We had our worst long haul flight a year ago, after coming back from Japan. Daniel had just gotten released from the hospital where he had spent 11 days after needing emergency surgery for appendicitis. We were exhausted, Daniel was still in pain, and we just wanted to go home.
Unfortunately, this meant two long flights with a stopover in Hong Kong. Eleven hours in a tiny plane seat can be endless if you’re not feeling well.
But even if you’re perfectly healthy and looking forward to your holidays, long haul flights are not much fun. You’ll spend an extended amount of time squeezed into a tiny plane seat with almost no legroom. Depending on the airline, the quality of food or entertainment varies. And depending on the time of the day, you might be able to sleep through most of it or you might not.
Fortunately, you can take a few items with you that will make your flight more enjoyable. They will not solve all of your problems, but knowing what to pack for a long haul flight can make all the difference. Here is what we have in our bags, and what you should put on your packing list for your next flight as well:
Our favourite essentials for long haul flights
#1 Backpack or suitcase
When packing your carry-on luggage, you first need to make a few general decisions. Are you going to check in your luggage or are you only going to take a carry-on suitcase?
We’ve travelled both ways. For shorter trips within Europe, we would usually only take carry-on luggage. For longer trips to more far-flung places, we typically check in our big travel backpacks. However, I have also taken long haul flights with a small carry-on suitcase only, so it is possible.
If we have check-in luggage, we love taking our Osprey backpacks into the cabin. They offer lots of room, are comfortable to carry and are also pretty durable. Daniel has had his for years, and it’s still good.
We both have the Talon 22 backpack, and I love using it, even though it is made for men. If you want to take a look at a woman’s model, you should check out the Tempest 20, which is almost the same but a tiny bit smaller.Never pack anything into your check-in luggage that you can’t afford to lose. This does not just include important papers but also anything with a sentimental value. I learned this the hard way when my backpack got lost on my way to Peru, and I only recovered it three weeks later.
If you take carry-on luggage only, you could opt for a small suitcase. Before boarding, make sure to check the restrictions on what you can take. Airlines love changing them so double-check if you are within the allowed size.
I love travelling with a small suitcase which has a world map for colouring on it. Yes, I could probably find lighter bags in which I could fit more luggage, but this suitcase always leads to interesting conversations at security or with fellow passengers.
An alternative if you’re travelling with hand luggage only is to take a backpack. My brother owns an Osprey 40l backpack which is optimised as carry-on luggage. You can fit enough in there for a multi-week holiday, and since you can carry it on your back, you’ll find it easier to move around than with a suitcase.
Documents and other essentials
#2 Passport, hotel bookings etc.
Your passport is the most important item you are going to pack. Make sure you store it somewhere accessible, so you have it on hand when you need it.
I like carrying mine in a money belt. That way, depending on where I’m flying, I can use the money belt at my destination. I know it doesn’t stop you from getting robbed, and by now every mugger knows about these belts. But if someone grabs my backpack or handbag and runs off with it, at least I will still have my passport.
Inside my passport, I usually carry my boarding pass. That way, I always know where to find it.
Besides the passport and the boarding pass, you are also going to need at least one credit card (I prefer taking two, in case I run into problems with one of them) and all visa documents. Plus, you should also carry some emergency cash on you. US Dollars usually work best as you can exchange them pretty much everywhere in the world.
Also, make sure to take any hotel booking documents, shuttle vouchers etc. into the cabin with you. You don’t want to lose them in case your check-in luggage doesn’t arrive.
Always pack a pen. Often, you need to fill in immigration papers on the plane and you’ll be glad to have one with you.
If you have any medication that you need to take regularly, make sure to pack it in your carry-on luggage. Don’t take the risk of having all of it in your check-in luggage only.
You might also want to take some over the counter medication for headaches, motion sickness etc. Talk to your doctor about it if you’re unsure whether this is something you need or not.
For me, I always have an emergency kit in case I get motion sick. There’s nothing worse than being stuck on a plane and feeling nauseous.
#5 Comfortable clothes
You are going to spend a lot of time on a plane. Worst case, you might even spend 12 hours or more on this one plane before you arrive.
Do yourself a favour and wear comfortable clothes. I have often seen people on planes wearing stylish clothes, and I’ve always wondered how they do it. For me, nothing beats comfort. If I have to spend that long in a seat, I at least don’t want to wear any super tight clothes that pinch me all the time.
I’ll usually go for a pair of loosely fitting trousers, a t-shirt and then either a fleece or a hoodie on top. These clothes are comfortable, practical and I can usually combine them with other clothes so I can still wear them when I get to my destination.
The comfort also extends to shoes. I like wearing a simple pair of trainers that I can easily slip on and off. That way, I can remove them when I want to but then don’t have to fumble with them for ages when I need to go to the toilet.
#6 Warm clothes
Planes can get cold. Very cold. Keep in mind that you’re not moving for hours in a row, and you might sleep, which means you’ll feel even colder.
Usually, airlines supply blankets on long haul flights, especially if it’s an overnight flight. However, I wouldn’t rely on that. Make sure to take a warm sweater/hoodie/fleece, so you don’t freeze.
I’ve never done it, but I know some people also like taking scarfs to keep their neck warm.
Warm socks are another essential you need on a long haul flight. If you wear comfortable shoes, as mentioned above, you can easily slip them off and exchange them for a comfy pair of socks.
#7 Compression socks
Up until I left on a trip around the world, I worked as a doctor in intensive care. Most of my co-workers also worked in emergency medicine. In this area, sooner or later, you will see patients with thrombosis and pulmonary embolism and it led to me becoming paranoid about the topic.
It didn’t help that each time I went on holidays, every single one of my co-workers would ask me if I was going to inject something to prevent thrombosis.
Now, I don’t recommend you run off to your pharmacy and buy blood thinners. I don’t use them and I don’t think it’s necessary for most people (unless, of course, your doctor recommends otherwise – if in doubt, you should always consult your doctor). But I do wear compression socks.
These socks might lower the risk of thrombosis. While I believe it’s not a hundred percent proven that they are effective (though the NHS, for example, recommends them for people at risk), it’s such an easy measure that I think it’s worth it. Just make sure the socks fit, or you might be increasing your risk.One of the most effective actions you can take to prevent blood clots is to move your legs regularly. Get up and stretch, walk up and down the aisle or do some exercises. And drink enough water. The NHS has more information on
#8 Spare clothes
Have you ever stood in front of the luggage belt and watched as everyone’s suitcase arrived except yours?
This has happened to me multiple times already. The first time, I was in Lima, and everything I had was the clothes on my body. On top of that, earlier that day, I had to run from one end of the terminal to the other to catch our connecting flight in New York. So there I was, sweaty and uncomfortable, and with no clean clothes to change into.
If you’ve ever been to Lima, you will know that the city gets humid every night. I tried washing my t-shirt but it wasn’t even close to dry the next morning. And don’t get me started on how much I would have loved to put on some fresh underwear!
Since then, I always pack at least one spare outfit. You can still buy more clothes at your target destination, but you will feel much more comfortable if you have at least something fresh to wear while you go shopping.
Snacks and water
#9 Empty water bottle
If you’ve ever taken a long haul flight, then you’ll know how tiny the cups of water are that the airlines serve. And while flying, it’s more important than ever to stay hydrated. The dry air on the plane will make you lose more water than usual, so make sure to drink enough.
I always take an empty water bottle with me. In most airports, you can fill up the bottle after security. That way, you can avoid having to purchase expensive drinks, and you also have water to drink on the plane. Plus, you can ask the stewards to fill up your bottle once it’s empty.
My favourite water bottle that I take everywhere is a 1l Platypus bottle. This bottle collapses as you drink from it, so it never takes more space than needed. And when it’s empty, it’s completely flat, and you can fit it everywhere. In addition, it is exceptionally durable. I used it daily for 13 months and it still works perfectly.
So far, I’ve never had a long-haul flight where the airline didn’t serve me food. Sometimes, the dishes were far better than expected. Other time, they were barely edible. And one time, on a flight with Iberia Airlines, I just wasn’t able to eat the dish they served me.
I have no problems eating maggots (even if I wasn’t a big fan) or unusual flavour combinations. But I just couldn’t stomach the plane food that day.
You might one day run into a similar situation. Plus, airlines gradually remove the service they offer, and this also applies to meals. Therefore, it pays off to always have a few snacks in your hand luggage. Nuts are a great example, as they are healthy and fill you up.
Just make sure that if you have any “biologic” snacks, like nuts and fruits, you eat them before arriving at your target destination. Depending on where you travel to, you might not be allowed to take them through customs and can get into problems if you accidentally do.
#11 Chewing gum
If you have sensitive ears (or if you have a cold), you will feel the change in pressure as the plane takes off and lands.
In that case, it pays off to have some chewing gum on you. Chewing can help your ears adjust to the pressure more easily. Some people also like eating candy. Whatever you choose, make sure to have this option available in case you need it.
Remember to carry all of your toiletries in a clear bag and never to take more than 100 ml (3.4 ounces) of liquid per container.
I often use zip lock bags but have found that they tear easily. You can easily purchase more durable and sustainable alternatives, that won’t break halfway through your trip.
After a long haul flight, you might notice that your skin feels much drier than usual. That’s because of the filtration system of planes. These usually replace some of the cabin air with outside air, and at that altitude, the atmosphere is very, very dry.
To prevent your skin from turning into reptilian skin, always carry moisturizer. I notice the effect especially on my hands, so I love to carry some Neutrogena hand cream. Others feel it mostly on their face, in which case you should take a facial moisturiser. Or take both, just make sure that both packages are small enough that you can take them through security.
#13 Lip balm
This ties in with the previous item. If your skin dries out, then your lips are going to do the same. I usually have a small tube of dexpanthenol cream with me (which is often used for babies but works wonders on my lips) or some lip balm specifically for parched lips.
On that note, besides the lips, your nose can also dry out. While I have, fortunately, never had that problem, my mother suffers from a nose so dry that it gets painful to fly. She uses a simple saline nasal spray, with no other ingredients than saline solution and it makes flying a lot better for her.
#14 Toothbrush and toothpaste
After half a day on a plane, I usually feel the urge to refresh myself by brushing my teeth. This simple act can make all the difference when I arrive at my destination.
Plus, carrying a toothbrush in your hand luggage means that you will have one available even if your check-in luggage arrives with a delay. You can buy a toothbrush travel kit, which will include the toothbrush and the toothpaste, for convenience. I usually just grab these items from home and pack them.
#15 Wet wipes
Have you ever tried to wash on a plane? That tiny bathroom sink makes it impossible to wash anything other than your hands.
That’s where wet wipes come in. You can use them to clean yourself, or you can even use them to clean your fingers at your seat, without having to queue for the bathroom. It won’t be the same as a shower or even washing at a proper sink, but it’ll leave you feeling at least a bit refreshed.
A tiny bottle of deodorant is a lifesaver on a long flight. It can’t replace a shower, but I feel much better after using it. I especially love it for those flights where I arrive in the morning and then still need to wait a few hours before I can get into my room.
To protect your health, try to buy aluminium-free deodorants.
#17 Hand sanitiser
Even though cleaning staff goes through the whole plane in between flights, airplanes aren’t the cleanest environments.
I have a friend who got sick after every single long haul flight she took. It wasn’t until she wore a face mask on the plane and used hand sanitiser regularly that she managed to go on holidays without getting sick.
Most of us won’t have such an extreme reaction to the germs on the flights. Still, using hand sanitiser before you touch your food can reduce the risk of catching anything. That way, you get to enjoy your trip without feeling horrible.
Unless you have extremely short or no hair, you should carry a hairbrush. After a night of trying to sleep on the plane, your hair will be all over. You might not feel clean after such a long flight, but at least your hair doesn’t look horrible if you get to brush it.
You can find foldable travel hairbrushes that are light-weight and won’t take up much space.
Other long haul flight essentials
#19 Travel pillow
For the longest time, I did not carry a travel pillow but instead relied on the tiny pillow that airlines often give to you. And you know what? It was uncomfortable.
I would wake up because my head had fallen to the side. Sometimes, my neck was in so much pain that I couldn’t move for a day or two.
Travel pillows can be a game-changer, especially if you often suffer from neck pain. You have the choice between buying a soft, fluffy pre-filled pillow and an inflatable one. The former will offer more comfort, the latter is much easier to store once you get to your destination.
#20 Eye mask
I have to admit, I never use eye masks. I don’t like having them in my face, and I always feel as if they’re pressing on my eyeballs.
A lot of people swear by them, though, which is why we decided to include them in this list. If you’re a sensitive sleeper, a sleep mask can make all the difference when you’re trying to fall asleep in a brightly lit plane.
#21 Headphones or earplugs
Headphones or earplugs can make all the difference when you’re trying to sleep on a plane. Just put in the earplugs and forget about the world around you.
Or put on some music and let it help you fall asleep.
While many airlines provide headphones for long haul flights, we highly recommend you bring your own. You will notice a much better quality. I’ve had flights on which I had to watch every movie with subtitles because the headphones provided by the airline were of such low quality that I couldn’t understand anything.
Oh, and some budget airlines don’t even provide headphones anymore, or you have to pay for them. So it’s best to pack some nice ones so that you can enjoy your flight.
When it comes to earplugs, you can find special ones that help balance the pressure on the plane. We have never tried them but they have great reviews and a lot of people claim that they saved them from ear pain. It’s worth a try to make sure you feel well on your flight.
10 hours (or 8 hours or 12 hours) can be a very long time if you’re stuck on a plane. Especially if you can’t sleep. Most airlines offer a wide range of movies that you can watch on your tiny screen, but even those can get boring after a while.
Therefore, we highly recommend that you bring your own entertainment. Take a Kindle so you can read a book. Bring a guidebook and read up on your target destination. Install games on your phone. Most of these options don’t take up much space and will leave you with a wide choice of entertainment options.
They won’t make the flight perfect, but they will make time pass much faster.
#23 Power bank and chargers
Did you notice that most entertainment options we listed above involve electronic devices? Therefore, you should always take your charger and a power bank.
Most airlines now offer at least one USB slot at your seat which you can use for charging devices. Be aware, though, that these might not always function correctly. I remember a flight during which the charger seemingly worked at first. But when I looked at my phone one hour later, it had only gained 1% more battery power.
Therefore, we recommend that you take a power bank with you. Depending on your needs, you can choose between different options. We have a tiny power bank that we can easily fit into every pocket. It’s lightweight, and we love it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last as long as big power banks, which is why we also have a more heavy but much more powerful one.
Besides electronics for entertainment, you also need to pack all electronics you want to take on this trip. This includes camera, laptop etc.
Never pack those into your check-in luggage! First of all, you never know if your check-in luggage is going to arrive. Second, have you ever seen the airport staff throw around the suitcases? I wouldn’t be sure that a laptop survives in there.
And third, most batteries and power banks are forbidden to carry in the check-in luggage. I learned this the hard way when I checked in my heated jacket on a flight back home from Helsinki. Upon arriving, I had a letter in my backpack notifying me that customs had removed the power bank from my luggage.
#25 Travel insurance
Travel insurance is technically not an item you need to pack, but it’s something you need for every long-distance flight.
How much do you think that emergency appendicitis surgery in Japan was? If we hadn’t had travel insurance, we would have had to pay around 20,000$, preferably in cash. Fortunately, Daniel’s insurance paid directly to the hospital. They even covered the roaming fees for all of the calls I had to make with them, and the taxi to get to the hospital.
We used a German insurance company, as we found that they often have the best conditions. But Daniel has also used World Nomads before, which is popular with travellers from all over the world.
After booking your travel insurance, you need to take one additional thing onto the plane – the insurance company’s emergency number. Make sure you have it written down somewhere or saved in your phone, so you can always get help if necessary.
There you have it, the ultimate packing list of travel essentials you are going to need for your next long haul flight. If you’re thinking about travelling abroad, we have lots more resources for you. Check out our destination page to find all of our posts about your travel destination.
Or read up on more general travel-related topics that will help you plan your trip:
- The best travel apps you need for your next trip
- How much does it cost to travel around the world?
- What to pack for a jungle trip – a packing list for your next trip
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