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How to have a stress-free flight this holiday season

There’s no place like home for the holidays ... unless that means flying during the busiest time of the year. Here’s how you can transform the hustle and bustle into a serene scene.

November 7, 2019

By Mark Cox

Imagine the combined populations of Florida and Michigan up in the air at the same time.

It’s a spooky thought, but that’s essentially what happened last Thanksgiving when 30.6 million passengers took to the skies. And as millions of Americans grit their teeth for another turkey-flavored pilgrimage, our Metropolitan State University of Denver experts are standing by with some high-flying advice. Here's how Jeff Price, aviation professor (and frequent flyer); Joseph Quatrochi, professor of Human Performance and Sport; and Kelsey Asplin, naturopathic doctor and Integrative Health Professions lecturer transform the holiday travel hustle and bustle into a serene scene.

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Read between the lines

Want to get through security faster and more efficiently? Frequent flyers actively watch who is standing in each line – which makes good sense. “A longer line of business-looking travelers will likely go faster than a shorter line with a family of five holding 10 suitcases while a harried dad struggles to break down the baby stroller,” Price says. Registering for PreCheck is also well worth the money, he says, and can save you an hour or more depending on the time of day.

Take an empty water bottle

There’s nothing to stop you from taking your own refillable bottle through security, Asplin advises. You can then fill it up at one of many filtered water stations and avoid the exorbitant bottled-water prices at airport shops.

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Rush to board? It depends

Every frequent flyer knows the game: You rush the queue at boarding call to grab an overhead bag space that’s close to your seat. And if you have a hefty suitcase (or roller board, say), it certainly does pay to be near the start of the line. But if you just have a small carry-on that will fit underneath your seat, Price advises sitting tight and ignoring the bedlam: “Who needs the stress? You have a seat waiting anyway – so relax and let the crowd go first.”

Pack your own snacks…

The worst thing you can do while crammed into a small, cramped airplane seat is fill yourself with fatty airplane foods and gassy drinks. (The pressurized cabin means the gas in your intestines will expand anyway. Ew.) “The best idea is to pack your own healthy snacks – think fruit, vegetables, salads and nuts – and just say no to the meals offered on board,” Asplin says. “They are generally full of sugar, salt and preservatives.”

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… but be considerate

If preparing your own food, choose carefully. “Please don’t pack smelly stuff for the flight,” Price pleads, “because not everyone will share your culinary preferences. Air travel during the holidays is stressful enough without adding in the odor of someone’s sardine sandwiches.” The same applies to strong perfumes or colognes, he says, which can prompt misery and even allergy attacks for other passengers.

Watch your back

Price strongly recommends investing in a good backpack that evenly distributes weight. “Single-shoulder and laptop bags are just too hard on your body over a long travel day, leading to fatigue and muscle ache,” he says. “Most business travelers (myself included) wear backpacks now.”

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Get up and move around

The specter of deep vein thrombosis haunts modern flights, and yet the key to avoiding it is simple: Stay mobile. “It’s really important to move around regularly during a long flight,” says Quatrochi. “DVT is associated with blood pooling in the lower extremities. But once you get up and start walking around, your body literally pumps blood back up to the heart.” And while they won’t win any style awards, compression socks can also help.

Drink sensibly

“Avoid alcohol,” says Asplin. “It is extremely dehydrating and depresses your immune system, which is already challenged on an airplane. Just think of all those passengers in close proximity, breathing recycled air and enduring numerous changes in pressure, temperature and time zones.” Also avoid too many caffeinated beverages, she says, which are similarly dehydrating. Above all: Stay actively hydrated. For every hour in the air, try to drink 8 ounces of water.

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Take a spare charger

Price recommends springing a few bucks on a battery charger for your digital devices: “If you’re ever stuck on a delayed flight, you’ll notice that everyone’s battery life starts burning out at the same time, so you’ll be glad you were prepared.” And do not use the plane’s Wi-Fi. It is not secure, Price says, and there will probably be at least one hacking passenger on board surfing around to see what others are doing.

Don’t drop your seat all the way back

The ultimate plane-etiquette no-no. For the sake of common courtesy, don’t drop your seat all the way back onto a person’s lap behind you. “Plenty of laptops and iPads have been busted because someone suddenly, and thoughtlessly, slung their seat backward onto equipment behind them,” Price says. His advice? First, check to make sure the person behind you isn’t working on an electronic device, then drop your seat halfway at the most.

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Exercise while you sit

Despite the cramped conditions, you can still stay loose and limber in flight by doing some simple stretches in your seat. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is. “Just doing some basic exercises – such as foot pumps, ankle circles, leg raises and shoulder rolls (you’ll find instructions here) – can make a big difference,” Quatrochi explains. “I’d also suggest some seated overhead reaches to really stretch across your body on longer flights.” 

Choose the right pillow

If you’re going on a long flight and want a really good rest, Price says, don’t buy those $30 pillows you see at the airport: “They are too bulky and don’t work.” He instead recommends the MLVOC Memory Foam Travel Pillow, which comes with a sleep mask, earplugs and handy bag. “You can roll it back up, and it’s the first genuinely breathable travel pillow out there. Sweet dreams!”

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