What to take on board a long haul flight

How a traveller prepares, packs and dresses can make his journey more comfortable

The holiday season is upon us, which means that the most popular time for trips abroad is here.

Travel search engines TripAdvisor and Kayak report at least a 20 per cent jump in searches of top destinations for the Christmas and New Year seasons.

The two public holidays a week apart make it an ideal time to go farther afield to destinations such as Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States, which are top picks for travellers.

Unfortunately, one has to first get there by long-haul flight.

Despite the upgraded entertainment options, plusher amenities and improved food options that have been added to economy class in recent years, sitting stationary in a compact seat, breathing dry, re-circulated air for seven hours or more is not an ideal start or end to a vacation.

Crying babies, cramped legs, a stiff neck and a neighbour who leaves his reading light on for the duration of the flight can make matters worse, leaving a traveller sore and exhausted on arrival.

Thankfully, with the right tips, it is possible to not only make the journey a little more comfortable, but also enjoyable.

Here are the best ways to dress, prepare and pack for your next long-haul flight.

Pack eye mask and earplugs

Passengers in premium cabins receive a luxe amenities kit with lotions and balms, but with a little bit of planning, passengers in economy class can elevate their in-flight experience too.

Many airlines provide economy passengers with a basic amenities kit of an eye mask, socks or slippers, foam earplugs and a travel toothbrush for long-haul flights, but experienced travellers often have a set of their own and it can make all the difference.

Not all eye masks are made alike, for instance, and it is worth finding one that fits snugly and comfortably across your eyes and face to block out the lights overhead.

Likewise, the earplugs provided on board are typically made of foam and may not stay put in the ear or effectively block out the sounds of, say, a crying baby.

Instead, sensitive sleepers can buy mouldable silicon earplugs for under $10 at most pharmacies. These plugs, made of silicone putty, mould to the unique contours of any ear, sealing out most sounds.

Travellers can also use their own noise-cancelling headphones to view the in-flight entertainment by buying an airplane headphone jack adapter for $10 or less at travel or electronics stores.

These adapters will allow travellers to plug their personal headsets into the armrest.

To guard against the dry air, pack eye drops, a deep-hydrating lip balm, face and hand moisturiser.

A sturdy neck pillow, which can be bought for less than $25, is a worthwhile sleep aid to prevent neck aches, though travellers such as Ms Andrea Seifert, director of communications for multi-service agency Accela, also carry a small pot of Tiger balm to rub on sore muscles in-flight.

To spruce up the seat, disinfect the armrests and tray with anti-bacterial wipes, and spray the pillow and seat with a lightly scented spray, such as Sleep Plus pillow spray, which costs $51 at Sephora and offers a relaxing blend of lavender, vetivert and camomile to help create a calming atmosphere and promote sleep.

Ms Doris Goh, chief marketing officer of Alila Hotels and Resorts, who takes at least 10 inter-continental flights a year, sprays her surroundings with a pillow mist and inhales peppermint oil during the flight.

The oil refreshes and calms her, she says, and it is sometimes rubbed on her temples to ease tension.

These little touches, as well as staying hydrated with warm water and lemon, and relaxing with a single glass of red wine, are her top tips for a calm and restful in-flight experience.

Wear loose cotton clothes

As flying becomes more commonplace and with the increasing popularity of everyday sports and leisurewear, some travellers walk on the plane looking like they have just rolled out of bed.

While no one is expected to wear a suit or an unforgiving pair of jeans while flying from Singapore to Britain, travellers should not necessarily be wearing their pyjamas either.

Here is what you should do.

  • When dressing for a long-haul flight, stay away from stiff fabrics and tight-fitting clothes and opt for loose-fitting cotton pants and a cotton shirt or blouse instead.
  • Women can consider a tank top with a built-in bra, rather than wearing one with traditional underwire, for added comfort.
  • In-flight clothes should be light and breathable, but still provide enough coverage against the chill of the plane's air-conditioning.
  • Keep a shawl or a light sweater handy to throw on if the cabin is particularly chilly. Also, wear or pack a pair of warm socks to guard against cold toes.
  • Due to poor circulation caused by lack of movement, dehydration and high-sodium foods, extremities do tend to swell a bit in-flight, so it is best to avoid wearing tight-fitting shoes.
  • Travellers who tend to get swollen hands and feet, which may last for days after the flight, can try wearing compression socks while on the plane. The socks, which come in ankle, calf and knee heights, use stronger elastic than regular socks. The increased pressure of the elastic on the surface veins, arteries and muscles helps push blood back up to the heart, preventing it from pooling in the feet and causing swelling.
  • Compression socks, which also help prevent deep vein thrombosis - blood clots - from forming in-flight, can be found at Guardian and Watson pharmacies. They cost $20 to $90 a pair, depending on the brand.

Book a seat at the back of the plane

Good seat selection is half the battle won when it comes to weathering a long-haul flight in economy class.

That is, if you know what seat to pick and which to avoid.

If you are flying in Singapore Airlines' older 777 aircraft, avoid seats in rows C, D and H, which have bulky in-flight entertainment boxes under them that take away legroom, says Mr Aaron Wong, 28, founder of The MileLion, a website about frequent-flyer and miles credit-card programmes.

To find out more about an airline or seat's specific quirks, go to websites such as SeatGuru to view aircraft seat maps and read seat reviews.

Some airlines, such as Vietnam Airlines, will allow travellers to pay or put in a bid to secure an empty neighbouring seat or an empty row, so you can have space to spread out.

But if you do not want to pay, Mr Wong's advice is to book a seat towards the back of the plane as check-in agents tend to fill the aircraft from front to back with passengers who did not pre-select their seats.

"As an added bonus, babies are seated towards the front of the cabin where the bassinets are, so the rear should be relatively quiet," he says.

While most long-haul flights provide in-seat entertainment these days, the selection of television shows and movies on board may not be to the traveller's taste, so pre-purchasing films on iTunes or downloading movies and shows on Netflix before the flight means there will always be something to watch. Be sure to check SeatGuru to see if the plane has in-seat charging to keep the device going.

If you want to get served first for meals, pre-order a special meal online. Passengers with such meals are typically served before everyone else in the cabin.

Try to get enough rest in the days leading up to the flight. Travellers rarely get a full, good night's sleep, even in business or first class, and the more sleep you get before the flight, the smaller your eyebags will be when you land.

The air on board is also dryer because cold air holds a lower density of water molecules than hot air, so travellers should drink plenty of water before and during the flight to stay hydrated.

You will not be able to carry water through security, but many airports have water fountains at which travellers can refill their bottles before boarding. Or ask a flight attendant to fill the bottle when on board, to sip whenever needed.

Ms Andrea Seifert, director of communications for multi-service agency Accela, goes the extra mile and takes a 1,000mg dose of Vitamin C before boarding a long-haul flight and another dose when she lands. "With so many people contained in such a small space, it is vital to keep your immune system strong," she says.

She packs a carry-on bag with a full change of clothes to change into in case she spills anything and another set of clothes to wear on the ground just in case her luggage does not arrive.

"Both sets have saved me more than once," she says.

And rather than let her bulky carry-on bag take up valuable legroom, she carries a small cross-body bag to hold her essentials, such as her passport, cellphone, wallet and lip balm. This also fits nicely under the seat in front of her.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'How to survive a long-haul flight'. Subscribe