What do you mean … you love flying?
After a flight that left every part of my body exhausted and aching I have arrived in Dubai. Now I would never have thought a 14-hour flight would be one the thing that pushed me to say – never again – yet six hours in, it was starting to feel that way.
Even as I write this I feel ungracious – I know I have opportunities to travel that most people will never have or even dream of. Yet I promised myself that this blog wouldn’t be all joy and wonder, it would be an honest portrayal of what travel is like for me. In that way I can share my mistakes so you can avoid them – even though I am sure you will make plenty of your own.
I can’t say why this one in particular was so awful, it shouldn’t have been. The flight was perfectly smooth and uneventful; I was travelling on the A380, which has a lot more room for each seat; I got one of only three aisle seats left (and my saving grace); and I was flying with Emirates which has always been my favourite airline.
Yet from about an hour after take off my back, my legs and my neck ached until it was all I could think about.
Perhaps it was simply from holding myself in. It was a full flight, every seat on the massive jet taken. At one point while standing at the front of the cabin trying to get some feeling back into my legs, I decided to do a head count. From where I stood I could see three economy sections, each with 150 seats. That makes 450 people visible from my vantage point and goodness knows how many others I couldn’t see. The comfortable classes – first and business are up a magical staircase on the A380 so they don’t have drooling peasants dripping on their seats as they squeeze past on their way down the back.
To be honest I have never complained about flying economy – it has made world travel available to people like you and me, not just the elite – and I am genuinely grateful for that. I have seen wonders that were once the domain of only a wealthy few. So I have pushed any wishful thinking away and focused on feeling grateful. I was trying hard to do that on this flight too.
I blame the merger between Emirates and Qantas for my misery. Now the two big airlines share their planes there is never an empty seat. For the airlines it made smart financial sense – no more half empty flights – but for passengers it means no more luxury of an occasional vacant seat in the middle. That seat which allows you the luxury of stretching out a little, not worrying about nudging someone with your elbow when you are tucking into your plastic dinner, and having a place to sit your bag while you are rummaging through it looking for the one thing you packed you actually need. Instead you hold yourself in – and that can be exhausting.
It also means flight staff are more rushed and stressed and not quite as gracious as they were in the past. If you travelled in those wonderful days when you were plied with drinks every couple of hours – let the memory go – for those days are long gone. When a steward offered me an apple in the middle of the night on that endless journey, for instance, I almost bit her hand off in my rush to get it to my lips and suck every last drop of moisture from it. Never has an apple tasted so good. I’m afraid I wolfed it down.
I was also unbearably tired before I even got onto this flight, and that probably also played its part. I worked right up until the night before I left, then up at 5am for a four hour bus trip to the airport and a day in Sydney to fill before a 9pm flight. I thought this would mean I would be tired enough to sleep soundly on the plane for the overnight flight. I did sleep a little but nothing could take away the pain of sitting still hour after hour.
Perhaps the sad truth of it is that I am getting old and my body no longer holds up to the stress of flight like it used to. Which is a lesson for all of you who think you will take the opportunity to travel when you are retired, or when your grandkids are in school. Do it now. You might have more time then, and the will, but your body might have other ideas.
I was grateful that Dubai was the end of this particular nightmare for me, and felt for those who had to change planes and face another six hours or so to reach their European destination. I’m not sure I could have done it. That is why these days I always break up any long haul fight with stopovers. It might cost you time, but it will save your sanity. After this experience I think I will follow a friend’s example and break my travel up even further with a stop in Singapore and a stop in Dubai, before making the final leap to Europe.
The sad truth for Australians is that we live a long way from anywhere. That’s why Aussies tend to hit the road for six to eight weeks at a time. Not because we are greedy – although we are that – but because when you spend so much time in the air, you want to feel it was worth it.
I remember my first flight to London back when I was 22 years old. In those days the flight took 32 hours with four quick refueling stops. I think I cried for a good many of them. I know at times I, quite selfishly, prayed for the plane to crash so it would just all be over. I swore I would never do it again. In fact it took me 20 years to feel strong enough to get back on a plane and fly to Europe.
If I have learned one other thing from nearly two decades of air travel, it is to allow time to recover at the other end – don’t schedule in activities from the minute you arrive thinking you will want to hit the ground running. You won’t. All you will want, to the point of obsession, is to have a shower and stretch out horizontally for a couple of hours, then perhaps eat something that doesn’t come in a plastic tray with a foil lid. Then you will want to go for a walk and let your mind unravel.
For in those things your body unfolds itself and your tired soul exhales and you forget about being squeezed into a tin can at great altitude, and find yourself refreshed and ready to take on the world in all its wonderfulness.
So be kind to yourself and soon the flight will just be a distant memory and you will find yourself wondering, as I am now .. could it really have been all that bad?