A few months ago, Lonely Planet asked me if I wanted to spend ten days on a press trip to Tahiti and write about the islanders’ initiative to promote sustainable tourism and locally provided experiences.
I said of course, although at the time I was not sure, exactly, where Tahiti was. I look it up. It is near New Zealand, but not actually near. These islands are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and New Zealand, the nearest large land mass, is almost 3,000 miles away. Tahiti is, quite literally, on the other side of the world. I would cut off my leg to go.
I am not really a travel journalist. I write books, a highly precarious job that involves almost no travel at all, but I agree to go anyway. A few days later, I received an email detailing my travel itinerary.
I begin considering cutting off my leg not to go.
First, I’ll be taking the train from my home in south London to Kings Cross St Pancras. Then, I’ll be getting the Eurostar to Paris; then, a quick 40 minute taxi to Orly airport. From Orly, there’s an 11 hour flight to San Francisco, a two-hour layover, and then a further eight hours to Tahiti. Top to tail, the journey will take around 30 hours, along with an 11 hour time difference. I will leave London on a Sunday morning, and I will arrive in Tahiti on a Monday morning, but in that day-long period endless extra hours will be smuggled in like dalmatians into a moving van.
7 tips for staying sane on long haul flights
So how do you survive 30 hours of straight travel, the bulk of which is spent sitting in the same place? Here’s what I’ve learned:
Your outfit has a huge stake in the success or failure of your journey. Only you know what your comfiest clothes are: for me, it is soft joggers, like the kind you do PE practice in, but for you it might be gym leggings. Do not wear shorts, because the plane will be cold, and the blanket they give you will not be thick enough. Only wear jeans if you hate yourself. There are just three things that I view as non-negotiable: an unwired bra, a scarf, and an XL men’s hoodie in light grey. Trust me on the hoodie. This advice was given to me by a friend who travels to LA a lot for work, and she stressed the importance of a brand new Primark XL hoodie. The pockets are deep, the hood will go over your headphones, and you’ll be so swathed in material that you’ll feel cocooned and safe wherever you go.
Snacks. Bring them. On one French Bee flight I was fed twice within three hours of boarding than then received nothing until we landed. On others, the food was spaced out fine. But snacks aren’t about hunger, they’re about boredom, and the urge to do something, anything, with your body that isn’t staring into the seat in front of you. This is why you cannot bring food that you like too much. The urge to bring a big bag of peanut M&Ms and a few rolls of Chew-Its might be strong, but you will eat these too quickly, and getting a sugar rush when you are being forced to sit still is never ideal. I brought a bag of dried cranberries, a bag of almonds, some mints, and two fancy cup noodles. The noodles are the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option if the food is terrible, because even the worst airline won’t deny you hot water. The fruit and nuts are impossible to binge on because they’re so boring, and can go in the plain natural yoghurt that will probably be in your breakfast tray.
Stay hydrated. Bring a reusable bottle and ask the stewards, very nicely, to fill it up. Do not ask them at the very beginning of the flight: it’s one of the busiest times for them. Wait until things have calmed down. Do not drink more than two glasses of wine. Pack headache tablets, just in case.
Entertainment. The rookie mistake is to watch the movies you’re interested in right away, and then spend the following four hours moodily flicking between a bad children’s movie that makes you burst into tears and a very good French movie that you don’t have the intellectual bandwidth to keep up with. Remember: you will probably have the same movie options on the way back as you did on the way there, so ration the good ones.
Audiobooks and podcasts are a better option: you won’t wear out your eyes, and you can be lulled to sleep while you listen from inside your big hoodie. I also got extremely into playing solitaire on one flight, because it is mindlessly occupying and was the one menu on my screen that didn’t have the flight time on it. Side note: beware checking the flight time too much.
Sleep. Obviously, do as much of it as you can. Bribe your parents to give you their sleeping pills. If you are in France at any point in your journey, you will be able to buy pretty good sleeping pills from most pharmacies, even at the airport. DONORMYL is available in most places. It’s ridiculously cheap and, as the pharmacist will tell you, “goes beautifully with wine”. Viva la France.
Your skin. I am not a beauty maven. I don’t know about acids and retinol, but I do know that 22 hours on a plane will dry out your skin to the point where your face will feel like a sheet of 2-ply toilet roll wrapped tight over bone. Your plastic bag should have the following, distilled, where possible, into small pots: cleanser, moisturiser, hand cream, and a can of spraying water. When the hot towels come around, give yourself a little facial, finishing with a spritz of the water. The person next to you will give you a dirty look, but will later ask to borrow it.
Most importantly of all, be nice to the people who work on the plane. It’s nice to be nice, sure, but bear in mind that these people have utter control over your comfort and safety for the next 22 hours, and any small slight you give them will be remembered. Revenge will be exacted. Early in one of my first flights, I muted my headphones rather than taking them off to speak to a steward, and I regretted the choice deeply. Not one, but two bread rolls are dropped in my lap, and my water bottle does not get filled. I do not remotely blame them. You must kowtow to the sky gods, friends. They are the only hope you have.