Flying Is Hard for Tall Travelers. Use These 7 Tips to Make It More Comfortable

Flying can be uncomfortable for the average passenger, but for taller travelers it can be downright misery. Here are some ways to (literally) ease the pain.

The back of a tall person's head in a crowded aisle on plane

Tall travelers: Do you know about the secret button on the armrest?

Photo by Shutterstock

Any tall person who has flown in a regional or commercial jet has had to come to terms with the fact that the world is simply not designed for us. As a six-foot-five-inch man, in order to enjoy the wonders of travel by airplane, I’ve had to fold myself into a pretzel shape on all manner of aircraft many times. What I’ve learned is that there are plenty of tips and tricks that us taller folk can use to make flying less painful. I hope these seven hacks will make air travel more tolerable for my fellow height-endowed travelers.

1. Score the exit row

The days of sweet-talking the ticket or gate agent into an upgrade to business class or first class are long gone. (I’ve successfully done it all of once, back in 2007 on an American Airlines flight from New York to Buenos Aires.) That said, there are certain things the tall traveler can do to score the holy grail of economy-class airline travel: a seat in the emergency exit row. Getting the best seat can be the key to cracking the long-standing question of “how do I sleep on an airplane as a tall person?” Even the middle seat in the emergency exit row is better than a regular seat. A certain number of exit-row seats are often held by the airline until check-in closes. The extra legroom represents ancillary revenue for the airline, so the company will want to hold on to them as long as they can.

The exit row of an aircraft

When it comes to getting an exit row seat, it never hurts to ask (and ask, and ask again).

Photo by Shutterstock

To score the exit row, it’s all about asking—politely—at three possible opportunities during your check-in process.

First, when you check in, ask the ticket agent directly. Typically, the agent will let you know if a seat is available but then ask you to pay a fee (in my experience, you’ll get a free upgrade 20 percent of the time). Skip paying for now; you’re after a free upgrade here. Even if you don’t get the seat, you’ll at least have a good sense of how full the flight will be.

Your next option is to ask the agent at the gate. Explain that 1) you are tall, and 2) if possible (and convenient for the agent), you would appreciate if he or she would check availability for an exit-row seat. I also offer to leave my boarding pass with them if that helps. (Of course, it doesn’t really help them, but it can serve as a gentle reminder.) Pick your agent and timing wisely. If the agent is dealing with five unhappy passengers or seems stressed and busy, wait until a more convenient time. The “ask nicely” approach works for me approximately 40 percent of the time, leading to a free upgrade to a better seat.

If neither of those work, you can wait until the very end of the boarding process and cross your fingers that some unlucky traveler has not arrived at the gate in time, or that someone who was assigned a boarding pass didn’t actually show for the flight. This works for me approximately 20 percent of the time—and even if I don’t get an exit row, I might get a better seat, typically an aisle seat that allows me to get up and stretch during the flight.

2. The bulkhead is not tall-friendly

On aircraft, the bulkhead is a divider between classes. And while it may be easy to assume it’s the best seat for tall travelers, that’s unfortunately not the case. The bulkhead wall prevents you from stretching out your feet under the seat in front of you, taking away those few extra inches of foot room. Although some tall travelers might like the division (no one can recline their seat back into your knees), I choose to avoid bulkheads. Plus, there often isn’t a space to store your personal item or carry-on bag, which can pose a problem on a full flight when overhead bin space is limited and luggage is being gate-checked.

3. Learn what aircraft you’re flying on

If you’re serious about making your travel more comfortable, rely on SeatGuru. The site offers detailed layouts of aircraft, where you can learn about the pros and cons of almost every single seat on every aircraft with every carrier. For example, on certain Airbus A321 aircraft configurations (including on JetBlue and Delta), one window seat in the exit row has no seat in front of it, offering the best economy legroom in the air. You might have to pay for the privilege, but it is a score.

A closeup of a row of empty seats on an airplane

Some armrests can be raised with the push of a (secret) button.

Photo by Shutterstock

4. Use the secret button on the aisle armrest

There’s a secret button on the underside of many aisle-seat armrests. Press the button, and the armrest raises. The button is designed for passengers with accessibility needs, but it can also allow a tall traveler a bit more room to stretch out into the aisle or shift their body in flight. Every aircraft is different, and not every aircraft has armrests that raise in this way, but it’s worth checking. Any bit of sleep will help combat jet lag as you cruise through time zones, so it’s worth a try. All you have to add are a pair of noise-canceling headphones or ear plugs, a good travel pillow, an eye mask, and your most comfortable clothes, and you have the makings of some very good long-distance shut-eye. Just make sure your body is arranged in a way that your seat belt can still be put on comfortably.

5. Try this lumbar-support trick

Lumbar support goes a long way toward making travel more comfortable. Neck pillows may be the most popular option for travelers, but they’re far from the only support. You can, of course, buy an inflatable lumbar-support pillow before your trip. But in a pinch, ask for a large water bottle from a flight attendant. If it’s empty, fill half of it to give it some weight, and wrap the bottle around an airline blanket and shove it horizontally against the small of your back. At first it will feel like a blanket-wrapped water bottle pressed uncomfortably against your lower back. But on a flight longer than three hours, it’s a back saver. Good posture helps when you’re a few hours into a long flight and everything starts to hurt. Plus, if it’s full, it’ll give you a good chance to drink water—hydration is key when you’re in an airplane cabin.

Passengers seated in a two-aisle aircraft with flight attendants walking through, viewed from behind

On long-haul flights, comfort and economy-plus seats are often worth the splurge.

Photo by Shutterstock

6. Comfort and economy plus are worth the splurge

Sometimes it’s worth the investment in comfort or economy-plus seats. If my flight is longer than four hours, I often spend the $50 or more to select a premium seat. However, if the flight does not look to be full, I’ll wait until the day of my flight in the hopes that a kind gate agent will upgrade me for free. The longest flight I ever endured in economy was 14 hours (from New York to Tokyo), but my wife and I at least finagled an emergency exit row on a Boeing 787 (see above, regarding asking persistently and politely).

7. Use points to upgrade to business or first

It may seem obvious, but learning how to earn and deploy airline points is the ticket to more comfortable travel for tall travelers—as well as to the hope of getting any decent sleep. Save your points for business- or first-class seats on long-haul flights. And get smart: There are plenty of excellent resources focused on how to maximize your points. Flying in business or first class is not only in the purview of the rich or Insta-famous traveler.

Other general flight comfort tips for any passengers

In addition to the tips catered to tall travelers, there are plenty of other ways to make yourself a bit more comfortable that apply to fliers of all heights. Create a set of in-flight toiletries with essentials like a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, facial moisturizer, lip balm, and anything else that will help you feel more comfortable. Even if you have a seatmate or fear weird looks from fellow passengers, put on that facial sheet mask—your skin will likely thank you once you’re back on the ground (especially on long international flights without layovers).

In addition, consider wearing compression socks. Not only can they help cut down on swelling, but they can lessen your chance of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), or blood clots. A portable charger can also bring some mental relief, especially in economy class where there may not be a built-in outlet. Knowing your device is fully charged and ready to call an Uber or text a travel buddy will help cut down on travel anxiety.

Ultimately, if armed with the right travel tips, some practice, politeness, and good luck, there is a very real possibility that tall travelers can have a comfortable flying experience.

This article originally appeared online in 2018; it was most recently updated on January 9, 2024, to include current information.

Mike Arnot is a writer and the founder of Juliett Alpha, a New York–based communications firm for airlines and aviation companies.
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