What to do during a long flight


During the next few days I’ll do a long flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The central part of the trip will last about seven hours. I’m loading my iPhone with some articles to review, some books to read, some music that I should listen both for duty and for pleasure. I have chosen a place next to the window, so I should be able to take some photos toward the Great North.

But seven hours are really a lot. No break from the assistants serving the dinner will really help me. What do you do, when traveling for long hours? What should I do?

Cheers, Paolo

Twelve hours from Shanghai or Hong Kong to London … which is why this time I’m going via Beijing and Copenhagen to break the journey. Air China to Beijing is just about bearable over 2 1/2 hours, but you have to accept 1 1/2 hours sitting stationary on the apron waiting for clearance for reasons of “Traffic congestion” … I think they controllers are getting the roads confused in with the air-ways!

On the other hand Beijing-Copenhagen is only 8 hours or so, the food is not bad (in Premium Economy … I’ve decided that at over 6’ and over 65, I’m too tall and old to be travelling long distance in cattle-class!), the drink plentiful (Champagne before dinner, decent wines during, brandy with coffee after) and the cabin staff are caring, helpful and conscientious. Then it’s another break and a 2 hour hop to London.

I find I can’t concentrate to work on a plane, and only with difficulty on reading … I don’t really like watching movies, so there has to be something I’ll really enjoy watching available to get me to do that. So my recipe is drink everything they offer, eat all the food on offer and try to sleep the rest of the time. I’m not good at that either, but daydreams about good things in life – for which a bevvy or two or three helps! – do get me into a doze usually … if I have enough room.

So breaking up the journey, flying premium economy (It knocks a bit of a hole in my bank account, mind you) and having good service makes flying home a not too impossible task.


Same for me. I don’t even open a laptop en route, can’t seem to get into the right position, or maybe it’s the right frame of mind, but am able to make random notes long hand.

If you’re on one of the decent European airlines – I’ve had great luck on Lufthansa and Aer Lingus – service and incidental amusements can keep you going. If it’s something like United, plan on taking a lot of pictures of The Great North.

happy flying


If you’re lucky to fly on an airline with good food, like Air France, the time will pass easily. But like Mark & Phil, I just can’t really do anything concentrated on flights. There you are, immobilized in this long tube, thinking consciously or unconsciously of new experiences to come or homecomings or whether you’re going to be flying in circles for hours. If you’re lucky, your neighbor will be interesting and considerate; if you’re really lucky they’re both of those things and fabulously attractive (only happened once in decades, damn it). If you accept you’re in an in-between world and doze or chat or idly look at clouds or hit up the stewards for some cold water (oh, yeah, drink LOTS of water), you’ll actually have a quite pleasant time.


Umm… drug induced stupor? I would/will be taking some “drowsy” versions of dramamine and sleep my trips away.

We recently flew from Papua New Guinea to Brisbane, Auckland, San Francisco, and Newark. Over 10,000 miles; went through many security pat-downs and customs inspections. The movie “Inception” says the longest non-stop scheduled flight is Sydney to Los Angeles. Brisbane to San Francisco must be a close second. Our total time in transit, door to door, was 35 hours. I can’t sleep on planes. I had a big fat novel by R. F. Delderfield, God is an Englishman, and I did little else on the trip but read it. Give me a triple-decker novel always to pass long flights. (It’s also on the Kindle, but we didn’t own one then).

I originally came out to Xiamen on Lufthansa, with a German stewardess who thought I must be Australian as she had many Australian friends — at which point I thought she really ought to recognise that I couldn’t be Australian because of my accent! — sitting next to a French woman, a lecturer from the University of Nantes, who when I asked her why she wasn’t flying Air France told me that no one in their right mind flew Air France — Air Chance, as it used to be called! — and who, on learning that I had resigned from the University of Westminster 'cos I couldn’t stand the stress of the way things were going in the now non-existent School of Languages, spent the next 6 hours weeping copiously on my shoulder — literally — telling me how awful life was as a university lecturer in France!

As for United, everybody warns me against all US airlines in terms of lack of service, comfort, etc.

And the only time I sat next to a — potentially; I was 21, she was 19 at a guess — attractive young lady, a girl from Hong Kong, flying from Singapore to London, turbo-prop, around 24 hours with 4 refuelling stops on the way, though no getting off the plane … she turned out to be suffering from severe homesickness, as she was leaving home for the first time, from headaches from the noise and vibration of the plane, an inability to sleep, and being a Christian Scientist wouldn’t even take an aspirin or anything else for the headache. Mark talked for 24 hours to keep her mind off things!

Seven hours? You should live in Sydney. One time when I flew to London, there were engine problems a few hours out of Sydney, so the plane had to turn back to Melbourne to change a part; which neccessitated an overnight stay. By the time we disembarked at Heathrow, I had been sitting in the same economy seat (minus the Melbourne sleepover) for forty hours. Seven hours is hardly time to read a magazine, have a few drinks, eat a meal, sleep, wake, read another magazine and eat another meal, and get off.



Thank you very much, everybody, for the beautiful stories and the precious hints.

Mark, as usual your stories have a fantastic narrative content. I wonder if you have already published some novels containing some of your experiences around the world.

JT, thank you for letting me better understand the size of our world. Actually, I live in the smallest continent, and I’ll cross the smallest of the oceans. But for someone living twenty-minutes far from the state capital, and one hour and half away from the federal capital, this seems a rather long step!

I will fly to Canada with Lufthansa, where I have always found very attentive service and good food. I’ll ask some wine to seep slowly, and time will pass fast.


Unless I’m sitting next to someone interesting or composing an urgent piece of writing - light off, shoes off, a blanket, a pillow, a bottle of water and two temazepams. Bam! I’m out!

Sadly, flights where you can find three or four seats at the back to stretch out on are fewer and fewer these days. I once flew on an Air Canada 707 to Montreal where there were just six of us on board. But that was long ago. And I’m getting a little too old now to charm stewardesses into letting me “upstairs” on a 747 where there might be darkened rows of premium seats going spare.

Happy times!


On our outbound leg, we had a flight from Los Angeles to Fiji via an Air Pacific 747. Tourist was crammed, but upstairs stood many unoccupied rows. From some travel boards we learned of an unadvertised special: a “tourist upgrade” for anyone willing to buy a row of upstairs seats. Cost was $400 for a row with two first class meals. About 30 passengers took that option and had an enjoyable 10 hour flight.

Each time I make the trip Portugal → Oregon → Portugal I try to:

  1. Drink wine (helps to sleep)
  2. Read magazines (books don’t work as well)
  3. Listen/watch iPod with podcasts and one audiobook, a few videos (tv-series, not movies) and games
  4. If traveling with someone: play cards or dices or domino

Have a good trip, Paolo.

– MJ

It’s not just the passengers who suffer on long flights. I have a friend whom I met through gliding who used to be a captain for an airline that I shall not name. On a long trip (by car) he told me a lot of his life and times in flying, and very illuminating it was, too. He commented that ferrying around what he referred to as “talking cargo” could get rather samey, and if he had a flight of more than about two hours he got bored and had to find something to do. On one occasion, with the co-operation of his first officer, he slipped into the avionics bay below the cockpit (through the access hatch in the floor just inside the cockpit doors). The first officer then called in one of the “hosties” and asked her to find the captain. On being told after the first search that they didn’t know where he was, he played irritated, and told them to stop messing about because he really needed him. The search became increasingly desperate, and, I am told, even extended to looking in the overhead lockers (and I can’t imagine what it would have been like had they actually found him there). When they turned a blank, the senior hostess was dragooned into sitting in the captain’s seat, with headphones on (and no doubt trying not to panic), whereupon a knocking was heard on the floor of the cockpit …

Have an interesting flight!

When I was a kid, I would go up to the cockpit and let the pilots show me all the dials and switches and fun stuff. I think if I tried that now, the security guard would have me halfway out the front door and pleading for mercy at 32,000 feet.

Paolo, is this a culmination of your earlier research on fun cities to spend some time in around the world?

As another Aussie who has endured, no sorry, “enjoyed” multiple trans-Pacific flights (including one that was roughly 20 hours in the same plane, some of which was on the ground, but we were not allowed to leave the plane) here are some suggestions:

  1. Wish you were asleep
    until you
  2. Feign sleep
    until you
  3. Sleep.

Actually, the way to approach a long-haul flight is to think “If I was confined to my couch for XX hours, what would I do?” then plan to do any that pass the three rules of travel: 1. it fits in your overhead luggage; 2. it’s legal (including flight & custom rules); 3. you’re willing to do it public. :wink:

In-flight entertainment is OK. Reading articles is better. Books are even better and music is good. Sleep is still best. For (non-medicated) help sleeping on a plane, I recommend noise-cancelling earphones if you can afford them (or noise isolating earphones if you can’t) and some good iPhone apps for napping or sleeping. I particularly like Pzizz Energiser and Pzizz Sleep respectively.

Enjoy your flight!

Ditto … you and I had not dissimilar childhoods, it seems.

Mind you, in September when I returned to China on SAS, there was a problem at Heathrow with the incoming flight from Copenhagen being late for some reason. I was going to have 75 minutes to change planes to the Copenhagen-Beijing flight, and by the time we were boarded, we were already half an hour late. The pilot then came over the intercom to say that having missed the take-off slot, we were going to have to wait a further 20 minutes.

At that point, I went forward to talk to the purser, to tell them my problem. She was great … but really interesting was the fact that the cockpit door was open, so I got to talk to the captain! Unheard-of in these days. He too was really sympathetic and helpful, and said that as soon as he was in radio contact with Kastrup he’d let them know. However, he didn’t invite me into the cockpit, though I could see in, and the cockpit of a 737 cannot be described as anything other than cramped.

The final outcome was that we were docked at the gate next to the one from which the Beijing flight was leaving, thank heavens, as by the time I disembarked there was only 10 minutes till take-off for BJ. What was even more impressive was that they also got my suitcase across and loaded in those 10 minutes, so it was there when I had to clear customs in BJ!

That’s service!


Paolo, I’m flattered at the suggestion, but no I haven’t. To me these are just individual anecdotes without a thread running through to make a novel out of. But who knows, when I’m properly retired … when my friends and employers here allow me to return home for good …



2 Tylenol Simply Sleep (sleeping pills)
1 shot of Nyquil ( or a stiff alcohol drink)
2-4 tissue for drool spots after flight
1 Noise Canceling headphones (Bose work great)
1 Alarm

Depending on your arrival time this may help with “jet lag” due to time difference.


I see I didn’t return to this post after my flight. Well, here me are, one month later.

The flight with Lufthansa was very comfortable. The A330’s economy class seat was large enough not to feel as in a sardine box. They gave us food and drinks at a fast pace, and the quality was very good for an airline meal. Wine was excellent, and I had to remember that I drink no longer. Time passed fast. Eight hours are not so long. While being the only one aboard not keeping his seat display switched on, I could read and listen to some music from my iPhone. Shame the engine noise at those back seats.

My window: soon after leaving my town - Ancona, CE Italy - we traveled over a dense curtain of clouds. As I could see during our exchange stop at Munchen, Europe was fighting with bad weather, under the bright sun we were enjoying there up. I saw clouds keeping the shape of islands, mountains, arcane shores. There was an immense sense of calm, while flying in the same direction of that strange sun, during a long day, us alone with some other flying entities.

The clouds curtain opened shortly at dusk, while we were right at the centre of the Atlantic ocean. There, there were lights of fishing ships working in the middle of two continents. When in Halifax, I could see at an antiquarian’s window what the ocean can do to heavy porholes. I understood the fragility of those pioneers sailing so far from any land.

I met Canada at Montreal. A mild encounter, since the kind policement wearing a bullet-proof jacket (evidence of being in America) was speaking French (yes, they speak French in America, but only those few Canadian snobs). So, not yet the shocking meeting with an alien language.

Canada by night: the thin line of majestic city lights when flying over Montreal, Trois Rivières, Cité du Quebec. Then some sparse lights. The great black toward the North. And, finally, the illuminated coastline of Nova Scotia, an island where I’m pleasantly spending my months. Yes, they speak English. My Mediterranean gestuality is helping me a lot to survive, while at the grocery.


Lovely reminiscence, Paolo!