As more and more Americans over 50 venture to far-flung destinations like Africa, Australia/New Zealand and Asia, they have to contend with long flights, often in economy class. Besides the obvious health risks — developing a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or catching a cold or flu from fellow passengers — it can be tough to fight boredom while stuck for hours on end in a cramped and uncomfortable seat.
Top Flight Tips by the Dozen
Here are 12 strategies for making the time pass both quickly and safely:
1. Book early, so you have your choice of seats. Everyone I spoke to — travelers and medical experts alike — recommended choosing an aisle seat, so you can walk around and get to the bathroom frequently.
2. Upgrade your seat if possible. If you can afford to upgrade to a higher seating class or have miles to spare, do it. On a recent trip to New Zealand, a 13-hour flight, I paid $2,700 roundtrip to upgrade to premium economy, which had much-roomier and better-reclining seats than economy class. I was appalled by the price, but really grateful I’d splurged since I arrived in Auckland fully rested and alert.
3. Take precautions to prevent DVT. Sitting in the same position for hours on end is your biggest health enemy on a long flight.
“The risk of a blood clot is increased for flights that are four hours or longer, particularly if you have known risk factors, such as a past history of clots, you’ve recently had surgery or an injury that has made you more sedentary, you’re using estrogen or you have an active cancer,” says Dr. Lin H. Chen, director of the Travel Medicine Center at the Harvard University–affiliated Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., and president-elect of the International Society of Travel Medicine. Being over 40 is also a risk factor for blood clots.
To prevent DVT, wear comfortable, layered clothing with loose waistbands, as well as compression socks to improve circulation and prevent blood from pooling in the lower extremities, which can lead to a blood clot. Also, avoid crossing your legs while you’re seated. Drink frequently to prevent dehydration, which can thicken the blood, and get up and walk around every couple of hours to keep blood flowing back to the heart.
“I also suggest walking around the airport before flights and during layovers, trying to stay limber both physically and mentally,” says Jessica Wolf, 74, a Stratford, Conn.-based psychologist who took a 15-hour flight to Bali last year.
Remember to do foot and ankle stretching exercises for three to four minutes every hour while flying. (You can find suggested exercises with diagrams in international in-flight magazines such as the one offered by Quantas.)
Be aware that a blood clot can occur during, as well as soon after, a flight. Be on the lookout for redness, swelling and pain in the legs (usually affecting just one side). “Long flights also raise the risk for a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot that can go to your lung,” says Chen. Symptoms include chest pain and shortness of breath.
4. Take short naps. Chen doesn’t recommend taking a sleeping pill like zolpidem (Ambien) during long-distance flights because it can put you out so soundly that you don’t move for hours. An antihistamine like doxylamine (found in NyQuil and Unisom Sleep Tabs) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or the supplement melatonin are better choices to make you sleepy enough for naps.
5. Prevent colds by washing your hands frequently. Being in a confined space with lots of other people makes an international flight a breeding ground for colds and flu. Your best defense is washing your hands before touching your face or food, says Chen. Also stay well hydrated with water to counter the high cabin pressure and dry air in the plane, which can dry out your nasal passages and make it easier for respiratory viruses to enter the body.
6. Don’t eat too much of the food served on the plane, advises American Airlines flight attendant Hsiao Hsiung. The air pressure changes the taste of food, so meals come loaded with salt, which can lead to uncomfortable bloating.
7. Bring a neck pillow, eye mask and blanket if you’re traveling in economy class. (They’re supplied free of charge if you upgrade.)
8. Prep your entertainment before the trip. Load an electronic device with movies, magazines and books in case the airplane’s entertainment system is on the fritz, suggests Hsiung. Also, consider purchasing inflight WiFi, he says, which will give you more entertainment options and let you text friends and search the web while flying.
Having a variety of materials to keep you busy is critical if, like Hugh Sigmon, 68, of Redding, Conn., you don’t sleep well on planes. “I bring at least one good book to read and I am prepared to watch a lot of movies and listen to music,” he says.
9. Take an extra charger with you in case there’s no working plug at your seat. Pack it in your carry-on baggage since chargers are not allowed in checked baggage — and won’t do you any good if you need extra juice in flight.
10. Buy sound-blocking earphones that don’t make your ears ache. Airlines typically supply economy-class passengers with poor-quality earphones that make it difficult to hear movie dialogue over the hum of the airplane. (Upgraded passengers, on the other hand, receive primo earphones.)
11. Splurge on direct transportation home from the airport after a long, long flight — from a family member, friend, Uber/Lyft or a cab. Avoid group shuttles. After traveling 30 hours from Australia to New York City, I ended up waiting two hours for a group shuttle I had booked back to Connecticut. That was a frustrating ending to the most tiring journey of my life!
12. Plan to rest for at least one to two days on your return. It will take a few days for your body clock to readjust to local time and it may take up to a week to feel normal again.
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