AirPods may not appear to be the best earphones solution for flying based on specs, but I found them to be near perfect on a recent flight across the country. AirPods are a totally different product than my wireless Bose QC35s which have longer battery life and active noise cancellation not to mention superior audio quality, but AirPods were easily preferred as my travel earphones after real world testing for a few reasons.

Sony A6500

It starts with the size. AirPods are classic earbud style with a pocket-sized charging case. Bose QC35s are over-ear headphones with an optional travel case.

AirPods can fit in your pocket, but you’ll probably want a backpack or purse for stowing Bose QC35s unless you leave the travel case behind and wear them around your neck when not in use. I find that over-ear headphones don’t rest comfortably around my neck and my backpack can always benefit from more room for anything else.

In portability, AirPods deliver. But again, this is a comparison between earphones and over-ear headphones.

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In terms of sound, you’ll get much better performance out of Bose QC35s. Volume output is way louder, audio is more defined, and noise cancellation is excellent at competing against loud plane engines.

I usually listen to podcasts (which tend to be quieter than music) when traveling so I don’t need the very best sound, just enough to reliably hear a show over a noisy flight. AirPods got the job done for me without issue, and the earphone form factor actually had its own benefits.

A podcast player like Overcast with Voice Boost may come in handy if you find spoken audio to be too low; music is a bit punchier than the EarPods that come with the iPhone and volume for anything louder than spoken audio was not an issue for me.

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I like the idea of having really good audio quality from headphones when walking through an airport or sitting through a flight, but cancelling out noise around me also makes me anxious.

I don’t want to miss an important announcement or totally mute the people around me so I take over-ear headphones on and off frequently when traveling. I mentioned that around my neck isn’t the most comfortable spot so they usually go back in my bag or in my hand.

AirPods are less powerful but strike a much better balance for me between playing audio and not blocking ambient noise.

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I could reliably hear announcements to start boarding without leaving one ear uncovered and didn’t miss when flight attendants came back to offer snacks and collect trash.

Another benefit of AirPods is auto-pause when you take one out. Hear the ding over the plane speaker before an announcement, take one out, hear the message that it’s safe to take out your laptop, then put the AirPod back in and playback automatically resumes.

That’s exactly what I want to happen and it works great.

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AirPods even delivered well in the battery life department. AirPods last five hours reliably on a single charge, and the charging case offers at least four more charges with about 30 minutes charging time from zero to full in my experience.

Bose QC35s promise up to 20 hours of continuous playback with 2.5 hours battery life after a 15 minute charge which sounds better on paper. My flight time was about six hours so I did need to recharge once before landing, but the AirPods promise of 3 hours battery after a 15 minute charge holds up so it’s not show stopping.

I also tended to take AirPods out a few times when waiting at the airport so charging happened without thinking about it then.

 

While AirPods battery life didn’t bother me, I did face the reality that AirPods are easy to lose.

The best practice would be to always have AirPods either in your ears or in the charging case, but I naturally want to put them loose in my pocket quickly a lot of times which is just asking for trouble.

Drop an AirPod out of your pocket onto the floor during a late night flight and chances of finding it are probably slim. Mine luckily landed in the seat when I noticed it missing from my pocket.

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Something you’ll experience when using any wireless headphone on a flight is Airplane Mode disabling Bluetooth.

Toggling Airplane Mode on from your iPhone to disable cellular is required before take off, but you’ll need to toggle Bluetooth back on to work with AirPods. The same is true for Wi-Fi when using in-flight Internet and doing so leaves Airplane Mode toggled on which keeps cellular off.

Flick up Control Center, tap Airplane Mode, then tap Bluetooth and you’re back in business.

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AirPods are better for me than Bose QC35s when traveling in almost every way but one: use in windy weather. Over-ear headphones might actually warm and protect your ears, but AirPods risk blowing away.

AirPods stay in my ears during all sorts of activities including outdoor running, but if you get caught in a wind gust curbside waiting for a cab, you’ll probably want to pocket those AirPods just to be safe.


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