What To Do On A Longhaul Flight?

Filed Under: Travel

Reader Jeff emailed me yesterday to say that he’s taking his first longhaul flight in first class soon (flying Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to New York, for what it’s worth), and wanted to know what my “routine” is for longhaul flights — when do I change into pajamas, eat, watch movies, etc.

Now, what I’d recommend doing and what I actually do are two very different things.

What I should be recommending is to:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Don’t overeat or drink a lot of alcohol or carbonated beverages
  • As soon as you board the plane (or ideally even before that) adjust your time to what it would be at the destination, and sleep accordingly

But what’s my actual pattern when I fly in international first class? Admittedly it varies based on flight length, time of day, etc., but in general I:

Get comfortable as quickly as possible

I don’t care whether I’m in first or business class, I almost always change as soon as possible. Upon boarding I’m usually the first person to change into pajamas, and the last person to change out of them (heck, sometimes I’ve been known not to change out of them at all). 😉


Furthermore, I always request a pillow and light blanket right away. For me the enjoyment of a flight starts the second I’m in comfortable pajamas, slippers, and have a pillow and blanket (ideally with a glass of champagne in hand).

Eat after takeoff and stay entertained

Even when airlines have a dine on demand menu, I’ll usually have my first big meal shortly after takeoff. I also drink. A lot.

If I’m traveling with someone I usually don’t use the entertainment system at all. If I’m traveling alone I’ll usually watch a sitcom or two on the entertainment system — I don’t really have the attention span for movies.


Nap/work off hangover

See the above about drinking a lot. 😉

Almost like clockwork, on longhaul flights I seem to take a 2-3 hour nap after the main meal service. I’m usually not much of a napper, but I guess the alcohol helps in that way. I find I’m usually surprisingly well rested and alert after that.


Get some work done/watch TV shows/be healthier

If the flight has Wi-Fi I’ll usually get some work done at that point.


If it has an onboard bar, I’ll usually head back there for the rest of the flight and drink some more (which I realize doesn’t fulfill the “be healthier” heading above).


If it has an onboard bar and Wi-Fi I’ll just take my laptop to the bar and work from there. 😉

In all honesty, I do try to get some work done and primarily drink water after the main meal. While I drink a lot on planes I’m rarely hungover, and that’s because I drink a lot of water and front-load most of my alcohol consumption.

Reclined relaxing

If it’s an ultra longhaul flight, I’ll usually spend most of the rest of the flight in the fully reclined position watching TV shows or whatever. I find that’s much more comfortable than using the entertainment system while seated in the “upright” position. Sometimes I’ll ask the crew for extra pillows (if they have any), so I can sit up a bit while in the bed position. When airlines only give you one pillow it really isn’t enough for watching TV in bed, in my opinion.


Bottom line

If flying is just a means to an end for you, don’t do what I do. Just get aboard, rest as much possible, etc.

If you actually want to get enjoyment out of the flight I’d make sure you get comfortable as quickly as possible by changing (and stay comfortable for as long as possible).

If you like movies, take a look at the airline’s entertainment selection in advance (many airlines publish it online), and maybe even don’t see a movie you’d otherwise see on the ground so you can “save it” for aboard. If you don’t like the airline’s entertainment selection (there are lots of great airlines with horrible entertainment programming), bring your own entertainment.

And of course eat and drink well. If you’re in first class they almost always have extras (except on Etihad), so if there’s something you like in particular, don’t feel sheepish asking for it.

Oh, and if you’re specifically flying Cathay Pacific out of Hong Kong (as Jeff is), HAVE HONG KONG STYLE MILK TEA AND EGG TARTS!


I’d love to hear from you guys — what are your “rituals” on longhaul flights in first class?

  1. When I first started reading your blog Ben you didn’t drink alcohol at all. You’ve come a long way 🙂

    We need to get you experimenting with whiskey and/or cognac 🙂

  2. I never change into pjs until we’re in the air. As soon as the seatbelt sign is off I change. That way if there’s an emergency I am dressed in normal clothes. Likewise if a mechanical happens or some other thing comes up that requires us to get off the plane I don’t have to change another time.

    With regard to eating, it sort of depends. If I am exhausted from an overnight connection (like I was recently after a TG redeye to NRT where I connected to NH), I will go to sleep as soon as possible. Then I’ll eat whenever I wake up. The nice thing about F is that the FA’s are typically very accommodating even though this throws off their schedule. They will cater to you. I also don’t sleep well on a full stomach. So I think if you plan to sleep soon it makes a lot more sense to sleep first and eat a big meal later.

    But I will also say that since I don’t drink alcohol and have pretty “meat and potatoes” taste, that drinks and foo-foo food are not something I have any interest in.

    For me F is all about ground service, space, and being able to get some rest/sleep. I will watch TV depending on the selection. NH had surprisingly poor selection. But I was able to binge on Person of Interest on my latest CX F flight (JFK-HKG). If there’s a movie I really want to see I will watch it. But again it depends on how good or bad the selection of things to watch happens to be. When you’ve got 15 or 16 hours to kill that is a lot of time. I can’t imagine doing that in Y.

  3. nice post. the only thing I wouldn’t do is change as soon as I get on the plane. Too afraid I’d jinx the schedule/flight. Also, if a delay/deplane was required, I’d have to change back in a hurry.

    First thing airborne, though!

  4. Unfortunately, I only fly United. So the food isn’t great. Service is hit or miss. I treat flying longhaul as my day off, so I just relax, watch movies and drink a lot 🙂

    Ben, I assume you go to the bar also in your pjs.

  5. Check the movies? I just check to see what kind of Single Malt Scotch they’re serving! Seriously, off to Australia/NZ on Cathay on Saturday night. Second long trip on Cathay in two years. Could not get First on outbound, only on return but checked out the new Business Class last trip and it looked pretty darn good. I’ll bring a pair of their pajamas that I can leave on the flight when we’re done.

    I said it years ago. The vacation used to start when we arrived. Now it starts when we board! And you can’t imagine how your post about the PH Sydney got me even more psyched. Didn’t think it was possible!

  6. I agree with RakSiam. I never change — or even take my shoes off — until airborne.

    I too have been known to plot out my movie strategy — with something funny with the meal and then something potentially slow to lull me to sleep.

  7. @Lantean, Those egg tarts have cooked egg in them, kinda like custard, but more delicious in tart form! 🙂

  8. I always opt for red eyes, so for me it’s all about the bed. Love sleeping on a private flat bed in the air, with all the bells and whistles that come with it (amenity kit, PJ, etc). A delicious full service meal before the turn down doesn’t hurt, and when I wake up I like listening to some ambient music with the provided noise-cancelling headphone while enjoying a view of the destination down below, which is not complete without a cup of green tea.

  9. I was surprised that 12 hour+ flights didn’t bore me. I had this expectation that I would get a little stir crazy on such a long flight, but it didn’t bother me at all and I had no trouble passing the time. Reading the inflight magazines (maybe with a little mockery), newspapers, talking to my BF, picking out what exotic booze I want to try next, watching a movie, picking my meal options, chatting with the flight attendants, playing with the seat controls, taking pictures, etc.

    I actually need to learn how to *sleep* on longer flights, because then I land and I’m exhausted.

  10. However, I will be flying HA HNL-SYD, which is a different beast than anything I’ve been on before:
    -it’s a 10 hr DAY flight.
    -business class seat is recline, not flat, and no single seats.
    -no internet.

    I’m kind of depressed. I just don’t know how I’m going to survive… I mean spend, those 10 hours, with a stranger next to me! (*gasp*). Maybe I will go off to self reflection mode. “What is the purpose of life in the year 2014?” That’ll keep me busy for a while, heh…

  11. I agree with RakSiam.& Yahtzee. I never change — or even take my shoes off — until airborne.

    I also agree with front loading my alcohol and drinking lots of water always.

    While some PJs are nice, I prefer gym shorts and t-shirt (w/ a plane on it) to relax and sleep

    I bring my own music and a book & travel magazines but will watch Big Bang, Veep or Looking, etc. Look my Bose NR ear buds


  12. Same as Juan: long haul flights are my days off from work and I treat the time in the air as mini-vacations. This is strictly ‘me’ time and I devout it to being quite slovenly. I only get to travel in business, usually (on BA, DL or KL) but I find it to be comfortable enough. I change into lounging clothes; have a couple of bloody marys (why are bloody marys so much more enjoyable on a plane?); eat; nap; catch up on reading (am presently plowing through the Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina); nap; watch a movie with more vodka; nap; eat…and I’m there. The time goes by surprisingly swiftly.

  13. +1 about not changing (or even taking off shoes) until airborne. I also keep my passport in my pocket if on an international trip until off the ground. In 5+ million miles, I’ve only had to evacuate a plane once. And I’m sure glad I had jeans and shoes on!

  14. Some good points in this post. The only thing that confuses me is if you are in First and someone is traveling with you why does they impact your entertainment choices. Unless your in the bar area together you really can’t talk all that much in many cabins.

  15. don’t forget to walk around at least once every waking hour. i like to go the length of the plane and back and do some stretching in the forward lavatory space. really makes a difference to stay hydrated and limber so you can hit the ground running.

    oh and don’t forget on cx you’ll probably need to ring the call button to get things! they’re very “hands off” to respect privacy.

  16. I too remember the days when it was just a diet coke and lime for you. Thank goodness you’re actually drinking the champagne now. Much more interesting reading!

  17. I got the notice today that our US Airways cards are turning into American Cards. Shouldn’t I cancel those before that happens so I can apply for the cards and get the signup bonus on the new Cards?


  18. On an Economy flight I’d fully recline (whatsoever) and go sleep in a window seat or watch TV in a middle seat. And take pictures for HKAN/YTHK. Not much to do.

    In Business, I prefer to sit back, order a drink, and watch a good movie, then recline the seat into fully flat mode and get to bed.

    (I travel in Economy for about 60% of my travels per year, and have had no problem with reclining.)

  19. First of all, Jeff, you are a lucky man if you have a First Class Cathay flight coming up. Instead of having HK style milk tea and egg tarts (which you can get anywhere in HK for a couple of HK dollars), I would suggest saving the space for extra helping of caviar 😉

    My habits when flying have changed over the years given the hard product has developed and improved so much. When I was in my twenties or early thirties I did not like to drink when flying on long trips. I just liked to enjoy the food as much as possible and ate a lot as well as reading books and magazines. Now as I have gotten a bit more “seasoned” I have started to enjoy having a few drinks when on a flight. I just find that I enjoy the flight even more if I am a little merry, especially if I am on a holiday trip. And given the much better entertainment systems in the newer cabins, I usually watch a lot of TV sitcoms or movies.

    Nowadays, I fly more often in business class, given the business class cabins have become so much better in the last 10 years – but of course I will try to upgrade to First at any chance. I discovered Emirates A380 last summer and this again has changed my pattern and what I do on long haul flights, for sure. As soon as the seat belt sign is off, I head to the bar in the back. I like the quality of the finger foods they have and great variety of drinks and the general ambiance is just fantastic in my view. Sitting at the bar at 38,000 feet enjoying a drink, conversing with fellow passengers and texting with friends on the ground (flight has Wi-Fi) just does not get tired. On my last four trips with Emirates A380 I probably spent 50% of my time at the bar and it really breaks up the flight in an awesome way.

  20. Not for first class, (yet), but for economy on a BA 747, its AirlinerWorld magazine from the airport, on the plane, eat, watch Top Gear, walk around, drink LOTS of cranberry juice, then breakfast, then land. Works for me on night flights.

  21. I started flying on the Emirates A380 back in 2009 and always go to the bar at the back. Time flies so quickly an it is a great way to network with other passengers.
    If I am flying longhaul economy, I always ask the gate checkin lady if there are any empty rows. If there are any, I ask her to reassign my seat to that row. I then make myself comfortable and watch movies (i started flying Emirates back in 2006 and was completely amazed by their IFE with movies-on-demand in economy!)
    On CX First, order the egg tarts first. All 6 seats in F were full on the last CX flight i took and sadly egg tarts were gone by the time i ordered. the FA told me they only had 2 egg tarts to serve. :/

  22. Obviously it depends on the route and therefore the length of flight (the majority of my longhauls are LAX/SFO to SYD/MEL, which I do a good 4-10 times a year; average flight time is around 13hrs). But, the only thing I’d disagree with is setting your watch/phone to the destination time right away on the outbound. I’ve found it works best to eliminate any jet lag effects by keeping your phone on Los Angeles time on the outbound until breakfast, and on the inbound set it right when you get on board. That way you’re mind sees it as a normal sleep time. Here’s my schedule:

    Hours 0-2: change into pajamas, put on a movie, eat dinner, stretch and walk a couple laps
    If it’s your inbound leg, immediately set your phone/watch to your LA time
    Hours 2-7/8: I try to get 5-6 hours of straight sleep. If I wake and see I haven’t hit that, I go back to sleep.
    Hours 8-10: stretch/walk, watch another movie
    Hours 10-12: back to sleep
    Hours 12-13/14: stretch/walk, eat breakfast while watching another movie (I like movies, haha)
    If it’s your outbound leg, set your phone/watch to SYD/MEL time now
    Last 30min: change back into normal clothes

    I’ve found that to be perfect over the years and haven’t experienced any jet lag to speak of. The other trick is to get to your destination and don’t even think about what time your body thinks it is. Just look at your phone and say, “This is what time it is,” and go about your day!

  23. One detail I’s like to know about is, do you wear underwear or go commando when donning pajama’s on a plane. This is the same question I had to ask after taking up cycling when wearing biking shorts.

    This is a legit question for me. I go commando when in the home, but on a plane i’d be a bit hesitant for a couple of reasons, that may be a result of over thinking the situation.


  24. On the rare occasions I did CX F I wanted to change into PJs before being airborne but was worried about evacuation…. So I waited.. I noticed that FAs handed out the trusaardi kits and PJs after airborne. But you can always wear PJs from earlier flights

    Never drink alcohol on a flight except for krug on CX. Never tried Hk style milk tea and custard tarts.. Guess I should try our national dish on the home airline next time! Lots of water, some milk and coffee.. I adore their Chinese soup (what Hk passengers consider comfort food) and caviar. Balik salmon was not as good as the stuff served at F lounge in Hk. Once I lugged a napoleon from Pierre herme in Paris on my LHR-HKG flight and FA was really amused

    I sleep through the flight so I never wake up until the meal before landing. So I have no idea what mid flight snack is like on HK flights to Europe.. I suppose I am lower maintenance than most of the readers here!

  25. @ DaninMCI — There are lots of first class seats where you can still sit with someone and chat, like Emirates, Lufthansa, Singapore, etc.

  26. I change into PJs and slippers after takeoff and once the seat belt sign is off, so that in the event of an emergency, it doesn’t affect my ability to quickly evacuate and survive until help arrives. Extremely unlikely I know :p

  27. I have to agree with Lisa. For a flight in F on the A380 or 777, I also need to learn how to sleep on longer flights. Thus, for the same reasons, I’m exhausted when we land because I am up most of the time: trying expensive, exotic beverages, sampling the various meal options, chatting with passengers at the stand up bar, and also playing with the seat controls and taking lots of pictures. Seems I always need a recovery day after deplaning.


  28. I just sadly put a bullet into a job offer that would require me to do long haul travel from the U.S. to China a few times a year. I can manage shorter hauls if necessary, but the very idea of being on a plane for 12 to 15 hours is more than I can bear. I had a fear of flying that I mostly overcame years ago thanks to therapy and meds, but I have no desire to long haul my arse to Asia one or more times a year. The very thought had me anxious. So I did what I thought was best and told the hiring manager that I would love the job and am interested in the work, but the long haul travel is just not something I can do. I feel sad about this, but resolute, as I know that level of anxiety and dread is not worth it. It’s not like I’d be on vacation or traveling first class either.

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