For those with flight anxiety, few things cause more stress than boarding a plane. I know the feeling because I’ve been personally dealing with flight anxiety since I was young. I’ve always loved to travel, but getting on a plane makes my heart pound, my stomach clench, and my breathing accelerate.
Despite these fears, my parents never let my anxiety stop me from traveling. In fact, we traveled a lot when I was growing up, and while I still have never fully gotten over flight anxiety, flying often helped me learn how to cope with the anxiety so that I can make the trip to my favorite destinations and some new ones, too.
What Triggers Flight Anxiety?
Flight anxiety varies from one person to the next. In my case, I have flight anxiety because I’m prone to air sickness. The longer the flight and the worse the weather, the more anxious I become. For others, flight anxiety can be caused by a fear of heights (acrophobia), a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), a fear of crowds (enochlophobia), a fear of germs (mysophobia), a fear of being far from home (hodophobia), or a fear of what might happen in the event of an airborne emergency. In the last case, you can rest assured that air travel is the safest form of long distance travel. Accidents get great news coverage, but they’re exceptionally rare (about 1 in 740,000).
No matter what triggers your flight anxiety, the first step is to know what those triggers are. If you’re not sure, try to take some time to reflect on the last time you flew. Which part of the journey was the most stressful for you? What were some specific aspects of the flight that brought you a sense of dread? What is holding you back from taking another flight? Some of the answers to these questions can help you pinpoint your triggers. If the fear is so extreme that it’s holding you back from something you truly want to experience, you might want to consider talking to a psychologist or therapist.
Do I Need to Fly?
It’s worth noting that in many cases, flying is not the only way you can get to your destination. For shorter distances, driving a car or taking a train might be a better way to travel. If you have to cross a body of water, you can sometimes take a ship. In most cases, though, if you’re looking at traveling hundreds of miles or more, flying is the most efficient and often the cheapest way to travel to your destination. Traveling by plane means you will likely spend less time getting to your destination and more time enjoying your vacation. Air travel can also be enjoyable, even if you struggle with flight anxiety.
Managing Flight Anxiety
Even with flight anxiety, I have traveled over 100,000 miles by plane. I still get anxious on just about every flight, but I have learned how to manage it in a way that allows me to still make the trip and enjoy my travel experiences. It’s worth noting that the advice below may not work for everyone and is coming from personal experience (in some cases, especially if your flight anxiety is debilitating or extreme, you will likely want to consult professional support). Still, I hope you find these tips to be helpful.
Fly on a Reliable Airline and Book Directly with that Carrier: not every air carrier is reliable when it comes to on-time departures and arrivals. Finding an airline that has a strong track record between your local airport and your destination can help mitigate delays. While some delays are out of the airline’s control (usually due to inclement weather or broader air travel issues), airlines that are more reliable tend to manage delays better than the competition. Since delays can add to the stress of air travel, a reliable airline can make a big difference. In addition, I always recommend booking directly with the air carrier instead of a third party (e.g. Expedia, Orbitz, etc.). Those who book directly with the airline are generally given priority over those who book through a third party, so in the event that your flight is overbooked, you’re more likely to not be bumped to a different flight if you book directly with the carrier.
Fly Direct: while this isn’t always possible for your particular destination, opt to fly direct when you can. This minimizes the amount of time you’ll spend in the air and eliminates the risk of missing a connecting flight, both of which will help minimize flight anxiety.
Fly on a Service-Oriented Airline: cheap air travel is sometimes the only way to fly where you want to go, but if you can spend just a little bit more for an airline with great service, you will find that the flight attendants and ground crew will make your experience a bit brighter. Quality service is something you might not think of as a way to reduce flight anxiety, but a crew that is trained to be calm, courteous, and accommodating will go a long way in helping ease your worries. New rankings are published every year. My personal favorite carrier is Delta. I have been a SkyMiles member since 1997 and flown nearly 100,000 miles with this carrier alone. In almost every case, my flight experience has been exceptional, and if it hasn’t, their strong customer service team has always made good on the issue.
Pick Your Own Seat: with so many airlines offering “economy” options, you might not always get the opportunity to select your own seat. Unfortunately, most of us have our preferences when it comes to where we sit. In my case, I like to sit at a window seat near the front of the plane. This helps minimize my air sickness, which reduces my flight anxiety. I also like to make sure I’m not sitting near a lavatory, as the lines that form in the aisles and the smell from the restroom can increase my anxiety. For my entire adult life, I have always opted to spend a little bit more to pick my own seat, and I try to book my flights well in advance when possible so I have a prime selection of seats available. In fact, if a flight is mostly booked, I’ll consider other options just to make sure I get the seat that I like. This method helps lower your flight anxiety because it puts you in control of the situation and minimizes surprises on the day of your flight. Knowing that you have a reserved spot waiting just for you helps a lot. I also highly recommend checking out Seat Guru, which offers color-coded maps of every single airplane setup on every major airline so you can research your seat in advance.
Opt For Extra Legroom: a little extra space makes a big difference. Even if you don’t suffer from claustrophobia, tight spaces give most of us anxiety, and basic economy seats aren’t known for their legroom. Especially on longer flights, a little extra room goes a long way. If you’re looking to fly economy, I strongly recommend JetBlue (as long as they fly the route you’re looking to book). They have the most legroom in coach, and their Extra Space seats have about the same legroom as most domestic First Class cabins for a fraction of the cost. Plus, Extra Space seats come with priority boarding. If you’re looking to fly with another airline (like Delta, which is again my preferred choice), look for extra legroom seats, which vary from one airline to the next. In addition, exit rows are an easy, economical way to get some extra legroom (as long as you’re 18 or older and willing and able to participate in the event of an emergency, which again is rare). Extra legroom might sound pricey, but in many cases it can cost just a little bit more than what you’d spend on a basic economy seat, and it often comes with some extra goodies, too.
Bring Noise Canceling Headphones: I have been using this trick since about 2015, and it always helps minimize my flight anxiety. A good pair of noise canceling headphones can help drown out the mechanical sounds of the airplane and the noise from your fellow passengers. My favorite is Bose QC45, which offers quality sound and up to 22 hours of battery life, but you can go with any that fits within your budget. In addition, I recommend downloading some of your favorite music playlists, TV shows or movies directly to your device (especially any that help keep you happy and calm). That way, even if the in-flight WiFi isn’t working well (or isn’t offered on your airline), you’ll have something to keep you calm and occupied.
Mitigate Air Sickness: not all of us struggle with air sickness, but if you do, there are ways to minimize it. My strongest recommendation is to pick a larger plane if you can. The larger the plane, the better the plane will absorb turbulence, the smoother your flight will be. In addition, I recommend avoiding the back of the plane, where you feel the most motion. For the last 5 years, I have also taken Bonine, which you can find over the counter and is a non-drowsy medication that lasts 24 hours (take at least 1 hour before travel begins). It’s been very effective for me personally. If you struggle with air sickness, you might want to consider taking a similar antiemetic medication, motion sickness treatment, or natural supplement (Ginger is most widely used). In all cases, please consult the professional support of a licensed doctor or physician before trying a new medication or treatment! In addition, eating light, frequent meals, staying hydrated, and avoiding alcohol can help mitigate air sickness, which can help minimize flight anxiety for many (including me).
Fly in the Morning: there are two reasons for this strategy. First, turbulence is less likely in the morning than any other time of day (storms and warm air tend to build up later in the day, which cause more turbulence). I have definitely experienced turbulence on morning flights, but it is generally less common. Second, morning flights, especially the first flight of the day, tend to have a stronger track record of on-time departures. Even if your morning flight is delayed, it will likely be less delayed than later flights, as delays tend to compound over the course of a day.
Arrive Early: arriving late to the airport can cause a lot of stress. Imagine waiting in a long line at security wondering if you’ll even make it to your gate, then running to your gate just in time. This causes a physiological response that increases your heart rate, breath rate and blood pressure right from the start. By contrast, you want to create a calm experience for yourself from the very start of your journey. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your gate (I recommend arriving to the airport at least 2 hours before your domestic flight or 3 hours before your international flight).
Consider TSA PreCheck: if you fly at least once or twice a year, TSA PreCheck might be worth considering. It is an official U.S. government program that is offered at more than 200 airports, saving you time in line at security checkpoints for over 85 airlines, and it costs just $78 and lasts for 5 years (many travel credit cards even offer reimbursements for this service). I first joined TSA PreCheck in 2015 and since then have never waited more than 10 minutes in an airport security line (of course, individual experiences may vary). There is an application process involved that includes several steps, so you’ll want to review the TSA PreCheck website to learn more.
Focus on the Destination: sometimes it helps to remember why you’re flying in the first place. Traveling is one of the best ways to live life to the fullest. You get to see new (or familiar) places, explore new cultures, learn new things, meet new people, try new foods, and see what this world has to offer. There are countless benefits to traveling, and it’s something you should never try to let flight anxiety stop you from enjoying.
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