52 travel hacks for economy class

Wanderers, our 52 travel hacks for getting through long haul economy class in reasonable shape.

Choose your seat

Choosing your seat is critical. Make sure you’ve got a good seat and have assessed its pros and cons. These days, it makes no sense to wait for the check-in agent to assign one. Hop online and pick your seat after looking at a site like seatexpert.com and working out what type of aircraft you have. I like the last couple of seats on the Boeing 777, typically configured in two across, and way better than getting stuck three across, in my opinion. Or check out the A330, which has loads of options for two across.

A decent neck pillow

Travel Neck Pillow for Airplanes Get one. Period. You’ll be happy you did. These things make sleep possible. The Cabeau range is excellent, offering both high-end comfort and good standard options. For adventure backpackers, a high-quality inflatable might be doable. Some hardcore folks use a medical neck brace, saying you can sleep once you get comfortable with it. It looks stupid as hell, but it might be worth it. Image credit: Kevin Tao

Noise-canceling headphones

These are fast becoming essential, and more and more folks have them. They make a difference. You can get the best out of the entertainment on offer (airline headphones suck, I find, and barely cover the engine- so you have to max out the volume on the IFE), and they zone out the background din so you can get some sleep. They are highly recommended. These now come in buds if you don’t like the headset variety. If you bring your headphones, make sure you have an adapter plug. These will often come as standard with the higher-end headphones at purchase.

Kindle or eBook reader

You can, of course, hit the in-flight entertainment. Some airlines have crap entertainment or not enough choice. You may even end up on a United junker with a central video screen playing Home Alone. In any case, I like to start my longer flights by reading, and when I get tired, I hit up the audiovisual. That gives me at least some mental variety and keeps the cobwebs at bay. Either way, a Kindle is a great companion. You can load it up with those one-dollar mystery thrillers and be enthralled for ages. Image credit: James Cridland

Sleeping pills

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about these. I don’t do them myself, but some folks swear by them and get great results. Make sure you’re comfortable (neck pillow, again, guys) because you don’t want to fall into a chemically induced sleep on a particular neck nerve. Ouch! Consider also if you wish to be exhausted when you arrive and what kind of wits you need.

Pick a seat close to the galley.

I do this because I like to be close to the crew and can (super nicely) ask for extras. Drinks, leftovers, cookies – you name it. On Emirates, you can sit in the last row and chat with the crew and get preferential service on the US$ 10 bottles of champagne coveted by seasoned flyers.

Wear soft gear

I’m not a tracksuit and sneakers guy like Ben Stiller. Nonetheless, they make sense. You want something soft around your abdomen and arms, and tight jeans aren’t doing you any favors. Loose, smooth exercise gear is the go and makes a big difference in allowing you to move during the flight.

If you do want to be like Ben Stiller, after all: Top & Pants : )

Make sure you’re in the frequent flyer program

Guys, make sure you are enrolled in the frequent flyer program of the airline you are flying with. I know if you’re a frugal nomad or an adventure backpacker or heading out on your first trip – you might be like, “what is the point”? Here’s the point: you’ll get some miles you might be able to use later. And significantly, most airlines will only upgrade folks with a frequent flyer number (FF passengers will be on their preference list before the general passengers). The so-called chance “operational upgrades.” So, if you want to be lucky, get a frequent flyer account for those long-haul flights you’re going to take.

Make sure the airline has your email address and cell number.

This way, the airline can advise you have delays, etc., and contact you if need be. If a last-minute upgrade offer is made, too, it’s important to have an email address on file. They’ll usually send the offers out by email or SMS a couple of hours before the flight. Taking up such an offer is an excellent way to experience business class at a heavy discount. Emirates, for example, has been known to offer upgrades from around USD 400 – 900 by email six or so hours before the flight.

Drink more (water)

It’s true. You’ll feel better. Particularly your eyes and skin, which usually need a lot of water to work. If you’re drinking alcohol, overcompensate with the water. And I guess you’ll need an aisle seat.

Lounge pass

Airport lounges Two long economy class legs together can be tricky. I say reward yourself a little bit and buy lounge access. You can usually make this advance online and get a discount. They’ll usually have showers, some healthy food, and some booze. As long as it’s not packed full, a lounge can be a great way to collect yourself away from the mind-numbing noise of the airport. A membership scheme like Priority Pass can make sense if you travel a lot.

Pick a special meal

This hack is well known. Book a special meal – i.e., gluten-free or vegetarian – and you’ll often get served first as routine airline procedures. This way, you can eat early and get to sleep ahead of the pack.

Don’t bloat

Alternatively, don’t eat. Some folks swear by this. Don’t feel fat and farty in your small seat. Skip all that by having a meal at the airport and riding out the flight without a big meal. Most folks say this helps them sleep.

Prime your body clock

Another ye olde hack. Wake up and sleep a couple of hours closer to your destination timezone about a week before your flight. If executed diligently, this can reduce your jet lag upon arrival.

Clean your teeth before sleep

We’re creatures of habit, and also, we don’t want to be filthy. Make an effort to go to the restroom after dinner and clean your teeth, settling down for the evening part of the flight properly. This will help condition you towards sleep and give you a pleasant feeling of normality. Also, your pearly whites will thank you for it!

Smile and be considerate

Don’t get agro with your fellow passengers. Smile, accept slight inconveniences or slip-ups, and assume that we’re all in the same boat (OK, aircraft). Economy class is a human experience. Ask if you can help someone. There may be a warm buzz in it for you.

Go light in economy class

Keep your carry-on modest. You don’t want to be one of those guys trying to smash his trolley with big wheels into the overhead compartment. Check what you don’t need or, better yet, don’t check anything and make do with a very light approach.

Pick the back row seat if you’re scared of crashing

If you buy all that “pick the safest seat on the plane” stuff, you’d better do it. Peace of mind. Generally, they say it’s the seats in the plane's rear that do best in an impact. More than 60% better. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.

Essentials in carrying on

Make sure your critical essentials (medication, contact lenses, important documentation, etc.) are in your carry-on. You don’t want to be tired and lost near some baggage carousel somewhere with exactly nothing to survive with.


They give you moisturizers in business class for a reason, making you feel better. Pack a small travel tube and pamper your face when you feel crap, say in the 7th hour of an 11-hour flight. It works for both gals and guys.

Understand before being understood

This is a good hack for dealing with the cabin crew and is plain polite. When you ask for something special, start with something empathetic: “Are you tired? This is a long flight to be on your feet for”. Then, after listening and chatting for a bit: “I know you probably don’t have any of x left, but if you do – it would be great if we could get another one.” Easy.

Use headphones as a prop for talkative types

If you’ve got a talkative Tim next to you, keep those headphones handy to make it clear you don’t want chit-chat. Our nomad gals swear by this.

Do a lap if you wake up

I’m too familiar with the endless horror of nodding off, waking up, nodding off, waking up, being hopelessly uncomfortable and pissed off, and trying to nod off again. Instead, when I wake up, I get up and do a lap of the plane. The change of pace gets my blood moving, and I’m more likely to get a longer sleep when I sit down again. Try it. You might want an aisle seat or a secluded seat, though.

Sit upfront if you want off first

I’m more in the camp that it takes as long as it takes, so getting off first to beat another queue is just too stressful, so I get off when I get off. If you want to get off first, you have a close connection, then obviously position yourself closer to the front. Don’t get envy, though, when you glimpse business class through the curtains.

Pack perfume

A little bit of nice perfume or cologne is uplifting. I keep a small spray bottle and use it whenever it gets tough. Instant dignity boost! Get Audible or load up with podcasts matching your interests Audible is awesome, and you can listen to their huge range of audiobooks through their app. Regular podcasts are also a great time hack. You won’t even notice that the flight has all but disappeared. I recommend you get a podcast cranking on a hobby, personal development goal, or a travel destination.

If you don’t have noise-canceling headphones, use buds

Regular buds are a great alternative, particularly those with little suction rubber bits. You know what I’m talking about. Skullcandy has some decent ones for under 30 bucks that fit snugly in your ear.

Power your stuff

Check your airline has seat plugs or bring an external battery. You don’t want your iPhone dead on arrival when you might have some coordinating to do.

Comfy socks

Simple but important. You can also get flight socks, which hold DVT at bay.

Strategically sit in an empty aisle.

Board last and wonder, as if lost, to a free center aisle. Bam! Economy class luxury, right there. You’ll get good sleep, three across, and, let’s be realistic, nobody will ask you for your seat assignment. Most folks don’t start searching for a place to sleep until after takeoff, so this will put you way ahead of the game.

Have your arrival all planned out

So you can rest beforehand on your flight worry-free. It’s mainly if it’s an offbeat destination and you are arriving late at night. I arrived in India for the first time after midnight, with nothing planned, and that was a sleepless drama. Oh yeah.

Inflatable footrest

Yes, it’s a thing (don’t laugh), and yes, it makes a difference.

Sleeping mask

Match a good mask with a nice seat recline, neck pillow, noise-canceling headphones, a comfy blanket, and inflatable footrest, and you’re all set for some economy class shuteye. I am living the dream!

Turbulence busting

If you hate turbulence, sit in the aircraft's center near the wings. You’ll get less grief there because you’ll be closer to the aircraft's center of gravity.

Don’t wear contacts

If you do, the dry air will leave your eyes feeling like someone was rubbing sand into them while you slept. You’re better off with the glasses.

Blocked nose

Fix it before landing. A decongestant before and during your flight is probably the best bet. And lots of water. Otherwise, the pressure on your ears can knock out your hearing after landing. Not fun.

Essentials bag or pouch

Get a little essentials bag that you can put everything into and keep separate from your main bag. You can put this in the pocket or under your seat and not worry about getting up to get your stuff. For nervous types, you can put all your belongings in there and keep them close without checking for your wallet, phone, keys, and passport every five minutes.

Enjoy the people

There are some really interesting people out there, and this is a great opportunity to hold them to a captive conversation. Single serving friends, I think, was the expression they used in Fight Club.

Order the extras ahead of time

If you’re flying low cost, or even just a regular airline these days, check out what extras you can buy on board. If I’m traveling a long distance, I like to make sure I’m loaded up and will buy the extras. This is particularly relevant if you have to buy meals and stuff, like on AirAsia X or Tigerair. You get a discount if you buy in advance and I just buy. A little extra comfort in uncomfortable circumstances is worth it.

Check-in early

Check-in early, with some airlines, to choose your seat. This is usually for the airlines with older IT systems. You also minimize your chances of being “bumped,” where the airline gives your seat to another person and transfers you to another flight. Always check-in online, if you can, instead of at the airport. Of course, you can drop your bag off at the check-in desk. Wipe down your seat rests and food tray Would you have much work ethic if paid what an aircraft cleaner gets paid to do a quick job under super time pressure? Exactly. Use some antibacterial wipes and clean up the space that will be yours for these next long hours.

Pack nibbles

Try almonds or whole-wheat crackers with peanut butter, a hot tip from Hilary Fischer-Groban. Maybe a Snickers bar if you’re feeling a bit naughty, but beware of the sugar crash on the long haul.

White noise app for sleep

There are white noise apps. Find your favorite and deploy it ruthlessly with your noise-canceling headphones.

Window seat

I’m not in this camp, but the religion is that you nestle in early and sleep the whole flight (no one will disturb you). Just don’t need to go to the toilet or anything, as you’ll have to wake the girl next to you. Maybe this goes to the truth of it, but I’ve enjoyed the aisle for many years without the window folks waking me. Maybe that’s because they’ve got it down to a fine art.

Evian spray

Get a mini pack (50ml) and spray your face for a refresher. Almost as good as a shower… Well, almost. Part of the beauty routine for many of our readers.

Write the best economy class novel

Too often, we get into a neg out about flying as wasted time. It’s not. You can still use it. Write to your mum, pen a review of the airline for your blog or make a start to the 21st-century novel. You could be the next J K Rowling!

Change your underwear before landing

This freshens you up for your destination and leaves you feeling less gross and oily. Sometimes it’s hard to be civilized in an economy, but it’s always worth the effort.

Plan an airport hotel for longer connections

If you have a long connection, try to grab an airport hotel, preferably in a terminal. Asian airports usually have good options, and prices can be realistic – USD 50 for 6 hours. OK, so that might be more than a hostel, but the traveling economy does need a little compassion.


Not much on this from us. But if you are traveling a lot, and we know you are, it makes sense to build up a relationship with an airline you like or at least an alliance (Oneworld, Star Alliance, and Skyteam all offer reciprocal loyalty recognition to a degree). This means that you will be developing a consistent bank of miles, maybe some status, and you might even benefit from the occasional upgrade. Fifty thousand miles is often enough for an upgrade to business class. We’re not obsessed with points here at Friendly Nomad, but you can game the system a bit by getting points on the ground for various things (credit cards, being one) and then using those points to upgrade your economy booking. Worth it if you have some lead time on the trip of your lifetime.

Headache pills

If you get headaches, make sure you pack some Advil or aspirin. Cabin crew have these but aren’t usually allowed to give you any, meaning you could have a long flight with no relief ahead.

Don’t upgrade unless…

You’re happy for the economy to become a whole lot harder after you see how the other half flies. Once you’ve tasted business, it can be hard to go back as your expectations get jilted. You’re also not as naively happy with the economy for what it is, and start comparing your lot to a lot of that upfront. Before I tried business class, I really didn’t spend any time thinking about how bad the economy was or envying those folks getting the champagne before takeoff. OK, OK, so not a reason not to take business when you get the chance, but just be aware of this one.

Learn a language

Deadtime like airplane time is a great opportunity to put the mind to work. Time also passes more quickly with cognitive effort, and, boy, learning a language is tough stuff. Pull out your exercise book or invest in an iPad app that can teach you a language while offline. There are a few, and even if you’re just starting out, you’ll be able to say “hi” and “can I have a beer, please” in the destination language by the time you land.