52 travel hacks for economy class

Nomads, here’s our 52 travel hacks for getting through long haul economy class in reasonable shape.

1. Choose your seat

It's really important to choose your seat. And to make an informed choice for your comfort.

This is critical. Make sure you’ve got a good seat and have assessed its pros and cons. It makes no sense these days to wait for the check in agent to assign one. Hop online and pick your seat, after having a look at a site like seatexpert.com and working out what type of aircraft you have. I like the last couple of seats on the Boeing 777, typically configured in two across. Way better than getting stuck three across in my opinion. Or check out the A330, which has loads of options for two across.

2. A decent neck pillow

A neck pillow makes sleep possible in economy class

Get one. Period. You’ll be happy you did. These things make sleep possible. The Cabeau range is great, offering both high end comfort and good standard options. For the adventure backpackers, a high quality inflatable might be doable. By the way, some hardcore folks use medical neck brace, saying you can sleep perfectly once you get comfortable with it. Looks stupid as hell but it might be worth it.

Image credit: Kevin Tao 

3. Noise cancelling headphones

These are fast becoming an essential and more and more folks have them. They really make a difference. You can get the best out of the entertainment on offer (airline headphones suck, I find, and barely cover the engine- so you have to max out the volume on the IFE) and they zone out the background din so you can get some sleep. Highly recommended. If you don’t like the headset variety, these now come in buds.

If you bring your own headphones, make sure you have an adapter plug. These will often come as standard with the higher end headphones at purchase.

4. Kindle or eBook reader

A Kindle is a great travel tool

You can of course hit the in flight entertainment. Some airlines have crap entertainment or not enough choice. You may even end up on a United junker with a central video screen playing Home Alone. In any case, I like to start off my longer flights by reading and when I get tired, hit up the audiovisual. That gives me at least some mental variety and keeps the cobwebs at bay. Either way, a Kindle is a great companion. You can load it up with those one dollar mystery thrillers and be enthralled for ages.

Image credit: James Cridland 

5. Sleeping pills

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about these. I don’t do them myself but some folks swear by them and get great results. Make sure you’re comfortable (neck pillow, again, guys) because you don’t want to fall into a chemically induced sleep on a special neck nerve. Ouch! Consider also whether you want to be a bit drowsy when you arrive and what kind of wits you need.

6. Pick a seat close to the galley

I do this because I like to be close to the crew and can (super nicely) ask for extras. Drinks, leftovers, cookies – you name it. On Emirates, you can sit in the last row and chat to the crew, as well as getting preferential service on the US$ 10 bottles of champagne coveted by seasoned flyers.

7. Wear soft gear

I’m not a track suit and sneakers guy like Ben Stiller. Nonetheless they make sense. You want something soft around your abdomen and arms. Tight jeans aren’t going to do you any favors. Loose, soft exercise gear is the go and makes a big difference in allowing you to move during the flight.

If you do want to be like Ben Stiller, after all: Top & Pants : )

8. Make sure you’re in the frequent flyer program

Guys, make sure you are enrolled in the frequent flyer program of the airline you are flying with. I know if you’re a frugal nomad or an adventure backpacker, or heading out on your first trip – you might be like “what is the point”? Here’s the point: you’ll get some miles you might be able to use later. And, importantly, most airlines will only upgrade folks with a frequent flyer number (FF passengers will be on their preference list before the general passengers). The so-called chance “operational upgrades”. So, if you want to be lucky, get a frequent flyer account for those long haul flights you’re going to take.

9. Make sure the airline has your email address and cell number

Emirates, as an example, are getting pretty good at sending you an upgrade option before you fly. Other airlines do the same thing. Sometimes, you can even "bid" for your business class seat. Not always worth it, but if you have cash to burn it can make for happy memories!

This way the airline can advise you have delays, etc., and contact you if need be. If a last minute upgrade offer is made, too, it’s important to have an email address on file. They’ll usually send the offers out by email or SMS a couple of hours before the flight. Taking up such an offer is a good way to experience business class at a heavy discount. Emirates, for example, has been known to offer upgrades from around USD 400 – 900 by email six or so hours before the flight.

10. Drink more (water)

It’s true. You’ll feel better. Particularly your eyes and skin, which need a lot of water to work normally. If you’re drinking alcohol, overcompensate with the water. And I guess you’ll need an aisle seat.

11. Lounge pass

Purchasing a lounge pass can be good value if you have a long stopover

Two long economy class legs together can be tough. I say reward yourself a little bit and buy lounge access. You can usually do this advance, online, and get a discount. They’ll usually have showers, some healthy food and some booze. As long as it’s not packed really full, a lounge can be a great way to collect yourself away from the mind numbing noise of the airport. If you travel a lot, a membership scheme like Priority Pass can make sense.

Image credit: nakedsky 

12. Pick a special meal

Pick a special mean and get served first!

This hack is well known. Book a special meal – i.e. gluten free or vegetarian – and you’ll very often get served first as per normal airline procedures. This way you can eat early and get to sleep ahead of the pack.

Image credit: Austrian Airlines / flickr 

13. Don’t bloat

Alternatively don’t eat. Some folks swear by this. Don’t feel fat and farty in your small seat. Skip all that by having a meal at at the airport and riding out the flight without a big meal. Most folks say this helps them sleep.

14. Prime your body clock

Another ye olde hack. Wake and sleep a couple of hours closer to your destination timezone about a week before your flight. If executed diligently, this can really reduce your jet lag upon arrival.

15. Clean your teeth before sleep

We’re creatures of habit. Also we don’t want to be filthy. Make the effort to go to the restroom after dinner and clean your teeth, settling down for the evening part of the flight properly. This will help condition you towards sleep and give you a nice feeling of normality. Also your pearly whites will thank you for it!

16. Smile and be considerate

Don’t get agro with your fellow passengers. Smile, accept slight inconveniences or slip ups and accept that we’re all in the same boat (OK, aircraft). Economy class is a human experience. Ask if you can help someone. There may be a warm buzz in it for you.

17. Go light in economy class

Keep your carry on modest. You don’t want to be one of those guys that keeps trying to smash his trolley with big wheels into the overhead compartment. Check what you don’t need or, better yet, don’t check anything at all and make do with a very light approach.

18. Pick the backrow seat if you’re scared of crashing

If you buy all that “pick the safest seat on the plane” stuff, you’d better go ahead and do it. Peace of mind. Generally they say it’s the seats in the rear of the plane that do best in an impact. More than 60% better. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that.

19. Essentials in carry on

Make sure your critical essentials (medication, contact lenses, important documentation etc.) are in your carry on. You don’t want to be tired and lost near some baggage carousel somewhere with exactly nothing to survive with.

20. Moisturizer

They give you moisturizer in business class for a reason. It makes you feel better. Pack a small travel tube and pamper your face when you feel crap, say in the 7th hour of an 11 hour flight. Works for both gals and guys.

21. Understand before being understood

This is a good hack for dealing with the cabin crew and is just plain polite. When you’re asking for something special, start off with something empathetic: “Are you tired? This is a long flight to be on your feet for”. Then, after listening and chatting for a bit: “I know you probably don’t have any of x left, but if you do – it would be great if we could get another one.” Easy.

22. Use headphones as a prop for talkative types

If you’ve got a talkative Tim next to you, keep those headphones handy to make it clear you don’t want chit chat. Our nomad gals swear by this.

23. Do a lap if you wake up

I’m too familiar with the endless horror of nodding off, waking up, nodding off, waking up, being hopelessly uncomfortable and pissed off, and trying to nod off again. Instead, when I wake up, I get up and do a lap of the plane. The change of pace gets my blood moving and I’m more likely to get a longer sleep when I sit down again. Try it. You might want an aisle seat or a secluded seat though.

24. Sit up front if you want off first

Sit up front if you want to get off first

I’m more in the camp that it takes as long as it takes, so getting off first to beat another queue is just too stressful and so I get off when I get off. If you want to get off first, like for instance you have a close connection, then obviously position yourself closer to the front. Don’t get envy, though, when you catch a glimpse of business class through the curtains.

Image credit: daezho  

25. Pack perfume

A little bit of nice perfume or cologne is uplifting. I keep a small bottle spray and use it whenever it gets tough. Instant dignity boost!

26. Get Audible or load up with podcasts matching your interests

Audible is awesome and you can listen to their huge range of audio books through their app. Regular podcasts are also a great time hack. You won’t even notice that the flight has all but disappeared. I really recommend you get a podcast cranking on a hobby, personal development goal or a travel destination.

27. If you don’t have noise cancelling headphones, use buds

Regular buds are a great alternative, particularly the ones with the little suction rubber bits. You know what I’m talking about. Skullcandy has some decent ones for under 30 bucks that fit snugly in your ear.

28. Power your stuff

Check your airline has seat plugs or bring an external battery. You don’t want your iPhone dead on arrival, when you might have some coordinating to do.

29. Comfy socks

Simple but important. You can also get flight socks, which hold DVT at bay.

30. Strategically sit in an empty aisle

Board last and wander, as if lost, to a free center aisle. Bam! Economy class luxury, right there. You’ll get a good sleep, three across, and, let’s be realistic, nobody’s going to ask you for your seat assignment. Most folks don’t start the search for a place to sleep until after take off, so this will put you way ahead of the game.

31. Have your arrival all planned out


So you can rest beforehand on your flight worry free. Particularly if it’s an offbeat destination and you are arriving late at night. I arrived in India for the first time after midnight, with nothing planned, and that was a sleepless drama. Oh yeah.

32. Inflatable footrest

Yes, it’s a thing (don’t laugh) and yes it makes a difference.

33. Sleeping mask

A good eye mask is a great way to aid sleep on your long haul flight

Match a good mask with a nice seat recline, neck pillow, noise cancelling headphones and a comfy blanket and inflatable footrest, and you’re all set for some economy class shuteye. Living the dream!

Image credit: Canstockphoto / Dibrova

34. Turbulence busting

If you hate turbulence, sit in the center of the aircraft near the wings. You’ll get less grief there, because you’ll be closer to the center of gravity of the aircraft.

35. Don’t wear contacts

If you do, the dry air will leave your eyes feeling like someone was rubbing sand into them while you slept. You’re better off with the glasses.

36. Blocked nose

Fix it before landing. A decongestant before and during your flight is probably the best bet. And lots of water. Otherwise, the pressure on your ears can knock out your hearing after landing. Not fun.

37. Essentials bag or pouch

Get a little essentials bag that you can put everything into and keep separate from your main bag. You can put this in the pocket or under your seat and not have to worry about getting up to get your stuff. For nervous types, you can put all your belongings in there and keep them close without having to check for your wallet, phone, keys and passport every five minutes.

38. Enjoy the people

There are some really interesting people out there and this is a great opportunity to hold them to a captive conversation. Single serving friends, I think, was the expression they used in Fight Club.

39. Order the extras ahead of time

Get a discount when you add extras for comfort ahead of your flight

If you’re flying low cost, or even just a regular airline these days, check out what extras you can buy on board. If I’m travelling a long distance, I like to make sure I’m loaded up and will buy the extras. This is particularly relevant if you have to buy meals and stuff, like on AirAsia X or Tigerair. You get a discount if you buy in advance and I just buy. A little extra comfort in uncomfortable circumstances is worth it.

40. Check in early

Check in early, with some airlines, to choose your seat. This is usually for the airlines with the older IT systems. You also minimize your chances of being “bumped”, which is where the airline gives your seat to another person and transfers you to another flight. Always check in online, if you can, instead of at the airport. Of course, you can drop your bag off at the check in desk.

41. Wipe down your seat rests and food tray

Would you have much work ethic if you got paid what an aircraft cleaner gets paid to do a quick job under super time pressure? Exactly. Use some antibacterial wipes and clean up the space that will be yours for these next long hours.

42. Pack nibbles

Try almonds or whole wheat crackers with peanut butter, a hot tip from Hilary Fischer-Groban. Maybe a snickers bar if you’re feeling a bit naughty, but beware the sugar crash on long haul.

43. White noise app for sleep

There are white noise apps. Find your favorite and deploy it ruthlessly with your noise cancelling headphones.

44. Window seat

Woman sleeping in economy class

I’m not in this camp, but the religion is that you nestle in early and sleep the whole flight (no one will disturb you). Just don’t need to go to the toilet or anything, as you’ll have to wake the girl next to you. Maybe this goes to the truth of it, but I’ve enjoyed the aisle for many years without the window folks waking me. Maybe that’s because they’ve got it down to a fine art.

Image credit: Canstockphoto 35470469  

45. Evian spray

Get a mini pack (50ml) and spray your face for a refresher. Almost as good as a shower… Well, almost. Part of the beauty routine for many of our readers.

46. Write the best economy class novel

You could be the next big thing! Knock out part of your new novel in economy! : )

Too often we get into a neg out about flying as wasted time. It’s not. You can still use it. Write to your mum, pen a review of the airline for your blog or make a start to the 21st century novel. You could be the next J K Rowling!

Image credit: Anna Lou 

47. Change your underwear before landing

This freshens you up for your destination and leaves you feeling less gross and oily. Sometimes it’s hard to be civilized in economy, but it’s always worth the effort.

48. Plan an airport hotel for longer connections

Grab an airport hotel to relax and sleep in the longer stops between flights

If you have a long connection, try to grab an airport hotel. Preferably in terminal. Asian airports usually have good options and prices can be realistic – USD 50 for 6 hours. OK, so that might be more than a hostel but travelling economy does need a little compassion.

Image credit: estelheitz 

49. Loyalty

Not much on this from us. But if you are traveling a lot, and we know you are, it makes sense to build up a relationship with an airline you like or at least an alliance (oneworld, Star Alliance and Skyteam all offer reciprocal loyalty recognition to a degree). This means that you will be developing a consistent bank of miles, maybe some status and you might even benefit from the occasional upgrade. 50,000 miles is often enough for an upgrade to business class. We’re not obsessed with points here at Friendly Nomad, but you can game the system a bit by getting points on the ground for various things (credit cards, being one) and then using those points to upgrade your economy booking. Worth it if you have some lead time on the trip of your lifetime.

50. Headache pills

If you get headaches, make sure you pack some Advil or aspirin. Cabin crew have these but aren’t usually allowed to give you any, meaning you could have a long flight with no relief ahead.

51. Don’t upgrade unless…

Business class apéritif on Emirates Airline

You’re happy for economy to become a whole lot harder after you see how the other half flies. Once you’ve tasted business, it can be hard to go back as your expectations get jilted. You’re also not as naively happy with economy for what it is and start comparing your lot to the lot of those upfront. Before I tried business class I really didn’t spend any time thinking about how bad economy was or envying those folks getting the champagne before takeoff. OK, OK, so not a reason not to take business when you get the chance, but just be aware of this one.

Image credit: Andy Mitchell / Flickr  

52. Learn a language

Dead time like aeroplane time is a great opportunity to put the mind to work. Time also passes more quickly with cognitive effort and, boy, learning a language is tough stuff. Pull out your exercise book or invest in an iPad app that can teach you a language while offline. There are a few, and even if you’re just starting out, you’ll be able to say “hi” and “can I have a beer, please” in the destination language by the time you land.

Title image credit: Ronald Sarayudej 

What are your friendly tips? Don’t be shy. Let us know by leaving a comment below.

  • RoadToSelf_Blog

    #44! Aisle seats are the best, no need to wake anyone up if you need to go to the toilet or get something to drink. We also swear by lounge access (Diners Club..), and changing some of your clothes before landing.

    • Thanks for the comment. Recently stuck on window seat, three across, for a 12 hours flight. Folks didn’t move an inch the entire time! Definitely now converted to the aisle religion : )

  • These are great tips! Enjoyed reading this because I’m always on an economy flight. :))
    But some are applicable to non-economy flights too.

    • Friendly Nomad Team

      Hi Melai – thanks for the comment : ) we don’t get up the pointy end very often, but glad to know we’d be prepared if that rare opportunity arises! We’re huge fans of your blog here at FN. best

    • Hi Melai – thanks for the comment : ) we don’t get up the pointy end very often, but glad to know we’d be prepared if that rare opportunity arises! We’re huge fans of your blog here at FN. best

  • Travel4lifeblog

    Thanks for sharing a great list of tips with us! The only one that I won’t do is to pack a perfume. The smell of perfume makes me feel so sick and nauseous. I (Cecile) have developed a sensitivity to any perfumes over the year. My worst nightmare is to seat on a plane next to someone who is wearing perfume! You put a lot of effort in writing your post! Well done, we will use your tip in the future!
    Patrick and Cecile from http://www.travel4lifebog.com

    • Hi Patrick and Cecile! Thanks for sharing, we can see how a huge assault of perfume could be a bad thing! Particularly if you have to survive the next 11 hours : |
      Talk soon.
      FN team : )

  • Maury Cheskes

    Sweetness! I bet if you kept a good balance of all these tips you’d recharge your batteries no problem. I also like the tip about meeting and conversing with people on the flight. It makes for a more pleasant experience and it beats sitting in silence all day on an airplane.

  • R. Amanda Simatupang

    Nice tips. I like to prepare some candy or chocolate. You know.. just in case I somehow seat next to a kid. Its a yummy mood booster too ^^

  • Kerry Rois

    These are a bunch of useful tips to keep in mind. Of course, you’d have to be travelling a long distance in order to actually use many of them, but they’re good things to keep in mind if a long journey is in your immediate future.

  • elaine

    “This means that you will be developing a consistent bank of miles, maybe some status and you might even benefit from the occasional upgrade. ” What I think that, when you keep business with the same airlines or bank, they might offer you better advantages.

  • Rain

    Great tips here. Unfortunately sleeping pills don’t work for me which is why I hate long flights – I can’t seem to sleep it off. 🙁

    I do like window seats though to nestle my head in.

  • Juniper

    Inflatable foot rests! I haven’t seen one yet but will definitely check them out. Thanks!

  • Rebi

    So many tips! And very very helpful! Thanks!

  • I’ll be traveling the next few months so this post is super timely. I’ll definitely get myself a neck pillow. I never bothered with one before because I thought they just add to my luggage and they could be bulky. For a ten-hour flight, I think it will be worth it. Also, I usually get myself aisle seat for long flights; for 1-3 hour flights, I go for window seat.

  • Michelle

    Sleeping mask and neck pillow are enough for me, no need for noise cancellation headsets. I prefer to be able to hear something, in case there’s a commotion or an emergency. I also have an essentials bag and I prefer aisle seats as well.

  • Ant

    Great blog! I’m down with anything that helps me to save money and travel more comfortably. You just reminded me I really gotta get a neck pillow!

  • Picked up a couple of great tips here! Thanks for sharing!

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