Sonia O’Sullivan: How to make the best of long-haul flights

Light stretching, window seats and bringing your own food make for a better experience

The average flight time between Ireland and Australia is 24 hours. Going there, or coming back. A full day out of your life.

I know that because since first flying to Australia in 1995, I’ve made that journey over 100 times. That’s at least five or six times a year for the last 23 years, counting the there and the back. That’s over 100 days of your life floating around the sky.

Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks to help pass the time on board, and that starts by getting up and walking around. Only no matter how hard you try, it’s hard to walk around for a very long while flying at 35,000ft, and you soon discover there are only so many laps of the narrow aisles of the plane you can do before the boredom sets in.

I sometimes stop and do some light stretching near the exits, trying a few yoga poses, if there aren’t too many people around. I used to be a lot more conscious of this when flying back in my competitive running days, finding it impossible to just relax and take a day off.


There were times when we’d stopover in Singapore and I would walk to the furthest terminals and back just to stretch the legs. Then I discovered that airport had a swimming pool, so during a few trips I would get into the pool and swim laps of this very short pool, then come out dizzy from all the tumble turns.

Pack light

I have no idea if this was any real benefit physically, but it certainly helped get my head around the long trip, and gave me some sense of routine and purpose along the way.

I always try to pack light and neat, but still always end up with an extra bag somewhere, dangling off my back as I head to the plane. That’s usually my food bag, especially if I know there is zero chance of an upgrade. The best option is BYO.

When you get on the plane at 8pm there really shouldn’t be any need for food, but it’s one of those things that helps to pass the time. It’s also better to eat your own selection of snacks rather than whatever is presented in the extra-hot tinfoil rectangle, set among the doughy white roll and token salad. That’s better left alone, except for maybe the small bar of chocolate to save for later.

I used to order the fruit platter in advance, which can be nice, until I realised the chance of an upgrade is even less than zero when you have a special meal next to your name. The chance of a bed and some extra space is greater value to me than a fruit salad, especially when I can just bring my own.

And so it was last week when I headed to Dublin Airport with my bag of salad leaves, some prosciutto, corn crackers, herbal tea bags, a few chia energy bombs, Rawlo’s and protein balls to keep me fuelled and entertained for the trip.

I always try to pick out a window seat well in advance. That gives me something to lean against when trying to get comfortable in that awkward sitting-up-sleep position.

It’s always a pleasant surprise when you discover the flight isn’t full. I normally ask at the flight desk where might be the best row to spread out, maybe even get a whole row of seats to yourself.

Sometimes that’s actually better than getting the upgrade: you’ve the bed, a stack of pillows and blankets, your own healthy snacks, and no temptation from the gold-embossed menu and wine list. Although I do like the bigger screen and choice of reading lights.

Once seated, the first thing I do is pull on the compression socks, take out the noise-cancelling headphones, and fill up my drink bottle.

As soon as the wheels leave the runway I’m usually lying down relaxing with a book and ready for sleep. Only not long after that, just before drifting off to sleep in the clouds, comes a tapping on my leg that won’t go away.


Eventually I give in and open one eye.

Would I like some dinner?

Did I really look like I want some dinner?

Surely the flight attendants should know at this stage that sleeping on a plane is of much greater priority than eating. Either way, there isn’t much conversation, just shake of the head and then back to sleep again.

There are a few advantages with flying so many miles each year. I’m now up to platinum card status, and can access the Etihad lounge in Abu Dhabi. There, I usually pick up some fruit and even a decent coffee if I feel like I want to be awake for a few hours on the next flight.

My current favourite coffee is called a magic, and I love to test the water in various cafe’s to see the reaction. At the cafe in the Etihad lounge, the barista replied without the glimmer of a smile, “Madam, do you think I look like a magician?”

I still had a few salad leaves left in my bag, but they can get a bit boring after a while, especially without any dressing. So I passed by the buffet in the lounge one more time and picked up an individual serving of mayonnaise and mustard, the perfect combination.

It may seem strange, or may have something to do with the effects of altitude and boredom, but this combination of mayonnaise and mustard and salad leaves, sprinkled with Wyldsson seeds, ends up being one of the best meals I’ve ever tasted on a plane.


After a few hours of browsing the channels, not really settling on any movie, it was back to sleep again, once more I lucked out with four seats to lie across.

Even though I flew home in April, and back here in May, there wasn't much change in the movies. One I thought was an option was The Post, but it never grabbed me. Some movies just don't work on planes. I couldn't watch Churchill either but somehow enjoyed Dunkirk.

When I went for a last walk around the plane it was interesting that nearly every person had at least one free seat beside them. It must be the quiet season, as it’s not always like this, and instead you find most people curled up like balls beside the window, or stretched out in their seats.

In all those trips back and forth across the world, some 10,000 miles each way, every landing is different: some better, some worse, but none seemingly entirely smooth.

There are a few things that I have figured out recently that have an impact on how you will feel when you touch down and walk off the plane. The more fluids you drink with electrolytes, the less you eat and the more you sleep. This is the perfect recipe for a good landing on the other side.

It’s not just the one day of your life you lose when flying to Australia, but sometimes the next three as well. After arriving, you have to find your old routine and slot back into life down under, and for three days everything feels like it’s upside down, then suddenly everything slips back into normal life once more.