Blake Snow

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Ultra-long haul flights: How I survived 16 hours in the sky

Courtesy Shutterstock

I didn’t notice the duration until after I booked my airfare.

Total flight time from Salt Lake City to Durban, South Africa: an intimidating 22 hours—just under a full day. And that doesn’t include the 7-hour layover at two different airports. Nor the three additional hours of airtime on the return flight (because trade winds).


The longest nonstop I will take on this trip—New York to Johannesburg—lasts 16 hours and 27 minutes. It won’t be as long as the record-setting 18-hour-and-50-minute doozy from Singapore to New York, but it’s close. And it may make you wonder, why would anyone do that to themselves?

If I’m going to go on a life-changing safari, I’ve gotta get my hands dirty, right!? So I do it—I book the flight. After processing the sheer amount of time I’ll spend in the air, however, I mistakenly think my past experience on 10-plus hour flights will make this long-hauler a piece of cake.

I am wrong. Hour 12, I learn, is like hitting “the wall” in a marathon, and at that point I’ll still have five more hours to go. Someone get me outta here! In fact, the latter half of the flight will feel like a slow-motion time warp. Zombie-land in a flying metal tube, and I’m the zombie.

Sounds nice, right? For anyone planning on taking a similar “ultra long-haul”—any flight greater than 16 hours—here’s a psychological run-down of what to expect, plus tips and tricks to maintain your sanity.

Hour 0: Boarding

I’ve done this before. But not on a plane this big. They call them jumbo for a reason. My South African Airways’ 777 is so bloated, I’m doubtful it will even fly. It does of course, making it a modern engineering marvel. I take a moment to appreciate this before strapping in for my pre-flight routine. I also enjoy the added leg room, which seems more on par with the comfort plus or economy plus seats on domestic flights. (While this isn’t always the case with overseas budget airlines, my understanding is that it is on ultra-long hauls with major carriers.)

Hour 1.5: Meal service

Unlike long-haul domestic flights in the US, which shed meal services at the turn of the 21st century, I will not go hungry on today’s flight. In fact, I enjoy three full meals—dinner, breakfast, and lunch, in that order—plus virtually unlimited snacks. Dinner is served a couple of hours into the flight (chicken—not bad), and at this point I am feeling good. I read some material about my upcoming safari to get excited, space out listening to Currents, my favorite Tame Impala album, and enjoy the first of several “complimentary” ginger ales. I got this!

Hour 2: First of several bathroom breaks

“Excuse me,” I politely say to the older woman seated next to me. She takes the hint and lets me out to use the lavatory. Sadly for her, my trips to the bathroom happen frequently on planes. Dehydration is bad enough on the ground. It’s worse in the air, creating a fogginess and malaise that makes me feel lousy. So I stay hydrated and don’t feel sheepish about regularly relieving myself. At 40,000 feet, my brain and body thank me.

Hour 4: “What else can I watch?”

Ultra long-hauls offer more than enough entertainment. Movies, games, music, and depending on the airline, live TV and internet. Because I am heading to Africa, I choose Blood Diamond starring Leo Dicaprio. Difficult to watch, but gripping. I follow that up with two-and-a-half more movies (including another set in Africa, The Ghost and The Darkness) before eventually growing restless of airborne cinema. Amazingly, I can watch all seven Mission: Impossible movies, plus Top Gun, before landing. I don’t, but I could have.

Hour 8: Poor sleep + breakfast

After tossing and turning for four hours of in-and-out sleep, I hear rumbling in the gally and the smell of microwaved food. Rice and curry. I remove my sleep mask and ear plugs. I clean my plate and look at the clock. Then I fire up a custom playlist I saved for later in the flight to keep things exciting. Nearly halfway there! I’m exhausted.

Hour 11: “I hate every movie”

By this point, I’m sick of movies. The list of nearly 100 no longer appeals to me. I feel boxed in. The air is beyond stale. My muscles feel like hardened taffy. I walk to the back of the plane to do some stretches by a tiny round window (experts recommend stretching every 90-120 minutes on planes). It doesn’t cure the stiffness, but it’s better than nothing. “Would you like a snack?” the admirably upbeat attendant then asks. Why not? Let the stress eating begin!

Hour 12: “What am I doing?”

I don’t panic at this point. But I feel bleak. Of course I’m being melodramatic. But if someone told you after 12 hours of flying that you have four and a half more to go, you might feel pretty blue, too. I know I do. So I snack some more, even though I’m not hungry. To remind myself why I’m doing this, I review my trip itinerary again and take note of some last minute decisions I need to make.

Hour 15: Last in-flight meal

After three more hours of in-and-out sleep with those ridiculous neck pillows, I smell eggs. I glance at my watch. Only an hour and a half to go! As a life-long land mammal, this is wonderful news for my psyche. I’m returning to my natural habitat! Because she can fall asleep anywhere, my wife fares much better on this flight than I do. We are getting close.

Hour 16.5: The end (but really just the beginning)

When the wheels finally touch down, I turn to the older lady seated next to me. Her face looks weary, but she still manages a smile. We made it! I don’t think I’ve ever felt more restless than I do today.

Our last connecting flight is just over an hour. I fall asleep before we even leave the gate—the first and only time I’ve ever done this in 33 years of flying. My neighbor must think I attended a rave the night before.

Not exactly. But I did just fly halfway across the world. Two days later I will be within 10 feet of a pride of lions, so yeah—this ultra long-haul was totally worth it. ●

About the author: Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his adventurous wife, five adolescent children, and two dogs.