I Took the World's Longest Flight Twice in 4 Days and This Is What I Learned
Two words: sleep strategically.
When you tell people you’re going on the world’s longest flight, you’re met with mixed reactions. A trip to the cosmopolitan island of Singapore promises some of the best Southeast Asian comfort food, a vibrant fusion of cultures, and unforgettable scenery, from modern cityscapes to traditional shophouses to busy waterfront promenades. An almost 19-hour flight, however, threatens jet lag, leg cramps, dehydration, and pull-your-hair-out levels of boredom.
As I prepared to join the new world’s longest flight on its maiden voyage from Newark Liberty International Airport to Singapore’s award-winning Changi Airport, however, my excitement only grew. Yes, I was eager to see Singapore, but it wasn’t just that. In a world where we’re constantly running short on time, it was the idea of having a surplus of hours to use as I pleased up in the sky with no distractions. For almost two entire days (18 hours and 25 minutes on the way there, 18 hours and 45 minutes on the way back), I would be forced to take a real time out. I would be so rich with spare time, I’d have to actively figure out how to spend it. I was up for the challenge, and I knew just who to call.
But first, my disclaimer: Had I known I’d be roughing it in a last-row, middle seat for this long-haul journey, I might not have had such a rosy outlook (although the “worst” option on the plane was premium economy). I would be in a cushy business class seat with Singapore Airlines — voted the T+L World’s Best airline by our own readers for 23 consecutive years — on a brand-new Airbus A350-900ULR with lighting, humidity, cabin pressure, meals, and programming all aimed at keeping me healthy and rested on board. Singapore Airlines even teamed up with the experts at top U.S. wellness destination Canyon Ranch, from doctors to exercise physiologists to chefs, to craft the experience.
I consulted Dr. Richard Carmona, chief of health innovation at Canyon Ranch, and the 17th surgeon general of the United States. I figured he was more than qualified to give me tips that would help me get through this flight — tips I also hope are helpful for future long-haul fliers, whichever part of the world they may be visiting. Here’s what I learned from our chat and my experience with Singapore Airlines.
“It’s important to think through what time you’re leaving, what time you arrive, and what you’re doing when you get there,” Dr. Carmona said, so don’t just sleep through it all or let yourself doze off whenever. “Think: When will sleep be most helpful to me? Get up earlier that day, get on the plane, take a nap. Nap before you land ... you may be a little tired when you get in, but stay up to work into the sleep pattern in Singapore.” Avoid drinking caffeine or looking at your phone or laptop about two hours before sleeping, and try to leave the same amount of time to digest after a meal.
Watch what you eat and drink.
“Watch the food that you eat — no excessive salts, sugars, or chemicals,” Dr. Carmona said, adding that you should go for plant-based dishes, fish, lean meat, protein, fruits, and vegetables. He warned not to overeat and to properly time caffeine intake to the times you want to be awake. Say yes to water every time it’s offered, and pack healthy snacks like unsalted nuts and organic protein bars.
There may be a point when you panic — but there are easy solutions.
For me, it was hour seven. I had been battling with the Wi-Fi for too long and was stressing out about the work I had so optimistically planned to get done. I remembered Dr. Carmona’s advice to use exercise, stretching, calming music, and entertainment, and a combination of those things pushed me past that suffocating feeling of, “What do you mean we’re not even half-way through?”
Get your to-do list done early.
If something — say work you hope to get done while on board — is weighing on your mind, get it done as soon as possible so you can rest easier for the rest of the flight. Otherwise, when you’re in the air with no distractions, it’s easy to let stress over small things build up fast. Have a back-up plan that doesn’t involve internet, as in-flight Wi-Fi “is subject to factors such as the number of concurrent users, regulatory approvals from countries, satellite coverage, and weather conditions.” Singapore Airlines offers a variety of internet packages, including freebies for premium fliers, but I was not able to successfully connect for the majority of my flights.
Move more than you think you need to.
Anytime you get the chance to take a walk — even just to the bathroom or up and down the aisle — do it. If you don't have room to stretch in your seat, Dr. Carmona suggests using the bathroom, and says you should get up at least every couple of hours. While sitting, “move all the major body parts,” he said, and pack a resistance band you can use in your seat to do arm curls and other stretches.
Put extra thought into packing your carry-on.
Dr. Carmona’s must-pack list includes:
Moisturizer: I used iS Clinical’s Hydra-cool Serum at the beginning and end of the flight, which hydrates and soothes the skin and also uses antioxidants to protect it from gross airplane germs. To buy: dermstore.com, $90
Rubber ball: While I didn’t try this method myself, using a tennis ball or hard rubber ball to increase circulation and relieve tired muscles is a health hack our most devoted readers know well (and Dr. Carmona agrees). To buy: amazon.com, $20
Resistance band: This piece of workout equipment can be used in so many ways — neck releases, leg and cross-body stretches, arm curls — and it takes up no space in your bag. To buy: amazon.com, $10 for a set of five
Dress in loose layers.
Dr. Carmona suggested loose, comfortable clothing, and I had to be a bit better dressed than usual thanks to business class, so I went with Athleta's Gramercy Track Trouser (athleta.com, $108), which felt like pajamas but didn't look like them, and their oversized and airy NOPA button-down, which luckily proved to be mostly wrinkle-resistant (athleta.com, $79). I had a soft sweater to throw over it as needed and a tank top beneath it, and wore all versions of this outfit at different points throughout the flight as I inevitably went from cold to hot and back to cold again,.
Talk to strangers (sometimes).
When I noticed my in-flight neighbor, who I now know is Isabelle Chu of Bonaventure Travel, wearing a t-shirt with a photo of our aircraft across it (and realized she was the same woman I had seen excitedly hugging the flight attendants in the terminal earlier), I had to ask her about it. She was happy to tell me about her hobby of joining inaugural flights and how she had just flown into New Jersey from Perth and was headed right back there. This hobby, which she admits is, of course, an expensive one, has earned her 3.5-million miles and about 3,640 in-flight hours.
“I sleep very well,” she told me. “As soon as the engine is on I'll just pass out.” She slept for a good seven straight hours after lunch and woke up looking incredibly refreshed, leaving me envious and honestly a little bit in awe of her level of expertise.
If you can afford to splurge on an upgrade, do it and never look back.
Singapore’s premium economy seats are relatively spacious at 19.2 inches wide and come with foot rests and an 8-inch recline, but I don’t think I would’ve been in hop-off-the-plane-and-run-around-town shape if I hadn’t had those four quality horizontal hours with a real blanket and pillows, 60-inch seat pitch (as opposed to 38), good meals, ample water, and a sense of privacy. Business class seats recline into beds that are 78 inches long and allow you to sleep in a bunch of different positions. There's also a ton of storage, multiple outlets for charging devices, customized amenity kits, slippers, and 18-inch-wide TV screens.
Of course, a round-trip business class ticket could cost you more than double (about $5,000) the price of the trip in premium economy (about $1,600). But being able to put up a divider when my neighbor was coughing and sneezing on the way home was priceless.
The aircraft you’re on makes a difference in more ways than you realize.
While we waited to go through passport control in Singapore, the other journalists I met on the flight couldn't stop talking about how much the new A350-900ULR's anti-jet lag features actually helped. The lower cabin pressure, higher humidity (double that of most airplane cabins), advanced climate control, and hospital-grade air filters had us feeling much more hydrated and energetic than expected upon landing. For the first time ever, my skin felt totally normal after getting off a plane, and I didn't break out for the entire trip.
Be extra nice to the cabin crew.
You should always, always be nice to the cabin crew, but if you can’t imagine flying for 18 hours, imagine working on a plane for that amount of time. Yes, they take shifts and are able to nap in their bunks, but you should still go out of your way to make their jobs easier — and they’ll go out of theirs to make your journey better in return. If feeling like a decent human for 19 hours isn't incentive enough, you should know your good attitude will likely result in extra snacks.
If you only do one thing for yourself, prepare a flight plan.
“Don’t just get on the plane and wing it,” Dr. Carmona told me. “Have a plan.” While he emphasized that every person’s plan looks different depending on their lifestyle, preferences, goals, and schedule upon landing, he said it’s important to be mindful of your in-flight actions and how they will affect you. But what does that really mean? I gave him an overview of my health situation, daily life, in-flight concerns, and plans for Singapore, and he sent me general guidelines that I adopted into my own plan. Here’s what he advised for my flight there (and how I tried my best to follow along).
My flight plan:
Schedule: Depart Newark 10:45 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 11, arrive in Singapore at 5:30 p.m. local time on Saturday, Oct. 12.
Time difference: 12 hours
Plans upon arrival: A walking tour with a friend-of-a-friend at 7:30 p.m., followed by dinner at Glutton’s Bay, one of Singapore’s famous hawker centers, with KF Seetoh, Anthony Bourdain’s go-to expert on Singaporean street food and the creator of Makansutra, Singapore's most famous food guides. The following morning I had to leave my hotel at 9 a.m. to tour another property.
A week before the flight: Start going to bed earlier and getting up earlier to slowly pre-adjust to the 12-hour time difference. “Shift your meals a little bit, shift your sleep pattern a little bit so you start moving your circadian clock to the clock of the place you’re going to.”
(This proved easy for me because I have a new puppy who, in spite of spending all eight weeks of her life living in EST, seems to naturally live on Singapore time.)
The morning of: Get up early and have breakfast before settling in on board.
(Although our flight took off at 10:45 a.m., I was up at 5 a.m. and headed to the airport for a press conference and celebration of the new route. I had coffee, water, and I think I remember eating a banana but honestly it’s a blur.)
The first 2-3 hours in the air: “Have handwipes with you with some type of disinfectant, Clorox or Purel and wipe down surfaces, wash your hands with soap and water.” Try to nap, adjusting lighting to signal to your body that it’s time to sleep. Avoid looking at your phone or computer and put on an eye mask. Use ear plugs to block out noise or headphones to listen to calming music and adjust seat maximally to sleep comfortably.
(I always fall asleep during takeoff. I napped for the first hour of the flight without the proper prep, but I woke up feeling at least somewhat on track.)
Hours 3-6: “Plan for some chair exercises and walking after which a light healthy lunch is an option. Remember to stay hydrated with non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated beverages.”
(The problem here was that I woke up to a lovely flight attendant offering me champagne, which doesn’t exactly happen to me every day. So yes, I took the champagne, OK? I did, however, get up for a brief walk and do some stretching with the exercise bands provided by Canyon Ranch for the flight. One of my neighbors completely out-did me and was doing squats in the aisle, but I’m a bit, um, shy for that. I chose what I judged to be one of the healthiest lunch options, a Singaporean chicken, noodle, and vegetable soup.)
Hours 7-11: “During the middle hours, move as much as possible and enjoy some reading, a movie and or conversation.”
(This is where Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown," my aforementioned seatmate, Isabelle Chu, Canyon Ranch exercise videos, and the Liane Moriarty beach read I never finished this summer got me through.)
Hours 12-18: “In the last few hours of the flight if you are feeling tired, I would suggest a nap prior to landing. If you’re not tired, then push through. Have a healthy snack or decide to have dinner on board before you land.”
(I found myself very tired during these hours and actually took my biggest nap, about three hours between hours 14 and 17. I did pick at dinner — chicken, rice, and vegetables.)
After landing: “Alternatively when you check into your hotel, have dinner then go for a walk or do some light exercise and prepare for bed time on the Singapore clock.”
(I was ready for round two by the time my 9 p.m. dinner plans rolled around, after walking around the Arab Street area and having a cup of tea. I was feeling surprisingly normal, even energetic, which, left to my own devices, I’m fairly certain would not have happened. Thank you, Dr. Carmona.)
Singapore Airlines will begin daily nonstop service between Newark and Singapore on October 18, and will start flying A350-900ULRs between Singapore and Los Angeles and Singapore and San Francisco before the end of the year.