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How to Be Comfortable While Flying (Without Being a Total Slob)

Rule number one is never wear sweatpants

Air travel is innocent of most of the things people complain about.

It’s not dangerous (it’s safer than practically any other form of transportation, including walking). It’s not expensive (airfares are about as cheap now as they’ve been in the history of aviation). And it’s not uncomfortable, generally.

It is, however, very different from terrestrial travel, and after spending the last few years taking an average of about 50 flights a year in everything from the Q400s Porter uses to the gargantuan A380s with their showers and horseshoe bars, I’ve decided its probably a bit more like space travel than most of us give it credit for.

And yet, for the most part, we figure we can get out of our cars and walk onto the plane without making any adjustments before spending the next few hours in a space designed to transport you cheaply and safely at altitudes and speeds we managed to achieve as a species just about a century ago – in other words, one long human lifetime.

If we are to fly comfortably, adjustments need to be made – but they’re not major, they’re mostly pretty easy, and none of them requires you to lower your standards of dignity or sartorial taste.

It’s dry up there

Humidity in the average plane cabin is 20%, but about 30% in the typical home. That may not sound like much of a difference, but for a little context, the average humidity of the Sahara Desert is 25%. When Lufthansa decided to overhaul its first-class cabins a few years ago, one of their top priorities was figuring out a way to increase the humidity. They spent millions to raise the moisture by a few percentage points, and charge passengers as much as 10 times economy fares for a seat within this relatively humid zone.

It makes a difference – or at least some people insist. Contrary to popular belief, however, the World Health Organization says the “available evidence has not shown low humidity to cause internal dehydration.” So you don’t have to drink more than you usually would. If you wear contact lenses, though, always take them out when you fly, and wear glasses, and bring a saline nasal spray to moisten nasal passages. Add a little moisturizer and lip balm, and you’ll be as comfortable as the German executives up in first class.

What to wear

As Karl Lagerfeld has famously said, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life and you bought some sweatpants.” Don’t be defeated by flying; resist the sweatpants urge. Any pant or skirt that’s not skin tight (and not jeans, which are not meant for sitting) are perfectly fine. If you’re a man, there’s also the increasingly popular travel jacket, unlined, usually high-twist wool, easy to move around in, and doesn’t wrinkle.  

Sleeping in the sky

If you’re overnighting, here’s a tip from the front cabin: Bring pyjamas. Change into them when the cabin lights go down, and change back before breakfast. Do it once, and you’ll realize how anything else – including sweatpants -- is the rough equivalent of falling asleep fully clothed on your couch. You can splash some water on yourself in the bathroom when you’re changing back into your unslept-in clothes, and you’ll feel like it’s a new day, instead of Travel Day, Part Deux.


Also: Don't forget your sleep mask!

What about those neck-brace things?

They’re ridiculous. Get a window seat, lean your head against the side of the cabin. It’s just as comfy, and 100% less absurd.

Planes are bumpy

Turbulence can be uncomfortable. It’s not dangerous as long as your seat belt is fastened (and your seatbelt is always fastened, right?). The chance of damage to the aircraft are minuscule to the point of impossibility. The chance of hitting an air pocket and getting flung up out of your seat and breaking your neck on the overhead bin, well, they’re higher).

To limit the bumps, choose your seat wisely. Care for a demonstration of where to sit? Take a hot dog, hold it in the middle between two fingers, and bounce it up and down. Notice how the part that bounces least is the middle part between your fingers? The equivalent on a plane is the area over the wings. They’re less affected by turbulence than the front and rear of the aircraft. Booking a seat over the wings does involve at least one tradeoff, however … 

Planes are loud

Whether you’re in a jet or a prop, those things make noise. And if you’re sitting over the wings here the engines are (see above), it’s louder still. So invest in some noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds. Put them on whether you’re plugged into anything or not. I’ve used Shure buds: They’re expensive, but they’re also tiny and brilliant. [Or try Aurisonics Rockets, pictured below. While even pricier than the Shures, these made-in-Nashville buds sound amazing, and are virtually indestructible as well as waterproof. – ed.]

Adam McDowell / Billy

Earbuds that drown out engine noise, but won't die if you drop them in your tomato juice

Free those dogs – but keep them on the leash

Your feet swell in flight, the result not of altitude but of sitting down and not moving for longer than you usually would. You’ll hear people complaining about people who take their shoes off on the plane.

And if you’re just airing your stinky stocking feet in front of everyone – or heaven forbid, hanging them over the edge of your seat or propping them up on the eat in front of you – then yes, those people complaining have a point.

But do you know what every business- and first-class amenity kit comes with? Slipper socks. Buy a pair for yourself (they’re sometimes called hospital socks), take off your shoes and socks, and put these on.


You could also try these Japanese slippers from Rikumo

Published Wednesday, February 8th 2017

Header image credit: Shutterstock



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