Christopher Elliott | Special to USA TODAY
Prepare for a long flight. That’s some of the best advice I’ve heard as the 2022 travel season takes off. As the pandemic loosens its grip on the world, people will travel longer and farther than they have in years – and maybe ever.
But your next long-distance flight won’t be like the one you remember, say experts.
“The pandemic changed what airlines kept on the planes,” says Tracy Schatz, president of Elite Travel Journeys, a travel agency in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania. “For years, airlines were known for keeping extra pillows, blankets, and other necessities available for travelers who needed them. But not after the pandemic. Anyone who is planning on traveling to faraway distances on an airplane should make sure they have everything they need to make themselves comfortable.”
That’s the most significant change, and it’s worth repeating: You may not have access to a pillow, blanket or eye mask on your next long-haul flight. So if you want to sleep, you’ll need to bring your own.
But beyond that, are there any new tips for surviving a long flight during a pandemic, or at least during the era of mask requirements? Yes, actually. They include options for headsets, clothes, travel pillows and more. But let’s start with the face covering, still required on almost all flights.
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The best masks for a long-haul flight
“You need a comfortable face mask,” says Nicole LeBlanc, a travel advisor with Mon Voyage, a travel agency in Dallas.
The Fiber Knit Sport mask ($20.50) is ideal for long-distance flying. It comes with a pack of disposable filters to protect you against infectious bacteria, pollen, and toxic fumes. It’s also super-soft and has a special design that prevents your glasses from fogging up. I recommend breaking it in before your next flight and finding the right settings for the adjustable strap. I also like Pomchies’ Pom Masks ($12.95 for two), which I’ve comfortably worn on a few transcontinental flights.
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Wear what’s warm and comfortable
For longer flights, particularly during the winter, you’re better off flying in the right clothes. I’ve been a merino wool skeptic – I can’t deal with itchy wool – but the Ibex Men’s Tranquil Long Sleeve Pullover ($142) has made me rethink my position. It’s almost as soft as cotton, and the trick to getting it that way is to wash it before wearing it. I like the Royal Robbins Switchform Insulated Jacket (currently on sale for $142.50, down from $190) not just because it’s comfortable but also because it folds into a small carry-on item if you travel between latitudes.
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The best pillows and blankets for long flights
Then there are pillows and blankets. Nicole Gustas, who recently flew from Perth, Australia, to Boston, says you can’t overlook them because your airline might. “I have a neck pillow, which became very effective once I learned to use it the right way: the fat part goes under your chin, and the snap goes at the back of your neck,” says Gustas, a marketing director for an insurance company in Boston. Gustas also brings a shawl, which doubles as a blanket.
Multipurpose is definitely “in” this year. For example, you can buy an Anthropologie Bumblebee Velvet Eye Mask ($32), which readers have recommended because the cotton feels like velvet. But why not do both? That’s what Yogibo promises with its Nap X Travel Pillow (currently on sale for $15, down from $25), a combination of neck pillow and eye mask. Yeah, it looks a little weird, but no one will be looking in a darkened plane.
For a little more neck support, you may want to consider the Scrumptious Travel Pillow ($99), a larger pillow that you can use every night while you’re on the road. It’s a little bulkier, but it will go a long way toward making the interior of an economy cabin feel like your bedroom – if such a thing is possible.
Headsets and other necessities
There’s also the entertainment setup. It’s necessary to pass the time because, for some reason, time comes to a standstill when you’re flying. I have no idea why. Gregg Jaden, a photographer from Manhattan Beach, California, starts with a noise-canceling headset – he can’t imagine flying without one – and then loads his iPad with movies and songs.
Over-ear noise-canceling headsets like the Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones ($329) have been a reader favorite for as long as I can remember. But lately, the in-ear noise-canceling headphones have also found favor among frequent fliers. For example, Sony Electronics’ new WF-1000XM4 ($249.99) offers a more advanced processor to filter almost all the engine noise and has eight hours of battery life. A word of warning, the earbuds can pop out while you’re sleeping, so wear a hoodie to catch them.
“Noise-canceling is critical to combat disruptions like engine sounds, noisy seat mates, or a baby crying on a red-eye,” explains Tyler Ishida, deputy president for Sony Electronics’ Consumer Business Group.
Tricks for a more comfortable flight – even in economy class
Phyllis Stoller, president of The Women’s Travel Group, a tour operator, says she’s taken some smaller steps to make long-distance trips more comfortable during the pandemic. On marathon flights like her recent 12 ½-hour trip from New York to Dubai, she pays for extra legroom.
“I also try to book an aisle seat about five rows from the bathrooms,” she says. “That way, you can grab the toilets when they have been empty for a few minutes.”
But in the end, you can’t do much with economy-class seats, except maybe to understand that they do what they’re supposed to: they prod passengers into buying upgrades or participating in an airline’s addictive loyalty program. But they’re not for flying in comfort. For that, you’ll need to spend a lot more.
By the way, these tips for surviving a long flight during a pandemic will also work for long car trips. That’s how most Americans will get to their vacation destination, anyway.