Tips for air travelers
From Europe to Australia or New Zealand is about the longest way you can go without leaving this planet. Flight time is about 24 hours, total travel time including getting to and from airports and sitting around on transfer airports will be around 36 hours. But even just flying between Europe and North America is between 6 and 12 hours flight time. Flying long distances is a lot easier to endure if you know a few things. This text is about these things.
(Lots of these tips obviously only apply to Economy Class passengers.)
Before the flight
Make sure you know the flight number of all your flights. Write it down where you can reach it easily. You will need it to find the counter to check in, to find your gate to board the aircraft, and to claim your luggage. Also for some countries you have to fill out lots of forms on entering or leaving and they always ask you for the flight number.
Some flights have more than one flight number, sometimes from the same airline, sometimes from different airlines working together.
What to bring
Most important, bring a good book. Airlines keep you busy with food and entertained with movies and other films, but there is still lots of time to kill. And a book will help here.
I can't sleep on planes, but many people can. Bring ear plugs and something to put over your eyes if you need it. It might be a good idea to get one of these U-shaped inflatable head rests that go around your neck and keep your head from flopping to the side when you are falling asleep. Some seats have head rests which allow the sides to be folded forward for the same effect, but not all airlines have them.
Pack all toiletries, medication, etc. that you need. I recommend bringing at least a toothbrush and toothpaste. Napkins, paper cups and stuff like that are available in the toilets.
Most of the time the air conditioning is quite cold, so wear long trousers and bring a sweater. Blankets are normally provided. You don't need a jacket or rain coat as you will spend all your time indoors, put it into your checked-in luggage.
Most airlines officially only allow one piece of hand luggage. Place the things you won't need on the plane (like your mobile phone) at the bottom of the bag and your books, toiletries and other items you need on the aircraft on top. Once inside the plane you can take out those items quickly and put them in the seat pocket in front of you. The bag can then be stored away in the overhead lockers and you don't have to sort through other peoples baggage every time you need to find your bag to get something.
Checked-in luggage can get lost. Place all things your really need (maybe some extra clothes, hotel reservation info, etc.) and all valuables (notebook, camera, ...) in the carry-on bag.
Arriving at the airport
Airlines normally ask you to be at the airport no less then two hours before departure time. You don't really need that time, but if anything goes wrong you will be happy to have it. Even before arriving at the airport your car may break down, or the train may be late. Long distance international flights are normally fully booked, so it will be difficult to get on another plane if you miss your scheduled flight.
After checking in and getting rid of your luggage, you have to go through security and a passport check. In most cases this doesn't take much time, but sometimes there are long queues and if there is anything wrong with your papers, this is the time it will be noticed. Do this early so that you have plenty of time to get to the gate.
Look at the computer monitors and flight information boards often. Listen to announcements. Gate assignments and flight times do change sometimes, especially at large, busy airports.
Entering the plane
After first and business class passengers and 'those traveling with small children', the plane will usually be boarded by row number starting from the back. I always wait until everybody else is on the plane and board then, which shortens the time on the plane, although I admit that five minutes more or less doesn't really make a difference.
Nothing is more annoying to your fellow passengers than standing in the aisle forever waiting for you to store all your luggage and getting settled down. Just sit down on your seat and wait until everyone is on the plane, then there is more than ample time to sort out your luggage and store it away properly.
For short flights it might be nice to sit at a window to take in the scenery, but for longer flights an aisle seat is preferable. You are not going to see much anyway, because most of the flight will probably be at night or over water or clouds. If you want to see something you can always get up and look out the windows at the doors.
Different aircrafts have different seating layouts. For long flights chances are you are sitting in some variant of a Boeing 747 which has usually the following seat layout in economy class:
(Seat A is always on the left side of the plane if you are looking forward.)
Try to get a seat at an aisle. This will allow you to get up anytime you want without waking up your sleeping neighbour or climbing over food trays.
Seat C and H are the best seats. You are sitting at the aisles, you have at least a bit of a view through the window and it is the best position to watch the movie screen. Second choice is D and G, which are still aisle seats, but don't have the other advantages.
Two people traveling together probably want to choose B and C or H and J. If you have several people, try to sit together with no aisle in between. It is difficult to keep up a conversation if you are separated by an aisle, because lots of people will move around.
Aisle seats give you somewhat more leg space, because you can stretch your legs into the aisle. You have to be really careful though, because flight attendants tend to run through the aisles and bump into anything protruding from the chairs.
In the Boeing 747 the seats directly in front of the screen sometimes have special foldable baby cots. This is the place where families with small children will be seated, so you might want to stay a bit away from these seats...
The most comfortable seats in economy class are the seats at the exits because you have all the leg space you need, although the window seat has the bulky door partly in front, so you want to go for the middle or aisle seat. The exit seats can't be pre-booked through your travel agent, they can only be assigned on check-in at the airport. The reason is that only adult passengers without any disabilities and speaking the airline's language are allowed here, so that they can help other passengers in case of an emergency. If you already have a seat assignment from your travel agent, you can ask for a change of seats at check-in and sometimes they do it.
Exit seats have one drawback though: they are near the toilet, which will mean that there are lots of people moving around all the time. This might or might not disturb your sleep. Also it might be a bit smelly after a long flight, although this is seldom a problem from my experience.
Some smaller planes have one row of seats with more leg space because there are emergency exits there that lead out onto the wing.
Some airlines have seating plans of their planes on their web sites. Travel agents have seat plans in their computer and can help you find the best seat available.
Independent of the leg space and the type of seat you are sitting in, long-time sitting is not good for your body. Get up often (you did take that aisle seat, didn't you?) and move around, shake your legs, do some knee bends, whatever. This goes a long way to make your flight easier to endure.
Food and drinks
If you are always hungry and want to get your meal first, tell the travel agent to order a special meal (vegetarian, kosher, whatever) for you. Special meals are given out first and you will have probably finished before anybody else has even started. (This can also be a nuisance because the trays will only be removed when everybody else is finished.)
Ordinary meals are given out from the front of the plane moving backwards. Sometimes there is a choice of different meals and your choice might not be available any more if you are seated far back in the plane. So you might want to go for a seat up front.
Drinks (water, soft drinks, coffee, tee, beer, wine, ...) are available with the meals. Between meals flight attendants will normally come around every once in a while with water or juice. If you are thirsty, just ask for more. Drink lots of water, go easy on the alcohol.
There are always long queues at the toilets right after a movie finishes, after the meal trays have been taken away and before landing. So go to the toilet while the movie is running (or while the credits are shown if you don't want to miss the movie) and before meals or directly after meals when everybody still has the trays on their tray table. If you are sitting at an aisle, like I told you to, it is not so difficult to stand up and get out of the seat while balancing your tray. On the other hand, it is a major undertaking if you are not seated at an aisle.
Swallowing and yawning help get rid of the ear pressure, or try the following technique: Open your mouth and move you lower jaw far to the left and right and exhale at the same time.
Another method is "blowing" your nose while pinching it closed with two fingers. Then release your nose and open your mouth.
Some airlines give out sweets just prior to landing to help you swallow and get rid of the pressure in your ear. I find that I don't need them but take them anyway. :-)
If you have a congested nose after a flu or something like it, take a nose spray on the flight. It will clear your nose in a few minutes, so use it shortly before landing.
After the flight
When the aircraft reaches the gate there is often a mad rush to get up, get the luggage out and leave the plane. There is really no reason for this because, after leaving the plane, you have to wait for your checked-in baggage anyway.
When you collect your baggage, make sure you are at the right baggage claim. Sometimes there is more than one conveyor belt. At some airports baggage handlers will remove bags from the conveyor belt if they are not claimed immediately and place them somewhere on the floor. Most airports have a counter for oversized and unusual baggage like bikes or surfboards. Damaged bags will probably end up there, too.
After a long flight you are tired and don't want to look for a place to sleep. I like to travel without plan and normally don't book accommodation beforehand, but I do always book in a hotel for the first one or two nights after a long flight so that I don't have to run around finding a bed to sleep in when I am tired and jet lagged.
Sometimes, especially when arriving late at night, the best option is to get a room at an airport hotel. Especially when renting a car it can be a good idea to get the car on the next morning, when you have slept a night in a real bed.
Smoking is not permitted on nearly all flights and many airports have restrictions, too. Be prepared to go without a smoke for the whole duration of your trip. I am not a smoker, so I don't have any problems there, but if the idea of not smoking for 36 hours bothers you, think about breaking down your trip into smaller chunks.
Note that on some airports (especially in the USA) you are not allowed to smoke in the transfer lounge and you are not allowed to leave it either.