Surviving the long haul
A lengthy journey can be the most uncomfortable part of your holiday, so get off to a flying start with Nick Trend's top tips on easing the pain of travelling by air
A couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of the realities of a long-haul flight -- overnight across the Atlantic. My neck was locked rigid and my legs were twisted, shins cramped against the underside of the seat in front and knees jammed against the seat back.
Nevertheless, after three or four hours of fitful wakefulness, I managed to drop off to sleep. Then, as they always do in economy, the crew switched on the cabin lights so that they could serve breakfast. It is the most brutal awakening and the nadir of most night flights.
Short of using ear plugs and an eye mask and hanging a 'Do not disturb' notice around your neck, I can't think of a way around this particular downside to long-haul flying.
But there are some things you can do.
Here are 10 tips to make a long journey more bearable.
1 Book a decent seat
Most airlines that fly long-haul allow you to select your seat well in advance of the flight via their website. Some have started to charge for this privilege. However, free seat choice and online check-in opens 24 hours before departure.
When I checked a couple of virtually full flights recently, I found that there were still plenty of seats that hadn't been booked. So, as long as you are well organised and log on at the right time, you should be able to get decent seats.
Choosing the best seat to book is the next problem. Bulkhead seats and seats in the emergency-exit row (for which you often have to pay extra) are popular. But walking up and down the economy cabin of a Boeing 777, I wasn't sure that I fancied either.
Seats in the emergency-exit row give you extra leg room, but you are right by the lavatory door, and the leg room in the seat nearest the side of the plane is compromised because part of the door juts out.
The bulkhead seats at the front of the cabin seem attractive, since there is no one in front of you to recline a seat into your space, but it is also the row most often used by parents with babies.
The website seatguru.com gives excellent annotated guides to seat locations, pitches, plans and entertainment systems for the world's airlines. It even lets you know which have limited leg room because of the equipment box for the entertainment system mounted under the seat in front. But you will still need to check which type of plane is flying on your route.
2 Fly east to west
This will work only if you are travelling around the world, but it is a strategy worth considering for those flying to Australia or New Zealand, when a round-the-world ticket may be the same price as a normal return, or only slightly more expensive.
If you do circumnavigate in this way, you will avoid the worst effects of jet lag. Flying east to west means that your body adjusts more easily to the new time zone and you can sleep in for longer, rather than find yourself lagging behind the clock.
However, the time you gain on each leg will be lost the moment you cross the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean, when suddenly an entire day will be wiped out.
Travel the other way and you will gain a day, but lose time on each leg.
3 Use a top-quality agent
One area in which travel agents can still give good advice on a consistent basis is long-haul travel. The complexity of possible routings, fares and airlines, especially on a round-the-world ticket, is not something that lends itself well to online systems.
An idea or suggestion from an on-the-ball consultant who is compiling itineraries every day could save you both time and money. So I would invest in a visit or a phone call to, for example, a Trailfinders travel centre (trailfinders.com).
4 Pick the best airline
There is no doubt that the top airlines have significantly improved things for long-haul passengers over the past three or four years. Key developments include seats with more space in front of your knees, 'wings' on the headrests to support your head, and on-demand seat-back entertainment so that you can choose what you want to watch and when, and can put programmes on pause.
But not all airlines offer equal standards of service or the same amount of leg room, and, since there is a choice of carriers on nearly all routes, it is worth thinking about more than just the cheapest fare when deciding who you fly with.
The website airlinequality.com is the most useful source of ratings, passenger reviews and detailed information on legroom. Currently, its top five economy-class seats -- all with a 34in seat pitch, two to three inches more than usual -- are on Qatar Airways, Kingfisher Airlines, Thai Airways, Asiana Airlines and Malaysia Airlines.
Its overall top five for service are Asiana Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways and Air New Zealand.
5 Avoid peak-time flights
You will have more space, more air, more personal service and a nicer experience all round on a half-empty flight. Since fares vary according to demand, you are also likely to pay less for it. A good agent will be able to advise on the quietest times on individual routes, but obvious times to avoid are school holidays, weekends and Monday -- the busiest flying day of the week.
6 Upgrade one-way
It used to be possible to upgrade into a more comfortable cabin. That way you could pay a little more to be more comfortable during a night-time flight. You can't usually do that any more, but you can still book the outward flight in one class and the return leg in the other. You might want to consider this as a way of keeping down costs and making the overnight leg more comfortable.
7 Fly during the day
Some people seem to be able to sleep on planes and I suppose, for them, a night flight is a boon. For most of us it is something to be avoided.
At least if you fly during the day you are likely to be able to go to bed relatively soon after completing your journey and you don't actively lose sleep while flying.
Most long-haul routes won't offer you much flexibility unless you break the journey, and you may be forced to endure at least one leg overnight.
On a few routes, to the east coast of the United States for example, it is possible to fly out and back during daylight.
8 Break the journey
For any flight of more than about 12 hours, you are likely to have to change planes during the journey or disembark while the aircraft refuels. You can usually break the journey at no extra cost. If you have time, this is a chance to get some sleep and make the journey more bearable. It can also be an opportunity for some sightseeing.
Key stopover destinations are also fascinating cultural centres -- Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong -- or for a beach break, try Los Angeles, Tahiti, Hawaii or Miami.
If you do arrange a break in the journey, and you are booking through a travel agent, try to negotiate the hotel booking at the same time -- you will almost certainly save money by including it in the air fare.
9 Beat jet lag
People have pet schemes for avoiding jet lag. I've come to the conclusion that the only reliable ones are not drinking alcohol and not going to bed until mid-evening on arrival.
10 Stay at the airport
One thing that is unlikely to improve your journey is having to leave home in the middle of the night to catch an early-morning flight. Start off with a full night's sleep by booking an airport hotel the night before departure.