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How to Survive an Extremely Long Flight

Every few months you see a story listing the current record-holders for the world’s longest flight. The efficient new 787s, 777s, and A350s are capable of nonstop flights that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, and New York-Singapore, Dallas-Sydney, San Francisco-Bangkok, Perth-London are some nonstop trips that are currently operating or planned. These trips are edging close to the 9,000-mile mark, which means 18 or 19 hours in the air.

Most people would probably find an 18-hour nonstop bearable in Premium Economy, and you might even enjoy it in a plush business class cabin with a flat-bed seat and a steady stream of food and drink. But in economy? My take is that 18 hours in one of today’s cramped economy seats would violate the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. And you can find many press reports about the medical risks of deep vein thrombosis on long airplane flights. But those ultra-long-range planes have lots more economy than business or premium seats, so the airlines must figure on selling a lot of economy tickets.

A reader recently asked how to mitigate the rigors of a marathon flight. My answer is simple: If you really want to improve the trip, you have to pay more or take more time. Here are your options.

Buy a Roomy Seat on Sale

Buying a cushy seat in business class usually costs five to 10 times as much as an economy seat, and even premium economy is usually at least double. But not always: You can sometimes find “sale” fares. Sale priced transatlantic or transpacific flights are sometimes available for $1,500 to $2,500 in business class and around $1,000 in premium economy.

From New York to Paris, niche airline La Compagnie routinely sells New York-Paris round-trips for $1,500 to $1,800. Over the last two years, I’ve flown business class from my West Coast home to both Asia and Europe for about $1,500 round-trip. Although those figures are still well above economy, they’re at least a reasonable value proposition for a lot of travelers.

If those prices are too stiff for you, at least consider shelling out $100 to $200 each way for an extra-legroom seat in “stretched economy” that most US airlines and KLM offer. Also, many lines sell exit-row and bulkhead seats for a modest premium. Those seats are no wider than the narrow regular economy seats, but at least you get four to six inches of extra front-to-rear space.

Bid for a Last-Minute Upgrade

Many airlines these days are, as the trade press reports, “monetizing” first and business class. Instead of giving empty front-cabin seats to elite frequent flyers, more and more airlines are selling upgrades to travelers on regular economy tickets.

Plusgrade is the current market leader in upgrade bidding systems. First, you buy an economy class ticket as you normally do. The airline notifies you, either at the time of purchase or by email or text, that your flight is open for a bid on an upgrade. You log onto your airline’s website and enter the amount you’re willing to pay for an upgrade, along with your credit card details. A few days before the flight, the airline notifies you whether or not it accepted your bid. If it did, it gives you a confirmed reservation and charges your credit card for the price of your bid. If not, you pay nothing more but remain in the cattle car.

Details differ from one airline to another. Each line decides which flights to bid; the amount of a minimum bid, if any; whether to give preference to people on expensive economy tickets or frequent flyers; and such. Some lines post a slider than shows how your odds of success vary with the amount of a potential bid. Plusgrade, the largest bidding system provider, works with some 54 airlines, including many familiar giants. Optiontown bidding works in a somewhat different way, but it serves only a dozen mostly Asian and mostly unfamiliar lines.

A successful bid will almost always require paying more than a token amount: Some industry folks suggest bidding a bit less than half the difference in published ticket fares. And you can’t be sure that any given flight will offer upgrade bids: If you plan a bidding strategy, you must be prepared to be stuck in economy.

Ask Upon Departure

Airline agents sometimes offer ad-hoc upgrades at check-in or even at the departure gate. On a trip from Los Angeles to London two years ago, a gate agent was selling upgrades to premium economy for $400. Even if no agent is actively touting upgrades, you can sometimes get a reasonably good deal by asking, “How much would it cost up upgrade?” at the check-in counter or departure gate. But on an intercontinental trip you can expect to pay at least several hundred dollars.

Break Up the Trip

Airlines based somewhere near the midpoint of a long trip often often offer no-cost or low-cost stopovers at their home bases. Icelandair and WOW actively promote free Iceland stopovers; Emirates, Singapore, and Turkish promote stopover hotel/sightseeing packages at their home base cities. In addition, without any specific promotion, airlines based in likely stopover points often offer de facto low-cost stopovers. By pricing both non-stops and stopover itineraries, you may find low-cost stopovers at Amsterdam (KLM), London (British Airways), Honolulu (Hawaiian), Paris (Air France), Tokyo (JAL), and others. Similarly, you can often arrange a reasonably priced stopover by using two different low-fare airlines.

If you’re traveling on frequent flyer miles, intercontinental award trips often allow a free stopover in each direction or at least one free stopover on a round-trip. The only extra cost is in the added airport fees and taxes at the stopover point.

When you search for an intercontinental trip, fares for connecting flights are often less than nonstop fares. A short connecting time may not help much, but sometimes you can find a fare that involves a long enough connection for you to tour a city or even stay overnight.

Of course, on any sort of stopover, your trip will take a lot longer and may entail accommodations and other local costs at the stopover point.

Minimize the Discomforts

If you don’t want to spend any more than the minimum economy fare, you will be stuck in the sardine can. In that case, follow the “usual suspects” recommendations about long-haul economy travel: stay hydrated, avoid excess alcohol, get up and walk around the cabin every hour or two (easier said than done), use a neck pillow and eyeshade, do some stretches at your seat. Use some form of medication to relax and maybe sleep better if your doctor approves. And if at all possible, allow a full day at your initial destination before doing anything substantial.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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