How to survive international economy torture flights

By danwarne, February 16 2011
How to survive international economy torture flights

International economy to Europe or the US -- we've all had to do it, and, it's somewhere between unpleasant and downright tortuous, depending on how your cards fall.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to make economy flying better. None of them are rocket science, but it's evident on every international flight that most people don't know half of them.

Before you get on the plane...

Choose your airline wisely

A lot of Australian companies send business travellers with Qantas by default. However, Qantas is decidedly middle-of-the-road when it comes to legroom in economy — it provides about five centimetres more than the worst airline in the world for economy legroom, airberlin, but eight centimetres less than the best airlines.

You'll get maximum legroom flying out of Australia on Thai Airways, Asiana Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Air China, Garuda Indonesia and Korean Air.

For connections outside Australia, airlines with the same amount of legroom in economy are Qatar Airways, Indian airline Kingfisher Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Nigerian airline Arik Air.

We have some great tips on how to get extra legroom in economy class

You can also check the seat pitch (industry jargon for the space between the front of your seatback and the back of the person's in front) on sites like Skytrax Airlinequality and TripAdvisor SeatGuru.

Pick your plane, as well

Most airline booking sites will have an information pop-up on flight details that tell you what plane that flight is scheduled to use. Although airlines can, and do, change the type of plane at the last minute if they need to reshuffle their fleet due to breakdowns or capacity issues, it's still worth trying to get on a good plane.

Airbus planes have some comfort advantages in general over Boeing — brighter LED lights overhead for reading, taps in the toilet that don't require finger gymnastics to keep flowing like the plunger-taps in Boeing planes do.

Airbus A330s have the advantage of being a bit smaller than 747s, so can be quieter inside the cabin, and as they only have two engines rather than four, flight noise is substantially less, too. (However, of course, the 747's four engines gives it a substantial safety advantage over the A330.)

Of course, when it is not suffering some sort of mechanical mishap, the Airbus A380 is the best plane in the world for in-flight comfort, with lower cabin pressure, larger seats on most airlines (Qantas gives you an extra 2.5cm of seat width, for example), low engine noise and bigger overhead lockers.

Investigate your seat options

It's rare to get a free upgrade to the next cabin class these days, but a lot of people forget that you can buy upgrades on most airlines — you don't have to have a massive frequent flyer points balance to trade in. Upgrades on some airlines are surprisingly affordable — for example, on Virgin Atlantic only charges $478 one way to bump up from Economy to Premium Economy (which is generally cheaper than what's charged by Qantas and other major airlines) and $2050 one way from Economy to Upper Class — Virgin's business class.

See our related story: Top 10 worst excuses for free upgrades

If you can't afford the upgrade, you might still be able to pay extra for an exit-row seat, with lots more leg-room. See our guide to getting an exit-row seat. There are some definite gotchas here, such as exit row seats behind a bulkhead that have very little legroom at all, so do read the guide!

Choose an aisle seat

Getting an aisle seat doesn't give you any more leg-room than the next passenger, but it does allow you to access the precious overhead locker storage much more easily, to keep your leg-space clear.

Obviously, there are downsides here — you'll have people climbing over you to get out to the loo, but usually, they wait until you're ready to get up for a walk as well.

Consider the time of the flight

The time you choose to fly can have quite a few unexpected implications. If you choose a late night flight, be aware that the airline will turn out the lights soon after take-off, which may leave you wide awake with nothing but a bright video screen in front of you and a sometimes-inadequate overhead light for reading.

On the other hand, choosing an unpopular flight time (such as after midnight in cities where departures are allowed around the clock) can mean the plane will be less full. This doesn't always hold true — if an airline has a lot of codeshare passengers feeding in from other airlines, flights at odd times may still be jam-packed.

If you have an early morning flight, for example 6am, consider booking into an airport hotel the night before to get a good night's rest. Otherwise you'll only get half a night's sleep and you'll feel rotten before you get on the plane.

See your doctor before pain persists

Travellers all have different approaches to medicating themselves for a flight — opinion is split between whether alcohol on board is a good or a bad thing. Many people say it calms the stress you find yourself in after the battle through the airport to get on the plane, while others say it simply compounds dehydration and makes you feel worse.

However, a common thread among frequent long-haul travellers is the value of sleeping pills. They can make a 21 hour flight feel like a six hour flight. Talk to your doctor about whether it would be appropriate to get a small quantity for the flight and to help you sleep through the first few nights at your destination. However, if you are taking sleeping tablets, you should also talk to your doctor about taking low-dose aspirin to thin your blood and wearing compression socks, as sleeping pills will cause you to sit still for many hours in-flight, which may boost your risk of getting blood clots.

Many people find half the recommended dose of a sleeping tablet works well for them and doesn't give them the lethargic feeling the next day that a full dose might. (Obviously, don't drink any alcohol on the flight if you want to take a sleeping tablet.)

Optional extra: pyjamas

Look, there are essential travel tips, and then there are optional travel tips. This definitely falls into the latter category. Many airlines give very comfortable t-shirt fabric pyjamas to their business and first class flyers. There are so many of them going around that you can easily buy them for $20 on eBay.

Whether or not sleeping upright in comfortable pyjamas is any better than sleeping upright in your tracksuit/jeans/whatever is most certainly a debatable point, but we simply point it out for the sake of emphasising that one of the perks of a $6,000 business class ticket can be yours for the cost of a sandwich at the airport.

The pyjamas are also very comfortable for home use, should you find they make no difference whatsoever on the plane.

Starve yourself of movies

How many times have you got onto an international flight, only to discover you've seen all the good movies on offer already? One strategy is to deliberately starve yourself of movies in the month or two before your flight, which will give you many hours of enjoyable watching on the plane.

At the airport

Avoid the bag-drop queue

Even if you check-in online, there's not a great deal you can do about a long economy bag-drop queue (except turning up as soon as the airport opens boarding for the flight — usually 2-3 hours before departure). However, if you belong to the airline's frequent flyer program and you're a tier above the bottom, do check your benefits.

If you are above the base tier, many airlines will let you check in at the business counter. For example, Qantas Frequent Flyer Silver and above can check in at Qantas Club counters or Premium Economy counters (or Business where those are not available). On Singapore Airlines, only gold Krisflyer members can do that.

Straight through immigration

When you're flying out of Australia, don't join the crowds filling in exit cards in the immigration hall. You can get an immigration departure card from the airline check-in counter and fill it in at a comfortable chair and table elsewhere in the airport, allowing you to walk straight through immigration.

Straight through security

Before you join the security screening queue, unpack whatever needs to come out of your bag for screening and also empty your pockets into your bag (and put anything else that'll trigger the metal detectors like your belt or shoes in there). You can do this at a civilised pace rather than a mad rush, and you'll be able to breeze through security.

On the plane

Empty the seat pocket.

The safety card, inflight magazine, entertainment guide, inflight shopping magazine, sick bag, and last passenger's hidden chewing gum don't need to be there in the seat pocket using up your precious leg room. As soon as you get on the plane, rip them out of the seat pocket and stuff them in the overhead locker.

Rotate the contents of your seat pocket

There's no need to keep everything you're using on a flight in your seat pocket at all times. If you have an aisle seat with easy access to the overhead locker, you can switch out the contents of the seat pocket as you need things, leaving you much more leg-room.

Drink lots of water

It sounds so obvious, but the amount of water the airline provides you — usually a 600ml bottle and a few more small cups of water throughout the flight — is not enough to counter the dehydrating effects of long-haul flying. Many plans have taps on the wall near the back of the plane where you can refill your water bottle.

Bring moisturiser...

Whatever your views on moisturiser normally, you really need it on a long international flight. The cabin humidity is so low (typically 10%) that your skin will become tight and your mucous membranes (eyes, nostrils) will dry out and become sore. These factors alone can make jetlag feel much worse at the other end. Apply moisturiser liberally and often — and not just to your face. (It can also be helpful to apply bath oil before the flight which can create more of a barrier on the skin than standard moisturiser.)

... and bring nasal moisturiser, too.

If your nasal passage mucous membrane cracks — common on long-haul flights — you also open the body up to a much easier vector for germs to get in. Given you're on a plane with hundreds of other people, this is something you should really take seriously. Bring Fess saline nasal spray or saline gel with you, and use it regularly throughout the flight, from soon after take-off. Using it once you realise your nose is painfully dry and cracked will be too late.

The same applies to your lips, which will also dry out in the plane. Pack a lip-balm.

DIY comfortable armrest

Some airlines have seats designed by people who appear to never have sat in them for more than 10 minutes. Armrests are often designed so the exact spot where you'd rest your arm also happens to have the flight attendant call button and inflight entertainment controls. This is where the airline blanket can come in very handy — keep it folded and lay it over the armrest, and your problems will be solved.

Take ear plugs and noise cancelling headphones

There is no better investment for an international economy flight than a pair of quality noise cancelling headphones that can subtract jet drone and quieten crying babies. Do not just pick up whatever is in the airport duty free, either. Noise cancellation is something that very few headphone companies do well — and you can pay a lot of money for a very poor result.

Do yourself a favour and buy the Bose QC15 headphones — they cost $499 in Australia, but you can order them for $US299 from through a freight forwarder such as The eventual price including shipping and currency conversion comes out to about $367.

These amazing headphones really are wondrous at cutting out jet drone and you'll be able to listen to movies and music at a much lower, and less tiring, volume as a result.

However, you won't want to use them for the full length of an international flight — after all, to cut out the noise of the jet, they're pumping the exact opposite noise into your ears, so they can get a bit tiring to use after many hours. You can't beat earplugs for blocking out noise while sleeping. Inserted correctly (tip: pull your ear upwards while inserting them to open up the ear canal), they won't fall out while you're asleep, and they'll block sound very well.

Bring your own movies

Better than relying on the inflight entertainment system is to bring your own movies. You can get a great range of movies very cheaply from the US iTunes store (see our tutorial on how to get a US iTunes account) and load them on to your iPad or laptop. Bear in mind that the iPad has much better battery life than a laptop — around 10 hours of video playback — and is also a much better size. Often a laptop simply doesn't fit with the screen at a reasonable angle when the person in front has the seat reclined.

Also, a word of warning about iTunes rentals: once downloaded, you can keep them on your hard drive for up to 30 days, though you only get 24 hours to watch a rental after you first play it.

If you are planning to rent movies to watch on the plane, you must play a few seconds of them before you get on the plane. This is because when you first play a rental movie, it contacts Apple's iTunes servers to confirm the rental details. If you don't have an internet connection, it won't be able to play the movie.

Pack clothes for a blizzard/tropical summer

Even the majestic cruise liner of the skies, the A380, has freezing cold parts and overly warm parts of the cabin. It seems that aircraft makers haven't yet mastered the art of even air-conditioning temperatures throughout all parts of the cabin.

The temperature inside the plane also depends on what the airline's policies are. Some airlines seem to like to warm the plane up when it's bed time to make the passengers drowsy; others seem to have a policy of turning up the refrigeration.

Either way, you need to come prepared for both scenarios, which is why it's useful to front up to the airport wearing/packing layers of clothes so you can peel them off if necessary.

Specifically, pack a hoody

A lot of long haul travellers swear by their hooded windcheaters as a great way of creating a 'cocoon' away from the interior of the plane.

Switch to the destination timezone right away

This is a well known tip but it's worth reiterating: the instant you get on the plane, adjust your phone/watch/laptop etc to the destination timezone, and try to start making sleep decisions based on it rather than where you're coming from. It gets the adjustment process started 24 hours earlier than doing it when you get to the hotel.

At your destination

Investigate the best transport to the hotel

If you're flying economy, there's a strong chance you're not being picked up at the other end by a car. If you are taking a taxi to the hotel, do check the World Taximeter to get an idea of how much you should be paying for a cab ride.

Avoid global roaming fees

There's nothing worse than having to be miserly with your use of your smartphone, laptop, iPad, etc, while you're overseas. Check out our guides to getting connected affordably while overseas (and no, we're not going to recommend you head to the nearest Starbucks.)

Consider coach/train for onward domestic flights

With airport security as time consuming as it is around the world, it can be easier and more productive to take a coach or train depending on the country you're in, than to take a flight.

In some countries, coach/train trips come with free Wi-Fi, and you can also book overnight sleeper cabins at a reasonable cost, which may be more time efficient than the five or six hours it will take end-to-end to take a domestic flight.

02 Jul 2011

Total posts 61

If you are on a long haul flight to Europe with a refueling stopover half way, then consider having a shower at the stopover airport. Many airports offer paid shower facilities (if you don't have lounge access already). This will freshen you up and help you feel (and smell) better at your final destination. A second pair of socks and a shirt in your hand luggage to change into will help as well.

03 Nov 2011

Total posts 35

great article. i've picked most of these up after 4 years of economy a380 flying four times a year! didn't know about the q club/business check in counter for silver and above, cheers! I will try it tomorrow morning at heathrow.

03 Nov 2011

Total posts 35


oh, Qantas Club/Premium Economy counters, not business...still, beats nuttin'.


22 Mar 2012

Total posts 200

pffft.... using iTunes to buy movies... it's called pirating people!

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