Lola.com’s Guide to Long-Haul Flights for Business Travelers
Long-haul flights are a necessary evil for corporate travelers. Are you prepared to make them as painless as possible?
As a business traveler, chances are that at some point in your career you’ll have to take a long-haul flight. I’m not talking about a 6 hour cross country flight; I’m talking about a super, super long flight(s) that likely takes you across the world.
I recently completed a trip from Copenhagen, Denmark to Sydney, Australia with a stop in Dubai, UAE. Let’s see how long it took:
- Copenhagen → Dubai = 7 hours
- Layover in Dubai = 2 hours
- Dubai → Sydney = 14 hours
- 7 + 2 + 14 = a whopping 23 hours on the road
For reference, that’s like flying from Boston to Chicago and back 4 times.
While daunting, these types of trips are very doable with some preparation and attention to detail. Maximizing sleep, minimizing jet lag, and taking care of your body will ensure that you get to your destination and business meetings feeling fresh.
Let’s get into it.
One thing to note: I traveled in Economy Class on Emirates for my trip. While traveling in Business or First is definitely more comfortable (and makes going to sleep much easier), these recommendations should prove helpful for all travelers regardless of class.
Pre-Departure: How to Prepare Properly
With long-haul flights, setting yourself up for success starts before you even leave for the airport.
Booking Your Trip
When starting to book a long-haul trip, the way you plan your travel will differ based on whether you’re looking at non-stop or 1+ stop options. While non-stop flights are ideal, in some cases they may be much pricier, and in other cases they aren’t even an option.
For any long-haul trip though, a main consideration should be the time zones to and from which you’re traveling. Evening or night time departures are usually best for long-haul flights since you know you’ll get some darkness to help you sleep, which on any flight over 10 hours is helpful due to changing time zones.
With 1+ stop flights, you’ll have the additional consideration of layover time and structure. For these long, international flights, you will want a layover of at minimum 1 hour and 45 minutes. You really don’t want to cut it close in these situations.
The larger planes used for these routes take longer to de-board, international terminals tend to be larger and more complex, and most importantly: if you miss your connection, it’s possible there won’t be another flight for many hours (or even a few days!). While people typically look for the shortest layover that “works,” with an extremely long trip you could also consider a longer layover (such as 8-10 hours) and stay in an airport hotel to catch up on some rest.
It is not always easy to find flights that match exactly what you’re looking for, and very often you’ll need to settle for something less than ideal in order to get to your destination on time without breaking the bank. This happens often so don’t be too worried, but make sure that you plan ahead to maximize rest time and minimize jet lag. (* Read more below in “How to Spend Your Flight)
Lastly, when booking any long-haul flight, if you must pay to select a certain seat, it’s almost always not worth it. Upon check-in you can almost always select the type of seat you want for free (see the next section).
Checking in / Selecting Your Seat
Once you’ve booked your trip and you’re ready to go, it’s time to start preparing. On long haul flights, especially in Economy, it’s very important to check in as early as possible. As mentioned above, on almost all long-haul carriers you can select your seat(s) for free at check-in. While you usually have to wait until 24 before departure for online check-in, on some long-haul flights (such as mine) you can check in as early as 48 hours before departure! Be sure to check your specific airline’s policy and set an alarm for that exact time so that you can be one of the first passengers to check-in and snag a great seat.
Which seat should you pick? If you’re in Business Class or above, almost all of the seats should have direct aisle access (or you'll need to step over one person’s legs at most). So, pick what you want. However, if you’re in Economy, here's how it’s done:
First of all, look for a seat towards the back of the plane (yes, the last section). It is rare that long-haul flights become completely booked, and the back sections of the plane always have the most open seats. We’ll talk more about this in the “How to Board” section. While typically seen as less-desirable, I’ll explain why the back is where it’s at.
You should also consider how many times you tend to get up during a flight. While the window seat is great for sleeping, you may have to wake up sleeping seat-mates more than once to take some laps or go to the bathroom (which can be a little uncomfortable). Being an easy sleeper is more important if you’re going to take an aisle seat, but it’ll allow you to roam the cabin whenever you please. Lastly, this can go unsaid, but never, ever pick the middle seat – especially on long-haul flights. You’ve been warned.
For both of my flights, I booked a window seat (for sleeping and viewing purposes), in a row of 2, at the back of the plane, with lots of open seats around. If someone booked the seat next to me, I would only have to bother 1 person when needing to stretch my legs. Stay tuned for what happened with the open seats...
How to Pack
Time to pack your bags! If you’re staying for a decent chunk of time and need to check a bag(s), still make sure to bring some sort of carry-on, like a backpack or duffel. For long-haul flights (and honestly whenever you’re checking bags), it’s a good idea to have toiletries and a change of clothes on board with you, in addition to entertainment and medication. While a change of clothes will be especially handy on a long-haul flight so that you can change and freshen up, if anything happens to your checked luggage you can survive for a day or two without it. As a business traveler, if formal attire is needed for meetings, it’s smart to make sure that at least some of it is in your carry-on. Are you really going to meet that big client in the t-shirt and jeans that you slept in on the flight?
Here’s a sample packing list for your carry-on bag:
- Change of clothes
- Eye-mask, earplugs, slippers
- You will likely get all/some of these in an amenity bag, but it can’t hurt to be prepared!
- Sleeping medication
- Sinus medication
- Especially if you have a cold, this is a must. Imagine not being able to pop your ears for 14 hours – no thank you.
- Portable chargers (that are fully charged!)
- While long-haul airplanes tend to have solid in-seat power, if you have work to get done or some great movies downloaded you don’t want to take any chances
What to Wear
It can never hurt to look decent while on the road – sometimes it can even improve your chances at being the “lucky” recipient of a complimentary upgrade. However, you’re going to be traveling for a long time. And sleeping in an airplane seat. If you can sleep upright in a button-down oxford shirt and suit pants, that’s impressive. However, most of us will likely want to opt for something else. You have two options:
- Dress nicely but bring a comfortable shirt, sweatpants, and sweatshirt/layer to change into once on the plane. This will allow you to be comfortable en-route and also keep your nice outfit clean so you can change back into it before landing (*If you’re in Business Class or above, you will likely receive pajamas on board. Regardless, it’s still a good idea to bring your own pair to be safe.)
- Be presentable, but comfortable. There are plenty of casual pants with stretchy fabric that look decent but are comfy enough to sleep in, and coupled with a sweater make a respectable look.
Don't forget to, wear and bring layers! When taxiing before push-back, airplanes can get pretty hot, and then in the air, they can get pretty cold. It’s always helpful to wear t-shirts with sweaters, button-downs, sweatshirts, jackets – you get the picture. Wear and bring things that are easy to take on and off.
Mastering the (Economy) Boarding Process
If you’re in Economy, make sure to board with your assigned boarding group so that you can get on the plane as quickly as possible. Find overhead space for your bag, and start to scope out the scene.
Let’s talk about why the back of the plane is actually your best bet. Many of these long-haul flights are not fully booked and several seats, and even rows, could be open at the back of Economy. First of all, you may not even have any seatmate(s). On my first flight, there weren’t any open rows, however my seatmate never came. This meant that I had a window seat with direct aisle access – perfect!
The main reason why the back is the best for these flights though is that after the cabin door closes and boarding is complete, you are usually allowed to move around into any open seats/rows. The cabin crew in some cases may even help rearrange you so that everyone has space. On my second flight, I scoped out the rows that looked open as boarding began to wrap up. Then, once the captain announced that it had been completed, I grabbed my backpack and laid claim on 3 open seats a few rows ahead.
While this strategy does not work on every flight and/or carrier (on another recent trip the plane was very full and nobody could really move / had an open seat in their row), it is always going to be your best shot if you’re traveling in Economy.
En-Route: Making the Most of Your Time in the Air
Now you've reached the hard part: the seemingly endless hours spent to get from point A to point B. Here are some tips to help you along the way.
How to Spend Your Flight
Timing out how you’re going to spend your time in transit is crucial. You need to think about when to sleep, when hang out and watch TV or movies, when to do some work, when to eat, and when to get up and stretch. Thankfully, the cabin crew will standardize a lot of this, based around the schedule of meal service. They will likely serve a meal at the beginning of the flight, then dim the lights for sleep, and then brighten the cabin slowly and serve another meal towards the end. At the beginning of the flight, they usually will pass out meal cards with the menu that essentially formats this schedule for you. However, if you have any questions it never hurts to ask.
Budgeting your time is relatively straightforward on a non-stop flight. Eat the meals when they’re served, walk around a bit before you sleep, sleep as much as you can when the lights go dim, walk around once you wake up, and then watch some TV or do some work. Long-haul carriers, like Emirates, typically have very solid seat-back entertainment set-ups to help keep you occupied. However, it’s never a bad idea to load up a computer or iPad with a bunch of shows or movies that you like!
With 1+ stop flights and even longer trips, prepare to give this a little bit more thought. For example, my first flight of 7 hours departed at 4pm local time, and my second flight of 14 hours departed in the middle of the night. I would arrive at 10pm local time the following day. So, I planned to spend the first flight eating dinner and doing work. Then, once I changed planes in Dubai, I ate a little bit of the meal that they provided and went to sleep for 7 hours or so. When I woke up, I did some laps around the cabin, watched a couple movies, and then was in Sydney at 10pm tired from a day of traveling but not a total wreck since I had gotten some sleep – I was able to put myself to bed there by 1am and start to get on the new time zone. Hopefully you can use this as an example of how to plan out a long journey with multiple flights!
Lastly, working definitely helps pass the time and it’s a good opportunity to get things done. However, make sure you take care of your body first and foremost so that when you arrive at your destination, you can do your in-person business to the best of your abilities. Going along with this idea, walk laps around the cabins. Do some stretching in the alleys by the bathroom. Just a little bit of movement every few hours goes a long way to prevent blood clotting and other health issues.
What to Eat and Drink
When traveling and especially when flying, hydration is crucial. You should try to drink as much water as possible (they will offer it plenty but don’t be afraid to ask for extra whenever you want it) and supplement it with some vitamin C like orange juice. Stay away from excessive alcoholic beverages if possible since those will dehydrate you and make for an unpleasant experience later on in the journey. Similarly, try to avoid coffee and other caffeinated drinks towards the beginning of your trip – if your body is signaling that it wants rest, give it rest. Don’t try to keep it awake. Once you’re close to landing, that’s the time to have that coffee to wake up a bit.
On long-haul flights, the food honestly tends to be pretty good. The Economy meals in Emirates were some of the best I’d had — flavorful and easily digestible. If you have food allergies or restrictions, when checking in online you can select a special meal (typically for no additional cost), like vegan or nut-free. Regardless though, it’s always helpful to bring some snacks on board if you tend to get particularly hungry.
As mentioned earlier, a window seat definitely helps when trying to fall asleep. Long-haul carriers will provide pillows and blankets, and on my flights I essentially hoarded as many as I could find to make myself a fort up against the window. Not kidding, it really works.
Using earplugs and wearing a face mask also helped a surprising amount. I have never been a big believer in them, but they were in the amenity kit so I decided to give them a go – and they worked out great. Lastly, a light sleeping medication can also make a big difference. Consult your doctor on what might be best for you for your trip.
On long-haul flights, you're most likely going to hit one, if not two, layovers. Although they may feel like a waste of your time, these precious moments on the ground can also help you catch up on some rest or stretch out your legs.
Constantly track your next flight
If your incoming flight gets delayed, you can wind up with a pretty tight connection time. You should always be keeping track of when your first flight is arriving and when boarding begins on your connection. The cabin crew and airline staff will be doing their best to help you stay on top of this, however if you think that your connection is going to be very tight, don’t be afraid to ask someone for help. In the past I’ve been allowed to de-board the plane first and even get a quick ride through the terminal on a golf cart. Remember to stay on top of your connection, and never be afraid to talk to someone if you’re concerned.
If you have a decently long layover, airport lounges can be a very refreshing way to spend a few hours. Most lounges require having a certain status within a rewards program(s), however, an increasing amount are allowing passengers in lower classes to pay reasonable amounts for access. In addition, a number of independent lounges have been built at bigger airports around the world (such as Marhaba lounges).
On my return trip from Australia, I got stuck with a long 8 hour layover in Dubai at 2am. I didn’t exactly have much interest in venturing into the city that late and was pretty exhausted. So, I discovered that as an Economy passenger I could pay for access to the Emirates Business Class Lounge at a pretty affordable rate. I had a late dinner, took a nap on some lounge couches that are in slightly enclosed “quiet zones,” and then woke up to have breakfast and do some work. My 8 hour layover suddenly seemed enjoyable — even productive!
Long-haul trips are never fun, but they can bring us to cool places and help us connect with important people. With these tips and tricks in your back pocket, you'll be ready to tackle your next long flight.