Packing for a flight without forgetting essentials can be the most challenging part of international travel. Hours and hours in a tiny airplane seat can be torturous to bodies both big and small.
I survive long flights by packing the 12 supplies listed below (here’s how I arrange them as I pack my carry on). But I’ll let you in on a secret: My #1 best tip for getting through a long flight isn’t shown in this doodle: it’s the doodle itself! Confused? Keep reading!
My Best Hack for Surviving a Long Flight:
Many creative people experience a phenomenon called “flow”. Flow is a mildly dissociative state (but don’t worry, it’s totally normal/healthy) that’s induced in our brains when we feel creative, inspired, and productive. When human brains enter a flow state, they process time differently. When a person experiences creative flow, the passing of an hour can feel like 15 minutes– and if you are able, that’s a very useful thing to harness for long flights.
Think about when you may have experienced flow in the past. Most often, people experience it while: painting or drawing, making music, writing computer code, writing a novel, or even reading an engrossing book.
A similar brain state is induced through gaming and binge-watching TV, but the dissociation accessed through non-creative endeavors affects the brain more like clinical dissociation than as flow. This can lead to a fogginess upon arrival to your destination. If you’ve had past experiences of flow, you can use that information to help you plan an in-flight activity that will help pass time faster than simply reading, watching movies, or trying to sleep.
Personally, making art- like this doodle- has helped me survive many horrifically long flights. While you may not be able to bring a selection of full-size art supplies on the plane, you can check out my travel art journal kit for a packing list to create a flight-friendly art-making kit for your carry-on luggage.
Although I do sometimes work on my paper travel journals in flight, my tablet and pen are usually enough to keep me occupied. Sometimes I doodle random art (such as this graphic on long flight must-haves), and sometimes I double up on activities – for instance, doodling the content of a podcast while I listen to it, or creating mandalas while listening to a favorite album.
Although that top travel hack is hard to beat, below are my essentials for packing for a flight:
1. A mobile power bank
I don’t know how it’s still possible, but many aircraft used for long haul flights still lack outlets or USB chargers at every seat. Hopefully, your plane will always have plenty of options for keeping your devices charged, but just in case they don’t, always pack a fully charged mobile power bank for adding a little extra juice if your phone, tablet, or laptop dies mid-flight.
2. A water bottle
Although some extra-secure international flights will make you dump any water or liquids again at the gate, generally it’s possible to bring water from airport water fountains onto the flight (as long as you fill your bottle between airport security and the gate).
Bringing a water bottle is always a good idea- but there’s an additional benefit: the freedom to have water and get refills in flight, without having to fuss with a lidless cup on an unstable tray. I recommend a Nalgene Widemouth for the ease of refilling even on a turbulent flight.
3. Pressure-relieving earplugs
Most people can travel okay without pressure-relieving earplugs, but if you are a sinus sufferer or have recently had a head cold, pressure-relieving earplugs are a must. If you have ever arrived at a destination with limited hearing from pressure changes during takeoff and landing, you know how serious this concern can be – especially during solo travel.
Since earplugs take virtually no space in a carry-on bag, they are a good idea to always have on hand just in case you notice fluid in your ears before your flight. They can also help muffle sound for better sleep during your flight. Other articles on Long Flight Essentials indicate that wax ear plugs are the form of earplugs most comfortable for long flights.
4. Headphones with an old-fashioned Audio Jack
It goes without saying that headphones are an absolute must for even short flights, but what many international flyers regret is not bringing a basic pair of headphones with a simple audio jack. Although you may have Airpods, other wireless, or USB-C connecting headphones, even new aircraft require a wired audio plugin order to connect and enjoy audio with in-flight entertainment. Unless you want to get stuck with questionably clean airline headphones, it’s best to bring your own.
5. Compression Socks
You’re never too young to start benefiting from compression socks. Athletes know, compression socks improve performance- and even if you aren’t an athlete, an ultra-long travel day is a marathon all of its own. Fun colors and patterns make compression socks fun for all ages. Even if you’ve never arrived at a destination with swollen legs or feet from a long flight, compression socks can help your body weather the stresses of international travel just a little easier by keeping your body just a little more stabilized- resulting in more energy to explore when you arrive at your destination!
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6. 🥽 Molded Eye Mask
You’ve probably tried an eye mask before, but you may not have tried a molded type. The molded eye mask uses thin, soft foam to lift the mask up and away from your eyelids, resulting in less stress on your face and better sleep. The molded design also helps prevent light from sneaking in around the edges of the sleep mask, helping improve your airplane snoozing.
🥽 My recommendation for a travel eye mask is Bucky brand eyemasks, which you can buy here at Amazon. (I use this model). They’re ultra-lightweight and molded, making them perfect for travel.
7. 🧴 The basics: Chapstick, Lotion, Tissues
Always great to have in your bag or purse, and absolutely essential on a long flight, chapstick, lotion, and tissues are in-flight mercies. The forced air recirculating through an airplane is often extremely dry, so planning ahead for your skincare and comfort is a big part of staying comfortable and healthy during an 8, 12, 14, hour or longer flight.
8. Comfy Clothing
Long gone are the days that travelers were expected to “dress” for flights. And when it comes to long international flights, anything goes as long as it’s decent. Make sure you have multiple layers of soft stretchy comfort on your person or in your carry-on.
Pro tip: coats and jackets don’t count against limits on hand baggage. If your carry-on is bursting, bring a coat with zippered pockets and stuff the pockets full of little items that don’t fit in your carry-on.
9. 📕 A Paperback Book
Even though I really only read e-books and audiobooks now, when I have a flight that over eight hours, I always, always pack a paperback book or an interesting magazine just in case. Tech can be surprising and unpredictable, and having no entertainment during a multi-hour flight is a fate so terrible it’s worth packing an insurance policy in the form of a lightweight mass-market paperback. As a bonus, you may find after hours of looking at screens, the paper pages are a nice alternative.
10. A pen
Behold the basic pen. Whether you need to make notes, fill out a menu card, or complete an immigration form or customs declaration, having your own pen on hand isn’t just handy: on occasion, being able to promptly fill out of form will get you to the front of a long line.
11. A Turkish Towel
THIS is my best secret for surviving a long flight, or really any travel at all. A Turkish towel is the most multi-use item in my one bag packing list. This ultra-soft cotton towel can be folded, rolled, or spread out to work as a neck pillow, lumbar roll, or as a blanket that I know I can trust to be clean – unlike airline-provided blankets.
12. A washcloth or disposable face cleaning wipe
If you’ve read my tips on essentials for South American packing, you’ll know that bringing your own washcloth can often be pay off big time during international travel. But even if you are just taking a flight across the country, packing washcloth or disposable face cloth can be a great way to care for your skin and arrive fresh and feeling a little less gross.
These 10 tips plus my top hint on finding flow in-flight, is how I survive even the longest, most grueling air flights as a solo traveler. But if you’re traveling as a couple or even a family with young kids- well, you’ve got an entirely different challenge. If you’re planning a long flight with a toddler or younger child, check out Jen’s Guide to Keeping a Toddler Busy on a Flight, over on the Flying Mum.
How do you make it through? Leave your feedback in the comments below.
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by decades of experience on the road with a traveling family and, later, years spent as a solo international traveler. When she’s not writing about Seattle from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.