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The 12 Golden Rules for Stress-Free Air Travel

From the moment you book your tickets, use this guide to ease your mind and your passage, so you’ll touch down rested, relaxed, and ready for anything.

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Book smart

For a calmer journey, fly off-peak—that’s Wednesdays, followed by Tuesdays and Saturdays, according to FareCompare, a site that tracks ticket prices from more than 500 airlines. After booking your flight, visit seatguru.com to find spots with more legroom, power outlets, and other amenities. Opt for electronic tickets to reduce your carbon footprint. Don’t forget to check cdc.gov/travel to learn of any health precautions (such as vaccinations) required for travel to your destination.

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 Sail through security

For stress-free travel, consider signing up for the TSA Pre-Check program. For $85, you can keep on your shoes, belt, and coat, and keep laptops in their case every time you travel for the next five years. Go to tsa.gov/tsa-precheck/. These are the things airlines don’t want to tell you (but every flier should know).

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Get organized

The night before your trip, finish packing (use a packing cheat sheet to make it a no-brainer), check in online, charge your cell phone—and a portable charger, if you have one, and place snacks in a carry-on bag. Ideal foods, according to registered dietitian-nutritionist Caroline Kaufman, are homemade no-bake travel bites made from high-fiber foods and healthy fats (think rolled oats, raisins, and maple almond butter); apples, clementines, nut butter, and your own mint and chamomile tea bags. Consider checking for the latest security restrictions, so you won’t have to surrender that bottle of chocolate almond milk you were so going to relish drinking. Try this tip as well if you’re someone who often frets about recalling whether or not all important things have been turned off or locked away once you’ve left the house.

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Get there in plenty of time

Plan to arrive at the airport two hours before a domestic flight or three hours before an international flight to bypass the stress of traffic, long lines, and unforeseen hassles. (You can get estimated screening wait times with the apps GateGuru and My TSA.) Lighten your load immediately with curbside check-in. If security makes you anxious, remember why it’s there: “The long lines and extensive searches ensure that we all fly safely,” says psychologist Francine Rosenberg, PsyD. “The inconvenience is a small price to pay for a safe flight and peace of mind.” Make sure you ditch these 16 other airport mistakes before your next trip, too.

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Find a spot to relax

Once you have any extra snacks you might need to score—go for cheese sticks, whole food bars, and roasted chickpeas, Kaufman says—look for a meditation, yoga, or designated quiet room in the airport for some zen moments before you board. If your airport is not so enlightened, consider shopping or browsing the bookstore, nursing a green juice or smoothie at a café, or getting a massage or other express spa service before heading to your gate. Follow these air travel tips before your next flight. 

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Give in to the downtime

It’s easy for air travel to be harrowing—there’s germ overload, security stress, and mile-high indigestion, not to mention the terror of turbulence and other frights. But a positive mindset and clever preparation go a long way toward improving the experience. “Flying is one of the most relaxing parts of my schedule,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of From Fatigued to Fantastic, and the new app Cures A-Z. “There are no cell phones, I can sit back and read a book or watch a movie; it’s the ultimate downtime.”

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Fight germs

Colds are 100 times more likely to spread on a plane than on the ground, research has shown, especially during flu season, when half the people on the plane are either recovering from a virus or just about to get one. So wipe down armrests with alcohol wipes, aim the overhead air vent away from your face (it’s blowing bacteria right at your eyes, nose, and mouth), and keep your mitts off the magazines in the seat pocket. Wash your hands every 30 minutes. “Hand washing is not neurotic, it’s necessary,” says Frank Butler, a practitioner of Chinese Medicine. Here are 17 tricks to ensure your next flight is healthier than the last one!

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Crank your immunity

Airplanes may be teeming with germs, but what allows them to gain a foothold is extremely low cabin humidity. “Our body’s defenses are like the navy—they need a moist environment,” Dr. Teitelbaum says. “When your nose, mouth, and lungs dry out, they can’t fight infections.” Besides hydrating with water (not soda or other sugary drinks, as sugar lowers immunity), Dr. Teitelbaum soups up his system with vitamin C (200 to 500 mg), zinc lozenges, and Silver Hydrosol nasal spray by Natural Immunogenics. “One or two sprays mid-way through the flight will kill any hitchhikers you pick up along the way,” he says. At the first sign of a sniffle, Dr. Teitelbaum reaches for ProBoost, which mimics the hormone Thymulin to jumpstart an immune response.

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Go for a stretch

You can help avoid blood clots and even swollen ankles by pointing and flexing your feet every so often and getting up to pace every half-hour to an hour, recommends Ayurvedic doctor Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, author of A Woman’s Best Medicine. While you’re up, alternate bending your knees and rising up onto your toes to boost circulation throughout the legs. If you’re prone to clots, consider taking a mild blood thinner such as willowbark or a fish oil formula called Vectomega. Watch out for these things you should never do on an airplane, though.

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Bring on the z’s

Dr. Butler swears by soft eye shades and noise-cancellation headphones. You might also drape the Anti-Stress Comfort Wrap by Earth Therapeutics around your neck to soothe sore neck and shoulder muscles, and get lulled by its gentle blend of natural lavender and chamomile. Hasten the snooze-fest with End Fatigue’s Restful Sleep Blend, a blend of melatonin and glycine. For longer flights (six or more hours), melatonin acts as a “darkness signaler” to cue the brain for sleep (pop .5 mg 20 to 30 minutes before you want to drift off).

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Steady your nerves

If turbulence is freaking you out and the distraction of movies and music don’t help, remind yourself: “Turbulence is not a safety risk,” Dr. Lonsdorf says. “Pilots and experts have assured us that it’s just like riding the waves in a boat.” Dr. Butler recommends a Daoist meditation called the Secret Smile: With eyes closed, try to imagine the warm, relaxed energy you feel when you’re smiling. Take a deep breath and feel the positive energy spread from head to toe. This exercise activates a hormone cascade that releases stress almost instantly, and these free meditation apps might just have the same effect. You might also try a mudra, a hang gesture that influences energy in the body. Try this sequence of four moves: Alternately touch your thumb to the tips of each finger for a few seconds or longer, from index to pinky. Do it with both hands simultaneously. If you’re still frazzled, go for the big guns—Calm Aid is a lavender-based supplement that performed as well as the prescription sedative Xanax in head-to-head trials.

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Hit re-set

Adjust your circadian rhythm by hopping onto local time immediately. “That might mean skipping a meal or delaying it,” Dr. Butler says. You’ll also want to reinforce your new schedule by getting up and out in the sun in the morning for at least 25 minutes. Breathe the fresh air, bask in the sunshine, and express a positive intention for a happy, healthy day. Or you could try popping a few barley sugar candies into your mouth to quell your jet lag. Check out these other tricks that can help you beat jet lag too.

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Aviva Patz
Aviva Patz is executive editor of Reader's Digest and an award-winning health writer. A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia University School of Journalism, Aviva is lead singer of the pop-soul band The Hey Honeys and mother to two teenage girls and a puggle named Hazel.