Monday, April 2, 2018

Surviving an International Flight (without kids)


This morning I’m boarding a fourteen hour flight to America.  It's a trip we made twice last year and will probably make at least one other time before we bid adieu to 2018. To me, flying is not something that gets easier with practice. I know life is supposed to be about the journey, not just the destination, but travelling by plane is convenient but challenging. And no, I'm not even talking about how to make a long journey with kids...

When you look up survival tips for long haul flights, it's inevitably advice for how to survive 10+ hours locked in a metal tube with a baby or toddler. My kids are now 17 and nearly 15, and have been flying internationally since they were ten weeks old. I can't really offer travel advice for how we survived it other than to say that like me, one day your kids will be teenagers who actually fly internationally on their own (it's weird the first time) and you'll have (conveniently perhaps) forgotten the anxiety and dread you once carried while boarding a plane with a baby tucked in your arms.

Instead I want to share with you six items I use (and how I use them) to survive the better part of a twenty-four hour period in the air as a young-at-heart-but-not-in-body woman who loves adventure but doesn't love all the rough parts of actually being in the air on a long haul international flight.

1. Cheap slippers/compression socks. A lifetime ago when our kids were babies and toddlers we were on an expat package which would fly us business class if the flight was over six hours. While that hasn't happened in a long time (and I argue it would be most helpful now, when my kids are over 6 feet tall), the thing I loved most about business class after the glorious extra space is that it provided us with a pair of comfy socks and slippers. I always take my shoes off during a flight, but for the inevitable swelling feet and the lack of space to bend over and take shoes off/put shoes on every time I get up for a stroll or to use the washroom, it feels like a stupid thing to do. After all, it is pretty gross to walk around a plane and it's bathrooms in just socks. Have you ever been in a plane bathroom ten hours into a sixteen hour flight? The floor is like a swamp of questionable fluids. I get anxiety just thinking about what I might be standing in. So while I would never stand in there in my socks, standing in there in my shoes feels just as bad (it's also why we don't wear shoes in the house. But that's a story for another day). Cue the business class slipper idea!

Toy Story Hotel slippers: cute but
not sturdy enough for more than
a few wears. Perfect for the plane!
Whenever I stay at a hotel that provides slippers (and this is a 100% given in Asia) I pop them right into my suitcase. It drives my hubby a bit crazy, but less crazy than the bathrooms in coach after a dozen hours. When I fly, I put one pair in my carry on, and one pair in the suitcase. As soon as we board, I take off my shoes and pull out the hotel slippers. Then, if I need to get up, I can just slide my feet into the slippers and keep a protective barrier between me and the creature from the black lagoon. As we begin the descent, I make one last run to the loo and then put my shoes back on. The slippers (and all the gross germies they came into contact with) stay behind, and the extra pair in my luggage gets used for the return flight.

On our last flight from America to Hong Kong we were hanging out in the Chicago airport for six hours. I strolled past one of the many shops and picked up a pair of compression socks on a whim, mostly to use up the few remaining US dollars in my wallet. The older I get, the more my feet and ankles swell while in the air. It generally takes a few painful days for the swelling to go down once I arrive at my destination. I do my best to frequently get up and move (aisle seat is my BFF) and do some in flight exercises to keep from getting too stiff, but the very real threat of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) is something I worry about more and more as I age and find myself flying more frequently. I wasn't expecting much from the stockings, but I was impressed with the difference. The sixteen hours of flight time between Chicago and Hong Kong is brutal, but my feet and ankles didn't swell the way they did on the flight there without the stockings. I'll definitely be using them again. I don't have the packaging so can't tell you what brand I own, but here is a pack of three for under $15 USD which comes in two sizes for men or women.

2. Nasal Spray While living in Shanghai, I developed some serious sinus issues. Every time I got even mildly sick, I'd end up with a sinus infection that would. not. quit. In the end, it turns out I have a pretty severe deviated septum and surgery was recommended. Having already had surgery once (unrelated) in China and having watched my husband go through deviated septum repair in China (it was an absolute nightmare), I begged for another option. I promised to be the most compliant patient ever if there was anything I could do to not need surgery.

The ENT doctor recommended this particular nasal spray. It really was a pivot point in my health. I was accustomed to using a saline nasal spray when I fly since airplane environments are so dry and 100% of the time I fly I end up sick, but this one was a life changer. It also contains xylitol, which keeps bacteria from settling in my nasal passages. When I fly, everything in my head swells. My face hurts. My ears hurt. My nose gets completely blocked, leaving me unable to comfortably sleep with my mouth hanging wide open. But with this nasal spray, everything stays calm. I can breathe, drug free. I spray it once in each nostril, wait a moment, gently blow my nose, and then appreciate the gift of a deep breath! I can't say it's the only thing contributing, but since I started using it roughly every hour or two on flights, I've not been sick as a result of flying. Even when I was sitting next to a lady who coughed into her arm on my side the entire flight.

From the Xlear website: "Regular use of xylitol nasal spray can be very beneficial. When the bacteria and contaminants cling to the mucous membrane inside your nasal passages, you are at risk for infectious disease or illness. Since it works as a cleanser and humectant, coating your nasal passages regularly with xylitol reduces the ability for any invaders to get comfortable in your airways. Research has shown that those who regularly use saline nasal spray like Xlear are at a significantly lower risk for respiratory infections."

*Please note, I'm not a doctor and do recommend that you chat with your own ENT or physician about whether this product is good for you. 

3. Foot Hammock. I have two herniated discs in my lower back. The very worst thing I can do for this type of injury is spend hours sitting in a chair with my feet hanging straight down. Even sitting at my computer desk in the comfiest office chair I've ever owned with my feet planted on the floor in front of me isn't great, let alone in an environment where there just isn't space to occasionally lay down flat on the floor and stretch out/relax my spine. At home I have a little step stool/foot rest that is shoved under my desk, allowing me to keep my legs from dangling and my lower back from screaming at me.

A few years ago I wondered if I could find an even smaller one to bring on a plane with me. Instead, a Google search led me to something even better: an adjustable foot hammock that attaches to my tray table which lets me put my feet up or stretch out my legs without putting all the pressure on my back. I order this exact model from Amazon and used it on my next international flight. It was amazing. And unlike a footstool, it takes up no space when the person next to me wants to get up. It's super lightweight and easy to fit in my carry on. And if I want to try and stretch out/curl up sorta-kinda on my side, it provides great support to keep me from sliding out of the seat, and it's soft but not slick, so my feet/legs stay in place instead of sliding through. I will never fly long haul in coach without this! And at under $10 US dollars, it's far less expensive than upgrading to business class!

4. Sleeping Pillow. Oh the drama involved with a sleeping pillow! Of the four members of my family, we have four completely different (strongly held) opinions. My husband hates all of them, and it's painful to watch him try to sleep, head falling forward, and then jerking back up. My youngest likes the plane pillows, which he uses to prop himself up against the plane's wall in the window seat. My oldest (and tallest of all of us) likes to stack a couple plane pillows on the tray table, top them with a horse-shoe shaped pillow, and then bend over with his face in the pile for hours on end. Me? I most often have used the horse-shoe shaped pillow, but with the opening toward my back so I can just rest my chin on it, crossing my arms in front of me, and try to doze. I don't sleep under the best of circumstances (lifelong insomniac here, can't even sleep in my comfy bed half the time) and a plane is never the best of circumstances. Especially when you're a nervous flyer, like I am.

As I strolled through the Chicago airport on my last flight to America, I came across the Cloudz EZ-Inflate Sleeper in one of the shops. Knowing we had sixteen hours in the air made me go ahead and spend the twenty bucks to try it out. Even if it wasn't great for me, surely it would work for someone else in the family. Turns out, it was the best for me! I'm 5'6" tall, and found that it was high enough to rest my face on without making my back uncomfortable. For my oldest son, he felt it was too high for his comfort, even though it's the position he most prefers on a plane. For my youngest, he thought it was okay, but was too busy playing games on his Nintendo Switch to be interested in sleeping (until an hour before we landed and getting him to wake up to de-plane was a nightmare!). My husband was seated across the aisle from me, behind a very large passenger who kept his seat reclined the entire time, tossing and turning and getting up and down frequently. With the seat reclined, it left less space for him to use this, and because the guy in front of him was moving so much, it moved the Sleeper enough to keep my husband wide awake. He also felt it was too high for him to get comfortable.

When I took it back from him, I noticed that controlling the inflation level could make it taller or shorter, adding to my comfort. I loved being able to put my arms through the pillow, it made for a comfy, cozy experience and I did indeed fall asleep for several hours quite comfortably. It was also quite comfortable to use while I reclined my own seat, arms through hugging it, with my face against it. Kinda like sleeping with a large teddy bear. It blows up and deflates very quickly, and has a removable, washable cover for where your face goes. If you're looking for a pillow solution for flying internationally in coach, I certainly recommend trying this out. Especially if, like us, you frequently end up on red eye flights and expect to hit the ground running in your destination and really do need to catch some Zzz's while flying the friendly skies!

5. Antibacterial Wipes, Tissues, Plastic Baggies. I've been flying internationally for three decades, and until recently, I'd inevitably always get sick after a long flight. In the last couple of years I made a few simple changes which had big impact. First, I stocked up on antibacterial wipes. I'm partial to Wet Ones because they don't bug my skin and they have a nice texture to scrub with, as well as the best seal on the package (I've tried out lots of brands). I keep them right in my hand with my boarding pass and passport, and as soon as I stow my carry on, I go germ busting on everything within arm's length. I wipe down the seat if it's not cloth, and scrub the armrests, making sure to give the button you press to recline your seat extra attention. I wipe down the back of the seat in front of me, including the underside of the tray, the edge of the seat pocket, the screen, and any buttons. I pull down the tray table and scrub away. I reach up and wipe the air vent, the light button, and the call button. And then I look at the wipe I've been using, and try not to throw up over the fact that it's no longer white, but streaked with grey and brown. I pull out a second wipe (or third if I've used more than one) and clean my hands. Then I toss them both into a little baggy I stash in the seat back or into a flight attendant's care if they happen to be walking past.

You might think that these areas get cleaned between flights, but I know too many people in the airline industry who tell me otherwise, and there's been many a flight that we've watched pull in, see the passengers exit, and then begin boarding within 30 minutes. I often find wrappers and used tissue in the seat pocket. I know there's no way someone is cleaning up after the last person who sat in my seat. And airlines aren't actually "required" to deep clean all that often (no joke, many only deep clean annually!). Don't believe me? Check this out. Or this.

I keep my packet of antibacterial wipes nearby throughout the flight, and also a packet of tissues. If I get up to use to the washroom, I do so with tissue in hand to open the door and lock it behind me. I use another one to flush the toilet, and to unlock and open the door back up. I wash my hands very thoroughly and then use another wipe when I get back to my seat. I promise you I am no germaphobe. I have friends who are. I don't even come close. But we fly internationally between 4-6 times per year, and when you think about how every single flight was ending with me paying for a doctor's visit + medicines (sometimes in countries where I have no health insurance which is a pricey "souvenir") and downtime in bed or just being plain miserable instead of enjoying a vacation or getting back to real life, these small investments (along with using that nasal spray above) paid huge dividends. And the baggies? Perfect for accumulating rubbish and then passing over to a flight attendant. I, for one, have never left a used tissue in the seat pocket! You're welcome.



6. Pain Relief Patches. These make me feel like I'm entering little old lady territory, but they are such a lifesaver! I mentioned that I have a back injury, but I also find that as I age, I have little aches and pains which are exacerbated and amplified when I fly. My shoulders get tense, my neck aches, my lower back cramps up... you get it. None of this helps when you have to sit in a small chair for over ten hours. I could take a pain relief pill, but as a nervous flier, I really don't like to put anything in me that might upset my stomach. It's no fun.

These little patches from Salonpas work for eight hours to bring pain relief exactly where you need it. Right before we board the plane I make a quick trip to the washroom and stick a couple on my lower back where I pretty much always have pain. And then after the first meal I assess where in my body I'm carrying tension, and I'll go stick a couple more on those spots if necessary before the tension becomes pain. It's amazing how well it keeps my muscles from seizing up! The patches contain camphor, menthol, and methyl salicylate, and they provide a nice warm feeling where you put them.

And a bonus tip: If you're on vacation and you're doing a ton of walking and your feet start hurting, sticking one of these to the soles of your feet can make a big difference in keeping you from missing out on any fun!

I do absolutely recommend you try them out a couple of times before you jump on a plane to make sure you don't have a reaction! Hours from an airport in mid-flight is not a great place to have a sudden allergic reaction (I speak from experience when I accidentally ingested just a bite of a shrimp cracker and ended up itching for hours).

*Again, I'm not a doctor! Please read the packaging carefully to make sure this is safe for you to use, and if you have any questions or concerns, check with your medical professional!

Those are my top ways to survive a flight. I'm sure you've heard that you need to hydrate like crazy. Every time they offer water, I'll take it. I also regularly get up and walk back to the galley and ask for more. I drink enough that I have to get up to use the toilet often, which also helps to keep me moving, reducing swelling in my feet and legs and helping to relieve general stiffness!

What is your top tip for surviving a long flight? I want to know!

Please note: a few products I've linked to may be affiliate links, meaning I might earn a small commission at no cost to you if you choose to buy. All the opinions and recommendations are my own, no one is paying me to share them. 

1 comment:

  1. Compression socks were a huge help when I visited you in Shanghai. But I think I should have put them on from the very beginning. I did on the trip home and it was much better. I also use the horseshoe pillow with the snap in the back. Helped keep my head from bobbing around. And the hand wipes! The other thing I did was pack a toothbrush and deodorant in my bag. That just helped me to feel less gross after the long flight. Oh, and I had a pashmina scarf that was big enough to use as a blanket. It was just the right size and helped me sleep, with my eye mask and white-noise app.

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