Fear of flying? Here’s what to do before & during your flight to calm your nerves

overcome fear of flying

Is it just me, or are you tired of reading articles that tell you to “take deep breaths” when you’re nervous? Me too. That’s why I want to give some tangible action steps to take before you even step on that plane to make sure you have a pleasant flight.

This post about being nervous to fly and doing it anyway was inspired by my cousin who was nervous about flying for the first time (and who has flown several times since). Another cousin who I never thought would get on a plane overcame her claustrophobia and visited me in Italy last year! And you can get on that plane too!

It’s not about eliminating fear altogether; it’s about not letting fear stop you from doing things you want to do.

After many trips over the Atlantic, these are some things that I have learned to do before and during my flight to minimize my nerves and have a more comfortable trip. I hope that these tips give you the courage to fly too!

Before your flight

Know your triggers: what makes you nervous?

Fear is tricky because it stems from a though about something that is not real, but creates a very real sensation in our bodies. We get stuck in limbo between reality and non-reality, and that’s why it’s hard to beat with our thoughts alone.

If we know why fears pop up, we have a chance to stop them or at least minimize the chance of our thoughts turning into physical distress (because that’s how fear feels like to me…that I need to run out of my body, but can’t escape).

I’ve discovered that my travel anxiety gets triggered by:

  • rushing because I’m late
  • being overly tired
  • not knowing/uncertainty (What is that sound? Why is there turbulence? etc.)

What causes travel anxiety for you? Please do let me know in the comments!

How to minimize anxiety before a flight

Becoming a cool, calm, collected traveler starts well before stepping on a plane.

Months before your trip

Talk to people in the aviation industry if possible. 

I believe that flying can be scary because it’s not something most of us do every day. We hear noises and feel sensations that are completely unfamiliar. For that reason, it’s worth talking to someone in the aviation industry who can explain things that make us jittery, like turbulence.

Watch vlogs of flight attendants or frequent travelers.

Watching other people enjoy flying makes it seem less daunting and more fun.

Learn some of the local language to feel more confident if going abroad.

When you’re going somewhere unfamiliar, understanding some of the local language (you don’t need to be fluent!) gives you something familiar to grasp. I cannot stress enough how much being able to communicate my wants and needs in Italian has made me feel more comfortable. Take a lesson on Italki (get $10 towards your first lesson with this link) so that you can get used to talking with an actual native speaker so you’re not tongue tied upon arrival.

Weeks before your flight

The goal is to make prepping for your trip as leisurely as possible to prevent rushing so that you don’t have other factors stressing you as you board your flight. 

Give yourself adequate time to pack to avoid the last minute rush or forgetting something important.

Make a packing checklist.

Start with a packing list, such as this one from Rick Steves (why reinvent the wheel?), and then add your own must-have items to the list!

Start packing at least a week before.

Packing well ahead of time gives me a chance to see what I need and what I don’t (it’s true that you’ll probably have to take half of what you plan to bring). It’s a fun way for me let the excitement of my upcoming trip linger a little longer, and enjoy the packing process instead of a stressful last minute rush.

Reserve your preferred seat on the plane. 

Aisle or Window?

Most airlines will let you choose your seat when you buy your ticket, though if you buy through a third party, you might have to wait until online check-in begins 24 hours before the flight.

Comfort Considerations

For example, I always get an aisle seat so I don’t get stuck behind a snoring stranger when it’s time to empty my bladder! If you’re on the taller side too, I have also learned that it’s totally worth it to pay a little extra for “preferred seating” with extra leg room in economy.

I also make sure I sit near the wings (not the back of the plane) because turbulence feels 10 times worse in the tail. Also, for some reason the back of the plane always feels colder. On my last flight I was near the wings and I didn’t feel cold at all, but when I got up to go to the bathroom in the back of the plane, it felt dramatically cooler and everyone was wrapped up in a blanket.

The night before your flight

Check in online 24 hours before your flight.

Most, if not all airlines, allow you to check in online 24 hours before your flight. This is a game changer because then you don’t need to wait in long lines at the airport to get your boarding pass (unless you have to check luggage, of course).

Get enough rest the night before. 

Nothing makes me feel worse than not getting enough sleep, and  excitement for my trip usually makes it hard to sleep the night before. I’ve learned to avoid early morning flights if possible (I am SO not a morning person!) so that I am not rushing to get to the airport on zero sleep before the crack of dawn.

Do a quick workout at home before flying.

It is scientifically proven that exercise reduces stress and anxiety. The way that anxiety feels to me is pent up energy in my body, so exercise is a productive and positive way to transform nervous energy, which is a great thing if you’re going to be sitting on a plane for hours on end.

(Sidenote: I rarely get a good night’s sleep even if I try because I’m too nervous & excited! Exercise before my flight, especially if it’s early rarely happens either. But I have to mention these two things because I’d do them in a perfect world!).

During the flight

For me, in-flight comfort and distraction are KEY for managing my anxiety during the flight.

Wear the right clothing. 

Planes are usually cool, so I always dress in comfy layers of natural fabric.

Take medication if necessary.

  • Dramamine for motion sickness
  • Sedalia which “temporarily relieves nervousness, hypersensitivity, irritability and fatigue due to stress.” I picked it up from Whole Foods, although I’m not sure if it’s just the placebo effect or if it actually works.
  • Pepsi-Bismol, Tums, or ginger for upset tummies
  • Ibuprofen, Aleve or pain-killer of choice for cramps or headaches
  • Any prescription medications you need

Bring healthy snacks. 

I find that airlines serve plenty of food during the flight, but if you have special diet requirements or in case there are any unexpected delays, it’s always good to have a few of your own snacks to avoid anxiety-inducing feelings like blood sugar crashes.

Limit caffeine & alcohol. 

Both caffeine & alcohol are dehydrating, which can lead to negative side-effects like deep vein thrombosis, especially while sitting for long periods of time. Not to mention, too much caffeine can make you jittery, too.

In-flight Distractions

Magazines/books (or other non-tech entertainment)

Kindles are great, but it’s also nice to have at least one form of entertainment that doesn’t rely on a battery.

Candy Crush or other mindless game

For me, it’s Candy Crush. For you, it might be sudoku or solitaire – it doesn’t matter which game as long as it takes your focus away from your thoughts.

Make a “single serving friend”

If you are traveling alone, one of my favorite distractions is making a new friend. One of my seat mates taught me this phrase, “single serving friend,” which actually comes from the movie Fight Club. It means a person you meet, such as on the plane, with whom are friendly, but might never see again. It’s especially calming to be engaged in conversation with someone who also appears calm (at least on the outside). Being engaged in a conversation will help keep your mind off any bumps or unwelcome worrisome thoughts. You might even have fun!

Additional Resources

Sky Guru app ($19.99 on iTunes)

I haven’t personally tried this app, but it seems perfect for people who need to know what is happening during the flight, especially all of the unfamiliar sounds and sensations. I love when pilots make announcements about the weather and expected turbulence, but if they don’t, this app tells you exactly what weather you’ll encounter and when to expect turbulence.

Turbulence forecast

Check the turbulence forecast in your flight path so that bumps don’t come as a surprise (also available as an app).

Wishing you safe travels and the courage to fly! If any of these tips were useful to you, please let me know in the comments below. If you have any other suggestions on how to overcome travel anxiety, I’d love to hear your tips as well! 

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Ciao, I'm Kelly!

Welcome to my adventures in learning Italian, often while cooking authentic Italian recipes and wine tasting! I love discovering the traditional regional cuisine of Italy and trying to recreate those dishes when I'm back home in the US. I'm also on my way to becoming an Italian citizen through jure sanguinis (by ancestry).

WSET Level 2 Certified Wine Blogger

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