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How to stay relaxed on a plane: 9 tips for calm flying from Pico Iyer

Security lines and the mad dash to your gate can leave you feeling harried. Travel writer Pico Iyer is full of advice on making travel relaxing and serene — so you can just gaze out the window and enjoy the view. Photo: Kanegen/CC-BY

Security lines and the dash to the gate can leave you feeling harried. Travel writer Pico Iyer is full of advice on making travel relaxing and serene — so you can just gaze out the window and enjoy the view. Photo: Kanegen/CC-BY

Pico Iyer is a global travel writer whose stories have taken him to the snowy mountains of Japan and a film festival in Pyongyang, North Korea. But the author of the TED Book The Art of Stillness is also a champion of the art of “going nowhere,” a contemplative state of mind that makes a flight to Bhutan as calming as an afternoon in your garden.

How do you put this idea into practice in real life? We asked Iyer for suggestions on how frequent and first-time fliers can build a habit of productive stillness … even at the airport. Because he’s spent so many years traveling the globe — plus two weeks living in and around Los Angeles International Airport — he has an array of tips that can be applied to any domestic or international flight. 

  1. Settle down early. Iyer says, “I try to keep distractions to a minimum and pitch myself swiftly into the great blue, bracing ocean of free time. So I tend to board as early as I can, and take up my favored position next to the right-hand window. I plunge into a project or book within 30 seconds of settling into my seat, and hope that it will carry me so far away that I barely notice the commotion of squawking kids, oversized luggage and sometimes startled chihuahuas proceeding down the aisle. For the rest of the flight, I barely stir. I try to rest as if in a capsule hotel in Osaka.”
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  2. A tray table pro-tip. While some people prefer an exit row seat for that little bit of extra space, Iyer counterintuitively suggests sticking with normal seats — because they have better tray tables. “I try to avoid bulkhead seats and exit rows where the table comes up from the seat itself and not down from the seat ahead of me.” There’s less risk of your seatmate jostling your work or your coffee into your lap.
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  3. Pack simply to use the hours wisely. Iyer requires only three thing to while away his plane time: “a book, a pen and a notebook.” He makes sure all three are packed in his carry-on.
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  4. Put email on hold. Says Iyer, Even if, like me, you’re not a formal meditator, it’s often possible to clear your head and still your being, as meditators do. I use flights as a rare chance to give my mind a break, and allow it to run loose like a dog on a beach. I can’t (or at least don’t) do emails on planes, and no calls can reach me, so I enjoy what has become the greatest luxury in life for many of us: an open space in the calendar in which to do nothing at all and be freed from obligation.”
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  5. Wait until landing to talk to your seatmate (for both your sakes). “I tend to engage my neighbor in conversation only a few minutes before we land, so he or she doesn’t feel they are trapped for sixteen hours with the seatmate from hell. And if my seatmate is somehow disturbing me, I try to train my concentration elsewhere; it’s a safe bet that while I can’t change them, I can change myself.” That said, Iyer does see value in starting the conversation. “I often remember seatmates I used to meet when I was flying to school as a little boy of nine. It was as if I had the whole cast of Great Expectations around me in those seats. I remember one burly guy who assured me he was an actor, a pro football player and someone who had boxed against Muhammad Ali. At nine, I believed it all!”
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  6. Take a first-class perspective, wherever you are sitting. “Glamour is about what you do, not what you have. So for me, I embrace the chance to sit back, to have food brought to me in my seat and to do nothing at all. If someone kindly offers to fly me somewhere in business class, I’ll often ask if he or she would send me economy and give me the difference in money instead. I’d much rather use that extra money for nineteen more trips to London.”
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  7. Treat a delay like a snow day. Iyer keeps a positive outlook through inevitable delays. Since there’s nothing I can do to make the plane arrive or leave faster, I take delays as an extra period of free time,” he says. “I try to think of them as I would have a snow day when I was in junior high school. I try to find some Awake tea. Then I take a book to a quiet spot in the light and I read or, sometimes, work.”
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  8. See jet lag as an opportunity. “Jet lag is a foreign state in which I spend maybe eight weeks of every year. Since that is almost a sixth of my life, I try to wander around it as appreciatively as I might wander around Bangkok or Havana. I’m good for nothing for an entire week after crossing either the Atlantic or Pacific — in either direction. So I try to work this foreign influence to my advantage. Walking the streets of Singapore all night while under jet lag’s spell lets me see a side of the city — and a side of myself — that I never see in the normal run of things.”
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  9. And keep a mental catalogue of the wonderful spaces you find in airports. Iyer says, Tampa International Airport is unusually good for working, and the new Logan Airport in Boston is full of lovely spaces in which to write. Changi Airport in Singapore is like the city of one’s dreams, with its butterfly forests, swimming pools, free movies and quiet spaces. In Terminal One, they have little fish that, by biting your feet, administer a kind of mystical foot massage. At Kansai International Airport in Osaka, I love the Royce’ Chocolates shop. I also love the exhibitions along the corridors in San Francisco International Airport, and the showers in the amazing ANA Lounge at Narita International Airport in Japan. There are outlets of brilliant independent bookstores to be found in many a terminal — I especially love Books and Books at Miami International Airport and Tattered Cover at the Denver International Airport. No amenity, though, compares with reliability, courtesy and seamless efficiency.” Thank goodness, these are to be found all over.

At TED2015, Iyer’s work inspired the Delta Air Lines team to create the Delta Art of Stillness exhibit — which looked a bit like a cross between a spiral meditation path and a Richard Serra installation. The exhibit was intended to be a lab for Iyer’s contemplative in-flight techniques. As attendees stepped into the quiet space, their heart rate slowed and a sensor array triggered the translucent walls to film over. The idea: to give them an intimate moment of stillness in the midst of the crowded conference. Just like Iyer’s tips will give you in the middle of a busy airport.

Travel writer Pico Iyer has great ideas for how to make an airport as relaxing as your backyard garden. Photo: Courtesy of Pico Iyer

“I tend to board as early as I can, and take up my favored position next to the right-hand window,” says travel writer Pico Iyer. “I plunge into a project or book, and hope that it will carry me so far away that I barely notice the commotion. … I try to rest as if in a capsule hotel in Osaka.” Photo: Courtesy of Pico Iyer