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How to Fly Comfortably in Economy Class on Long-Distance International Flights

I have over a decade of experience in international trade. I currently live in China and India where I own a successful business.

Five Things To Do Before Your Flight

Good planning will go a long way in making your flight comfortable and fun. If you plan a few weeks before your flight, you will be happy that you did it. Most of your planning will involve common sense and you will avoid boredom, dehydration, DVT, sleep deprivation and other horrors of red-eye flights.

1. Upgrade

If you are planning a long-haul flight of 10 hours or more, upgrade to business class or premium economy. Nothing beats a flat-bed business class seat offered by modern jets. If there is a budgetary constraint, at least upgrade your outbound flight. If you can use frequent flyer miles towards an upgrade, do so. If miles are not enough, most airlines will allow you to purchase extra miles. Business-class gives you an environment to rest with plenty of personal space.

Business Class

Business Class

Choose your coach seat wisely

Choose your coach seat wisely

2. Choose a Better Seat

If you are unable to fly business class and are stuck with coach/economy class you still need to find a good seat. Remember, all coach seats are not created equal, so choose the right one to travel comfortably in the economy class. Seats in the first row of economy class, seats in the emergency row, and bulkhead seats have better legroom. These seats are always in demand and go very fast so book them early. People travelling with small children are given preference for first row seats, so do frequent flyers with gold or platinum level. Even if you do not belong to these classes, you can still ask your travel agency to put a request to the airline. is a good site that helps in selecting a good seat. Avoid the last row as it could be near a service station or toilets raising serious issues with noise or odor or both.

Six Things That Make Your Coach Class Seat Comfortable

  1. Seat Pitch: It’s a technical term used by airlines; what it really means is the distance between two seats measured seatback-to-seatback. It is normally defined in inches (1 inch = 2.5 cms). The higher the seat pitch, the roomier and more comfortable your seat will be. Ideally, one should look for a seat pitch of 35 inches or more on a long-distance flight.
  2. Seat Width: Most airlines offer 18 inches in coach class, but a wider seat is always welcome. Look for an adjustable armrest, as some seats especially in the emergency exit may not have it.
  3. Most seats now have a nice arched lumbar support that prevents the middle of your body from sagging down. If you still need more support, use an airline blanket.
  4. Although an in-seat video screen is common, wi-fi is still not offered by many airlines. Wi-fi will keep you busy and distracted enough to forget the discomfort of a long flight.
  5. USB charger: Check if the airplane you are flying offers this or not. This will save you the trouble of carrying an extra battery in your check-in luggage.
  6. Adjustable headrest: I am not talking about headrests that just tilt a little forward. Now airlines offer headrests with a small flap that sort of snuggles your head and prevents you from rolling off while trying to sleep.

Most Comfortable Economy Class

Airlines with comfortable economy class seats

AirlineLeg roomSeat WidthEntertainmentLaptop PowerInternet

Singapore Airlines



Personal TV



Thai Airways

32 to 34

17 to 18

Personal TV



Etihad Airways

31.5 to 33

17 to 18

Personal TV



Qatar Airways

32 - 33

17.5 - 18.9

Personal TV



Oman Air



Personal TV




34 to 35

17.3 to 18.3

Personal TV




32 to 35

17.2 to 18.5

Personal TV



Emirate's Economy Class

Emirate's Economy Class

Cathay Pacific Economy Class

Cathay Pacific Economy Class

3. Order Your Meal in Advance

Most airlines serve special meals before serving other passengers. Even if you do not care much about food, you can order in advance to get preferential treatment. Most airlines require at least 24 – 48 hours prior notice. Ordering in advance is also beneficial if you are on some dietary regime for religious or health reasons. Here are some popular meal codes that you should know.

Common Airline Meal Codes

Meal CodeMeaningMeal Description


Asian Vegetarian Meal

Vegetarian meals suitable for Asian tastes


Baby Meal

Meals prepared specifically for infants and babies


Kosher Meal

Meals are Orthodox approved by the Jewish Orthodox Union. Kosher meals are adapted during Passover.


Muslim Meal

Entrees may contain fish or poultry from Halal sources. No pork, lard or alcohol is used in meal preparation.


Diabetic Meal

Suitable for reduced sugar, hyperglycemic, hypoglycemic and carbohydrate-controlled meal requests.


Low Sodium Meal

Passengers wishing to follow a sodium-restricted diet (low salt diet)


Vegetarian Meal

Vegetarian meals do not contain meat, fish or seafood. Nuts may be used as a protein substitute. It can also be used as substitute for MOML

Vegetarian meal is a healthy option for long flight

Vegetarian meal is a healthy option for long flight

Thai Airways dinner in the economy class

Thai Airways dinner in the economy class

4. Plan Your Time

While you are trapped in a small space for the duration of a long-haul flight, take the opportunity to escape the distraction of phone calls, emails, and texts. This could be a good time to read a book or watch a movie that you have always wanted to see. So download it, or carry a physical copy with you.

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5. Eat Less Before a Flight

Nothing will be worse than travelling a long distance, international flight with an upset stomach. Eat light and non-greasy food before taking a red-eye flight. Many people swear by a Jet Lag diet, but I have not used one to recommend.

A well-packed inflight bag will make your travel comfortable.

A well-packed inflight bag will make your travel comfortable.

Pre-Boarding Checklist

Now perhaps your departure date has finally arrived, and you haven't been able to upgrade to business class or even premium economy class. But there is still hope for a good trip if you pack the right stuff and follow these tips.

Avoid crowded check-in at the airport.  Use Internet check-in.

Avoid crowded check-in at the airport. Use Internet check-in.

1. Internet Check-in or Arrive Early

Always arrive early and give yourself some time to complete the check-in process. If possible, do check-in via the internet. Sometimes airlines sell last-minute upgrades at very cheap prices, especially if economy class is overbooked. I got upgraded on a flight from New Delhi to Frankfurt by paying an extra USD $200.

2. Wear Comfortable Clothes Made of Natural Fabric

Dress in layers as cabin temperature may range between 15 to 24 degrees Centigrade. Most airlines make the cabin awfully cold after dinner service, presumably to help people sleep well. So dress comfortably and carry a light long-sleeved jacket. Avoid high-heeled shoes or lace-on shoes. Dr Scholl’s, Ecco, and many others sell shoes for comfort. In my opinion, any simple pair of slip-on leather shoes would be a good choice.

Wear comfortable clothes onboard.

Wear comfortable clothes onboard.

Overhead cabins are small so do not carry large bags.

Overhead cabins are small so do not carry large bags.

3. Light Cabin Luggage

Most airlines allow you to carry a cabin bag weighing no more than 7 kg (15 lbs.) and measuring not more than 120 cm overall. A laptop bag may or may not be included in the overall cabin baggage allowance, so check with the airline before packing your bags as you do not want it to be consigned to the airline cargo hold. Here are some things your cabin bag may include for a comfortable journey.

4. Block Sound

Active noise cancellation headphones are an excellent choice for blocking ambient noise. Beware, you may find many companies selling passive noise cancellation, noise reduction or similar headphones, which are not as effective as active noise cancellation headphones or earbuds. I have been using Bose Quiet Comfort, but you are free to explore more options that meet your budget or taste. At least get a good pair of earplugs.

5. Use Eye Shades

Airlines will turn on the lights frequently for drinks and dinner service. Eyeshades are best if you want to block light and sleep. I prefer one made of cotton or microfibre that helps absorb moisture. Get one that covers your eyes completely and fits comfortably. Most airlines give you eyeshades, but they are never up to the mark.

6. Neck Pillow

A neck pillow is essential to avoid a stiff neck during a long-haul international flight. They are available in two varieties.

An inflatable neck pillow is one that you fill with air when needed and fold away when not in use. It is less comfortable than a non-inflatable neck pillow stuffed with foam or feathers.

Recently buckwheat neck pillows have been in fashion. These oriental pillows are filled with buckwheat hulls, allowing air circulation while keeping you comfortable. They are popular with people who have allergies to feathers or foam.

7. In-flight Socks

Compression socks or DVT socks are a useful aid for passengers who are more likely to suffer Deep Vein Thrombosis, a serious but very rare condition that may result in medical complications. DVT or not, one should get a pair of socks for the flight. It is a lot better than walking barefoot once you have kicked off your shoes.

Compression Socks

8. Pack Frequently Used Items Together

It will help to pack your frequently used items in a small pouch so that you will not have to open your overhead cabin luggage. Another good idea would be to keep some baby wipes handy, to clean your hands and face without getting up from your seat.

9. Stay Fresh

A long-distance international flight can last between 6 and 16 hours. You need to freshen up periodically. You will want a toothbrush, to be used after every major meal, while mints can be used after snacks or drinks. I find mints to be helpful in preventing air sickness when you take during take-off or landing. Baby wipes are great to freshen up once every few hours, or for wiping your hands clean after a meal.

A small bottle of hand sanitiser will go a long way in promoting good hygiene. It should be part of your cabin baggage, especially if you are flying coach class. You can use it as an alternative to washing hands after a meal and save yourself the trouble of jumping over your fellow passengers.

Stay hydrated during a long flight by drinking plenty of water.

Stay hydrated during a long flight by drinking plenty of water.

An airline cabin can get very dry due to constant air conditioning and recycling of air. Lips will be the first area to get dry, so bring your chapstick or lip balm. You may also need a moisturiser to prevent moisture from leaving your body. I have seen a woman use a moisturizing face mask, which is a practical idea, but I would not go that far. You may want to get some eye drops if you are a long-time contact lens wearer or have sensitive eyes. It's best to avoid using contact lenses and switch to prescription lenses during the flight.

It would also be a good idea to bring your own water bottle. Why? You should drink at least one liter of water for every eight hours of flight. A normal international flight has over 300 passengers, and airline serving cups are 150 mL, which would require 2000 servings! There may be 6 to 8 in-flight pursers to serve all of coach class, making a standard two rounds during the meal and one before landing. This schedule requires you to make trips to the service galley for additional water. Buy your own bottle. You can buy one after the security check or bring an empty plastic bottle to be refilled at the water fountain located at the airport.

11. Sleep Aid

It takes some time to adjust to the time difference and jet lag. As a rule of thumb, the time spent in recovery will equal the time spent on the flight itself. Many people consider sleeping pills or OTC travel pills which are some variation of antihistamine, or motion sickness pills, while others swear by melatonin pills. I would say one should consult their regular doctor or GP who will be the most competent person to advise in this matter.


12. Medicine and Food

If you require constant medication for some medical condition (diabetes, hypertension) carry some extra supplies to be on the safe side. Women travellers should carry personal hygiene supplies, although most airlines carry some. I have also obtained medicine for headache and colds from the cabin crew when needed, so I never really carry these, but you can decide for yourself.

Bring your favourite snacks or energy bar. Airlines do carry enough food for all, but keep some food for flight delays or midnight cravings that you might have.

Airline food has high sodium content, so bring some healthy snacks.

Airline food has high sodium content, so bring some healthy snacks.

Once Inside the Airplane: 6 Tips for a Comfortable Flight

Once you are inside the airplane, the first 15 minutes are important. You can help yourself to a comfortable flight even in coach class.

1. Claim Your Extra Pillow and Blanket

Airlines normally give you one pillow and one blanket. If you need more, ask for them as soon as you get onto the flight, as they go really fast. In my opinion, airline blankets are short and thin, and inadequate to cover your whole body. So request an extra, if you need one.

2. Change to a Better Seat

It is okay to change your seat once boarding is completed. All unoccupied seats in the same class can be freely taken. Look out for three empty seats together; if you spot them, claim them quickly so that you can stretch your legs and sleep comfortably. On a relatively empty flight, I ask the flight attendant to help me identify such seats, which they can quickly do by looking at the passenger manifest. If you have pre-ordered a special meal and changed seats, do inform in-flight personnel so that they can serve your special meal at the new seating location.

3. Magazines and Toys

In-flight magazines and newspapers are free but in limited supply when you travel in economy class, so get them early. Most of the airlines also provide a deck of cards for free; this could be useful for honing your solitaire skills. If you are travelling with children they can provide you with small toys and puzzles to keep your little angels entertained.

4. Exercise

Long periods of inactivity can result in stiff joints and pain in the body, so walk up and down the aisle every once in a while. Do in-seat exercises, which most airlines show you at the beginning of the flight. Stretch and flex your limbs, enhancing your blood circulation.

5. Use the Toilet (Before Everyone Else)

In my experience, toilets can be very busy right after the meal; sometimes you may have to wait over 15 minutes to use it, so I make it a point to use the toilet before the meal, when it is available and in relatively stink-free condition. (On a related topic: use perfume lightly, and only if you must, as some of your fellow passengers may be allergic to it.)

6. Say No to Coffee or Alcohol

Avoid guzzling lots of alcohol just because it is free. If you have to drink coffee, save it for the hour before landing. Both alcohol and coffee can seriously dehydrate you and make jet lag worse.

Five Hazards to Avoid In-flight

While you do your best to make your flight comfortable, consider avoiding these annoyances:

  1. Common cold
  2. Jet Lag
  3. Allergy
  4. Middle seat
  5. Rude people

1. Avoid the Common Cold

Most commercial airlines fly at an altitude of 10 km (35000 feet). Humidity is lower than normal by 10% or more at this height, which dries up the mucus in the nose, a natural defense mechanism that fights colds. In addition, you are trapped in a tin can with 400 passengers breathing recycled air full of germs. These conditions may trigger nasty colds. The common cold spreads through contact and the air, so try not to touch many things and use a face mask. I saw many passengers use a face mask during the SARS epidemic, but a face mask is also a good idea if you have lower immunity or are prone to catching colds.

2. Control Your Allergies

Close contact with many people in an enclosed space combined with the stress of flying is enough to trigger allergies in some sensitive passengers. If you are one of these, take anti-allergy pills as prescribed by your doctor.

3. Fight Jet Lag

Long-haul flights generally cover six to eight time zones, which is enough to throw your internal clock haywire. Jet lag can have a lesser impact if you arrive at your destination in the late afternoon or evening. This gives you enough time to sleep and recover. Generally jet lag is more severe when travelling from east to west; a passenger flying from London to New York will suffer more than on a New York-to-London flight. The cabin crew does a good job of turning lights off or on to help sync your body to the destination time zone. So when the lights are off, try to sleep, and get up when they go back on. A well-hydrated body will endure jet lag better, so drinking plenty of water makes sense. Some doctors recommend drinking electrolyte-balanced drinks such as Gatorade or similar sports drinks. There are apps to beat jet lag where you put in your flight number and you get recommendations on sleep and diet: see if they work for you.

Avoid middle seat

Avoid middle seat

4. Avoid the Middle Seat

Most long-haul coach seats are configured as 2+4+2 or 3+3+3 or 3+4+3, which means about one-third of the passengers will have the misfortune of travelling in a middle seat. Try to locate a free window or aisle seat immediately after takeoff, as some seats may be free then. If you are stuck in a middle seat, claim both your armrests early on. Middle-seat passengers have a slight disadvantage in seating that should be compensated for by those with the advantage of a window or aisle seats. This argument is accepted by most fellow travellers, and it is the unwritten etiquette of air travel.

5. Avoid Rude People

A rude fellow passenger can totally ruin your flight experience and rob you of the peace and quiet that you need for long flights. Whenever possible, try to change seats with someone else who is willing to trade places. If that is not an option, deal with the situation with a cool head, and if the matter gets out of hand, report it to in-flight personnel who have more experience in dealing with such situations.

Got bullied by a rude in-flight crew member? This is rare, but in case this happens do one of the following:

  1. Speak to senior flight personnel (they generally cater to business-class passengers) and resolve the issue. If that does not help:
  2. Record your conversation with the rude member. Write a complaint (some airlines offer feedback forms) and hand it to ground staff on arrival, or email it.

Do not lose your cool and let one person spoil your peace of mind.

Airline Meal

© 2014 Kamal Mohta

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