(Note: this is a March 2023 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 under-seat 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 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..
Kris likes Pear Compression socks, which are made especially for women.
Pants. For pants, I usually wear my Kuhl light weight 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. 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 Unbound Merino Wool tee. In general, my life has been so much more comfortable since discovering Unbound 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 pricey.– from $60-100 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, 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, Jabra noise canceling headphones, a plug-in Bluetooth transmitter to use the wireless ear buds on the plane, 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 face mask, 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.
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 eye shades, 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 in past years, 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
If you want some more tips about traveling, check out this post on apps we use, this one on the electronic gear we carry, and this one on the bags we use.
When you’re thinking of traveling, your first stop should be our Travel Resources page, where we list all the essentials you need to make your travels easier, cheaper, safer, and more fun.
You can also help yourself get ready for your 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.
You can see (and buy prints) of most of our travel photos in one place on this page.
Note: This post and other posts on TravelPast50.com may contain paid or affiliate advertising links. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
14 thoughts on “Make Flying a lot Easier and More Comfortable”
Now that strikes a chord. As we have started traveling more, I have developed my own “uniform”. With different brands and one serious difference it’s much the same, even to the Swiss Army knife which has to be remembered and left at home sometimes.
With “diabetic feet” which have already led to a travel crisis, I tend to always have a pair of light hiking boots. Along with quality socks they let me go anywhere without worrying about feet. On short haul trips to Europe they are a complete pain at security, but otherwise essential.
If I’m doing any hiking at our destination, I always take my Oboz hiking shoes (or waterproof boots, also by Oboz) if there’s going to be water or snow. But I don’t usually wear them on the plane. My actual “go-to” plane shoes are a very light pair of Adidas walking shoes, which are great for walking around cities, but not so much for trail hiking. I have wide feet, and Adidas fit me. And you can buy Oboz in wide, so that’s ideal for me, too. Happy travels, Jerry.
Before a recent trip to Italy I splurged on noise cancelling headphones. Wow! Expensive, but they paid off in comfort and quiet. They’re bluetooth, paired with my phone, so I can put on a podcast or relaxing music and they shut out the drone of the jet engines.
Patti, noise cancelling headphones are the greatest invention ever. My only question is over-the-ear or in-ear? I like the comfort of my over-the-ear phones on long flights, but they are a large chunk to carry. So, I graduated to in-ear, which are much smaller. And, you’re right. They’re expensive. But worth it.
Gosh this is a great column. So many great ideas. Tho I never use headphones because I like the low buzz of a plane on long trips. However I am totally impressed that Kris wears bikini underwear! Kudos!
Great tips. The flying experience gets harder as you age. I’m lucky to be able to sleep on planes, but the seats are getting far less comfortable.
So true. The seats need more frequent replacement. Too often, all the padding is long gone.
The other day I forgot to put on my noise cancelling headphones. What a difference – I was so much more tired when I arrived. Noise is very tiring and we sort of block it out, but it’s still there stressing us. Very best item for travelling!
Rosemary, amen. We only think we block out that jet engine drone, but it does drain you. And I agree. If I forget my noise cancellers, I’m miserable.
Great tips and suggestions. We’ve been traveling with Global Entry for the last year and a half and love it. Definitively makes the process easier coming back into the US.
I love looking at all the people standing in line to get into the US as I breeze by the lines with my Global Entry receipt.
Comfort starts from feet just like you’ve mentioned. I like idea of wearing slip on shoes and the Pandere shoes must be comfortable.
Thanks for sharing these handy tips.
I have some of the same strategies. I used to hate flying.
These tips can totally work for anyone, not just the over 50 crowd. I’m in my 30’s, but I have several chronic health issues that are only getting worse with time, leaving me in pain and discomfort most of the time. I’m looking for ways to make travel more comfortable (because it’s my passion! I really don’t want to miss out on travel and adventures in the future!). I’ve loved my Trtl travel pillow and my foot hammock on planes. Definitely will be checking out Athleta pants! I bought slip-on Adidas sneakers this year that are incredible!