Twice a year, I travel to and from Bangkok, Thailand (home) and Boston (home away from home). This migration is usually a 22-hour ordeal that takes the form of interminable waiting, achy joints and perpetual eye bags. Flying alone can be unnerving. Flying a seven-hour flight to London, waiting a five-hour layover followed by another 12 and a half hours of flight time is horrifying. But it shouldn’t be; it just takes comfy shoes, good distractions and a heap of patience to make the journey painless (or as painless as being glued to a scratchy seat for 12 straight hours can be).
The most daunting part of traveling alone is the persistent threat of severe boredom. Apart from a few words to stewardesses and neighboring passengers, these 22 hours are usually spent in silence. This can either be agonizing or oddly comforting, depending on whether you can handle minimal human contact. You do, however, have numerous opportunities to conquer this silence. Planes typically provide in-flight entertainment and you’d probably have your iPod or your laptop with you. You’d watch and listen until your ears tire and your eyes water and you decide it’s time to get some rest. When you begin settling into your seat to nap comes the vital question: which seat are you in?
The aisle seat is great; you can go to the bathroom as many times as you please without waking your disgruntled neighbors. The window seat is also great; you can rest your head against the wall when your neck gets stiff. And the middle seat…in the middle seat, you’re basically stuck between a rock and a hard place. You just can’t win; you’re confined between two armrests, your leg space is microscopic and your personal bubble is almost nonexistent. Most of the time, early planning and check in gets you out of the middle seat, but sometimes luck and an overbooked flight could send you straight to the middle seat. So you’ll just have to shut your eyes and try your best to slip into unconsciousness regardless of your seating, because any sleep is good sleep, even if means resorting to resting your forehead on your tray.
The middle seat, however, may not be the most uncomfortable part of the trip. Layovers are pretty bad too. You don’t want to sit because you have a lot more sitting to do on your next flight, but you don’t want to lug your massive carry-on around either. If you’re traveling light, you get the joy of exploring the shops and restaurants. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have to walk miles and miles to find your gate. Layovers could either be a hit or a miss. Some are too short and you’re forced to dash through terminals to make your connecting flight. Some are too long and you’re bored out of your mind. Layovers are unpredictable. But the worst thing about them is going through airport security again. Airport security is never consistent. Some airports require all passengers to take off shoes, some allow jackets to be worn, some demand pockets to be turned out, some will ask for laptops in separate trays and some provide Ziploc bags for liquids. And almost all the officers get cranky when you make a mistake.
Layovers are tricky. I tend to buy a cup of coffee to prevent dozing off while hunting for free airport Wi-Fi. Free Wi-Fi is extremely rare, so I spend my layover hours sans Instagram, sans Snapchat and sans Facebook, which I find is actually a blessing in disguise, because it means that I’ll put away all electronics and turn to books. Books are lifesavers, because when your batteries run out and the recharging station is clustered with fellow electricity-deprived passengers, you’ll need to rely on non-battery-operating distractions (and too much people-watching can become mind-numbing). As a friend once said, tackling your way to one of these scarce recharging stations is like competing in the Hunger Games; the chances of you finding a vacant outlet is appallingly slim. Books, magazines, newspapers, crosswords, Sudoku; these are (or will become) a few of your favorite things. You’ll learn, as I did, that Sudoku can be almost as fun and almost as frustrating as 2048.
Filling the void that comes with traveling alone may be challenging. But the 22 hours of me-time does have its pros. Minimal human interaction gave me the opportunity to wander around Heathrow in the coziest sweatshirt with the comfiest shoes, glasses and a cap to hide my distressingly greasy hair. Nobody looks flawless after being hauled across oceans in a pressurized cabin. Everyone’s pretty much on the same boat. We’re all looking forward to the moment the plane hits tarmac and the woes of traveling solo dissipate. You’re where you need to be and your troubles evaporate because all that matters is that you’re home. And even if they do linger (you might never recover from the horror of falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder), you’ll remember what to do next time. You’ll avoid that middle seat like the plague, stay clear of the recharging war zone and tuck a pocketbook in your carry-on. And if you do everything right, maybe you’ll have a turbulence-free ride. Happy traveling! And may the odds be ever in your favor.