Air Travel to Europe: Ensuring a Relaxing Transatlantic Flight

Sunset over Avignon and the Rhone River

Sunset over Avignon and the Rhône River

In last week’s blog post, Air Travel to Europe: Planning Your Itinerary and Booking Your Flights, our virtual panel of Slow Travel Tours leaders offered suggestions for planning and booking flights for a European trip. We’re back this week to share more ideas about air travel to Europe.

After what may have been months or even a year of eager anticipation for a European trip, travelers must first endure a long flight across the ocean. For travelers from the west coast of the USA, it’s an even longer trip; and for those coming from Australia, it can be a journey of 24 hours or more. Most people seem to dread the long flight… and some also struggle with fears about flying.

How can you make the trip as positive and stress-free as possible? Let’s get some ideas from our panel of frequent-flyer Slow Travel Tours leaders:

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Coach or business class? Why? And what about these newer “comfort” seats? Are they worth it to you?

Jim Nilsen: I always fly coach because of the cost and will sometimes spend some extra money on the seats in coach with the extra legroom as I am 6’2”. I flew Biz class once and loved it and would definitely use it if I could afford it.

Matt Daub: I’d love to fly business or first all the time if we could afford it. On the rare occasion we get a great deal, we fly business on the way out and coach on the way back. The overnights are the worst.

Shannon Essa: I’ve only flown coach for the most part but did manage premium economy on British Airways this year. The meal on the way over was really good – on the way back not so much. But the extra legroom was bliss.

Anne Woodyard: We book Economy plus… we’re tall and that extra legroom is essential for us. If we’re upgraded, we love it, of course, but would not spend the amount necessary to buy a business class seat.

Kathy Wood: We always fly coach. We’ve had a few complimentary upgrades to Business Class in the past (and loved it, of course), but those unexpected upgrades don’t seem to be happening anymore. I’d rather have more trips to Europe or more money to do something special when we’re there than pay extra money or use lots of frequent flyer points to fly business class. We do sometimes pay extra for Delta’s “Economy Comfort” on the transatlantic leg of the overnight flight to Europe.

Bill Steiner: We cannot justify business class, much as we would like the amenities and room. We do get comfort seats free as frequent flyers on American. Amazing what an inch will do for your comfort!

Where do you prefer to sit on the plane? Why?

Shannon Essa: I like to have a window seat and I try not to be too close to the bathrooms. Unfortunately now you have to pay for a specific seat on many airlines, but it is worth it for me to get that window.

Bill Steiner: We like to be near the front but not at the bulkhead. Plane configuration differs from airline to airline so what works for us on American may be different for another airline. A forward seat means we are able to get off the plane sooner, get served earlier, and are not close to the noise and confusion of the bathrooms.

Matt Daub: The only preference we have for seating is to have two seats (aisle/window) to ourselves and not have the bulkhead near the bathroom – YUK!!

Anne Woodyard: In a row of two, with extra leg room (exit row or economy plus).

Kathy Wood: I prefer a window seat, and Charley likes an aisle. We prefer a flight that has two seats together by the window (maybe a 2-5-2 configuration), and try to get seats near the front. Otherwise, we might even sit across the aisle from each other.

iStock_000025208080_Full airplane

What do you do to pass the time on a long international flight?

Matt Daub: I can never sleep on airplanes, except in 1st class. Barb is able to sleep anywhere. I write to pass the time.

Shannon Essa: Passing the time is the hardest part about the transatlantic journey. The hours just seem to drag on. I usually watch movies – in fact, I think I catch up on all my blockbuster movies on transatlantic flights.

Anne Woodyard: Catch up on my reading, watch movies, sleep.

Jim Nilsen: Movies, movies, movies!

Kathy Wood: I catch up on magazine reading and really enjoy watching the movies. I also try to have a good page-turner on my Kindle or I download recent episodes of my favorite TV series. And I do try to sleep.

Bill Steiner: If it is an overnight flight I close my eyes whether I sleep or not. I believe it helps reset the body clock. Day flights I read, watch movies, and write.

Any strategies for getting some sleep on an overnight flight to Europe?

Bill Steiner: I take melatonin, which seems to help a little. I close my eyes even if I don’t sleep. This relaxes me and helps transition my body clock. I use an inflatable pillow to make the trip more comfortable.

Anne Woodyard: Mask, over-the-counter sleep aid, and earplugs.

Jim Nilsen: Ambien

Kathy Wood: It’s really important to get a few hours of sleep so you’re not totally wiped out when you arrive. Charley seems to have no problem with this, but it’s harder for me. I usually take half an ambien and that helps.

Any luggage strategies? Do you check bags? What do you pack in your carryon bag?

Anne Woodyard: For our tours we check a bag since we need clothes for concerts and our information files, which means we pack more than if we were just going on a vacation. We carry on the important things that we don’t want to do without – such as that previously mentioned information file, our medications, our electronics – phones, laptops, ipads.

Bill Steiner: We always carry our bags on. We travel light, knowing that layers is the way to travel and planning to do laundry while in Europe. Carrying our bags on also means a quick trip through the airport at our destination. We usually check a bag on our return as we typically bring back olive oil. Since we are returning home we don’t worry about a delayed bag.

Jim Nilsen: I check one bag and carry on my camera gear and laptop. As I spend 2 to 3 months each year in Europe, I try to keep my luggage size and weight down. I have found that I can get by with way less than when I first started traveling. I purchased a light weight Osprey piece of luggage which was 3 pounds lighter than my previous luggage. I pay attention to the weight of all the items that I pack and if I can find a lighter solution I will usually go with it. It all adds up.

iStock_000049879544_Medium carryon bags 2 Kathy Wood: For our summer trips to Europe for our tours, we’re gone for about three months and need clothes for different activities and weather. So we do have to check a bag each. We’ve had luggage delayed before, so we’re very careful not to pack anything critical in our checked luggage. I have a small bag to keep at my feet with the things I need on the plane (passport, wallet, Kindle, big shawl). My carryon bag has all our materials for our tours, anything I absolutely would not want to lose (like electronics or jewelry—but definitely not expensive jewelry), plus small toiletries and two changes of clothes. And I’m with Bill—we like to have an extra bag or plenty of room in our checked luggage to bring home special things from Europe.

Do you have Global Entry? Why or why not?

Bill Steiner: Yes. As a frequent traveler the benefit of quick and easy boarding and entry through customs made the fee a nonissue.

Shannon Essa: I have Global Entry and I love it. The last thing I want to do when I get off a 13 hour flight is wait in a line. It is well worth the $100 I paid for five years!

Kathy Wood: Not yet. The application process is more complicated for us because we have to do the interview in a bigger city while connecting on a flight. But we’re going to figure it out this year. Fortunately, we don’t usually deal with long lines. We’re usually through immigration before our bags are on the carousel. (We’re often picked for TSA PreCheck, and I think that’s a great benefit. We need to guarantee that every time.)

What other suggestions to make international air travel easier?

Shannon Essa: If something does go wrong, BREATHE. It is very frustrating to be in a situation of delays or cancellation, but it is not life threatening and it won’t help to get your blood pressure up. Try to be as nice as you can to the people around you, including the airline personnel – a smile will get you a lot farther than a frown or complaint.

Bill Steiner: I think the biggest thing one can do is to relax. We tend to stress ourselves out because of the potential for a delay or problem and because of language barriers. While understandable and natural, it is counterproductive. And what we have found is that there are inevitably “travel angels” who help you out. Nearly every time we have had a potential problem, were unsure, were trying to figure something out, there would appear someone to help us. Too, it is the challenging situations that create the best stories and often, memories!! So try to relax.

Anne Woodyard: I agree with Shannon about the importance of a smile. Always smile and interact pleasantly with all of the airline staff. It makes you as well as them happier! For me, it’s important to make my “nest” when I arrive in my seat, getting out the things I need so they’ll be close at hand, making sure I have a coat or wrap to keep warm when the aircraft cools down on a long flight.

Jim Nilsen: If you can, try to add a couple of days to your trip to arrive early, so that you can adjust to jet lag and ease into your journey. This is especially important if you’re joining a tour.

Shannon Essa: Airline food, in coach is not especially good, so I bring some cheese and crackers, nuts, and other nibbles to eat on the plane. Many airports have fabulous food now – at Heathrow, you can buy Gordon Ramsay “Flight Food” meals in a cute insulated, reusable container. In Spain, the airports in Barcelona and Madrid sell packets of Iberian ham to go; you just have to make sure you finish them on the plane, because you are not supposed to bring them through customs.

Kathy Wood: I’ve made many trips to Europe, but each one is still an exciting adventure to me. If you don’t like the standard airline food, you can bring your own as Shannon says, or you can pre-order a special meal that might better meet your needs. Stay well hydrated, but don’t drink too much—especially not too much alcohol. Dress comfortably for the flight (I like yoga-type pants) and have good shoes for all the walking you’ll do in the airports. (I usually slip off my shoes and wear fluffy socks on the plane.) You can add a bit of style to your travel outfit with a scarf.  But I think the most important tip—from last week’s discussion– is to make sure you allow plenty of time for connections when you make your bookings. This will avoid some of the stress and panic that can occur when a flight is delayed. You can use that extra time at your connecting airport to relax, enjoy a coffee, do some shopping, go for a walk… in today’s airports, you can even have a massage.

(You might also enjoy this related Slow Travel Tours blog post: Packing for a European Vacation.)

Kathy and Charley woodKathy Wood and her husband Charley lead European Experiences, week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe, including The Luberon Experience in Provence, France. National Geographic Traveler magazine named The Luberon Experience one of their "Tours of a Lifetime" for 2012, the top 50 tours in the world.

Kathy and Charley offer Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. In 2017 they're offering a new European Christmas Experience trip, and in 2018 they're launching The Cornwall Experience in southwest England. See their 2017 and 2018 schedule here.

Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for over 25 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with other travelers. They've hosted 85+ Experience groups since they launched in 2006. They now live part-time in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.
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