May 23, 2012 at 8:32 AM ET
If you don't take long-haul flights very often, everything about the experience can seem intimidating -- the interminable hours aloft, the sketchy choice of seats, choosing an airline you know nothing about, wondering if and how well you will be fed, dealing with boredom, and more. And then there is of course pricing, which can put you back on your heels within seconds of clicking "Search for Flights."
All told, a long-haul flight can be the most physically and financially demanding component of travel to faraway places. To help you keep long-haul flying from becoming long-suffering, here are nine tips to consider before booking your next big international flight.
1. Do not judge by price alone.
Once you get into the stratosphere of long-haul flight pricing, the numbers involved start to become a little scary -- there aren't many three-figure long-haul price quotes out there, and the sticker shock can sting.
However, when you consider a long-haul flight as a by-the-hour experience, a higher cost on a decent flight on a comfortable aircraft with a stellar entertainment system and good food may start to seem fairly attractive when compared to a hellish flight on a cramped aircraft with overhead screens showing bad movies.
So after reviewing the recommendations below, take stock of your options carefully when weighing price vs. amenities; if you are going to be on a plane for a total of 30 hours coming and going, and it costs an extra $150 to get a better flight on a better airline, ask yourself if you would pay $5/hour for a much better seat, with better food, better movies and better service.
2. Watch out for gnarly connections.
Sometimes you simply can't get from one point to another on a single lengthy flight, so you will have to choose a connecting flight. On long-haul travel in particular, where you will in many cases make your connection on foreign soil, transferring to another flight can be an arduous endeavor. Frequently it can involve clearing customs, picking up luggage, moving to a different terminal, rechecking bags, clearing security again, etc. -- this can sometimes take hours.
When booking your travel, you may sometimes see a connection that the airlines think is reasonable -- but often these decisions are made based on arbitrary, computer-imposed timeframes, and simply are not possible. A connection may be "legal," but that doesn't mean you can make it happen, or even come close.
For example, I recently was shown a 50-minute connection on a flight coming from Mexico, connecting to another airport in California. This connection gave me 55 minutes to get off the plane, collect my bags, clear customs, recheck my bags, go through U.S. security and get to my gate. Given that you are really required to be at your gate 20 minutes minimum before takeoff, in truth we had about a half-hour to do everything -- that is, if our first flight arrived and unloaded on time.
Another connection I was recently offered by an online system turned out to require an overnight stay in Germany -- so even discounting the hassle, we would have had to pay for a hotel room to boot. The flight was priced nicely, sure -- but add 100 euros to the airfare, and it didn't look so great any longer.
Hipmunk.com is a useful tool to check out for its "Agony Index," which ranks flights using a combination of price, duration and number of connections. Flights are presented graphically as multi-colored horizontal bars, which allow you easily to see the length of layovers and flight segments.
3. Choose your airline wisely.
Not all airlines are created equal; in fact, long-haul travel may be where you find the greatest differentiation between airlines. You will want to concern yourself mainly with three things:
For food, almost all long-haul flights include a sensible frequency of meals. If you are a picky eater, however, you will want to do some research on the meal offerings of your various airline options. Almost all airlines have this information on their Web sites -- or check out AirlineMeals.net, which has thousands of pictures from different meals on countless airlines.
On your own, you will want to plan to pack some food that you would eat during a normal day at home or work -- so if you eat a handful of gorp every morning to get you through to lunch, plan on having some when you fly.
After making sure you will more or less like the food, you will want to know how you are going to fill the hours on the plane, which will pass more slowly than you think. In particular, unless you have a massively tricked-out tablet going, a decent in-flight entertainment system is absolutely critical. Start by checking out our best airlines for in-flight entertainment, and try to get on one of those.
In the absence of one of these top five, I suggest one important amenity: go for seatback screens instead of overhead screens. Seatback screens offer two advantages:
SeatGuru and other seating chart sites can really help here as well, as they include information not only about seat locations, sizes and the like, but also whether the aircraft has seatback or overhead screens.
For comfort, read on.
4. Choose your aircraft wisely.
Before you purchase a long-haul ticket, you will want to research what type of aircraft your airline options are likely to fly on the route, and how they have configured the aircraft, both with respect to the seating setup, and other important factors like seatback screens vs. overhead screens. This information will come in handy not only when choosing your seats immediately after your purchase, but in choosing between competing airlines on the same route.
For example, a plane with a 3 - 3 configuration is typically more grueling than some other setups, such as a 3 - 5 - 3 configuration, mainly because the presence of only one aisle will have you competing for space not only with other passengers, but especially with flight staff as they perform drink and meal services. These days passengers are expected to stay seated during these times -- and on a long flight, this can be tough, not to mention unhealthy.
Going back to SeatGuru, there are a few other seat considerations to take into account. Having a seat that reclines, and does not have foot area obstructions, and does not have a ton of foot traffic, and has a window, etc. etc., will make a huge difference over the course of 15 hours as opposed to four or five. Make sure your aircraft and your specific seats do not show any yellow or red flags.
5. Do absolutely anything you can to get an upgrade.
As I have written previously, the only flight I was ever sorry to see end was a long-haul flight on which I had used miles to upgrade to first class. I had decompressed to an extent that I had not felt since I was a school kid on vacation; it was an odd sensation.
You will want to check for upgrades before, during and after you book your flight; see First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade for some ideas.
6. Check for loyalty program implications.
If you are going to endure 14 hours in the air both coming and going on a long trip, you might as well get some frequent flier benefit from the experience. To this end, you may want to choose an airline with which you already have a membership, or at least one that's in the same alliance as the airline you belong to.
For example, Emirates is an extremely well-regarded airline (it made our list of the world's best), but does not belong to any of the three global alliances -- so unless you have reason to fly Emirates again and regularly, the miles probably may not do you any good for future trips.
7. Choose your travel clothing carefully.
Most people choose comfortable clothes when flying, but it isn't uncommon to see men in stiff business suits and women in high heels wobbling onto planes. When it comes to a long-haul flight, these choices become critical when you remember that you will likely want to do the following:
I covered this a bit in 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight, which is definitely worth a look once you have booked your trip.
8. Trick out your tablet.
With tablets becoming ever more popular, especially among folks who travel quite a bit and are likely to take long-haul flights, this needs mentioning here. In this case, I don't mean making sure your apps are up to date and organizing your icon and folder system -- no, this is a much more serious task.
If you are going to rely on a tablet to get you through two 17-hour flights coming and going, you are going to need new, fresh and absolutely compelling stuff on your tablet to get you through. We are talking at least a couple of movies -- and these should be bucket-list movies that will absolutely absorb you, not just whatever you have sitting around in your movie queue. Then add at least a couple of books in digital format, of different genres, so if you tire of a long novel, you can go read about indigenous local plants to consider for your garden.
So maybe you load up one fiction book -- one that you know you are going to like -- and then one non-fiction, utilitarian book focusing on a subject in which you have a longtime, serious interest (business or hobby titles, an oral recording history of the Beatles, that kind of thing).
9. Prep for a holiday.
As I suggest above, a long-haul flight in first class is like a vacation day. I am not kidding. And unless you indulge in in-flight Internet access, it might be the only true day off you get all year. Even if you don't end up in the front of the plane, it is still a full day away from phones, e-mail, driving around, lawn-mowing, etc. So when you are preparing for a long-haul flight, weigh all your options as if you were choosing your only day off all year -- and then prepare yourself to take that full day off, complete with favorite clothes, favorite books and movies, a nap, good snacks, all of it.
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