6 Things to Keep You Sane on a Plane


Airlines are facing thinner and thinner profit margins, and in their attempts to stay in the black, they make us see red. Air travel has devolved into a series of indignities that begin when we book online and end only as we stumble towards freedom at our final destinations. I don’t think I’m alone in my experience of pre-flight anxiety in anticipation of the dreaded security dances, boarding cattle-calls, and seating designed for legless contortionists. The new trend toward flight attendants as part-time in-flight comedians must be the final insult — trying to help us laugh our way into forgetfulness.

To help cope with the most obvious challenges to basic comfort, I’ve compiled a list of strategic items every airline passenger should have at the ready. Think of it as your list of must-haves while stranded 30,000 feet above terra firma.

1. Earplugs or an MP3 Player

Haven’t we all begun to drift off to a hard-won sleep only to be startled awake by a squawking captain letting us know we’re 200 miles away from Yellowstone or that the temperature at our destination city is 75 degrees with a dew point of 55? For just such occasions, I always travel with a set of foam earplugs or an MP3 player to dampen the loudest inane announcements and operatic crying babies.

2. Sleep Mask

The newest and largest jets have video screens on the backs of each headrest that never shut off. Even if you choose not to pay for movies or TV, you’re subjected to animated airline logos and advertising for the entire flight. At night, these screens are just bright enough to keep you awake. Tuck a sleep mask in your carry-on to reclaim a bit of your visual and mental space.

3. Instant Coffee

You can have the finest beans in the world, but coffee brewed at 30,000 feet with gray water isn’t worth the resulting trip the restroom 20 minutes later. Bring your own instant coffee packets and just ask for hot water. Starbucks and other companies are jumping on the instant coffee bandwagon and offering decent options for coffee that is truly on-the-go.

4. Energy Bar

If you’re lucky, a flight attendant may lob a pack of pretzels at you sometime during the flight. Practice your catching skills. If you tend to not be satisfied by this delicious option and don’t want to pay $12 for a bagel (credit cards only, please) then pack an energy bar to stave off the worst pangs of hunger. Good energy bars can pack enough protein to tide you over to mealtime in relative comfort.

5. Pain Reliever

The headache of air travel is only made worse by a literal headache. Single travel-packets of aspirin are small enough for a purse or pocket and are life-savers on a long, crowded flight.

6. Book

Imagine being engrossed in a tale of an advanced society that uses high-speed trains for all intracontinental travel — friendly staff, large seats, efficient schedules, and room to stroll would the order of the day. A good book (or two) is the best way to cope with the chaos of air travel. I would no sooner travel without a book than without a toothbrush and nine forms of ID.

In the end, modern air travel is all about preparation. Getting to your destination without a ton of negative emotional baggage is a difficult trick. Your list of essentials may be different than mine, but knowing how to travel defensively is the lesson. Take care of yourself, and for god’s sake, bring a book.

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Guest's picture

I travel every week. And this is a good list. I would also add an exercise book which tells you how to work the muscles and stretch while sitting.

Guest's picture

Grab a pair of noise canceling headphones. Don't get the latest and greatest as noise canceling technology hasn't moved all the far in recent years. I got a pair off Amazon for $30 and it has been one of the best items I have bought.

For the coffee though, I like the coffee brewed on Southwest. And I hate to break it to you, they are going to pour you a cup of hot water with the same water that is used to brew the coffee.

Guest's picture

I have no suggestions to add to the already adequate list, but where can I find a pattern for the privacy sweater in the photo? I totally want one!

Andrea Karim's picture

Instructions for creating the Compubody Sock can be found here.

Andrea Karim's picture

Good list! I would add the following to my travel bag:

-Ziplock bag of baby wipes, just because
-Moisturizer for face and hands (airplane air is SO dry)
-Sleeping pills for long flights

I have seriously anxiety when I fly, so I usually have a glass of Chardonnay before boarding... not that I recommend alcohol to calm nerves, because that's not healthy. Once the plane is safely off the ground, and I'm on a trans-ocean flight, I pop a couple Tylenol PM and I'm out fast for several hours.

Of course, that's not really so much sanity as unconsciousness, but I'll take what I can get.

Kentin Waits's picture

Tylenol PM is a great tip -- I'll take unconsciousness over stress any day. :)

Guest's picture

Three additional tips from traveling including several trips overseas to Europe and Austalia:

1. Always set watch to destination time as soon as the plane takes off.

2. Never look at the Flight Tracker, particularly with longer overseas flights

3. For the suggestion on noise cancelling headphones, get the earbud-style as many airlines will allow one to keep earbud-style headphones on during take-off and landing if plugged into their sound system.

Guest's picture

Great list, especially the snacks. Even on short flights, I never travel without something to stand in for a meal. Never know when aircraft or weather problems are going to delay arrival by hours.

I'd also add:
- Water bottle (empty going through security and then filled up at a water fountain...or bought once through security) - Much of the time that literal headache from airtravel is probably due to dehydration.
- Blanket or something long sleeved and socks (if traveling without them) - Airplanes are often cold and blankets aren't always available. This can also be used as a pillow and/or lumbar support should you need one.

Guest's picture

When traveling internationally (or on a long domestic flight), I have found that I travel better by changing into something comfortable (long sleeve t-shirt, lounge pants and heavy wool socks--no shoes), blocking out the world (noise canceling headphones on my ipod hooked up to soothing music and a padded eye mask) and going to sleep. It's a business class solution that works well in coach too.

Guest's picture

I wish I read this article before my trip to England! Long and short flights can make me feel like i'm loosing my marbles. I never thought to bring my own instant coffee!! The coffee served are most plane is never enough for my caffeine addiction and now I can save money by not drinking Starbucks in the airport! Thanks for the tips

Guest's picture

These are must have items! To this list I might add warm wool socks. My feel almost always get cold on flights, especially international legs, and an extra warm pair of socks does come in handy. On a few occasions I've even used them as mittens. Also, since we can't take water bottles anymore, I recommend an empty bottle, too, just fill it up before you board.

Guest's picture

Bringing my own instant coffee on a plane never crossed my mind. This is very clever and a real good tip too.

Guest's picture
Sean Hopcraft

I used some of these tactics when I had a 16 hour flight to China!! It helped my sanity so much!

Guest's picture
Guy on a Plane

I've read on many sites how the hot water on airplanes isnt really potable if even palatable. That said, instant coffee makes no sense! No improvement over free inflight brew

Guest's picture

Hydrocodone. That is all.

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