If you're like me and fly business or first class only when using miles or a free upgrade, the news about airplane seats isn't good. Airlines have recently started to remove bulkier, older economy seats and replace them with new "slimline" models with thinner padding. This allows yet more seats to be squeezed onto planes.
What to do? The economy-class sardine treatment won't ever change, but over many years of flying for my work, I've seen — and adopted — a handful of strategies for making the best out of the tight squeeze and getting to my destination in good shape.
1. Tame Those Wild Carry-Ons
Legroom is already scarce, so don't give yours up to thoughtless packing. Keep the area under the seat in front of you as clear as possible. Ask yourself what you'll need easy access to during the flight, and then place those items — and only those items — in a purse, small satchel or day pack that can slip in next to your feet. Organize your luggage so that everything else you bring onto the plane is stowed overhead in your roll-aboard, duffel or larger bag. And if you're not going to read the in-flight magazine or shopping catalog, or use the airline's headphones, stash them overhead, too, for extra knee room.
2. Create a Cocoon
Gone are the days when the coach cabin usually had a supply of thin blankets and pint-sized pillows. But you can still make yourself snug in your seat by traveling with a few basic creature comforts. A lightweight fleece travel blanket will fold almost to nothing but keep you toasty even when the cabin temperature dips. For cold feet, which I often experience when removing my shoes on longer flights, I don an extra pair of socks. They can be either special flight socks like those the airlines sometimes give to upper-class passengers or a loose, fuzzy pair you've grabbed out of the dresser drawer. When you want to relax and maybe even catch a few winks, a good light-blocking eye mask and a neck pillow are essential (for the pillow, I prefer the inflatable type over memory foam, since it packs much smaller). And with airline seat padding getting ever thinner, you may want to also consider your own inflatable or gel-pack travel cushion.
3. Think Ergonomics
With such a wide range of human shapes and sizes, no standardized airline seat is ever going to ergonomically match each passenger's body. A lack of support for the lower back is often a problem, but there's a simple solution: a small, compact lumbar pillow, either inflatable, gel-pack or memory foam. For laptop users, a common complaint is the contorted position you need to assume because the reclined seat in front of you keeps the screen at an odd angle. An ingenious solution is a prop like the Aviator laptop stand, which tilts the computer and moves it closer to your body, lets the screen fully open, and allows you to sit back as you type.
4. Tune Out (or in)
Many frequent fliers swear by noise-canceling headphones, though the best of them can set you back $200 or more. At the very least, consider bringing your own good-quality headphones for the flight. In the event you want to zone out, they'll block more ambient noise than those furnished by the airlines; if you want to watch the film or listen to music, they'll provide much clearer sound. And for drastically reducing ambient noise on the cheap, there's still nothing more effective than a simple pair of those squishy foam ear plugs.
5. Pamper Yourself
A dab of a favorite skin cream or hand lotion can perk you up on long flights. Given the desert-dry air in most airplanes, a few spritzes of hydrating facial mist or an occasional gentle wipe of face and hands with a lavender-scented towelette instantly cools and refreshes. And if you'd like to imagine you're in a flying spa rather than aboard a crowded coach cabin, lean back, close your eyes and cover them with a pair of eye pads moistened with soothing extracts of cucumber or green tea. See, that airplane seat isn't so bad.