(Note: this is a February 2020 update of a post originally published in 2013.)
If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that flying is increasingly uncomfortable. Most United States airlines have squeezed legroom so much that, even though I'm only 5’8” (1.72 m) tall, I can’t even bend over to pick something up off the floor. As for eating or working on my laptop when the seat ahead of me is reclined, forget it. We hate to start a trip by pulling a muscle contorting ourselves into our seats or banging our heads on overhead bins. So let's focus on how to make flying more comfortable and less stressful.
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Book directly with your airline
Even when we use search engines to find best airlines, airfares, and times for our travel, we book the flights directly with the airline. Passengers who've booked directly are often given preference when flight delays or cancellations require re-booking. If you participate in frequent flyer programs, all the better. You can keep your frequent flyer numbers and TSA Pre numbers saved in the airline booking system, knowing that the essential info will show up on your boarding pass. Preload your airline's app onto your smartphone, too, in order to stay up to the minute on flight status, gate changes, and baggage claim.
Get more legroom if you can
When it comes to legroom, more is better. Our first tip is to upgrade to the “Comfort” category whenever you can. If you have “status” with an airline, you might be upgraded to Comfort as one of your perks, or you can purchase an upgrade with dollars or points. Exit rows might also offer more leg room. We know plenty of people who don't like exit rows, because of limitations in seat reclining, more complicated video screens and eating trays, and lack of underseat storage space. But we'll trade those inconveniences to keep Kris from growing claustrophobic.
Dress for health and comfort while flying
Shoes. We both agree that comfort starts from the ground up. But let's face it: we are usually wearing the shoes we don't want to pack. I'm not particular; I only want a shoe that is easy to get on and off. I take them off immediately when I'm seated on the plane. I either slip them on to use the plane's bathroom or, lately, use a small, flat pair of slippers that I copped from a nice hotel. Kris looks for shoes that can handle the inevitable swelling that happens with long flights, like these clever Pandere shoes that adjust every which way. They are easy to get on and off, and plenty comfortable and supportive for long walks through airports with heavy backpacks. (Check out her post about essential travel shoes for women.)
Socks. You may not think of socks as a comfort item, but I have two pairs that are my preferred flight companions. First, for shorter flights, I always plan to wear these Falke light trekking socks. As the name suggests, they're light. I like that Falke socks' elastic is good, but never binds. And, Falke socks are made for left and right feet. Yes, the socks are fitted to each foot. They're expensive, but simply the most comfortable socks. Give them a try.
For longer flights, when embolisms can happen, I wear a pair of long Point6 Compression Surge Ultra Light over-the-calf socks. Although they're compression socks, they are extremely comfortable. Kris, too, endorses compression socks for health reasons and to alleviate the soreness of restless legs. By the way, I have several pairs of Point6 socks that I also use for hikes, such as the Camino de Santiago..
Pants. For pants, I usually wear my REI convertible pants. I wear these pants about 50 percent of the time anyway when traveling, but they’re even more useful for flying. They’re light. They breathe. They have lots of pockets (including one that zips closed for your passport and wallet.) But most important for flying: they have stretchy elastic bands in the waist. So when you’re sitting and fidgeting, they expand and move with you. Like the Falke socks, they don’t pinch. For the past few years, Kris has relied on various versions of Athleta pants for all her travel days, whether by plane, train or automobile. Look for styles with zipper or hidden pockets. She wants easy but secure pocket access to her ID and one credit card so that she doesn't have to go digging in case of airport or airline purchases.
Underwear! Under those pants, I wear ExOfficio Men's Give-N-Go Boxers. They’re light. They wick moisture. They dry quickly, and they’re flat out comfortable. (They have other models than just the plain boxers, if you’re one of those guys.) Also, when you get where you are going, you can rinse them out and wear them tomorrow. In fact, you can travel with two or three pairs of these and it’s all you need. Thanks for asking, dear readers: Kris does not wear boxers, but is also a fan of ExOfficio. She may pack some scantier styles, but for travel days, the Give-N-Go Bikini Brief is perfect.
Shirts. For t-shirts, I favor the REI Merino Wool tee. In general, my life has been so much more comfortable since discovering Merino wool clothing. Comfortable. Odor resistant. And, like the Ex Officio underwear, you can rinse them out. They dry quickly and you can wear them tomorrow.
Both of us wear long-sleeved button shirts for travel. They look respectable, layer well, and sleeves can be rolled up or down for temperature control. We both favor ExOfficio shirts. Kris likes the fabrics and styling (a little more sophisticated and a little less camping wear). I’ve got several ExOfficio Air Strip shirts in various colors. They’re lightweight, have expanding pockets, and are loose fitting. Most important, they have side and back vents to let them breathe. They’re a bit pricy–from $60-90 on Amazon–but, like the underwear, you can get by with packing two of them. They wash out and dry overnight hanging in your hotel room.
Accessories. Kris always travels with a lightweight scarf. Unfortunately, the one pictured above disappeared in the Delhi airport. But never fear, there are plenty in her arsenal. On flights, the scarf serves as a wrap for warmth, or sometimes as an eye shade or neck support. Otherwise, it's a simple way to change the look of those two ExOfficio shirts.
One of the essential elements of the pants and shirts I’ve mentioned is the abundance of pockets. When you carry all the stuff I do all the time, those pockets come in handy. Kris eschews all but one pocket, and waits patiently while I try to remember which pocket has the claim ticket. Her advise: get in the habit of using the same pocket(s) for the same items all the time. It's easy to take inventory of your belongings as you board and disembark.
Things we carry on with us
Whether or not we check bags or carry everything on, we know flying is a whole lot easier when we're organized and can easily access the essential items we want to use in flight. First, what do we take onboard?
Here’s what I always have with me–whenever I’m out of the house or hotel. Sunglasses, Sony RX100-III camera, a pocket sized notebook, pen, wallet with credit cards and driver’s license, little pill box, small Swiss Army knife (omit this if you're not checking a bag,) handkerchief, keys, and my iPhone.
To this, for air travel, we add our passports, Macbook Air computers, noise canceling headphones, our Kindles, and sometimes even a real book that isn’t on Kindle. On our iPhones we have our boarding passes, airline and TripIt apps, The New York Times (with puzzles), The New Yorker and music.
Between her purse and carry-on, Kris adds a water bottle and hand sanitizer to this list, plus lip balm, hand lotion, and a tiny travel toothpaste. Just be sure the water bottle is empty when you head to the airport, and also when you are transferring internationally through customs, because you'll go through security again.
Headphones. Of all these items, headphones are the most important for creating that travel cocoon we need for a comfortable voyage. Noise cancelling headphones are maybe the best invention for flying ever. I had no idea how much the droning of the airplane engines annoyed me, and tired me, until I got a pair of these. They also make the in-flight movies and music sound much better. They're expensive, but completely worth it.
Neck Pillow and Eye Shades. For a long time, I resisted getting one of those neck pillows that you see so many people with. But last year, someone gave me an inflatable version and, I have to say, I love it. First, it's inflatable, which means when you're not using it, it deflates and folds down flat–which makes it much easier to stick in your carry-on bag. Also, you can deflate it a bit so the back is not pushing your head forward at an uncomfortable angle, or adjust for reading versus sleeping positions. Kris likes this inflatable travel pillow with quick pump and release valve. She keeps her own eye shades in right in the pillow pouch, but rarely packs the pillow unless it's a flight over three or four hours. As for eyeshades, I've got about a dozen pairs that I've been given by airlines. If you want nicer ones, there are a lot to choose from.
A good small carry-on bag
Just as with pockets, consistent organization of your carry on bag is important to safe, hassle-free and comfortable travel.
My go-to carry-on bag is now the Timbuk2 Classic Messenger Bag. It's got a handy pocket under the flap that allows me to put everything I take out of my pockets into one spot. Once you pass security, it's easy to reach into this small space and grab it all to go back into my pants pockets.
Kris's carry-on is more substantial. She loves that the Lite Gear Mobile Pro Backback is expandable, has a separate zipped sleeve for her laptop, a couple convenient exterior pockets, and a secure interior hook to attach our house keys while we're away. This bag has plenty room for her small camera bag, medicine, a sweater, spare glasses, and all the in-flight items mentioned above.
I also usually carry a separate serious camera bag, since I’ve got two big DSLRs, three or more lenses, a flash unit, a tripod, filters, memory cards, cables, and more. But that’s for another post.
Check out our stable of travel bags in this post covering the whole range, from roller bags to hiking daypacks.
Peace of Mind
To stay healthy, wipe all hard surfaces around your seat with antiseptic wipes, including air vents, emergency info cards, seat belt buckle, tray tables and armrests. Avoid those nasty seat pockets. Drink all the water you can. Walk about periodically to keep circulation moving.
Travel Insurance. Don't leave home without it. Whether it's flight delays, lost luggage, rental car damage, or on-the-road medical expenses, you'll fly and sleep a lot better knowing you are covered if anything goes wrong. We use Allianz Travel Insurance. Since we travel a lot, we buy an annual plan, but there are single trip coverage plans, too. We've recovered over $1400 in medical expenses this year, btw.
When to buy your insurance? Recently, software improvements have streamlined the process of purchasing travel insurance while booking flights or tours. If you, like many, are confused about the best window in which to purchase your travel insurance, read this story.
Get Global Entry with TSA Pre
Finally, the best way to get through security with minimum hassle is with TSA Pre, which we get as part of our Global Entry status. Here's how to get the Global Entry status to get you into the U.S. and through the TSA lines a lot more quickly. If you're traveling internationally, Global Entry is an absolute must to ease your reentry into the U.S.
A savvy reader who is without Global Entry recently pointed out the Mobile Passport App. This does not include TSA Pre, but (for U.S. citizens) can expedite your return through U.S. borders by queuing up your data on your smartphone and bypassing the longer lines.
Some more travel tips
You can help yourself get ready for your own travels by reading our Get Started Planning Your Trip Now page.
We love traveling–with the right gear. We've gathered a lot of the stuff we use to make travel more pleasant and efficient all on one page. Shop our Travel Past 50 Amazon page to find our favorite gear. If you purchase something from the store, Travel Past 50, as an Amazon affiliate, may receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Thanks.
We never leave home without our travel insurance. Nor should you. Search for the travel insurance from Allianz that best meets your needs, whether it be an annual plan or a single trip.
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