As airlines reduce space and cut services, flying coach has become an uncomfortable, awkward experience - especially internationally. We fly to Europe 4 to 5 times each year and have a few 'hacks' to make the flight over as comfortable as possible, so you can arrive at your destination rested and ready to explore.
1. Sign up for Global Entry.
Global Entry will mean you also get TSA Precheck, so you'll breeze through while everyone else is stuck in those interminably long security lines. It's reminiscent of flying in the 80's. We're in the airport bar having a mimosa while everyone else is still putting their shoes back on. But the real benefit is when you re-enter the USA. After a long, exhausting flight, you'll avoid standing in the cattle call of disgruntled, smelly passengers waiting for customs checks while you fill out the forms on the computer kiosk and waltz in to the luggage area.
Bonus: You can freshen up in the usually empty bathrooms while you wait for your luggage to show up.
2. Book a ticket with a long layover.
This may seem counterintuitive -- don't you want to spend the least amount of time in the airport? Yes, always. But if you book yourself a ticket that has, for example, an 8 hour layover in Miami, you can leave the airport, rent a car for a few hours, and head to the beach. Get yourself a cafe cubano and stick your toes in the sand before you head out and find lunch. Or take a long layover in Chicago and train into the city in search of the perfect slice. Get back to the airport, breeze through security with your TSA Precheck, have a cocktail, and board your flight ready to rest after a bonus day of vacationing.
Bonus: If your first flight is cancelled or delayed, the long layover gives you an extra cushion so it's less likely you will miss your international leg.
3. Bring your own food
We can hear you now -- "But the free meal is part of the ticket price!" Yes, yes it is. You know what else is free? Airport tap water. Do you want to drink that?
Just do a quick internet search (try 'dirty airplane food') and you'll be convinced. And honestly, have you ever eaten a plane meal and then thought "How can I get this recipe?" Hell no.
When we fly, we try to make our layover as long as possible (see tip #2 above), then find some local, delicious food and bring it with us on the plane for dinner. Other passengers always toss us jealous glances when they see us unwrapping a Philly cheesesteak while they peel the plastic off their super-boiled "chicken". (Note: always bring a travel pack of bleach wipes and wipe your tray table, screen, and armrests down as soon as you sit down. You can't believe some of the gross things people do on a flight. You definitely do not want to eat off those unclean surfaces.)
Even if there's not a chance to bring foodstuffs from some choice local places, we think a pizza or sandwich from an airport restaurant is preferable to whatever they're cooking up on the plane's galley right next to the lavatory.
Bonus: You can eat anytime you want, you don't need to wait for them to start the meal service. And you still get the free airline wine, for what that's worth.
4. Don't check a bag on the flight over
Flying internationally means you get to check a bag for free. But it doesn't mean that the airline won't lose your bag. You can buy shampoo, soap, conditioner, and toothpaste overseas, and that also gives you a chance to try something new and different. If the airline loses your bag they'll bring it to you eventually (if they ever find it), but in the meantime you'll have nothing with you, plus you'll lose valuable vacation time filling out paperwork for your lost bag. Packing light is often the difference between a relaxing trip and an frustrating slog heaving heavy bags through a train station.
Bonus: You will be out of the airport and in your car exploring while the other people from your flight are still waiting for their luggage. You can fill your lightly packed bags with gifts to bring home and check them - once you're at home, it's not as big a deal if your bag is delayed
5. Bring a lightweight blanket
Those bulky neck pillows are comfortable, but they only serve one purpose, so you end up having to schlep that pillow around for your entire trip. We have a beautiful, small knit blanket that a friend made for us (but any smallish blanket will do) that we pack at the top of one of the bags. We use it on the plane, then use the airline blankets and pillows to stuff in empty spaces around us to create a semi-soft space that is easier to sleep in. It's also a good idea to overdress for the flight -- think sweater and jacket -- so you can peel one off and use as an extra pillow. This also helps lighten your bags.
Bonus: Your travel blanket can come in handy on trains or in the car if you're chilly, making it useful for more than just the flight.
6. Bring your own headphones
The airline will usually offer you free earphones, but do you really think they have someone cleaning those before each use? If you wouldn't eat a lollipop you found on the sidewalk, you probably don't want to introduce yourself to used earphones either. Some airlines use disposables, but some reuse them. You will also want to pack a pair of foam earplugs -- you can peacefully sleep and skip every detail of the loud talkers' conversation behind you. You should pack a charger for your phone or devices as many planes now offer a charging station at the seat, even in coach.
Bonus: The sound you'll get via your own headphones is probably better than the free airline set anyway.
7. Bring a few comfort items
You can vastly improve your experience by bringing a few travel-size items that you can get through security without checking a bag. A small bottle or travel packet of lotion will help you keep your hands and face from getting too dry in the low humidity environment. Similarly, eyedrops are a good idea. Bring a bottle of water so you can have a drink whenever you like (rather than waiting for the drink service). A travel toothbrush is a welcome friend when you arrive at your destination - many come with a single-use amount of toothpaste. A soft, warm pair of socks is an easy way to add a little extra comfort - but if you decide to take your shoes off, please, PLEASE, don't stick your feet in other passenger's personal space (e.g. headrest, armrest, aisle) -- you would be amazed at how many people do this.
And speaking of which, again, bring a little baggie with a few sanitary wipes, and wipe down your area upon taking your seat. This will minimize your exposure to god knows what filth might be there. (See also #3 and #6 above - we're not "germophobes", but we've seen some disturbing things on occasion.)
Bonus: Most of the items mentioned can be tossed at the end of the trip, further lightening your bag.