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The expat family home leave: How to survive long-haul flights in Economy class

By: Blogger Jennifer of

The Long Haul Blues

I’ve been to Tupelo and Memphis, Tennessee
And I’ve seen some hard times, man, you wouldn’t believe
But nothing, oh nothing can give me the blues
Like two cranky toddlers and a trans-Pacific long haul
Flying Hong Kong to N-Y-C

Winging it all the way home
Winging it all the way home

You have: read the FT Weekend, had a drink and a meal, watched three episodes of Miranda, fallen asleep during that Kevin Hart movie about juvenile men and the women who love them, woken up because you had pins and needles in the hand you were sleeping on, played ten rounds of FreeCell and taken your child to the bathroom, twice.

You get back to your seat and check the flight status screen even though you told yourself you wouldn’t: oh joy, only nine more hours of flying to go.

It’s August and here in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re in the midst of that great seasonal migration: the expat family home leave. And while we would like to see ourselves as wildebeest – galloping wild and free in tremendous herds across the savannah – those of us trapped in economy for 15 hours feel more like the long-traveling lemming: packed into a dense, over-crowded environment, prone to suicidal thoughts and desperate for some decent food. For the weakest creatures, according to, “the pace of the journey is just too much and they are left behind to die.”

Whether that means the fragile lemmings of the group or those puny travelers who can’t control their bladders until the food service is completed, we are not sure.

What we do know about long haul flights is that there is nothing good about long haul flights. How can there be when you’re trapped in an existential purgatory – traveling at 500 miles per hour but going nowhere? Here, in the stale air and fetid fumes of humanity, George Clooney does not exist! Instead you face unique and bitter hardships: seating barely wide enough for child-bearing hips, powdered eggs, lost American Girl shoes, multiple incidents of spillage, sticky floors in the bathroom (which you do not want to know about), dry eyes and that fuzz you get on your teeth, Adam Sandler movies and most pernicious of all: the arrival of the child meal during your little one’s deepest, most peaceful sleep. Why, oh why?

The only possible upside, and we frequent flyers must always focus on the upside, is that if you can survive the sandwich of death i.e. caught between the screaming baby who can’t settle and the inconsiderate doofus with the ONLY READING LIGHT ON IN THE ENTIRE CABIN, then hell, you can overcome anything. Unplanned refueling stop in Seoul with a toddler who’s about to lose it? Not a problem. Hong Kong to Newark (only 16 hours) when somebody forgot to load the children’s entertainment? Done. A United flight, anywhere, any time? Easy-peasy. (*An exception to this mantle of unflappability will be made for the economy cabin bathroom at hour 14 of your journey. Some things are better left un-faced.)

Long haul flying tests your mettle, no doubt. Also, your patience, your digestive system, physical flexibility (how many yogic sleeping positions can you think of?), reverse time management skills, endurance, moisturizing supplies, did I mention patience (?) as well as your deeply-held convictions about how and when to introduce your children to sex education. Because the guy across the aisle watching 300: Rise of an Empire has just started that conversation for you.=

Why yes, those are boobies, and that would be a… sword. Definitely, a sword. No, I think they’re enjoying themselves. It’s weird, I’ll explain later.

Get some sleep, sweetheart.

Only seven more hours to go.