It’s kind of ironic that I love to travel so much given that flying gives me so much anxiety I usually can’t even sleep the night before a flight.
But short of learning how to teleport – which to be honest, would probably just freak me out more – it’s something I’m stuck with.
I know a lot of you also have flight anxiety, so here are some lessons I’ve learned from 10 years of flying way too much (sorry, Earth, I swear I do love you!).
Here are the best tips I’ve learned over the years to help me keep my flight anxiety at more manageable levels so I can make sure I enjoy my travels.
Leave for the airport early… really early
I always aim to give myself two hours domestic, two and a half international. Overkill? Yes, absolutely. But I also factor in potential hitches in getting TO the airport. I’ve hit an hour of unexpected traffic, had a taxi need to change a flat tire (expeditiously, I should add – though that didn’t save me 20 minutes of breathing through the onset of a near panic attack), etc.
As a bonus, if you arrive early you prime yourself for snagging those coveted airline bumps and upgrades. I got myself a free trip to Mexico that way. I actually would have scored another return ticket that same way, on the way back from my free flight, if I wasn’t crapping my brains out and desperate to get to my own familiar toilet. Sorry guys – that’s just travel.
If traveling to the airport by car, have Waze at the ready
Recently, I had a mini-meltdown when my father and I hit unexpected traffic at 5:30 in the morning on the way to the airport. Only in the Bay Area, am I right?
Luckily, my quick-thinking dad checked Waze and realized that an accident ahead had shut down three entire lanes of traffic. We rerouted accordingly and saved ourselves at least an hour. I made my flight with plenty of time to spare.
If traveling by public transport, double check schedules and holidays
This goes more for if you’re in a foreign country and aren’t super familiar with the holidays. This has happened to me multiple times, luckily to no catastrophe, since I wasn’t traveling by plane these times. I once got stranded at a bus station in Kosovo with no onward bus; luckily, a kind Albanian guy arranged a ride for me to my destination (for free, I might add!) I also almost got trapped in Singapore with my passport stuck at the embassy due to this mishap! Jeez, apparently I really need to learn my Muslim holidays.
Physically touch all your necessities before you leave
I constantly need to touch my essential items to not have chronic heart palpitations. That means: passport, phone, house keys, and prescription medication (if applicable). Everything else can be bought as needed, so don’t stress about it. I know your packing list is probably a mile long and it sucks to leave things behind but very few things are truly essential.
Unless you’re trekking into the Amazon immediately upon touchdown, you’ll probably have an opportunity to replace anything you’ve forgotten, except for those essential things. Save your flight anxiety for other things, like missing your layover or getting stuck in an airport questioning cell for hours! (Something that’s never happened to me but I’m always convinced will)
Book travel insurance
I’ve never needed to use it, but I’ve never regretted having it. Shit happens — be prepared for the worst. It’s cheaper than you think. It’ll cover you if your luggage gets lost, if your flight gets delayed and you need to stay in a hotel, or all sorts of unpleasant airline-related mishaps. My most recent policy with World Nomads (which I recommend highly!) was $338 for 4 months in Latin America and included high-risk adventure activities, like scuba diving. My 6 month Europe policy was even lower than that, actually, at just around $300 for an average of $50 per month.
Once, I had altitude sickness while climbing Mount Fuji, and I didn’t have travel insurance at the time. I didn’t really know it was a thing – I thought it just covered missed flights and lost luggage, actually. If I hadn’t listened to my body and stopped the climb, I may have needed an emergency medical evaluation to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Try climbing out of THAT mountain of debt. Even if you’re not doing adventurous activities like diving or climbing mountains, you should have it, just to give yourself peace of mind if you have flight anxiety.
If possible, travel carry-on only to decrease flight anxiety
I know I always extol the values of traveling light. Mostly, it’s because I have the back of an octogenarian. But I also love traveling carry-on only because it gives you flexibility if things go awry.
Got to the airport a bit late? All you gotta do is breeze through security with your boarding pass on your mobile phone. Want to get put on an earlier or later flight? It’s much easier without checked luggage. Granted, if you’re moving abroad for a long period of time, this may not be possible. In that event, I’d suggest tacking on another half hour or so for extra wiggle room. God, do I love my wiggle room!
Consider layovers wisely
Layovers are kind of the worst. I find that 2-4 hours is my sweet spot. Anything below two hours and I spend the entire flight bubbling with anxiety, panicking about having enough time to go through whatever imagined obstacles are in my way. Anything above 4 and I go mad with boredom. I always err on the side of booking a longer layover rather than a shorter one, though.
This is especially true if you’re flying INTO the U.S. from an international destination and have a connecting flight after that (so say, Buenos Aires to Atlanta to NYC). Even if you’re a U.S. citizen, you’ll need to go through customs, passport control, collect any luggage, recheck your bags, and go through security again. This is another place where it pays to fly carry-on only!
Splurge where you need to
I view avoiding stress as an investment in my health. If there’s something you can do to make yourself less stressed and it won’t make you indigent as a result, you should probably do it. If you have an insanely late or early flight, and you can find an airport hotel that won’t break your budget, maybe that’s a good idea. If you can afford the direct flight even though it’s a little more money — treat yo’self.
Map out worst case scenarios and be realistic
I talk about this in my article about traveling with anxiety but it bears repeating. If you have a contingency plan for your worst case scenarios, you’ll be much more prepared and much less devastated if they come to pass. Be aware of things like taxi costs if you miss public transit, your rights as an airline passenger, and the like.
I tend to always worry about my flights not departing on time, especially when I have a connection. I’ve had massively delayed flights due to snowstorms and thunderstorms, and once I missed a tight connections at Charles de Gaulle airport (which, let the record state, is one of the worst airports on the planet).
One thing that’s helped me a lot with freaking out less about delays and cancellations is knowing my rights as an air passenger… which are surprisingly quite a few, given how much I feel like a cattle every time I board a plane. Luckily the EU has pretty solid legislation in place that allows you to be compensated if your flight is delayed due to the fault of the airline (so weather-related delays or cancellations don’t count, but overbooking or technical problems do). The U.S. has a similar policy as well, but I’m less familiar with it. There are websites like AirHelp which can help you make your claim to the airline – you could get up to 600 euros (almost $700) of compensation if the airline caused you a delay of over 3 hours.
It doesn’t completely alleviate my flight anxiety, but it’s nice to know that if the worst does happen, I’ll be compensated for it.
Consult with your doctor before following my advice, but if you have flight anxiety and given you have no reason not to take herbal medication, here are a few of my favorites. Kava, passionflower extract, and valerian root are all natural stress relievers.
Do try to avoid alcohol – it makes me weepy, which is generally not a good look unless you’re trying to get rebooked on an earlier flight. Which is just a hypothetical example, of course. I’ve definitely never pulled the crying girl card.
Likewise, lay off the caffeine. Anxiety produces stomach acid, and drinking coffee on top of an acidified stomach can lead to painful stomach cramping for some. Even if that’s not true for you personally, the heightened awareness of your mind and your senses is not something you want when you fly. If you must have caffeine to not have a headache, I feel you, but stick to one small cup of coffee and then switch to water for the rest of the flight.
Be aware of what in the flying cycle gives you anxiety
What part of flying makes you the most anxious? Is it physically getting to the airport for fear of not having enough time? Is it the whole process of actually getting through the glares of airport security? Is it the waiting and taxiing, the claustrophobia and boredom mid-flight, or nerves as you land?
I personally started to get really nervous in last few minutes of my flight, starting to feel nauseated, hot, flushed, and just generally on the verge of a panic attack. Not cute. I later found out from a flight attendant friend that they often turn off the AC and stop recycling the air upon descent. Knowing that my anxiety had a physical, explicable cause, rather than being totally irrational in nature, was super helpful at keeping it in check. Now, I sometimes get a little physically anxious (tightness in my chest, feeling of breathing being more difficult) but it doesn’t escalate to full-on I-want-to-panic mode.
Practice deep breathing or meditation
You’d be surprised how much consciously focusing on your breathing can help assuage flight anxiety. It’s a cliché for a reason. When you’re anxious, you’re likely breathing far too quickly and shallowly. Only by bringing awareness to your breath can you defeat that cycle.
here’s an excellent app called Calm that I really like using (I just have the free version) that has a handy visual with soothing sounds for practicing deep breathing. It’s really helpful during my moments of stress. Many people also swear by Headspace but I hate the guy’s voice.
Download soothing music, podcasts, and audiobooks
Find music that you enjoy listening to that’s not too frantic, or a podcast with a voice that really chills you out. I love listening to StarTalk because Neil deGrasse Tyson’s voice is, like he puts it, “butter”. I also have a few audiobooks on my phone that I listen to keep my mind occupied on something productive rather than a constant loop of “WE’RE GOING TO CRASH” which doesn’t do anyone, least of all the person whose armrest I’m death-gripping, any favors.