It’s not a skill I brag about a lot, but I’m good at going to the airport and getting on a plane. I’ve flown multiple times a year ever since I moved from the East Coast to the Midwest for college in 2013, and in my not-so-humble opinion, I have it down to a bit of a science. I’m not saying I look forward to air travel, which has only gotten more fraught since 2020, but I do have a grip on making the whole ordeal as painless as possible, even on eye-wateringly long, cramped international flights.
This isn’t to say that flying is easy on the brain and body. Quite the opposite! A plane ride is a gauntlet of punishing seating, loud strangers, gross toilets, timing that feels both extremely urgent and totally out of your control, and weird snack options. The experience can leave you sore, stressed out, and exhausted.
While so many aspects are out of your control when it comes to the actual flight itself, there are simple ways to make the whole thing more comfortable, dignified, and even…a teeny bit more fun. Here are some easy adjustments that, individually and cumulatively, can make traveling on a plane as breezy as possible.
1. Do your best to get a good night’s sleep the night before your flight—that means at least seven hours—even if you plan to doze on the plane, which can be a gamble. That bedrock of rest will help you deal with whatever curveballs are thrown at you: delayed flights, snoring aisle mates, wild turbulence—whatever. Every inconvenience will be more bearable if you’re not rolling up to the airport exhausted.
2. There are a few things you can pack that will make flying more physically comfortable. I preach the gospel of those foam pillows—I grabbed this compactible Cabeau pillow from a Hudson News a few years ago, and it’s been my constant companion ever since. Wearing mine makes me feel like a dog in a cone, but I never fail to throw it in my backpack anyway because it makes napping way easier on my neck. If you’re a light sleeper, pack an eye mask to block out the ever-shifting plane lighting.
3. While you’re at it: Don’t forget a pair of earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, so you can feel empathy instead of vitriol for parents flying with antsy, vocal kids. (And if you’re the person with those antsy, vocal kids? Here’s a Condé Nast Traveler guide to help.)
4. Store anything you can’t go a day without in your “personal item,” just in case you have to check your carry-on at the gate: Think medication, a toothbrush/toothpaste/floss kit, and the book you’re using to look mysterious at the airport Starbucks. Worried about whether your medicine is okay to bring aboard? Per TSA, you’re allowed to carry on more than 3.4 ounces of liquid medications, and unused syringes are fine if they accompany injectable meds—just know that, in both cases, you might have to go through additional screenings. All of this preparation downgrades a luggage-related mishap from a potentially trip-altering emergency to a big annoyance.
5. We’re so lucky to be alive during the golden age of athleisure. My tried and true uniform: A sweater or sweatshirt that can double as a blanket or pillow, slip-on shoes with gym socks so I can glide through TSA without bare feet touching the airport floor, leggings, and breathable cotton underwear. We’re going for function over form, but looking a little schlubby in public also makes me feel like I’m a celebrity hiding from the paparazzi. Delusional? Maybe. Comfortable? Absolutely.
6. Prep your body for hours of sitting with a gentle workout routine. Personal trainers shared 18 different moves with SELF to help minimize the aches and pains that come with sitting in the same place for hours at a time, including banded squats, glute bridges, a calf stretch, and a classic child’s pose. And if you’re feeling shoulder, back, and neck pain mid-flight? Stretch it all out. You might look a little goofy doing a quick spinal decompression thousands of feet up in the air, but that’s a small price to pay for comfort—and you’re probably never going to see these people again anyways!
7. Wear a pair of compression socks. If you’re flying for more than six hours, they can help reduce the risk of blood clots that comes with sitting for long periods of time for some folks. Though this risk is minimal for people who don’t have certain health conditions, it’s increased by high altitudes. Compression socks can also help combat any related swelling and discomfort—your ankles and calves will seriously thank you.
8. On the plane make an effort to get up from your seat and take a stroll down the aisle, especially if you have a higher risk of developing a blood clot. A little movement can also help ease any travel-induced bloating. A quick jaunt every two to three hours you’re in the air should do the trick—and if you’re drinking water and snacking away, that’s probably how often you’ll need to make a pit stop to the bathroom anyway.
9. If you have a disability, you probably know that airlines legally have to accommodate you in the US—but that doesn’t mean they’re good at it. To ensure your needs are met as best as possible, try to get to your gate at least 90 minutes before your flight is set to take off. That way you have time to request what you need before the airline staff has to deal with an entire flight’s worth of people boarding the plane. Arriving early also gives you time to call the airline’s complaints resolution official, the legally mandated expert on accessibility-related travel issues, if you run into any problems—their number should be available on your airline’s website, and it’s worth looking up and saving in your phone ahead of time just in case you need it.
10. If you’re traveling with a mobility device like a manual wheelchair or power chair, things can get extra complicated. This is a great multipart guide to traveling with a wheelchair, and this is a really helpful Reddit thread about taking your manual wheelchair on a plane—or, if absolutely necessary, checking it at the gate. One user suggested bookmarking this page, which outlines the federal regulation that states airlines have to at least try and store your collapsible wheelchair in the plane’s cabin.
11. As unfair as it is, flying comfortably while fat requires some extra preparation. Some airlines have gotten with the times and established specific policies for “customers of size,” which is the terminology carriers typically use. Southwest, for example, offers complimentary additional seats if a passenger can’t fit into a single one, including by reimbursing extra seats bought in advance.
12. When you can’t book ahead of time but think you’ll need more space, you should ask the staff at the gate whether it’s possible for you to switch to a part of the plane with an extra empty seat or even to an entire free row if your flight isn’t full, as Katie, a Delta Airlines flight attendant, tells SELF. (Katie requested that SELF omit her last name for professional reasons.) “Try just going to the gate agent and saying, ‘Hey, if there’s anywhere with a middle seat open, I’d love to be there,’” she says.
13. Request a seatbelt extender as you board the plane—according to Katie, that’s the easiest time for flight attendants to accommodate your request. “We have all different planes, the seats are made differently sometimes,” she says, so even if you don’t always need an extender, it’s worth asking if you think there’s any chance you could be uncomfortable. (You can check SeatGuru to find the width of the seats on your plane.) Also, it might seem like a timesaver to bring your own extender from home, but you’ll need to ask the flight attendants in order to ensure the one you’re using is Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)–compliant, because not every at-home model conforms to the aviation safety administration’s safety regulations.
14. Mask up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommend that you wear high-quality masks or respirators while traveling, especially in “crowded or tight spaces with poor ventilation like airport jetways,” on planes where the ventilation system is switched off, and on trains and buses—a.k.a. the way many airports require travelers to hop from terminal to terminal. For the best protection, grab a pack of disposable N95, KN95, or KF94 masks. Keep a few on you at all times so you can put on a new one if long-term wear is making the one you came to the airport with feel stale.
15. While you don’t need to use a Clorox wipe on every inch of your seat to protect yourself from germs, it’s good to be cautious about touching shared surfaces on the plane, especially if you’re immunocompromised or traveling to visit someone who is. One thing you do need to thoroughly sanitize: your hands! Make sure you wash them after using the bathroom, and don’t be afraid to get liberal with the hand sanitizer too. “Hand sanitizer is going to be a better investment than bringing a whole tub of wipes,” Peter Chin-Hong, MD, a medical professor who specializes in infectious diseases at University of California, San Francisco tells SELF. “And washing [or disinfecting] your hands before touching your face—that’s probably the most important thing.” Dr. Chin-Hong also says that because bathroom door handles tend to be particularly germy, it’s worth finding an alternate way to open the door after you’re done, like with a napkin or your elbow.
16. According to the World Health Organization, the low humidity levels on a plane that do a number on your skin, eyes, and lips don’t actually dehydrate you internally—but it’s still important to drink enough water to stay adequately hydrated and comfortable during your flight. Bring an empty reusable water bottle in your carry-on and fill it up before you get on the plane. You might need to have a few plastic cups of water on an especially long flight too—but avoid refilling your water bottle in the airplane bathroom, because studies have shown it can be particularly germy.
17. Because plane travel is notorious for giving you that gross chapped feeling, nasal spray, eye drops, lip balm, and moisturizing lotion can also help if you’re otherwise feeling parched.
18. If you have lots of flying-related anxiety, especially during takeoff and landing, you could find relief from deep breathing exercises or other quick physical destressors, like activating your “dive reflex” by placing a cold can of soda against your cheek or forehead or manually relaxing your muscles one by one. It’s also a good idea to download a meditation app if you think you might need a little extra guidance.
19. Take it easy if you’re drinking alcohol while flying. Booze is notoriously dehydrating and can lead to big sleep disruptions—the latter of which is not the vibe if you want to arrive at your destination well-rested or need to make a tight connecting flight. Still, as long as you’re drinking plenty of water, a glass of wine or a beer probably won’t hurt anything other than your wallet.
20. If you’re prone to motion sickness, plan accordingly. From there, stay hydrated, eat small amounts of food throughout your trip, and suck on hard candies or ginger lozenges for a little extra digestive help. (Skip the ginger ale—the sugar content could actually make you feel worse.)
21. If you end up hurling midair, either in a barf bag or the bathroom, try not to rinse your mouth out with water from the airplane sink—a 2019 study found that most running water on planes is unsanitary. Take your water bottle to the bathroom, or ask the flight attendants for a cup of water. On your way back to your seat, ask for a cup of ginger tea or club soda to ease any further stomach upset. Drink more water, too, since vomiting dehydrates you.
22. Airplane food…famously not the best, if it’s even on offer! If you want to feel satiated for the duration of your flight, prep an arsenal of snacks (so you don’t wind up paying $30 for a bag of Craisins and some red pepper hummus). Ideally you’d have something that’s easy to carry and eat, protein-forward to keep you full, and doesn’t generate a ton of trash. (Here are the official guidelines about specific foods you can bring on planes in the US.) Think mixed nuts, protein bars, or a banana. You can always just copy what a registered dietitian packs to eat on trips, including her signature “airport sandwich.”
23. Be lightly friendly to your neighbors. That doesn’t mean you have to listen to anyone’s life story, but a simple “hello” and a smile as you prepare for takeoff can go a long way. Don’t you want to be on good terms with the person whose lap you’re climbing across because you have to get to the bathroom? (Being cordial might also make it way easier to find common ground if someone is being really loud when you’re trying to sleep or otherwise encroaching on your already-spartan personal space.)
24. Do yourself a profound favor and let go of the illusion that you might “get some work done” during your flight. Why the charade? Save yourself the additional stress of forced productivity—the middle seat of a flight probably isn’t going to be the site of your finest work ever.
25. When you’ve safely landed, stretch and move your body again once you reach your destination for maximum cramp-banishing effect. Then put the tiny indignities of flying in your rearview mirror, where they belong—at least, until your flight home.