 鈥淚 fly with hand luggage only so I can get through the airport as quickly as possible.鈥

If you鈥檝e got a layover, how should you maximize that time?

If you鈥檝e 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鈥檚 enough time to leave the airport and get some fresh air, that鈥檚 worth doing too.

Major knows what he鈥檚 talking about, he once did a mammoth journey with multiple airport layovers, 鈥渇rom Cairns - Brisbane, Brisbane - Sydney, Sydney - Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi - Vienna, Vienna - Frankfurt, Frankfurt - [London] Gatwick.鈥

鈥淲hen I got off, I was nearly dead,鈥 he jokes.

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

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

Australian airline Qantas is preparing to launch its ultra long-haul 鈥淧roject Sunrise鈥 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.

鈥淵ou鈥檙e missing two nights of sleep,鈥 says Major. 鈥淭he impact of that we don鈥檛 fully understand.鈥

It鈥檚 still early days, says Major, and these details need to be ironed out. But he sees ultra long-haul as the 鈥渆volution of flying.鈥

鈥淲e鈥檝e got the aircraft to do it now, so we need to find ways of doing it,鈥 says Major. 鈥淎nd we will. There鈥檚 a lot of work going on to do that.鈥

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