A friend of mine recently dropped me an email asking for some long-distance travel beta, I wrote the following while riding the a.m. coffee buzz. It's mainly aimed at Canadians using Air Canada but will work for any travel situation. It covers the basics: Where to sit on the plane, dealing with jet lag and customs.
General Seating Notes: Window seats on the left going to Europe so you can check out Baffin/Greenland and the Arctic. Reverse on the way home, try and avoid being over the wing so you have a better view. Amazing, stunning panorama when it's clear, which it is a lot. I like the bulkhead seat forward if I can get it. Exit rows can be good too, but are often over the wing. Wear a hoody, bring noise-canceling headphones and music. I have the Bose, they're expensive but worth it. The QC2 are better than the QC3, block more sound. I try to always meet the person in the seat next to me no matter how much they look like a person I'd avoid normally, I've made some good contacts this way. But some people confuse proximity with intimacy and will talk your head off. Deal with the annoyingly talkative person by pulling your hoody over your head, turning up the music and making facial tics while mentioning something about altitude and brain issues. You'll be left alone.
Jet Lag: Easier going west than east until you get to about Japan, then it doesn't much matter, you're hooped. Here's the tried and true Gadd system:
Any direction: Drink water before you get on the flight, then a liter for every four hours in the air. More than this and you're in the bathroom too much, doesn't seem to help. Less than this and you'll add dehydration to your problems. Consistent liquids are important, drinking a liter at a time doesn't work. If you're going to drink alcohol do it immediately and heavily, then fall asleep just like normal. Do not drink coffee until the end of any flight. When you get on the flight notice if it's full or not--usually it is these days, but sometimes there will be open rows. Wait until the cabin attendants start closing bins, then pull a sprint into an open row, act agressive and dangerous if anyone is even thinking about sharing your row. Take your shoes off and put them on a vacant seat in the row, start slobbering, whatever it takes to defend that space.
Sleeping: Assuming you haven't managed to snake a fully vacant row, which is pretty rare, the bulkhead window seat is the best. The tray table flips out of the arm rest and slides pretty far forward, put your carry-on bag on it as a pillow and sleep. Best sleeping position outside of the Rich class up front, I've managed a solid seven hours of REM sleep with this system. Otherwise bring a warm jacket on board, put that on over the hoody when the pilot drops the temperature to sedate the cattle, steal some pillows to fill the gap between the seat and the wall, lean in and zonk. Works pretty good. Aisle seats are really bad for sleeping in--you get woken up every time the pregnant lady (justifiably!) needs to visit the bathroom and everytime the fat bastard wanders up the aisle like a drunken sumo wrestler and slams his ass into your head without even realizing it.
Going East to Europe: Stay up late the night before you leave dealing with last-minute issues. Get on the flight surly and tired--it's important NOT to be all well-rested or you won't sleep. If you don't fall aspleep immediately drink two-four glasses of wine or scotch immediately. Fall asleep for the first four hours. Wake up, check out Greenland if it' s on, if not go back to sleep. If you're flying into Heathrow recognize that you've really blown it and start drinking when you wake up, it's the only way to deal with that hell-hole. Frankfurt is better to connect through by FAR. Sleep on the second flight, usually short. You'll likely arrive either tired and hung over or having slept a lot if Greenland wasn't happening. Either way, you know what to do with a lousy morning, nothing new here. Drink coffee and water until about 13:00, then make sure you have something to do--go walking, get into an argument with an Israeli or German, but you've got to keep moving or will fall asleep. Drink your first Red Bull now. Drink another RB with alcohol around 17:00. It's like an elephant getting attacked, you've just got to keep your momentum up. You'll feel confused, wired and likely be able to make it to at least 23:00 before totally crashing, wake up the next morning good to go. It works for me.
Going west (home from Europe): Easy, drink a coffee just before you land, a Red Bull ASAP when you land and as needed, make it to 23:00, sleep.
Asia: It's going to be a mess, but welcome the chaos. Sleep as much as possible on the flights, get off the last flight not knowing which way is up, drink Red Bull until it's 23:00 local, crash. I actually find Asia not too bad if you just immediately set your watch to local time and keep moving. Try running across a busy street for a quick adrenaline hit, works for me anywhere in Asia. Get a moto-taxi ride and offer the driver an extra $5 to haul ass down the busiest street in town, no way in hell you're sleeping after that. Most big Asian cities have some sort of fight event every night; these will absolutely keep you awake. Seek out the weird sections of town, keep walking no matter what. If you arrive at midnight stop drinking coffee/RB at least six hours before landing (you'll know this because set your watch to the destination time immediately when getting on the last flight). Sleep as best you can, then follow the plan for day one for the first full day in the country. Do not sleep, extreme measures as listed above may be called for.
Most novices make the error of not fighting through the tiredness when they arrive in the new time zone and give in to a nap, which screws up their sleep patterns. Do not do this, it's weak and you will pay. If you wake up at 3:00 a.m. local just lie there and rest. Don't stress about not sleeping, just chill out. You're likely actually wasted from the travel, often you can go back to sleep if you just relax in the nice bed and think about how long the next day is going to be and how it's dark and it sure is nice in bed.... Do not read, do not get up, just chill.
Credit Card: CIBC Aerogold Visa, Air Canada is still the dominant airline. CIBC is a PITA, pay on-line so they don't dick you with "late" charges. I hate them but they are the only credit card that links to Air Canada.
Upgrades: Buy "B" class tickets if possible, these can be upgraded if you're an Air Canada Elite with upgrade certificates. Often don't cost much more...
Customs: ALWAYS stay behind the Red/Yellow line until they wave you forward. Have your passport, declaration slip, etc. completely organized, and hand it to them with the correct page turned their direction and open so they don't have to futz. Take two minutes to straighten your clothes and generally present an "organized but tired guy coming off a flight" rather than, "Dope fiend strung out waiting for next fix" look. Do not wear sunglasses, remove your hat, show you're paying close attention to them and not seeing through them to your destination. Indecision and confusion are clear signs you're hiding something, take two minutes on the flight to know what you are doing in the country you are visiting and came from, what you have in your bags, where you are going, why. Know what you have to declare, write that on the paper with specific values for each item if there's room. Be prepared and everything will go smoother. If you make an error on the form show regret, don't blame the "stupid" form. No matter what stay relaxed and "open" with your body language and manner. Act like you really want into the country but don't know the rules, 'cause you don't. Do not use slang, do not use big words, do not make political comments of any sort. Don't be subservient, guards smell blood, just act like this is a professional environment and doing the job well is important to you. A lot of people act like customs is a "stupid formality;" this is true to some extent, but to customs officials it's their job and they are damn serious about doing it well, try to meet that mental state head-on and you will be so far ahead of the average clown that you'll skate through. I've watched so many people show up at customs with loose gear sticking out of their bags, no passport in hand (what the hell did they think they were going to need at the little window???), sunglasses and hats on, bad attitude. I'd say customs was justified in sending these fools into the back room.
Canadian Customs: Say "Good morning," (or whatever) look them in the eye, smile, follow their lead. I haven't been stopped once in about 100 trips through there.
US Customs: Look them in the eye, but pretend they are your proctologist and you have bowel cancer. Sometimes they will relax right away, follow their lead. Do NOT make any jokes until they do, then laugh if they do. It's like US customs inspectors have two settings--one is all friendly and you're the football bud from high school, the other is pissed off, failed prison guard. You don't know what you're going to get. Overall US customs is casual, but follow the inspector's lead closely. Know the visa/stamps in your passport well, especially if you've been to any "suspect" countries (any country other than Canada and the US), and be prepared to answer a question about why you found it necessary to visit a communist country such as Norway...
Above all, never, ever lose your cool. You can be seeing red, but as soon as you express that logical and fully justified emotion every travel employee opens the, "how to deal with problem travelers" scenario sheet they've been trained in and you will get no respect and nothing done. But do be prepared to be persistent, especially with upgrades or baggage problems. Just smile, keep saying nice but clear things, sooner or later you'll often end up with what you want simply because you didn't melt down and kept standing there or trying other agents until the agents started to get annoyed and it became easier to solve the problem than fight it... Always smile and say hello/good morning to every person in the travel game, I'm always amazed by how much some basic courtesy will solve huge problems. Be human, travel is inhuman but connecting with the people in the game on a human level changes the paradigm for everyone. Ooooohmmmmm...