The best gear to make long flights less miserable

by Сашка

We tested eight accessories, such as a foot sling and eye masks, to make sleeping in economy feel like first class

We’re supposed to appreciate the journey as much as the destination, but that’s a hard task when the journey can be a leg-cramping, backbreaking, neck-cricking experience during a long-haul flight in economy. If you don’t have the luxury of a premier seat, then you’re stuck in an unforgiving spot for hours, bumping elbows and knees with neighbors.

Although you can pony up for more legroom, investing in a few pieces of travel gear may be better for your bank account. For the price of a seat selection, you can find gadgets that claim to help you sleep better, sit more comfortably or shut out your fellow fliers. But the amount of products out there can be overwhelming. You need to find a compromise between comfort and practicality, because whatever you pack, you also have to carry.

So what’s worth your money and luggage space? With a handful of flights on my calendar (from D.C. to Vegas, a few long flights to Asia and a weekend trip to Montreal), I tested eight products to find out.

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A footrest hammock, $25

For $24.99, I felt like the fanciest person in coach, thanks to the “Airplane Footrest” off Amazon, an accessory that’s intended to relieve back and leg discomfort. It was soothing as soon as I slipped my feet in the hammock on my 15½-hour flight from New York to South Korea. I’ve never noticed how your body absorbs a slight vibration when your feet are on the plane floor. The lightly padded hammock eliminated all rumbling, giving me a full-body equivalent of putting on noise-canceling headphones.

The manufacturer claims it’s suitable for all heights, but at 5-foot-4, I can’t speak for tall travelers. What I do know is that it came in a flat bag, unfolded easily and could be clipped into place in a minute. (You lower your tray table, hang the sling straps on the table’s hinges, then fold the tray table back up.) It was perfect for the window seat, and maybe the middle if you knew the person in the window seat. But when I had an aisle seat on a redeye from Vietnam to Japan, I skipped the sling, so my neighbors wouldn’t feel trapped.

Throughout the flight, I adjusted the sling higher and lower for different effects. It did seem to relieve back aches and give me more variety in my sleeping positions. As with any plane sleeping position, you can’t stay in one forever without experiencing discomfort. My knee ligaments felt as if they were going to tear after five or six hours of my sling-sleeping attempts, so I’d recommend taking your feet out from time to time to stretch.

Headphones for seat-back entertainment, $17

When you’re lucky enough to get a seat-back entertainment screen, you don’t want to get stuck with airlines’ complimentary headphones. Unless you’re in first class, they’re dinky and of poor quality. (Not a fit for re-watching “A Star is Born.”) Popular cordless Bluetooth headphones or iPhone headphones with lightning connectors don’t work with in-flight entertainment systems, so you have to pack a good old-fashioned 3.5mm audio jack. I keep a pair of $16.99 ones in my laptop bag so I never leave them behind.

A silky but supportive neck pillow, $55

I’ve tried a bunch of neck pillows and have changed my mind over the years about which one is best. These days, I travel with the Cushion Lab ergonomic travel neck pillow, available for $55 (when it’s not on sale). It’s made of squishy “Hyperfoam,” an “extra dense, dynamically rebounding, proprietary memory foam,” is silky and smooth, and isn’t super bulky but is still supportive.

If there’s any potential for sleep on an airplane, I’m packing this neck pillow. It’s a nonnegotiable, even if it’s just to soften a brutal 6 a.m. departure. On all of my test flights, I either used it in the traditional way (fastened around my neck, clasp in the back) or folded up like a cinnamon roll and wedged against the plane wall. I’ve never regretted packing it once. When I’m not using it on a flight or train or long car ride, I store it with my clothes in a compression bag in my luggage. (If you’re not traveling with compression bags, you’re missing out.)

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A no-frills, comfortable eye mask, $22

We know lights are detrimental to good sleep, which makes tiny ones particularly annoying in hotel rooms, so packing an eye mask is key to getting better sleep on a flight and on your trip. Not only do they block out cabin lights or the glow of your neighbor’s laptop, but they also act as a signal to your body that it’s time to sleep.

I tried two options. First, the “3D Contoured Cup Sleeping Mask & Blindfold” I use at home that’s raised, so it doesn’t put pressure on your eyelids ($21.99 on Amazon). And second, a pair of “Sleep Headphones” ($22.89 on Amazon), an eye mask with built-in Bluetooth headphones. After flying with both, I’d skip the high-tech model; on an 8 a.m. flight, I had to keep adjusting the position of the speakers, which distracted me from trying to sleep. Meanwhile, the low-tech mask did its job seamlessly and helped me sleep for hours at a time.

Highly rated compression socks, $19

Compression socks are another low-tech flex that help with blood circulation. I went with the moisture-wicking “Physix Gear Sport Women’s Modern” ($18.57), the top seller on Amazon. Putting them on made me feel like an old-timey Victorian woman fastening her stockings, but they always kept my legs snug. I overheard a few women at the Bangkok airport talking about their swollen feet after our flight, and took stock of my own. They had swelled a little, but not enough to cause discomfort. The socks had been a success.

An ergonomic seat for fewer backaches, $50+

Celebrity personal trainer Ashley Borden once told me that she always travels with a BackJoy Posture Plus seat, because “you can get up from a plane and you do not have back pain.” It’s an ergonomic seat that creates an active sitting position and corrects the position of the pelvis, and as someone who has been having searing back pain on long flights, I was happy to investigate.

After a round trip to Vegas with my BackJoy SitSmart Pro Relief Gel model ($59.99 from Walmart), I was sold. I felt no pain — zero — just some inconvenience from having to carry it around. The seat was light (only about a pound) but much bigger than a laptop and rigid. Borden straps hers to her backpack, so I used a carabiner to fasten mine to my carry-on bag. For my Asia trip, I got the smaller BackJoy Posture Seat Pad ($49.99 on Amazon), hoping it’d be less cumbersome. It was, but it didn’t deliver the same bliss and wasn’t worth carrying around for two weeks, so I cut my losses and left it at the airport in Bangkok.

Bottom line: The Pro Relief did work wonders. I’d recommend it for quick business trips where you know you have to work on long flights. But I wouldn’t schlep one on a vacation, particularly when traveling light.

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