What’s More Exhausting: Shorthaul Or Longhaul Travel?

Filed Under: Travel

A couple of days ago I mentioned the following in a post in passing:

I’m constantly on the road (or in the air, I suppose), and nowadays a majority of my flying is longhaul. While I fly 400,000+ miles per year, I don’t actually fly that many segments, at least proportionally. That’s a blessing, because I find short-haul domestic flying to be significantly more exhausting than longhaul international flying.

Well, yesterday I arrived in Shenzhen from Seattle, and I woke up this morning feeling nauseous, dizzy and like I had to throw up. At first I assumed it was food poisoning or something, so I stayed in bed for most of the day. Eventually I started to feel better, and realized it probably wasn’t actually food poisoning, but rather was my exhaustion finally catching up with me. While I’m always traveling like crazy, the past couple of weeks have been insane even by my standards.

That got me thinking…

Is short-haul flying really less exhausting?

I find that short-haul flying can be aggravating. Don’t get me wrong, I love flying no matter where it’s to, but I find that short-haul flying is more likely to be irritating. Typically short-haul flyers take a lot more segments, so the 30 minutes you spend waiting for a gate or two hour delay you incur really add up. The frustrating boarding processes, rude gate agents, etc., get to you more easily. The long security lines and cubed cheese in airline lounges becomes the bane of your existence.

Perhaps even more so, domestic/short-haul flying lacks the excitement of longhaul travel. This isn’t true across the board and I’m generalizing here for sure. For example, if you get on a plane in Europe you can find yourself in a completely different culture in an hour. There are also certainly regional differences in the US.

However, for the average domestic US business traveler who flies to small cities and stays at major chain hotels, I think that domestic flying can get exhausting, and perhaps even boring, quickly. Of course everyone is different, but that’s my perception.


Is longhaul flying more exhausting and more addictive?

Being in bed all day not feeling well really got me thinking. Longhaul travel is actually significantly more tolling than domestic travel. Sure, you may only get on one 15 hour flight so the flying experience itself is less stress-inducing. However, everything else about it is more complicated. The unfamiliarity, the logistics, and the jetlag.

But really those are all the things that I love about longhaul international travel as well. I love landing in a new city or country all bleary-eyed looking in amazement at something I’ve never seen before. I sort of love waking up at 3AM and getting some work done and then eventually watching the sunrise. I love experiencing the quirks of different cultures.


However, it also made me realize I was wrong the other day.

While short-haul travel may be more aggravating, longhaul travel is significantly more exhausting, in my opinion. I don’t mind waking up at 3AM when I’m in a new country, but I hate being in bed and not being able to sleep, even though I have something planned the next day.

But international travel is also more addictive and more enjoyable. The question really comes down to how long your body and mind can handle the addiction.

Perhaps it’s no different than some of the senior flight attendants I’ve met over the years, who said they only flew internationally for decades, but can’t take it anymore, and now just do domestic. Being able to go to bed on their schedule every night is something that makes it worthwhile.

Bottom line

As much as I’d like to think otherwise, I really do think that longhaul flying is significantly more exhausting than short-haul flying. Of course I’m generalizing here a bit, but I think the best way to sum it up is that short-haul flying can be aggravating, while longhaul flying is actually exhausting.

Longhaul flying is also significantly more enjoyable and addicting, so I guess like most things in life, it’s about trying to find moderation. The few weeks of travel I’m in the middle of are certainly not moderation. 😉

I’m curious what you guys have to say — what kind of travel do you think is most exhausting?

  1. Having just gotten off a five and half hour transcon in domestic first class, I think that’s maybe the most exhausting of all, given the distance (almost as far as East Coast to Europe, but not a real business class product, no lounge access, inferior food and entertainment), jet lag (modest compared to US-Asia but real), and product that’s not much better than Economy Plus.

  2. I recently flew from JFK to ADH to BKK — Etihad — for the first time. Longest flight of my life. We left JFK at about 10 PM, arrived in ADH and it was dark again, and then arrived in BKK in the morning. Now, of course, I was exhausted and fell asleep very early in the evening, but I’m not sure I was quite so exhausted as when I flew just JFK to LHR. And it felt like the “jet lag” was easier to overcome.

  3. IMO transcon red-eyes are the worst, especially eastbound. Four and a half hours are not nearly enough to get any meaningful sleep, then you get into your destination at 3am (origin) with a full day ahead of you. Seriously awful.

  4. @Hugh B – not sure what LUS means but it was a United 737. The crew was good, the plane quite new, and the food almost shockingly good compared to what I’m used to from UA for domestic F. But still, 5+ hours in a domestic F seat is no fun. I did a similar-length flight on UA’s slimline Y+ seat in an A320, also rather painful.

  5. Shorthaul domestic gets brutal week in and week out. I love flying and never get sick of it, but since feb have been west coast to dallas and back every weekend. It’s short, but more exhausting than a weekend trip to Hong Kong that I took a few
    Weeks ago. It’s not long enough to
    Sleep or relax. Delays mean a missed connect and a night not at home. Overnight Transcons, west-east coast, mean no sleep and full day of work on arrival. I never have jet lag on longhauls any more (maybe bc I only fly J). But even F domestic is awful in comparison.

    Or maybe it’s just my love of widebody’s and a nice wig flex

  6. Lucky I’m quite a bit older than you and been doing huge distance traveling for a while also. It actually might be your advancing age catching up with you! Relatively of course. And the cumulative effects of the extreme flying you do?

    Ive been finding long haul super hard fairly recently, and also nauseating…literally. The last 3 hours of my flight into Buenos Aires from Madrid last night, I felt so awful for no good reason, and never used to. Happens more and more, and the recovery takes much longer too. It’s a bummer, but still addictive like you say.

    That’s my take and opinion, but I ain’t you of course!

  7. A one hour domestic flight is fun and easy. The worst are the 4-5 hour kind, where you can’t get enough quality sleep. I love 14 hour flights, you can get plenty of sleep and watch movies. I think it’s the back-to-back action, of several in a row that makes one get sick.

  8. It really depends on how you measure it… Mile for mile. For example, I’m a Delta million miler and I earned it the hard way- mainly domestic, short haul trips like ATL-DCA or even less sexier places like Valdosta or Quad-Cities.

    I’d say it’s a lot harder to earn it that way than sleeping flat on my back from ATL to Narita. By my calculations I’d have to travel to Valdosta 14 times in a coach only configuration to get the same butt in seat miles. That’s brutal no matter what time zone in which you land!

  9. Eat right, exercise daily and drink lots of water. You’ll have a lot less trouble. It’s the lack of activity and the junk food both on board and in the lounges that add up to make you feel like crap. I have friends who run the gamut from cops to ER doctors and they put their bodies and minds through much worse, yet they can handle it.

  10. I live in Miami and travel to the West coast of the us almost weekly and that trip if I connect in Dallas or LAX takes more time and patience than one 8-10 hour international to Europe. Domestics are the worst if it is over 2000 miles and one stop.

  11. unrelated, but how can 99% of native English speakers not now how to use ‘nauseous’ correctly? You cannot feel nauseous, but can give off a nauseous scent. But, you can feel nauseated (which would have been correct in the blog post).

  12. i feel bad for those consultants who have to wake up every monday morning at 3am to fly at 6am just to arrive at their client’s site by 9-ish.

    long-haul travel isn’t painful unless you’re expected to perform immediately upon arrival.

    early TATL (e.g. leaving east coast 4-6pm) usually are the most painful because it’s too early to sleep, and yet when you arrive it’s barely after dawn and you have a full day ahead to deal with. i usually beg the hotel to give me any available room and take 2 hour nap before beginning my itinerary.

  13. I’ve done it all, short, medium and long haul over my 30 years of flying and far and away long haul international flights are the most exhausting especially if you are flying in Y.

    A friend is a FA with AA with 43 years seniority and she says that many, herself included, take Rx sleep meds to get through their 24 hour international turnarounds and even at home when not working. I’m frankly amazed I don’t have sleep issues yet given that my flights are all Transcons to the East Coast and then TATL flights to the EU. Usually 24 hours of travel – counting airport and flight time combined. It’s exhausting especially inbound.

  14. @02nz – I’ve never heard the term before either, but I believe HughB is using “LUS” to mean a “legacy US carrier”, the “Big 3” traditional hub-and-spoke, multi-class carriers: American, United, and Delta. So in your case, yes, you were on a “LUS” carrier.

    It can be very frustrating to Americans when a 5 – 5 1/2 hour transcon offers shockingly inferior first class service to a flight of essentially the same length from the eastern US to Europe, but it’s just a function of competition. Other than a handful of routes on Alaska, Virgin America, or JetBlue “Mint” flights, the Big 3 only compete with each other (none of the other US airlines with transcons – Southwest, Frontier, Spirit – have premium cabins), so they tend to be complacent, except on the SF/LA to New York routes. On European routes, there’s loads of premium-cabin competition.

    As JetBlue rolls out Mint on more long domestic routes, and if Alaska looks for further transcon expansion after the Virgin America merger is completed, this could change. Change could also be driven by the legacy carriers’ continuing to push harder for passengers to actually purchase domestic F seats, rather than getting them with FF program upgrades (either elite status or using miles), and making those cabins more profitable even if the fare differential between first and economy shrinks.

  15. Short-haul redeyes are by far the worst. When I was based in India, my wife and I would take long weekends to SIN, BKK, KUL, etc. It was always a midnight departure from India, a 3-4 hour flight, and a 5-7 am arrival at the other end. Barely enough time to even get a nap onboard, the hotel room is never ready when you arrive unless you pay for the extra night before, and you’re a walking zombie the entire next day. Thank goodness I don’t have to do those transcon redeyes – or even worse, LAX or PHX to DFW – for work. I think a month or two of that would wipe me out permanently.

  16. Context is always important. If you ask me to fly DEN-LAX-AKL in biz on vacation, at the start of a vacation, I’ll get to Auckland tired, but excited for my holiday.

    If you ask me to fly DEN-CLT-LEX to start a week of working on a not very exciting project, I’ll arrive tired and curmudgeonly.

    Context is a thing.

  17. @Mark
    Unfortunately Americans in general tend to not make fine distinctions between words that seem alike; so we end up with multiple words that used to have distinct meanings now all mean the same thing. For example couple no longer means a pair or two rather it just another word for few or several.

  18. I find long haul travel exhausting, because it takes me forever to adjust to the time changes (I usually fly US > Australia).

    I just returned this week from my latest trip, and I was fortunate to be able to fly F on the way there, and J on the way back (for the first time – I usually fly Y), so I could sleep, but even then it wasn’t without issues – my flight to Australia had to turn back 2.5 hours over the Pacific, and had to do it all over again the next night. It was fun to be able to re-experience everything a second time (Qantas F Lounge, two sets of PJs and amenity kits etc…), but made for a long trip (I left DFW on Friday evening, and finally arrived in Australia on Tuesday morning).

    I definitely agree that it’s more fun, though!

  19. One aspect that I don’t think has been mentioned explicitly is the difference between business-related flights (which for many of tend to be shorter flights) and pleasure/vacation type flights which often are the longer overseas flights.
    I was a part time road warrior in the deep dark past, and I gave it up in less than 10 years because flying become an annoying and anxious experience especially after a long day with clients and where all you wanted to be was home.
    Contrast that with my experience of looking forward to flying BA First across the pond on a recent vacation.

  20. Whenever there’s jetlag of over 4 hours involved, the trip takes a toll on me. My favorite longhaul trips tend to be US to South America, or Europe-Africa, or Japan-Australia since the time difference isn’t really that bad on those routes.

  21. I think it’s the reward aspect. There is nothing interesting about shorthaul given the familiar. It’s like walking in your own backyard. On the other hand longhaul comes with the prize of an experience and something wonderfully exotic no matter how many times you have landed in Hong Kong or Buenos Aires. The language, the smells, the food. For many of us there is a lure in the discomfort of new environs that makes jet lag like an old friend.

    With that said, I do think everyone reacts differently.

  22. Ok lucky, you’re tired and have bad nails. Can you actually get on with some trip reports please?! I.e what most of us come on here for!

  23. Ben we all appreciate the huge amount of reviews you are able to do because you are constantly travelling, however you dont NEED to do so many ‘crazy itineraries’ you do and I feel like sometimes you do purely because it makes better blog headlines. No-one is forcing you to do 10 flights in 10 days and then blog about how you got sick or how tired you are. There’s not some crazy timeline your readers demand where we must have a new product reviewed every single week. You’re not 18 anymore.
    You are an experienced traveller and know your limits. No-one is going to mind/notice if you have a full week rest in between each trip, or even in between each flight. You can work from anywhere (and you do) so why the need to constantly move around?
    If you are getting sick/exhausted/delirious, you really only have yourself to blame. You dont have a boss dictating how much you need to travel – you are the boss.

  24. @Mark

    I suggest you consult your dictionary before proclaiming how Americans are imbeciles. Even the OED confirms (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/nauseous) that the _first_ definition of nauseous is “[a]ffected with nausea; feeling inclined to vomit.” The usage was correct, according to both American and British sources. I know you’d like to feel superior, but in this case you’re really just being an incorrect prescriptivist.

  25. Short-haul, especially within the US due to inefficient security processes, poor airport infrastructure, inefficient transportation to/fro airports and aging fleets. Sometimes the entire process of getting to the airport and checking in can exceed the duration of the flight, especially now a days where every other guy is a premium customer.

  26. Red Eye Eastbound flights hands down!. US East Coast to Europe, US transcon, Australian transcon, DOH-BKK and HNL-LAX types overnight …these are the WORST. Even if one is in F or J, there is hardly anytime to sleep.

    I do my best to avoid Overnight flights under 6 hours, but sometimes you cant.

    In general short haul flights are more tiresome since you have to go through all that hassle just for a quick 2 hour flight somewhere.

  27. I agree short W->E redeyes are the worst. At least give me 5 hours of sleep, and I’ll be perfectly fine.

    The longhauls can be spectacularly easy… *if* you get the *right* flight. That would be the flight that fills up its low fare buckets in a flash because the schedule actually works well. You get on it, it’s long enough to actually get your sleep – 7-8 hours[!] – and wake up in the early [local] morning of your destination. Love those.

    It’s those other not-co-conveniently-scheduled flights that are murder, that force you to begin your adjusted day at 2-3am as you say Lucky. Or 6pm. Ouch. ( Sometimes there’s just no good schedule for your destination though. Guess which ones have all the award availability? Yep. Even lie-flat in F can’t save you on that one…)

    I think at the end of the day, it’s a question of endurance. Either form of red-eye torture and disrupted sleeps patterns will eventually take you down if you can’t get a break.

    Love your posts Lucky but for chrissakes, take a break some time. ‘k? I hope you’re getting exercise somehow! Oh, yes: that’s the best way I beat jetlag. Feel the burn.

  28. The flight that I dread, fear almost is eastbound from Perth to Sydney. It leaves at 11.30pm and arrives into Sydney at 6am. This on top of a full day of work already . There is no chance of any meaningful rest and one steps off feeling worse than a Trans Pacific. Sydney to LA run. Domestic travel is akin to getting on a bus. Like the US we in Australia have big distances to cover. Just grin and bear it.

  29. I’ll take international long-hauls over domestic in just about every situation. US airports are generally sub-par on every mark, US carriers are sub-par on many marks. More insulting is that there are some transcon flights where an almost real first class exists…but not to any of the airlines’ fortress hubs!

    Generally a B6/DL loyalist for domestic, but there’s no DeltaONE service from any of the Delta fortress hubs.

  30. I’ll say short-haul flights under 5 hours are the worst for me. I’m always tired after flying and not functioning after a few hours or overnight anyways, so I’d rather spend like 16 hours on an airplane rather than like 4 hours, since I’ll get some better sleep on a long-haul flight even in economy class.

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