9 Tips for Dealing With Turbulence: Where to Sit, What to Drink, How to Cope

Preparation is key.

All seems well: You've settled in to your flight and gotten comfortable, all set to relax with a cheesy in-flight movie, or even take a nap. That's when you feel a serious bump. And then another. The pilot comes on and warns that it'll be a choppy flight, and he's turning the seatbelt sign back on for the duration. Is it time to panic?

Technically, of course not: Turbulence is normal, and it can occur even when the sky appears clear. But it can certainly be scary — not to mention queasy-making. Here's how to manage the situation.

1.  Tell the flight crew.

But if you are a nervous flier, with anxiety exacerbated by the bumps, you're far from alone — and don’t be embarrassed to let the crew know during boarding. “Flight attendants are trained professionals. If we know you’re scared we’ll go out of our way to be reassuring if the airplane does encounter a few bumps. I’ve gone so far as to sit in an empty seat beside someone and hold their hand,” says flight attendant Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. “That was long ago when we had open seats, though!”

It’s better not to wait until you’re clutching the armrest for dear life and sweating profusely with each bump to let flight attendants know who you are, and that you're afraid. “If there’s time during boarding, we might be able to introduce you to the cockpit. Pilots are better able to calm nerves by letting passengers know what to expect in terms of when it will happen, why it happens, and for how long it’s scheduled to last,” says Poole.

2.  Sit up front.

Aircraft fishtail during turbulence, making the back of the airplane much bumpier than the front, so one good trick is to book a seat as close to the cockpit as possible. “If that’s not possible, get to the airport early so an agent can switch your seat to a more desirable location. Pay the extra fee to sit closer to the front if you have to — it's worth it," Poole says.

3.  Get the app for that.

"There's an app I recommend to all fearful fliers: MyRadar," Poole explains. "I learned about it long ago from a fearful flier, who spent three hours watching the weather light up his iPad screen: blue, green, red — wow, so much red! He knew exactly when to expect turbulence, how bad it might get, and how long it would last,” says Poole. Knowing this kept him calm. “At one point he even turned around in his seat to let us know it would be smooth flying from here on out. Two seconds later the captain called to tell us the exact same thing, it was safe to get up and finish the service!” 

4.  Go big.

If you’re terribly worried about a bumpy flight, get ahead of your fears when you book by flying as large a plane possible to your destination. “Aircraft size makes a difference. Larger aircraft generally handle turbulence better than smaller planes. They can also fly a bit higher, which most often means smoother air. If you’re booking through a travel website that shows multiple airlines, you’ll see each airline has different size aircraft flying that route. What could be a route one airline flies using its smaller regional aircraft could be a busier route for another, which means they’ll use larger, wide body aircraft,” says Richard Gonzales, an aviation consultant with Briscoe Group. 

5.  Think logically.

Don’t freak out! Turbulence is just rough air. “Most people I talk to with serious turbulence woes don’t fly often. For those people, I try to compare sitting on a plane to riding in a car. Turbulence is no different than driving on a freshly paved highway and then turning onto a gravel road,” says Gonzales, who is also an Air Force Reserve pilot. "We notice the bumps on the back road, but it doesn’t bring on anxiety because it’s something we’ve experienced before. Most people are seasoned road warriors. If you fly only a few times a year and aren’t a hardened air traveler, give yourself a break if you’re nervous."

If someone is afraid of flying or nervous about turbulence, it’s easy to exaggerate even the slightest bumps. To ease your anxiety, look for feedback from the flight attendants. They’re professionals trained to know when turbulence gets serious. If they’re calm and out with the service cart, you can rest easy. Remember, it’s not as bad as you think. 

6.  Keep busy.

If you have turbulence anxiety, listen to music or a podcast, read a book, or do something to distract yourself. “It’s hard to climb out of that anxiety spiral when you’re solely focused on the turbulence, head down and hands gripping the arm rests. There are also tons of online forums with travelers, and even professional psychologists, sharing techniques to ease your travel fears,” says Gonzales.

7.  Stay hydrated.

Having a drink to calm your nerves when turbulence sets in may sound like a good idea, but it can actually make matters way worse. Dehydration on flights can make you susceptible to some less-than-pleasant health issues (and, in rare cases, dangerous ones like deep-vein thrombosis. “Pack an empty water bottle to fill up at a fountain when you get through security, and avoid consuming alcohol and caffeine, for they slow the hydration process. Also being dehydrated can lead to headaches and nausea which will only increase in discomfort during turbulence,” says Dr. David Greuner of NYC Surgical Associates.

Likewise, opt out of drinking things like coffee, tea, and soda. “They can easily upset your stomach and cause even more discomfort when turbulence begins. Stick to simpler food and drinks while flying like plain water or juice. Keep in mind during turbulence you also need to remain seated and will not be able to use the bathroom. This is an easy discomfort to avoid while dealing with turbulence,” Greuner says.

8.  Breathe.

“In order to stay safe and calm during turbulence practice good breathing techniques. Loosen your grip on your armrest, and focus on your breather with slow, deep breathes. A good tip is to breathe in and out only 10 times in one minute to calm down your anxiety,” says Dr. Greuner.

9.  Consider motion-sickness meds.

There are some great over-the-counter motion sickness medications that can keep you feeling less queasy during patches of turbulence. “Some popular choices include Bonine, Dramamine, or a scopolamine patch. If these are not working for you, you can always speak to your health care provider about other options,” Greuner says.

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