Top Tips for Overcoming Your Fear of Flying

Saruni Samburu luxury lodge - Air Kenya at Kalama airstrip, Kalama Conservancy

Is there anything more ridiculous than a travel blogger with a fear of flying? Well that’s me.

This wasn’t always the case, I used to love flying. The birds-eye views of spectacular landscapes, the feeling of finally being on holiday, and the anticipation that very soon I’d be setting foot in some hot and exotic destination. Bliss.

So what changed?

I was used to flying maybe once a year with family, friends and assorted orchestral instruments, but in September 2001 I met Pete for the first time and over the next few years we gradually became frequent fliers. Two other events occurred that same September week. My gran died, and the twin towers terrorist attack etched the date 9/11 onto the memories of people all over the world.

I remember Pete and I were sitting on the sofa in the house that we would later live in together, listening to the news on the radio. At first I thought it was some sick fictional drama. Yet as the horror unfolded I realised it was real, and my first thoughts were for those poor people in the planes. I think that was the moment I became wary of setting foot in one of human-kinds most incredible engineering achievements ever again. My very real fear of flying had begun.

A little ironic seeing as my Dad used to be an aeronautical engineer.

Air Kenya flight to Masai Mara

From then on I decided I hated flying. The incomprehensible physics of it all, the cramped spaces and dreaded aeroplane bathroom, and the (incredibly remote) possibility of a terrorist attack. Then of course there’s the turbulence.

When we flew to from Manchester to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil a couple of years ago I experienced my first big air pocket. The flight had been smooth up to that point, then without warning when we were half way over the Atlantic, the plane just dropped several feet out of the sky. Our arms flew up in the air, stuff fell on the floor, and I burst into tears like the professional, well-travelled explorer that I think I am.

Embarrassing.

How to visit Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

After this incident I realised my fear of flying over water was worse than over land. Which is totally irrational since the likelihood of surviving a disaster over either is pretty slim. Yet my worst fear is drowning, and I feel if I can see land beneath me, no matter how far away, there’s at least an outside chance of being able to land. Plus the terrain below is distracting. Seeing mountain ranges like the Andes piercing the clouds between Rio and Cusco in Peru, or the endless deserts and beautifully barren peaks on Dammam to Jeddah flights make it all a little bit more bearable. Watching wildebeest and elephants roaming the African plains as we flew above them in tiny Kenyan bush planes certainly took my mind of just how bumpy the ride was too!

Air Kenya domestic flight review

Surprisingly my fear of flying is worse in the lead up to a flight rather than on the plane itself. I’ll start stressing the week before I travel, I won’t sleep properly for days, and sometimes even try to think of excuses why the trip needs to be cancelled. Could I pretend I’m ill? But then I think of all the money we’d be wasting, and the opportunities we’d be missing, so I always knuckle down and just get on with it in the end.

Except for one time last year.

We were supposed to be going back to Thailand, somewhere we’d loved in our early globe-trotting days but hadn’t explored since we ditched the backpacks and became luxury travellers. We had everything arranged except for the flights. For some reason I’d put that off until the last minute, mainly because I wasn’t relishing taking 6 flights and an assortment of overland transport to get to our destination. When it finally came to booking I just couldn’t do it. My fear of flying held me back. Pretending that I’d decided Thailand wasn’t actually somewhere I wanted to go after all, I cancelled the trip and felt a huge rush of relief.

Followed swiftly by complete and utter disappointment in myself.

Long tail boats on Cheow Lan Lake, Koh Sok National Park, Thailand

Two weeks later an email arrived inviting us to Sri Lanka, coincidently over the same dates we would have been in Thailand. I felt it was fate, and maybe a bit of a test too. There would be fewer flights involved, it was closer which would mean less time in the air, and it was where my grandparents met during the Second World War. Somehow it seemed fitting to pay a little tribute to my gran (I never knew my grandad), pull myself together and try to combat this ridiculous fear of flying.

So with only a couple of weeks to arrange the whole thing we went to Sri Lanka. And had a fabulous time sleeping under the stars on catamarans, getting lost in colonial tea plantations and making a pilgrimage to pay our respects to the Buddha’s tooth.

Stay on a tea estate in Sri Lanka - Governors Mansion luxury hotel

I even managed not to panic too much about the flights by following these tips I’ve picked up over the years:

Top Tips for Overcoming Your Fear of Flying

  • Upgrade. Sure, it isn’t the cheapest remedy, but I’ve found it the most effective! The excitement that comes from exploring your new cabin territory, pretending to be posh and enjoying being waited on hand and foot outweigh any fear of flying. Well almost. We’ve upgraded to Business Class on a few flights over the last couple of years and it really does make a difference. Of course it helps that you’re not cramped, and checking out all the bells and whistles of your new ‘home’ for the next few hours is a great way to take your mind off the fear.

KLM dreamliner business class from Amsterdam to Rio de Janerio, Brazil

  • Check into an Airport Lounge. You often don’t need a first or business class ticket to be able to enjoy an airport lounge. Many airports have their own lounges where economy passengers can purchase entrance, and we always do this before a flight. It helps us to relax, Hubbie gets a civilised and delicious breakfast (we often seem to fly early!), and the comfy seats and newspapers are much better than sitting on the cold airport floor, with nothing to do but worry about the next few hours.
  • Distraction. Movies are the way forward in taking your mind off the flight. They’re a great distraction and by transporting you to another world it’s incredible how quickly the journey can go. Indeed I’ve often landed without seeing the end of my final movie and have sometimes wished the flight was a bit longer so I could finish it! To give yourself a bit of a break from movies don’t forget your kindle or ipod, and using noise cancelling headphones works really well to block out the noise of the plane too. Which helps you to forget you’re currently sitting at 30,000 feet with nothing beneath you!

KLM dreamliner business class review

  • Look at Flight Radar. My best friend has a slight obsession with Flight Radar. She’ll see a plane in the sky and check to see which exciting destination it is travelling to. I used to tease her about it, until I checked it out for myself and realised what a fabulous tool it was to help combat my fear of flying. Flight Radar will show you all the flights in the air at that moment, and knowing that on our last journey there were 16,851 other planes in the sky at the same time made me feel much safer. The chances of anything happening to our flight was so low it wasn’t even worth worrying about! Every time I felt scared up in the air, I would remind myself that we were just 1 in 16,851, so small and insignificant. If anything was to go wrong that day, it wouldn’t be us.
  • Statistics. The odds of dying in a plane crash is only 1 in 11 million. You’re far more likely to meet your maker in a car accident, or even being struck by lightning! Flying is one of the safest modes of transport, yet I still feel far safer driving. Probably because I’m the one in control. Oh, and I’m on the ground, where humans belong. The reason plane crashes are a big deal in the media is because they’re so rare. Think about that for a minute!
  • Fly Direct. Try to minimise the number of flights you have to take, even if it’s a bit more expensive, or requires changing your travel days to fit in with plane schedules. Doing this means you have fewer flights to worry about and often the journey time is shorter, always a bonus.
  • Book Ahead and Choose your Seats. Many airlines charge for seat selection, and if you don’t pay up you risk separation from your travel companions and being allocated a bad seat when you check in. Like the one next to the toilet that doesn’t recline (unlike the chairs in front of you!), or the dreaded middle row seat. I always choose an aisle position if possible, either on an exit row or near the front of the plane. Sure, sometimes I miss out on the views, but I hate being penned in, even if there is nowhere in particular to run to! Having a seat reservation removes that element of stress before a flight, and gives me one less thing to have to worry about.

Air Kenya domestic flight review

  • Track your Progress. Most planes have screens showing the flight progress on a map of the world. Don’t look at this until you’re about half way there, then take heart from the visual evidence that you’ve already completed/survived 70% – 80% of the journey, and as a result it’s likely the last 30% – 20% will be just as uneventful. It’s also another good distraction, working out what country you are flying over.
  • Drink Alcohol. This isn’t something I like doing on a flight (unless I’m in Business Class), but it certainly does help you to relax and some people use this as a method of coping with a flight. Just make sure you practice a bit of moderation.

KLM dreamliner business class review

  • Sleep remedies. Some fliers also use natural sleep remedies to help them drift off on a flight, hopefully waking up when the plane eventually lands. It isn’t really advised because it means you won’t be totally alert should anything go wrong (but that might not be a bad thing?). I personally can’t sleep on planes as I have a ‘thing’ about sleeping in ‘public’ (I won’t share a bedroom with anyone except Hubbie) so for me this one isn’t an option. I’ve never slept on a flight, even in Business Class (although that was more because I didn’t want to miss out on the experience I’d paid for!!).
  • Learn about Planes. Just knowing a little bit about how aeroplanes work will help calm those mid-flight nerves. Like the reason they don’t fall out of the sky! I always remember Dad teaching me about ailerons when I was younger, and seeing them working away on the plane wings always gives me a bit of comfort (and a feeling of smugness since I know what they’re called!).
  • Focus on your Destination. And the fact that it will be more than worth a few hours of needless worry. Once you step off the plane at the other end you’ll forget all about the flight and instead be concentrating on palm trees, mountain peaks or cocktails. This is your reward for coping with the journey. Enjoy it.

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  • Pretend. No-one else knows you’re terrified. So keep it that way and you might even kid yourself into feeling calm inside as well as on the surface. Just go through all the motions like everyone else – read your book, eat your disgusting dinner, watch a movie. Pretending is the next best thing to the truth, and it’s worked for me before.

So Am I Cured?

I still hate flying. Nothing is going to change that, but until teleporting is invented (please, someone do that!!), and I’m rich enough in time to travel the world by train and boat, I guess I’m stuck with flights for now. And I accept that. Flying is part of my job so I just have to suck it up, and to be honest I still find it incredible that I can wake up on one side of the globe and go to sleep on the other if I so wished. My desire to travel far outweighs my fear of flying, except for that one time with the Thailand trip, which most definitely isn’t going to happen again. I’ve never let fear dictate my life and am not about to start now. I’ll probably always be scared of flying, but it isn’t going to stop me from going anywhere.

Although I can’t see myself landing at Lukla any time soon!

Air Kenya domestic flight review


This post has been provided in collaboration with Cleartrip. All words and opinions remain our own.

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