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7 Expert Airplane Seat Hacks to Boost Comfort on Long Flights

Getting comfortable on long plane rides is easier said than done—and it’s different for everyone. Depending on your height, medical history, seat preference, and other factors, you’ll need particular adjustments to maximize comfort. Frequent-flying travel experts, however, have just the airplane seat hacks for you.

Airplane Seat Hacks for a More Comfortable Flight

From minor, on-the-fly adjustments to packing your own seat-comfort accessory, here are the airplane seat hacks that work for experts including a traveling sports medicine chiropractor and SmarterTravel’s own travel editors.

Add Lumbar Support

The unsung hero of long flights for many travel experts is makeshift lumbar support. Simply placing a rolled up jacket or blanket across the lower seatback can support the natural curve of the spine in a way that C-shaped airplane seats don’t. And Dr. Norman Eng, Olympic sports medicine chiropractor to Team USA during the 2016 Olympic Games, tells me it’s his airplane seat hack.

“I always try to roll up a blanket or towel and place at the low back region to give some low back support that’s needed,” Eng said. He also advises travelers to “try to get a massage and adjusted before a flight, as it can lessen the potential for neck and low back pain.”

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Summon a Foot Rest

Some of the best airplane seat hacks can be accomplished by making use of what you have on hand. For shorter travelers, that’s as easy as using your carry-on bag to kick your feet up.

“I use my personal item, usually a backpack or larger over-the-shoulder bag, as a footrest on long flights,” says SmarterTravel’s Caroline Morse Teel. Slip off your shoes before your feet begin to swell from the cabin pressure and slip on some soft, fresh socks to make this simple solution feel even cozier.

For something sturdier, or for those who don’t typically keep a large personal item on the floor, try a packable foot rest. This foot hammock can attach to your tray table arms and adjust to whatever height you need. Kid-friendly foot rests like the Plane Pal, recommended for flying with kids by SmarterTravel’s Christine Sarkis, inflates with a handy pump.

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Use a Seat Cushion

Another useful airplane seat hack for those with lower back problems, Magellan’s self-inflating airplane seat cushion is SmarterTravel’s Sarah Schlichter’s best friend. The seat cushion’s non-slip material will keep it in place the whole flight, and the U-shaped pad self-inflates at the turn of a valve so you won’t have to huff and puff it to life.

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Recline

Not sold on reclining your plane seat? Maybe a doctor’s orders can convince you otherwise. Eng tells me he’s squarely on Team Recline, since reclining can help prevent airplane seat-induced neck issues.

“Neck pain after flights is a frequent complaint,” Eng said. “If I’m on a long-haul flight, I prefer to recline the seat and use neck pillows to minimize the flopping around of the head during flights.”

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Pack a spAIRTray

Taller travelers tend to knock knees with their tray tables, and passengers using laptops run out of tray-table surface area quickly. Both problems be solved by choosing the window seat and using a handy spAIRTray, a window-attached shelf roomy enough for your phone, drinks, or other small items.

“My dad loves the spAirTray travel shelf for the window seat and gets lots of questions from flight attendants about it,” SmarterTravel’s Ashley Rossi says. “It’s great for business travelers who need to get work done on the plane.” 

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Bring a Massage Ball

Need a packable airplane seat hack for those airplane seat-induced muscle knots? SmarterTravel’s Jamie Ditaranto says she like to bring along “massage balls that you can use to release any muscles that tensed up during the flight. For example, you can put one behind your shoulder and lean back on it while you’re sitting.”

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Simply Pick the Window Seat

If sleeping upright in an airplane seat is your biggest travel conundrum, don’t underestimate the age-old trick of choosing the window seat—which SmarterTravel’s Patricia Magaña swears by. Supporting your head on the wall can be more comfortable than using a neck pillow. Simply tuck a rolled-up blanket or spare sweater atop your shoulder, or add an airline pillow to the armrest to cushion a sleepy lean. It might not get you a full red-eye night of sleep, but it may be better than attempting to sleep sitting up in the middle or aisle seat, where seatmates may wake you up for bathroom access.

What to Pack in Your Carry-On

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SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram at @shanmcmahon.

By Shannon McMahon

Editor Shannon McMahon is always planning her next trip and often writing in her travel journal. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_ and on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

Shannon joined SmarterTravel in 2015. A former news reporter, she's lived in the south of Spain, spotted elephants in Sri Lanka, gone spelunking in the Caribbean, hiked Jordan's Petra Basin, interviewed Sao Paulo's Michelin-Star chefs, and explored China via bullet train. Travel trends, news oddities, and her visits to up-and-coming destinations are some of her favorite things to write about.

Her stories have also appeared online on USA Today, The Sun, Huffington Post, Business Insider, blog.TripAdvisor.com, Boston.com, and more. Her educational background is in journalism, art history, gender studies, Spanish, and film. She's been quoted as an expert travel source by CNBC, People.com, MarketWatch, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Plenty of extra thick hair elastics. They tame my frizzy curls and come in handy in a surprising number of packing and hotel dilemmas."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Climbing (yes, climbing, it's steep!) the Great Wall of China before it's gone."

Travel Motto: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." - Mark Twain

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Window, of course."

Email Shannon at smcmahon@smartertravel.com.

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