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Traveling can be a lot of fun … but getting there can be a serious drag if you don't know how to stay healthy on an airplane. Long flights can put a lot of stress on the body. If we didn’t know that before, we sure discovered it on our way to Indonesia when Dan developed a blood clot in his leg. It’s so common that it has its own name: Deep Vein Thrombosis. DVT is certainly uncomfortable, but it can be much worse: It can be life threatening.
If a blood clot makes its way to the brain, it can lead to stroke or death. Fortunately, it's highly unlikely if you follow the experts' advice.
Experts' tips to avoid DVT
- Take aspirin. It's a blood thinner. Thick blood is far more prone to clots. Check with your doctor first (I'm not one), but one recommended protocol is one aspirin the day before, one during the flight, and one a day for the next three days.
- Wear compression tights or stockings. They keep blood from pooling in your legs. Be sure they fit properly, and don't stop right below your knees (ouch).
- Sit properly (meaning, try to keep your thighs clear of the seat edge). If your seat has a foot- or leg rest, use it. If not, hand luggage makes a good substitute. Just pull it out from underneath the seat in front of you, and place it on the floor directly under your knees. Voilá, instant ottoman!
- Stimulate blood flow. Remove your shoes and massage your feet frequently. Roll them on a foot roller. Use your thumb to stimulate the outside top of your foot, a reflexology area (works on hands, too). Rotate your ankles as often as you remember.
- Drink water. A lot. Airplane air is dry, and you don't want to risk becoming dehydrated. Unlike caffeine and alcohol, drinking water actually makes your blood less sticky, which lowers the risk of a blood clot. An added bonus: It's good for your skin and helps digestion.
- Exercise. Request an aisle seat so you can get up whenever you want. (Dan and I sit across the aisle from each other.) Move about the cabin as much as possible. Take frequent bathroom breaks (thanks to all that water!) and do the warmup stretches that runners do while waiting your turn.
But wait … there's more you can do!
When we decided to move back to the Western Hemisphere from Asia, we had to figure out how to do it without risking another DVT episode. It had taken us about 33 hours to get to Bali from Washington, DC, and another trip like that was out of the question.
And then there’s that pesky jet lag, which causes really unpleasant, flu-like side effects: brain fog, fatigue, problems with digestion, muscle soreness, and more. As I've mentioned before, there are ways to avoid most jet lag symptoms, but the biggest thing to remember is: The longer your flight, the worse it can be.
We came up with a brilliant solution to both problems. Maybe our experience will help you when you plan your next trip.
Stopovers vs. layovers
Basically, you have two options if you're not flying nonstop: stopovers and layovers.
- Layovers, where you change planes en route, can be as short as 30 minutes or as long as 23 hours. They are better if you want to get to your final destination as quickly as possible. A layover for a few hours gives you an opportunity to walk around and get your blood pumping before you continue your trip. Some airports even offer free layover tours!
- Stopovers are a fun and easy way to add an extra destination to your travel plans. A stopover refers to any stay of longer than 24 hours on an international route (the limit is reduced to four hours on domestic itineraries). You can stop in a city for a few days on the way, get some rest in a real bed, and do a bit of sightseeing or visit a friend before flying on.
Tip: Prices may or may not be equivalent; it depends on the airline, so compare prices for stopovers vs. layovers.
Bali is literally halfway around the world from our final destination. Counting the 3-4 hours we had wasted during each airport layover, it had taken over 32 hours to get there (Washington, D.C → Los Angeles → Taipei → Denpasar). Imagine sitting upright in planes and airports for that length of time – it's insane!
When we returned to the Western Hemisphere, we decided to try something different. We would travel west through Europe, rather than do another trans-Pacific journey. Hey, now we could truly say we had flown around the world!
Segment 1: Stopover in Singapore
When we left Bali, Singapore was our first destination. The DPS → SIN flight was an easy 2-hour trip. Having long wanted to see this modern metropolis, we enjoyed a weekend in Singapore.
Segment 2: Layover in Dubai
A nonstop flight from Singapore to London takes about 14 hours. If the goal is to avoid sitting on a plane for ages, you have to break up the route. We took a look at the map and found an economical flight on Emirates, whose hub is in Dubai. Both the SIN → DUB and the DUB → LON legs are 7 hours in length.
No time in Dubai for us, though. Stopovers were hundreds of dollars more expensive and we'd have to pay for a visa, so we chose to settle for a layover in Dubai, changing planes and walking around the airport there. It would still help, and anyway, after sitting for 7 hours, who wouldn’t want a little exercise?
Besides, depending on how you count countries, we could now say we'd been to U.A.E.
Segment 3: Stopover in London
A 4-day layover in London gave us a chance to play tourist for a few days, and then we were rested and ready to fly to our final destination.
Segment 4: Layover in Madrid
It's a 2½-hour, early morning flight from London to Spain. We spent our 4-hour layover stretching our legs in Madrid’s Barajas Airport before heading to our new home in Panama.
Other benefits of taking a slower route
Besides health, a couple of other reasons might make you consider breaking up your flight.
- First of all, there's the price: Nonstops are often the most expensive option.
- Secondly, many airlines give you more frequent flyer miles if you take a series of shorter flights to your destination than if you fly directly there nonstop.
Some say that knowledge is power. Do you feel more powerful now?
How do you handle long journeys? Let us know below.