As you may have guessed from reading my blog, I travel quite a bit. One month this year, I rode a plane, train, boat, bike, metro, scooter, motorcycle, and tram all within 3 days to get around. Right now, I’ve just gotten home after a grueling 21-hour trip from Barcelona. So you might expect that I’m a cool-as-a-cucumber traveler, ready to face the world, passport and regulation-sized luggage packed neatly.
A lot of the time that’s true. (Most of the time I’m also clutching an enormous bottle of water and sporting huge sunglasses to mitigate the consequences of the previous night’s goodbye/welcome/why-not-it’s-Tuesday party.)
But every so often I start getting nervous or anxious, especially when it comes to plane travel. “What if…” and my mind starts to wander into a field of increasingly unpleasant scenarios. I’m pretty sure that most people who’ve traveled by air have had at least a moment’s pause during a bumpy flight.
Orson Welles expressed my feelings on flying best – “There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.”
So how can you reduce that terror? Here’s what helps me – my top 5 tips to deal with flying anxiety.
Research, research, research
There are lots of lovely reassuring statistics out there about air travel. MIT recently found that airplanes are safer than every other form of transportation…even escalators. Yep, escalators. I don’t remember ever feeling nervous about getting on an escalator.
Plus, something like 99% of flights land without incidents. In that tiny 1%, 95% of people survive (according to the NTSB). They also say 76% survive the worst crashes, which are pretty unlikely to happen anyway. And that’s the worst cases.
That may not make you feel better, but it relieved quite a lot of my worries.
Get up-to-date on safety recommendations
I think one of the scariest parts about flying on a plane is that you’re not in control, and there’s nowhere to go if you’re in the air and something goes wrong.
But there is something you do have control over – making sure you know the safety procedures back-to-front.
Even though I fly frequently enough to have practically memorized the safety speeches in English, Spanish, and Catalan, I still make sure to pay attention to the safety demonstrations and read the extra safety card. I find the lifejacket, count the rows to the exits in front and behind me, and look at the “brace” position they recommend.
Maybe that wouldn’t help in a very serious crash situation, but it still gives you a little more control over the situation. Knowing I’ve done all I can do helps me sit back and relax (and almost enjoy the flight, as far as I can enjoy sitting in a tiny seat for the next 12 hours).
Have a little ritual
It sounds silly, and it is. But having a little routine on the plane for “good luck” helps me give myself the illusion of control, which in turns helps me relax. Lots of people do stuff like this, ranging from breathing exercises to holding their travel partner’s hand to religious prayers. Other people bring things to literally hold on to and play with in their hands. I have a small “finger dance” that I’m not sure why I started, but it does help.
Pro tip (with a dash of sarcasm): avoid choosing rituals like pacing the aisles of the plane, as things like this are likely to annoy and stress out your fellow passengers, probably leading to more unpleasantness all around.
Bring something to look forward to on the plane
When I had long-haul flights from the U.S. to the U.K. as a child, we always had a stack of newly-bought books and a new packet of crayons or something. At 24, I don’t take the crayons anymore, but I still always have new reading material to look forward to, or occasionally a movie on my laptop.
Pick something you know you’ll look forward to, like those best-selling books you may refrain from reading the rest of the year in light of something more “classic” or “educational”. Fresh glossy magazines are also great to flick through. Bonus points if you get a magazine that features lurid headlines with potential to make your aisle-mates blush (I’m looking at you, Cosmo!).
Snacks also count. I very much enjoy a mid-Atlantic movie with a beer and whatever else the flight attendants will give me to eat (except those revolting pretzels).
Think of all the fun you’ll have at your destination.
If you’re traveling for a much-dreaded work conference or family reunion, I’m afraid this tip won’t help you much! But if you’re lucky enough to get to travel for pleasure, take a guide book with you on the plane and think about all the lovely things you’ll get to do for the minor price of an uncomfortable flight. The 20+ hour journey for me to get home is pretty unpleasant, but I love being home so much that in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter.
And now, what not to do…
Watch or read things that deal with scary plane accidents
You would think this would go without saying, but I know a certain someone who decided to watch Flight, that Denzel Washington movie featuring a very realistic plane crash, the night before her trip home to California. It’s an excellent movie but I knew going into it that it was going to upset me…so I’m not sure why I was so surprised when it did! Avoid movies like this (duh).
Also, those lists of “most dangerous airlines”? Don’t click on them when you’re about to walk out the door for a flight. When I went to Istanbul in January, Turkish Airlines showed up as one of the top most dangerous airlines on a list I read twenty minutes before I was set to fly with them. It naturally led to three hours of terror in the air, and in the end Turkish Airlines was actually very nice. They even had a chef come out and serve us a delicious meal (or, as I suspect, dressed up one of their flight attendants as a chef).
Anyway, don’t indulge that part of your brain that wants to justify your fear of flying with lots of lurid details. It won’t help at all, so stay away. You can always watch or read that stuff when you’re back from your trip (curiously, it may no longer seem quite as pressing to do so).
Don’t overthink things
Endlessly dwelling on what might or could happen doesn’t help, and all that fretting is probably only going to increase your anxiety about flying in the first place. Figure out a way to make that over-thinking cycle stop. Maybe give yourself a time limit after which you’ll stop worrying. Or you could bring along something to help distract yourself, like reading that deliciously terrible book I recommended above.
And don’t forget that being a little nervous about flying is normal. Even frequent flyers like me definitely have moments of worry during a flight.
But in any case, figure out a way to prevent yourself from spiraling downward into a vicious circle of terrifying thoughts.
Under NO circumstances should you think about teleportation.
One time I read the Harry Potter book where they learn apparition while I was on a long-haul flight. This did not help me get caught up in a magical fantasy world of witches and wizards, but instead made me quite cross that science has not given us powers of teleportation yet…and that I still had 8 hours of flying to go while Harry Potter and his friends got to magically (and, er, fictionally) zip from place to place.
Maybe we can borrow some NASA scientists who are at a loose end and get them on this.
What do you do to reduce anxiety or frustration when you travel? What about tips that don’t work?