unsolicited advice, or how to survive 20 hours in an airplane

Posted by on January 11, 2012 in other things | 9 comments

I think I might have mentioned before that I am pretty free with the unsolicited advice. It's the oldest child in me, I'm just a little bossy and have to tell people what I think they should do. Hardly anyone listens, of course, but I don't let that little inconvenience stop me. 

As you may have imagined, getting from California to Africa and back again involved quite a lot of time in airplanes (two ten-hour flights to get there and a sixteen hour flight and a five hour flight to get home). I was ridiculously concerned about my own comfort, and prepared accordingly. I have to say, I did pretty well and learned a few things too. I thought I'd pass on a few tips so you can be prepared for your next transatlantic flight (or even just a little jaunt across the country). This is for us economy class travelers, you first-class passengers can just move along and enjoy your fold-out beds and fine china and endless leg room. Whatever. 

Okay, now you know you get two carry on bags. Remember that you have to drag those things all over the airport and try not to over do it. I have your standard little black roller suitcase and then I also carry a big purse. I recently found the messenger bag pictured here at TJMaxx (it's from Fossil, but seems to be discontinued), and I absolutely love it. It's big, but not too big, and has tons of pockets to keep everything organized. It also has an adjustable strap, so I can shorten it and wear it over my shoulder or lengthen it and wear it across my body. Also, it's pretty cute. 

image from www.flickr.com
The black roller bag is going to go in the overhead bin, so I use it for the stuff I want to have in case my checked bag gets lost, but not necessarily anything I'll need to access during the flight. Pulling your bag down is a hassle and will only annoy the passengers around you. I usually put all my camera stuff in there, the body and lenses wrapped in a change of clothes and some pajamas to protect them. I'll also have some basic toiletries in a ziploc bag. My messenger bag can then go under the seat in front of me, so I have easy access to it throughout the flight. It took about half the space, so I could still slide my feet under there now and then when I needed to stretch a little. 

So what should you bring? I made a handy numbered list for you. Click the photo to view it large on flickr.

image from www.flickr.com01. Don't forget your passport! That would just ruin your whole trip. Place it in a secure pocket inside your bag so that you can also access easily but it also stays safe.

02. Phone. A smartphone is nice, it can also provide entertainment. Be sure to add some good music, a favorite movie or TV show, maybe an audiobook or download some podcasts, and some good games (I am addicted to Plants vs. Zombies and Card Shark is an excellent solataire app). 

03. Hand lotion. I would stick with a light scent so as not to annoy other passengers. I was absolutely parched on my flights and I hate having dry hands. My neighbor on one of my flights just lit up when she saw me pull that out of my bag, she was feeling like a raisin too. Make sure you have a full tube so you can share!

04. Toothbrush and tooth paste. I'm not vain enough to worry about touching up my make up while flying, but it's so nice to be able to freshen up your mouth a little. 

05. Writing implements. Just in case! I had a book of crossword puzzles and I also like to keep notes on my knitting patterns while I work. Plus, you have to fill out customs forms on your way into the U.S.

06. Folder with travel documents and knitting patterns. I can be a bit anal, I like to keep my papers neat.

07. Socks. I wore the ballet flats pictured in the first photo. They're nice for traveling because they're loose, so you'll have lots of room if your feet swell up (as mine did on the second leg of my flight to Johannesberg, more on that in a minute). Also, they're easy to take off and put on. The weather in both my departure and arrival destinations was very nice, but my feet got so cold on the plane, it was nice to have my wool socks handy.

08. Wallet. Take out any non-essentials before your trip, just in case! You don't want to have to worry about credit cards or coupons that you won't be using while you're away. 

09. Ibuprofen/prescriptions/other medications. Keep them nearby, just in case! I had a pinched muscle in my neck, but I just took some ibuprofen and it didn't bother me the whole flight.

10. Tissues. The cold air on the plane might give you a runny nose.

11. Wipes. Handy for spills or just freshening up a bit. 

12. Headphones. For your iPod or to plug right into the in-flight entertainment. They do give you headphones on international flights (there was a charge on the domestic flight I took), but they're kind of crappy.

13. Snacks and chewing gum. Let's face it, airline food is never good. I'm still not eating grains, and I was able to get gluten-free meals on one leg of my trip. Of course that just meant that they gave me rice cakes with everything. I don't know what the point of a rice cake is. One of the meals on another flight was pizza with a pasta salad on the side. I was glad I had some beef jerky (I ordered from here, it was the best I've ever had, and doesn't have any weird ingredients), dried fruit, Larabars, dark chocolate and almond butter in my bag. I didn't really eat a lot of it on the flight, but it came in handy other times during the two weeks of me trip too. 

14. Nook Color and a regular book (just in case I ran out of power). eReaders are fantastic for travel, because you can carry so many books with you. My Nook is nice because I can read it in a dark plane. 

15. Knitting notions. Make sure you take out your scissors! I had a little thread cutter that made it through security just fine. 

16. A knitting project (or two). Keep it in its own bag so it doesn't get tangled up with everything else.

17. Cosmetics bag. I just have some lip balm, nail clippers and a small nail file in here. I was glad I did, since I broke a nail on my flight and it was snagging on everything. Again, dry air in the airplane means your lips will get dried out, my Kiehls lip balm was a life-saver. 

18. Wrap. I was so glad I had my Lady Eleanor wrap with me. It doubled as a pillow, a blanket, a shawl, padding for my armrest. I got it out when I sat down in my seat and used it the whole time. A pashmina or any kind of big scarf would work too. 

Not pictured: Chargers! Cell phone, iPad, eReader, whatever you have, keep them in your carry on. If you have a layover you can top off your devices. I think some airplanes even have outlets, so you can charge in-flight. I didn't see any on my flight, but I'm sure they'll become more common. 

Three more pieces of advice: 

Number one. Dress in comfortable layers. I wore an undershirt, t-shirt, and lightweight knit jacket with my most comfortable jeans. That way you can easily adjust to changing temperatures. I find that planes are often hot when you first get on, but then it gets cold. The old lady in me is not a fan of sweats and pajamas worn in public, but I suppose a nice sweat suit on a long flight could be acceptable. And like I mentioned before, my ballet flats were the perfect shoes. I took them off not long after take off and just wore my socks the whole flight.

Number two. Get an aisle seat if you can and get up and move as much as possible. On my way to Africa I was fine on the first ten hour flight, but the second ten hours I felt pretty much trapped in my window seat by sleeping neighbors and only really got up and walked around once. The last few hours my ankles got really, really swollen and uncomfortable. I had cankles! I may be chubby in some places, but I do not have cankles in every day life. It actually took a few days for the swelling to go down completely. On the 16 hour return flight I got up and walked around six or seven times and didn't have any problem at all. I like window seats, but for international flights you're usually flying overnight and so high that there's not much to see, so go for the aisle when you can.

Number three. Drink lots and lots of water. I don't think I had more than one or two sodas or juices, but every time the flight attendants came around with water, I had some. I did actually stay pretty well hydrated, considering, and the more you drink, the more likely you will be to have to get up and use the restroom. So it will keep you moving too. 

So that's it, just a few things to keep in mind for your next long trip. What do you do on a long flight? Any other must-haves that I forgot about? Do share! 


  1. I would add neck pillow. I have an inflatable one.

  2. Yup, neck pillow (I like those micro-bean filled ones), along with sleeping mask and earplugs.
    Adapter for your headphones in case the plane uses those double plugs
    Check the customs rules about what you can bring into the destination country. A packet of chips, or any food or animal product, will net you a $200 instant fine here in New Zealand if you forget to throw it out before you get to that point. Australia has similar strict rules. And after the fine they may or may not work you over with a fine-tooth comb looking for more things you didn’t declare.
    Totally agree on the aisle seat!

  3. This is a really good list, I am going to keep it bookmarked for my next trip. Thanks!

  4. Good point, I should have mentioned that I rolled up my wrap and draped it around my neck too, but a neck pillow would have been much more stable. I think you are probably more of a travel expert than me! 🙂
    Sent from my iPhone

  5. Good points! I don't sleep much when I fly, so I didn't think about the mask and earplugs. And good to know about the fines, I wouldn't have thought about that. It was late when I arrived in Africa, so customs didn't seem to be checking anyone's luggage. I did have a layover in Amsterdam, and bought cheese, and told the passport control person that I had it, and it wasn't a problem. I was also looking at some bulbs, but I did ask if they thought I would have a problem taking them to Africa and then to the US, and the lady in the shop advised against it. 

  6. Wow! This is the best flight advice I’ve ever read! I love your photos and descriptions. Thank you.

  7. I’m surprised your knitting needles didn’t get confiscated. I had to give up crochet hooks at LAX on one flight…dangerous weapons, you know.

  8. How long ago was that? Knitting needles are expressly allowed (
    http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/assistant/editorial_1252.shtm ), although I have had a flight attendant request that I put my knitting away for take off and landing (only once, I thought it was ridiculous). Don't even get me started on the TSA 🙂 A crochet hook is definitely not more dangerous than knitting needles. I've taken wood, metal and plastic needles, and never had a problem with any of them. 

  9. Thanks! Before my trip I was looking around for advice, and didn't find much, so I thought it might be useful information 🙂 

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