In the fall, in the name of journalism, I spent half a day inside the purgatory travelers know as the airport. The experience was strange, exhausting – and not necessarily representative of my normal travel behavior. More common, for me, than spending 12 hours at an airport is spending 12 hours on a plane.
As a travel writer, I’ve reached most of the far-flung destinations I’ve covered by taking long-haul flights in coach. I’m used to showing up to international flights three hours early, buying a $16 sandwich before I board, eating that sandwich out of boredom, then shuffling onto the flight where the real fun begins: sitting so long that your backside goes numb; sleeping, but painfully; timing your bathroom breaks so your seat neighbors don’t hate you.
Although the world is getting more conscious about the environmental effects of flying, there still isn’t a great alternative if you’re traveling between Asia and the United States. In September, I boarded a 12-hour flight from Tokyo bound for North America – and bought some carbon offsets to account for it.
The following is a diary of what my journey entailed.
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3 p.m.: Like lingering at the airport, observing a plane’s boarding process is a primo opportunity for people-watching. It’s currently reminding me of how many haircuts a person can have, how many styles are out there for the taking, how many people refuse to listen to gate agents telling them not to line up in front of the boarding door, because we’re not boarding, we’re not even close, please take a seat, there’s no point yet.
It’s a slow shuffle down the aisle of this Airbus A350-900 to find my seat in the main cabin. My fellow passengers are hunting for their assignments, shoving carry-on luggage and shopping bags into the overhead compartments. Noise-canceling headphones protrude off of heads like alien appendages.
I normally prefer the aisle seat for the freedom to come and go as you please without disturbing others. Today, however, I reserved the window so I could crunch into the corner and attempt to sleep most of the flight. It sounded like a good idea on paper, but I’m feeling claustrophobic when I sit down and my rowmates haven’t even crammed into their spots yet.
More of the hundreds of passengers pile into the plane. Some of them are wearing surgical masks, not with the intention of performing surgery but protecting themselves from the germ-filled world around them. I don’t blame them. Every time I hear a sneeze – and I’ve already heard a few since I boarded – I wince. There’s something just a touch off-putting about the sound of a stranger’s fluids shooting into the air around me. Knowing I get sick all the time and am now marinating in the stranger’s sneeze atmosphere, a sense of doom sets in.
My row neighbors finally arrive. It’s a husband and wife who appear to be in their late 40s. The woman takes the middle seat, seemingly improving her situation by fastening a foot hammock onto the bottom of the seat in front of her. She puts on little pink socks, and I compliment her on the sling.
“It’s good for short people,” she says.
The contraption suddenly heightens my claustrophobia. I feel very stuck.
Choose your seat assignment on a long flight wisely. To best prepare, consult our guides:
If you need to stretch or use the lavatory frequently, do not choose the window, no matter how much you’d like to stargaze. If you’re flying with a partner, one of you will need to choose the dreaded middle seat. Pick the aisle if you’re someone who feels cabin-fever anxiety on planes.
4:15 p.m.: We are finally rolling down the tarmac, gaining speed. We have liftoff, after a delay.
Delta’s overtly emotional welcome video plays to our captive audience. The screen is so close to my face it almost hurts my eyes to watch the video. I have just enough space that I can outstretch my arm, but not open my hand. I’m 5’4″.
Flight attendants in deep purple uniforms pass out eye masks, stringy head phones and slippers – a nice touch considering we’re back here in economy.
The couple next to me are lovingly holding hands and arms. They’ve been caressing (yes, caressing. This is the only appropriate word for what they’re doing) each other on repeat since they boarded. They fuss over each other dotingly. The man asks the woman if she needs something.
“I’ll get it for you. Where is it? Just wait a minute.”
After he retrieves the item from the bin above, the man makes kissing noises. She turns to him to deliver a kiss.
So you’re a happy couple and you’re traveling together and it’s so great to be in love! All fantastic, but being on a plane is like being in a dentist’s office or a subway car. This is not a private room, and there are strangers who’d rather not watch you canoodle for 12 hours. Keep your hands where we can see them and limit your PDA.
The travel hero of our time, Anthony Bourdain, on more than one occasion said that he didn’t eat food on airplanes. Unlike Bourdain, I cannot resist the siren song of an airplane meal. Eating is my favorite pastime.
Long-haul flights usually kick off with a meal about an hour into your journey. I bought a steak sandwich at the airport and ate there, so I will be partaking in whatever they offer.
The menu options this evening are a roasted pork entree with garlic ginger soy sauce, herb chicken with tomato risotto, or penne pasta with spinach. More often than not, I choose the pasta option, because it tends to guarantee an onslaught of cheese and who can argue with that?
Ten hours to go.
A plane meal is not likely to be the best of your life. But it’s a meal, and one that feels “free” (even though it’s really not). Sometimes it can set the tone for your trip. Red wine and a baguette on an Air France flight to Paris signal to your psyche, “Hey, our French adventure starts now!”
But, should you be one of the many travelers burned (figuratively, not literally) by an off-putting in-flight meal, pack your own meals and snacks. Just consult our correct, complete guide to eating and drinking on a plane and ensure your food isn’t too aromatic, noisy, messy or complicated.
2-plus hours elapsed: Full of penne, I flip through the in-flight entertainment system. Long flights feel like the perfect time to watch movies you meant to see but never did. You have nothing else to do but rot in your seat, and the normal distractions of life are 30,000 feet below. Why not binge on Hollywood’s best (or worst)?
Today I’m feeling tempted by the rom-com section, and I watch the preview for “Failure to Launch,” which features Bradley Cooper in a bucket hat and Matthew McConaughey sporting a very 2006 haircut. But tears ultimately form in my dry eyes watching the trailer for the adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” so I go with that while my row neighbor rocks her socked feet in her little foot cradle.
It’s great that Delta still hands out free headphones on board, and I really appreciate the touch (the wireless headphones my dad bought me for Christmas won’t work with the in-flight entertainment system). The quality of those free headphones, however, is abysmal.
You have to crank up the volume enough to hear sound over the rumbling airplane noises (and occasional plastic apocalypse), and then the volume is so loud it hurts your ears. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Don’t rely on the airline for headphones. Although it will probably give you a pair on an international trip, the quality is bound to be terrible. That means 12 hours of screechy, tinny audio. Bring your own for a better experience, and make sure yours work with an old-school stereo headphone plug.
There are other elements of your in-flight entertainment to consider beyond this gear, too. Pack a book and download podcasts, TV shows, movies and music on your smartphone or tablet so you can access it all when in airplane mode, if the plane’s selection is lacking. Pack chargers for it all, placed in easy access before you take your seat.
4:15 hours elapsed: I finish weeping through my movie and have moved on to contemplating my sleep situation. Let me tell you, I’ve come prepared. In my carry-on, there’s some melatonin, ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid LiquiCaps and Ativan, a sedative prescribed by my doctor for this exact scenario. I decide to start with the latter, which doesn’t hit you as hard as a sleeping pill but will hopefully lull me into sleepy-time nonetheless.
I sleep well on planes – or, well enough. I’ve interviewed sleep experts in the past and learned to treat it like any skill. You have to have the mentality that you can do it. It also helps to have all of the fixings: neck pillow, eye mask, sleep aids, compression socks. I have it all with me today and feel hopeful about my in-flight slumber.
Meanwhile, the woman next to me rifles through her bag and pulls out some sort of ointment. She spends some time applying it to her body, first covering her hands, arms, then moving further down her shirt around her neck, her lower back. It’s a whole scene, but I think the ointment smells good, so I don’t mind. She then turns to massage the elixir into her companion’s neck. I am way too close to them for someone not trying to join in on their ointment party. But here I am.
Time to sleep.
Sleeping on a plane is easier said than done. The challenge is better met when you come prepared with a well-stocked tool kit. Pack an eye mask, neck pillow, compression socks, headphones and, if it suits you, some prescription-strength or over-the-counter aids like melatonin or ZzzQuil Nighttime Sleep Aid LiquiCaps.
Consider your sleep aids well before you arrive at the airport. They’re not all going to be available there, and if they are, they’ll cost more than what you’d pay elsewhere. And don’t ingest one until you’re in the air. You don’t want to pop one at the airport and then have your plane get delayed.
?????? hours elapsed: I wake up from my hibernation because it feels like my body has been put into a trash compactor. The cabin is dark now, as most of us seem to be trying to snooze. Have I been sleeping minutes? Hours? Days? I can’t say. The sleep aids are firing on all cylinders.
There’s a pain in my kidney region that keeps flashing rhythmically. Let the record show that I’m a generally healthy person. I have no kidney ailments to report, and there’s no reason for pain except for the fact that these economy airplane seats are as comfortable as cinder blocks.
Desperate, I open the tray table and lean forward on my hands to sleep that way for a while. Sleep resumes, and I begin dreaming. But then I wake up again.
I wake up again because it feels like all of the bones in my hand are broken.
I wake up again because it feels like my knees are broken.
I crunch and heave my body in different ways, which relieves the knee pain but starts pain elsewhere.
The human body seems ill-equipped for a 12-hour flight. As I agonize over finding another potential sleep position, I hear a man nearby sneeze and remember to shut my mouth.
The rampant sneezing that happens on planes may feel supremely gross; however, medical experts say that your best bet for staying healthy while you travel is to wash your hands often (or use hand sanitizer as a backup), stay hydrated, and make sure you’re up-to-date on vaccinations before you board.
You’ll be in better shape if you get on a plane well-rested, well-fed and are managing your stress.
4:38 hours elapsed: My husband-and-wife duo are getting out of our row, so I jump at the chance to get out of my prison, too. I’ve been doing my best to abstain from drinking any beverages so that I didn’t need to disturb two fully sleeping, partially intertwined adults.
Unplugging from my socket of a window seat, my body creaks and cracks like the Tin Man desperately in need of some oil. Even though I’m wearing compression socks, it’s probably not great to be so sedentary, for my pooling blood’s sake. Movement, any movement, is a good idea on a 12-hour flight, and we’re about halfway through now.
I probably shouldn’t tell anyone this, but sometimes, on long flights, I do squats in the lavatory. And by sometimes, I mean I’m doing them now. I feel like a crazy person making eye contact with myself as I crouch up and down, and yet I’m still at it. It’s a boost of physical activity, and damned if someone (very reasonably) thinks it’s gross to exercise near a public toilet. I’d prefer not to spend an excess time in a place where so many horrible bodily functions happen, but if I started doing squats in the aisle of the plane, someone would call an air marshal.
Since a bathroom break is also a great opportunity for some in-flight grooming, I decide to freshen up once I’m done with my squats. I’ve brought my purse with me, and I take out deodorant, toothpaste and a toothbrush so I can chase the high of freshness. Twelve hours is a long time to spend without a shower, factoring in that you showed up to the airport hours early and will be eating, drinking, sweating and sleeping in one seat for eternity.
As close to refreshed as possible, I trudge back to my seat.
Plan your bathroom breaks strategically, not only to keep the good graces of your rowmates (if you’re sitting in the middle or window seat), but also to give your body a break from sitting. After all, sitting is bad, remember? In many airline in-flight magazines, you’ll find guidelines for stretches you can do from your seat.
To feel less disgusting on your long-haul flight, pack hygiene-helping toiletry items in your carry-on, like toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, moisturizer and dry shampoo. Refrain from applying heavily scented products like perfume or lotions, especially if you’re in your seat, to avoid triggering your fellow passengers who may be allergic to (or just annoyed by) your fragrances.
7:12 elapsed: A deafening crackle erupts in the cabin and rips me from a fitful slumber. What on God’s green Earth is that sound? Is a cat caught in a plastic container of beads? There has never been a louder sound in the history of mankind’s existence. I flip up my eye mask.
It turns out the flight attendants are distributing ham-and-cheese croissants in the noisiest plastic bags of all time, along with tiny tubs of Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream.
I descend on the ice cream like it’s the first piece of food I’ve encountered in my life. Then I contribute to the cacophony by struggling to rip the plastic open for a while. The croissant is as flat as a crepe but I eat it, of course, because I’m on a plane and what else is there to do?
I’m groggy and irritable. My face itches from my neck pillow’s velour material. I scratch my hot jowls, like a man lathering up in a shaving-cream commercial. The snack and the noises that came with it have riled me up.
There are four hours and thirty-eight minutes left on this flight.
????? elapsed: Is someone tapping me? I feel someone tapping me. I’d fallen asleep after my snack and now someone has roused me.
False alarm. It’s the husband; his arm is hitting me on accident while he’s sleeping. He’s draped over his wife’s lap like a blanket.
More sneezes echo throughout the cabin. I go back to sleep alone, with no one to hold but my itchy neck pillow.
11:37 elapsed: According to the announcements, we’ve begun our descent! A few people make a mad dash to the bathroom despite the flight attendant telling us not to get up from our seats just seconds ago. With the “Fasten seat belt” sign on, and the plane suddenly rumbling toward the Earth, I am filled with a sense of accomplishment. I survived this 12-hour journey! I get to leave this plane and breath in the fresh air of the Detroit airport!
12:07 elapsed: The wheels touch down in the United States. The seat-belt sign shuts off, and passengers far and wide spring up out of their seats like they were on trampolines. I’m as eager to exit as anyone, but I am not one of these people who stand up immediately. Where are you all going?
When it’s finally time for my row to deplane, I peel myself off my seat like a barnacle off of the side of a pier.
As I make my last steps on this plane, the American pilot tells me “so long.” So long, indeed.