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Travel Tips

Tips (for Indians) on surviving long haul flights

Indians, in general, are well travelled. We are found on all continents and in the farthest corners of the globe. We don’t have to make much effort to spot a Desi when travelling as there is usually a moment where you will hear a familiar language or accented English or instantly know, that someone is brown.

Any flight that extends beyond 6 hours is considered a long haul flight. The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada are the top three long-haul destinations for Indians, Pakistanis and other Desis from their home countries and the Middle East.

It takes at least 7 hours to get from the east coast of the United States to western Europe. A flight from Europe to Pakistan or India takes at least 8 to 9 hours. A direct flight from Mumbai to New York takes 16 hours on average. A non-stop flight from Toronto to Dubai takes 13 hours on average.

With most of us flying economy, (and most likely) with a stopover in Europe or South East Asia (if flying from Australia), a flight back home is a test of endurance and patience until we reach our final destination.

Plan your journey before you book your flight

When your dates of travel have been decided, it is now time to plan your journey. Your return trip is especially important because that will decide how your vacation went.
A bad experience on your return journey eclipses your entire holiday and will linger in your memories, sometimes for several years.

Before booking your flight, you will need to find out which airlines you can take, which planes they fly, the seating arrangement, the seats themselves, and the kind of food and entertainment they provide including Wi-Fi.

If you require a stopover, you will need to find out everything about the transit airport. See what kinds the restaurants are available, and the kind of food they provide. Is there a multifaith room where you can wind down and pray and meditate peacefully? Are there any areas where you can sleep safely? Are there lounges at the transit airport which you can access or are available for a reasonable fee?

How can you choose your best airline seat to buy?

In your journey from origin to destination, you will spend most of your time in your seat on the plane. Therefore, it is important to choose the best seat within your means.

My favourite website to research and find the right seat on any flight is SeatGuru, (https://www.seatguru.com/) which maps out all seats in a plane and suggests you the best seats to book and which ones to avoid.

Photo by Angelo Abear

In almost all cases, SeatGuru will tell you to avoid the last row of the plane because of their limited recline. It also marks seats close to the galleys and lavatories as “undesirable to some”.
Exit row seats may have extra legroom but you will have no front-seat pocket to store your stuff.

I don’t mind the galleys at all. They only get busy at mealtime, and that is understandable. Also, I rather have quicker access to the bathroom than walk the (whole) length of the plane. Though, you might be bothered if the bathroom queue runs past your seat.

I highly recommend you also read any comments left by seat guru users regarding their experiences as you can get valuable insight before you choose your seat on any flight.

Should you buy an Aisle seat or a Window seat?

Economy class cabins on long haul flights are usually a 3-4-3 or a 3-3-3 seat configuration per row. No one would like to have the middle seat unless you are flying as a couple or a family.

The debate of Aisle vs Window seats is long-running on the internet. Frequent fliers vouch for the aisle seat as they have more wiggle room, and can extend their legs into the aisle if needed. This is great for big and tall passengers who rather not feel crushed.

Leisure travellers, however, may want to look out the window. Some may find themselves more comfortable sleeping when leaning against the wall (fuselage).

Seat Guru, Boeing 747-400

On some Boeing 747, the tail end of the economy cabin tapers with the fuselage. You will see that the first three of the last five rows are in a 2-4-2 configuration. There is almost a foot of space between the window seats and the wall, giving you extra space to put your stuff. You could even stretch a leg into that space if it is in front for you.

Although seemingly advantageous, there are some drawbacks to these seats. You won’t be able to lean against the wall because of the distance. The window is misaligned forcing you to share with the passenger behind you. If you decide your stuff in that space, there is a chance of it sliding to the back or the front as there is nothing to stop it.
If a passenger behind you decides to make this space his footwell, you might as well do without putting anything there in the first place.

Have a plan for your meals

You must eat and drink and enjoy your meal time on your journey. If your food doesn’t go right, you will not find anything else good either. You will be hungry, crabby and could even become sick.

When it comes to food provided onboard the aircraft, I have written an article, especially for Indian passengers, on what kind of meals they can request while booking their flights.
In that post, I have also highlighted some issues and concerns regarding religious meals.

On the ground, especially when you an in transit, you are limited to whatever the connecting airport has to offer. Some international airports have a vast selection of restaurants to choose from. You can find vegan, kosher and halal items on the menu, and choose to either stick to your budget or splurge.
At other airports, you may be limited to whatever is on offer at the fast-food court.

Find out everything you can about your airports. Most will have a directory of businesses and restaurants posted on their websites. If you are able to find out exactly at which terminal you will be departing and arriving at, you can narrow your choices before you even leave home.

If your ticket does not include meals, or you need to buy your meal on board, it can be favourable if you buy your dinner at the airport after security. Don’t worry about eating outside food on board, everyone does it.

Just pray that your choice of eatery is not closed when you arrive or undergoing renovations!

Ship out your ‘excess baggage’ and save your carry-on

I personally don’t like to carry anything on my person save a few things (which I discuss below). However, as desi as we are, we can’t help carrying as much as luggage that is the allowed maximums.

When I was in my teens, my parents would make me carry as much as 27lbs on hand. We do not want to pay a fine for excess baggage 🤷‍♂️ and most of that luggage was not even for ourselves!

Everyone will agree that gift-giving should not come as a price for your comfort and finances. Yet, we would whine and moan on every trip that we won’t take any more ‘gifts’ the next time. And yet, there will come that someone or that occasion or that festivity, demanding us to bring ‘something’ from foreign.

Mrbeastmodeallday [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In this day and age, shipping anything to India (or Pakistan or Bangladesh etc) is very easy and makes economical sense. When the occasion demands it, and you fear excess baggage and hate heavy carry-ons, you can avail the service of shipping companies to send off your extra luggage to your destination in advance.

You may be able to buy additional luggage allowance from your airline but this depends entirely on the airline and the flexibility of your ticket. For example, would you be able to buy additional baggage after you have purchased your ticket? Can you buy additional baggage on your return journey?

In one case where my family had too much to bring back home on their return journey. But there was nothing that could be left behind. With the help of friends, we simply had these shipped at a later date and delivered to our home on a weekend.

Courier services like DTDC or TCS can ship a 23kg (50lb) bag (or two) in with reasonable costs. Not only will you have to lug it around, but it will also be brought to your doorstep.
There are some conditions, however, depending on the company you choose to ship with. For example, you may not be allowed to pack liquids (perfumes, juice etc) and new tags on clothes must be removed. (You are not exporting anything for re-sale are you ?)

Keep some foreign cash to use on your journey

It’s always a good idea to carry some cash with you to the airport. Don’t get all emotional when you depart and give it all away to your loved ones thinking you will not have any use for it. You never know when you could be craving for a coffee or a sandwich or anything as you are waiting at the departure gates. You will have to swallow your regret then.

When I travel, I like to have at least US$50 equivalent in cash for each airport. This can be more depending on many factors. If I have a stopover in Europe I would rather have €50 or £50 equivalent.

Photo by Ishant Mishra

Duty-free stores at airports are designed to be attractive and inviting to travellers who are waiting. Sometimes, you may find a deal too good to resist on an item that may not be available where you live or where you are going.

Credit cards and Visa-Debit cards are very convenient when travelling and can be used to pay at most restaurants and retail stores. But you must watch for any foreign transaction fees you may incur. Also, it is never advisable to obtain cash advance (withdraw cash from ATM) from your credit card as you can incur the highest interest from the moment you withdraw.

If your debit card is not linked to a Visa or a MasterCard payment system, it might not work internationally even if it has a PLUS or Cirrus interbank network logos on the back.

If you do not have a credit card or access to ATM overseas, then you must prepare yourself in advance about carrying cash in local currency. Otherwise, be prepared to be mingy. 😣

I would suggest getting cash exchanged before starting your vacation. You may be able to get favourable rates weeks or months ahead.

Exchanging Indian Rupees in India and abroad

Legally exchanging foreign currency at Indian airports is not as straightforward. You will be asked for your passport, a copy of which will be made for you to self notarize. You will also be asked to fill out and sign a form declaring the number of units of currency bought and sold. The exchange rates are also not always favourable.

You may discover that Indian Rupees are not readily exchanged at some airports abroad. When I was at Frankfurt airport some years ago, I was told bluntly by a money exchanger that Indian Rupees were not excepted. This forced me to use my credit card for most purchases.

After I reached Toronto, I was lucky to find a money exchanger in the arrival area who happily exchanged the several ₹2000, ₹100 and ₹50 notes but he would not change the ₹20, ₹10 notes and ₹1 and ₹2 coins. I decided to mail these back to relatives in India.

Dress comfortably

Flying has evolved over the century from the days when it was seen as a “class-status”. Today, travelling economy-class has become so stressful that we almost dread everything from check-in, security, waiting to board, to getting into our seat and staying in it.

Although you want to look presentable in every way in public, we may be discouraged from getting dressed like we are going to the mall or a party because it may just turn out to be inconvenient or downright uncomfortable for ourselves and our fellow travellers.

You may have seen some people ready to board their overnight flight in their pyjamas, slippers and holding a soft toy. Perhaps you liked that idea, or perhaps you were put off by it because it drew so much attention.

Fortunately for us, Bollywood has given us the “Airport Look“. Celebrities like Akshay Kumar, Shahrukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut have been spotted at the airport in casual attire while looking most trendy.

Starting by wearing good, comfortable shoes which you can easily slip on and take off. I don’t recommend laces and buckles that require time as well as space to fasten and unfasten.

If you risk swelling of your feet and legs because of sitting for long periods, try wearing compression socks, which will help improve blood circulation and reduce pain.
You should try to move around the cabin as often as you can to get your legs moving and blood flowing.

If you must look your absolute best after landing, many airports usually have washrooms before you proceed to immigration and customs. These washrooms are less used by passengers as they are hurrying out and therefore are usually clean. You can change and freshen up here to your satisfaction.

Don’t worry about getting to immigration along with your fellow passengers. The officers are only concerned about proper documentation and their validity for you to enter the country.

Secondly, your checked-in baggage will be safely waiting for you at the baggage claim area. I was once delayed in immigration by 3 hours after I had landed. I was still able to find my bags in the baggage claim area amongst several other bags from various other flights.
You can always ask an official where your bags were supposed to arrive and they can direct you accordingly.

Take advantage of Arrivals Lounges to freshen up

Some airports serving important cities such as Hongkong, Abu Dhabi, Doha, London and Zurich feature lounges after Arrivals. These lounges are found outside the security area, after immigration and baggage claim.
They usually serve clients arriving on early morning flights, looking to freshen up, have a shower, get their suit pressed, and have a hearty breakfast before starting their day.

Arrivals lounges are convenient for passengers who need to wait at the airport for a few more hours for various factors. Perhaps there is still too much time before that business meeting, or it is still too early for hotel check-in, or that bus/train out of town departs later in the day.

Whatever your reasons, these lounges are perfect for a great start to your day and before heading out to that special event or meeting that someone very special.

Prepare a list of things you must have on you

In a long haul flight, your amenity kit in the economy class will at least include a pillow, blanket and headphones, which should all be returned at the end of the journey.

Gone are the days on most flights when you used to get toiletries bag in the economy class to take home. Even business class amenities are getting the red-ink in penurious airlines of today.

Except for valuables and travel documents, I don’t like to take anything on my person which I will not use in-flight. Everything else, including my jacket, goes into my carry-on and stowed overhead.

Now, whatever you like to carry or not carry, is up to you. Here’s my list below:

1. A Soft Toy or a Neck-Pillow

I am not big on having a neck pillow, but when I am sleeping on a chair, I prefer crossing my arms across my chest. I don’t know why I do this but I’ll know where my arms are when I am asleep. 😉

Holding a pillow or a soft toy on my chest makes it easier on my arms to rest there.

2. Phone and/or a tablet/iPad

Inflight personal entertainment systems have made progress by leaps and bounds in the last decade. Today, you will find a wide selection of Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi and Telugu movies on most international flights.
Emirates even streams a selection of live sports such as Soccer, Basket Ball and NFL. Cricket fans, as of writing, however, will be disappointed.

When the inflight entertainment falls short, or worse, is broken 😱, you need to be prepared with a backup plan: a tablet or iPad loaded with games and movies.
You can be relaxed with your preferred shows not only not board but also on the ground, especially if you are waiting for a connection at an airport without WiFi.

With Wi-Fi connectivity arriving onboard several airlines and making us more connected than ever, we have yet another reason to keep our phones. Onboard Wi-Fi will allow friends and family to stay connected on social media such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and IMO. But you may not make VOIP calls, or access video streaming sites like YouTube.

3. Phone and Tablet charger + earphones

Don’t forget to bring along your phone and tablet charger. I hate carrying wires with me but they are important for survival.

Also, bring your own earphones or headphones to use with your phone or tablet. I never liked those inflight headphones. I bet they make them as such because you wouldn’t even take them home!

4. Don’t forget your pen

While we are concerned about our tickets and passports and visas and baggage and such, one ritual we tend to let slip from memory is filling out an arrival-card just before landing at your international destination.

If you forget what an Arrival Card looks like, here is a sample. United States Customs and Border Protection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An Arrival Card asks for additional information, not in your passport, such as the purpose of your visit, how much cash you are carrying, the value of your baggage, and if you are bringing in any products or food that may be prohibited.

The annoying part of all Arrival Cards is filling in passport details. That’s when you will see some uncles get up from their seats and open the overhead bin and create some noise.

For the sake of privacy, keep a picture of your passport details in your phone or write them down on a handy piece of paper that will always be with you on your person.

And don’t forget to bring your ballpoint pen from home!

5. Make space for the Bathroom Bottle

If you habituated to using water when using the toilet, prepare yourself if you get stuck in a place with only toilet-paper. I usually buy a bottle of water after security so I can keep that until I have reached my destination.

You don’t want to be in a situation like Ramji from that R. Madhavan movie.
I have been through that before myself. 😅

Consider getting a Global SIM card

Travel SIM cards are useful and convenient in keeping you always connected to your faraway family. You can be anywhere in the world and make a phone call, send a text message and even access the internet with a Global SIM card.

Photo by VanveenJF

I have previously written a comprehensive article on choosing the right Travel SIM cards. In that post, I studied talk, text and data plans from several companies and came to a conclusion on which SIM plan was right for me in various situations. I would like to summarize my findings in a few bullet points here.

  • If I am going to India, I would go for OneSimCard Universal with the Asiania Data Plan, which costs $40 for 3Gb of data for 30 days.
  • If I am in the UAE, I would rather buy a local SIM from either Etisalat or du
  • A SIM from Roam Mobility is best for a trip to the USA lasting no longer than a week. If I plan to stay longer than that, then I would choose the WorldSIM USA Travel SIM Card.
  • Drimsim is great if I am in Europe only for a few hours. Otherwise, I would consider getting a WorldSIM Europe SIM card with a data bundle for my Europe adventure.

I have also written about Data Only SIMs and SIM plans exclusively for residents of India going abroad. Read it all at “How to choose the right Global SIM Cards for Indian travellers“.

Anything else you would like to add?

If you feel that I have not covered enough about preparing for a long haul flight, let us know in our comments below. We would love to read about your experiences too!

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