If you're traveling to Africa from the USA, the journey to your final destination can take more than 30 hours – especially if you happen to live in the Midwest or on the West Coast. Depending on where you're headed, East Coast residents may be able to fly direct, but the options are both limited and expensive. In addition, even direct flights from New York to Johannesburg take almost 15 hours each way – an endurance test that takes a heavy toll on your body.
Many visitors suffer badly from jet lag, as traveling from the USA entails crossing a minimum of four time zones. Often, the disorientation caused by jet lag is exacerbated by exhaustion, triggered by sleepless nights on airplanes or long layovers in busy airports. However, with all that being said, the rewards of a trip to Africa far outweigh the drawbacks of getting there, and there are ways to minimize the negative effects of long-haul flying.
In this article, we look at a few tips for making sure that you don't feel like spending the first few days of your long-awaited vacation in bed. Of course, these tips are valuable for long-haul flights from anywhere, not just the United States.
Stock up on Sleep
Unless you're one of the blessed few who can doze off just about anywhere, it's likely that you won't be getting much sleep on your flight to Africa. This is especially true if you're flying economy class, with limited space and (inevitably) a crying baby seated a few rows behind you. The effects of exhaustion are cumulative, so it stands to reason that one of the best ways to avoid them is to make sure you get a few early nights in the days before your departure.
Exercise on Board
Stiffness, poor circulation and swelling are all symptoms of sitting still for too long on a trans-Atlantic flight. For some travelers, flying also increases the risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), or blood clotting. Exercise helps to combat these issues by increasing circulation. You can take periodic walks around the cabin, or employ any number of recommended exercises from the comfort of your seat. All airlines include a guide to these exercises in their back-of-seat safety manual.
Invest in Accessories
Those that are particularly at risk of DVT (including those that have recently had major surgery) should also consider investing in compression stockings, which help to minimize the likelihood of clotting by increasing blood flow. If you struggle to equalize normally (by swallowing or blowing gently against a blocked nose), pick up a bag of hard candy at duty free to suck during take-off and landing. Affordable accessories such as ear plugs, sleep masks and portable travel pillows can also make all the difference to your on-board experience.
Avoid Alcohol & Caffeine
It's tempting to take advantage of the (usually) free alcohol on your long-haul flight, especially if you're anxious about the journey ahead. However, both alcohol and caffeine dehydrate your system at a time when you're already suffering from the cabin's dry recycled air. The effects of dehydration include nausea and headaches – two symptoms guaranteed to turn a difficult journey into a nightmare. Instead, drink plenty of water and slip that bottle of South African wine into your hand luggage for later.
Even if you avoid alcohol, it's likely that you'll start to feel parched at some point on a long-haul flight. Don't be afraid to ask the cabin crew for water in between meals, or alternatively, buy a bottle from one of the airport convenience stores after passing through security. Moisturizer, nasal sprays, eye drops and spritzers also help to counteract the effects of the plane's dry atmosphere. However, if you decide to pack these items, you'll need to make sure that the volume of each one is under 3.4 oz/100 ml.
Consider Your Wardrobe
While tight pants and high-heeled shoes undoubtedly have their place, you'll want to put fashion on the back-burner for your flight. Opt for loose, comfortable clothes that allow for minor swelling, in addition to shoes that are easy to slip off once you're seated. Wear layers, so that you can wrap up against the chill of overzealous airport air-conditioning, or strip off upon arrival at your destination. If you're traveling from one extreme temperature to the other, consider packing a change of clothes in your hand luggage.
Trick Your Mind
Jet lag has a lot to do with your mindset, and everything to do with your internal body clock. Setting your watch to your destination's local time as soon as you board your flight helps to adjust your mind to the new routine before you land. Once you arrive, adapt your behavior to the local schedule. This means eating dinner at dinner time, even if you're not hungry; and going to bed at a reasonable hour even if you're not tired. After your first night's sleep, your body should adapt quickly to Africa time.
Traveling With Children
Africa is one of the most rewarding destinations imaginable for the family vacation of a lifetime. And yet, if long-distance flights are taxing under normal circumstances, attempting them with small kids in tow is a whole other ball game. For toddlers and older children, distraction is key – make sure to pack plenty of travel-friendly toys and a fully charged iPad with their favorite games or movies. If you're traveling with a baby, breastfeeding or giving them a bottle during take-off and landing can help stop the change in pressure from hurting their ears.
Top Tip: Make sure to ask your airline in advance about reserving a SkyCot. These are bassinets that attach to the bulkhead, allowing your little one to sleep through the flight in style.