The Consummate Traveler: Long Trip, Bad Seat—How to Survive

November 12, 2019 Updated: November 13, 2019
A young woman poses in a business class seat of the new airplane Airbus A380
Dont we wish all airplane seats were this comfortable? A young woman poses in a business class seat of the new airplane Airbus A380 of the German airline Lufthansa after the test landing at the Franz-Josef-Strauss airport in Munich on June 2, 2010. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

I don’t want to sound spoiled, but years ago I took a flight on a foreign airline in business class, and you would have thought that we were flying in the belly of the plane with the luggage. The seats were so mushy that there was no lower back support. The seat didn’t really recline at all, which is a perk you come to expect.

When my flight attendant approached me with a screwdriver—to literally bolt a television screen to the seat in front of me—and proceeded to run cable wires behind me, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Every time I got up to use the restroom, I was tangled up in a ball of wires. Although the flight was only a bit over nine hours, it was one of the longest trips of my life.

On another adventure, I was also in business class and I was literally in the kitchen with the crew. The noise and movement of the trays and cart were very loud. To top it off, it was a VERY long flight—about 14 hours. The size of the seat was also surprisingly quite small for what I had been used to

A bad seat does not automatically mean being squished in economy class—it can be any class of service really. It just hurts a bit more when you pay for premium service and don’t exactly receive it at the level you were hoping for. Here are a few tips to make your journey a little less painful.

1. Pack ear plugs and an eye mask:

You can tolerate an unsavory “view” or location a bit easier if you aren’t constantly staring at it. When I saw that my seat was next to the kitchen, I immediately put on my earplugs and mask. I really didn’t mind the location so much in the end. For the majority of the flight, things in the kitchen were quiet, but when the activity perked up, I put my headphones on top of my earplugs, listened to soft music and buffered the kitchen sounds at the same time. Worked like a charm.

2. Squeeze and stretch in your seat:

OK, probably the most challenging location in economy class is the old “middle seat” in a row of three. If you are on a long flight, eventually your lack of ability to stretch a leg in an aisle or rest your head on a window will catch up with you. I invite you to try this relaxation exercise—squeeze your entire body (legs, rear, stomach, arms, and face) for a count of ten seconds and then let go. It lets your muscles experience some activity when you don’t have enough space to move around. I try to do this when my neighbors are sleeping so I won’t make them wonder what I’m doing—obviously, I don’t do this during dinner!

3. Try resting on your tray table:
After the 10-hour mark, I find that I get restless and sitting back in the chair starts to get tiresome, especially if you are in economy and can’t recline more than an inch or so. Try opening your tray table and resting forward. Use your travel neck roll, pillow, or even roll up a jacket to create a pillow. Give your neck and back a break by sitting forward for a bit. If you can’t rest on your tray table (some are very delicate and can’t hold your weight), try putting your elbows on your knees and rest your chin in your hands for 10 to 15 minutes.

4. Get up and walk:
If you get a chance, you really should get up to move every few hours or so. This is the best way to stretch. However, airlines prefer that you not linger around out of your seat because unexpected turbulence can hit anytime and you can get hurt.

5. Take off your shoes:
I do notice that some passengers never remove their shoes. Even if you are flying in economy, you should remove your shoes and give your feet a break. Always pack a pair of extra workout socks (I prefer cotton) with you so that you don’t walk on bare feet in the plane. Your feet and legs will swell a bit (some more than others) during a flight, so giving them some space can also improve your comfort level.

6. Golf ball massage:
A former boss of mine showed me this one. Pack a golf ball into your carry-on. When you feel like you want a little massage, place the ball between your back and the seatback. Then move slightly, allowing the ball to apply pressure where you feel stiff. It works best against a hotel wall when you arrive at your destination and want a little help with tight knots that built up during your trip. Go easy though, the ball is quite hard. Wearing a sweater or fleece top makes the pressure less intense.

Nothing beats a full flat-bed seat on long international flights. For most travelers, this is not in the budget and we must find ways to make our flight-time as bearable as possible. So, consider trying one or more of my tips on your next long-haul flight.

As always, I bid happy and comfortable travels to everyone.

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