Eight Great Podcasts for Your Next Flight

By Chris Biggs

Eat. Nap. Bathroom break. Repeat.

When on a flight - whether it be domestic or international - my routine used to be eerily similar to that of an infant. The only difference was that I cry slightly more (and much louder) when I’m hungry.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve started using those hours in the air to both educate and entertain myself on a host of interesting topics by listening to a number of totally free, amazingly well-produced podcasts from genres that include entrepreneurship, travel, finance, sports, public speaking and more.

Yes, this is a stock photo. No, it's not the back of Chris's head. Chris's head has a much nicer shape.

Yes, this is a stock photo. No, it's not the back of Chris's head. Chris's head has a much nicer shape.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, podcasts are audio files you download and play at your convenience, typically on your mobile device. iPhone users have a great app for podcasts that comes pre-downloaded with the latest iOS version; others can access podcasts via iTunes or any number of other apps available on the Android platform.

Below you’ll find the eight podcasts I can’t live without. Now even being wedged in an economy seat on Spirit Airlines may be semi-bearable; just pop in your headphones and entertain yourself with the best the world of podcasts has to offer.

  1. This American Life: If podcasts were sports, This American Life would be Michael Jordan (and definitely not the “Crying Jordan” meme). On the airwaves well before podcasting was a thing, Ira Glass and his team have churned out some of the most thoughtful, well-constructed human interest stories ever told. I remember listening to the show via radio back in college, and now it has claimed its rightful place near the top of the podcast rankings with nearly 2.5 million downloads per episode. A suggestion: check out episode 589, titled “Tell Me I’m Fat,” if you want an example of just how powerful this show can be in its framing of important cultural and social issues.

  2. WTF with Marc Maron: I’m a big comedy fan and, for years, had seen Marc Maron make guest appearances in various shows but never quite hit it big. Well, that has changed. Thanks to the success of his show WTF, Maron has jump-started his career and found a medium that plays to his particular strengths: asking good questions and getting into substantive, often highly personal topics with his guests, who have ranged from President Obama to the hilarious women of Broad City. Now with over 700 episodes under his belt, Maron and WTF continue to humanize celebrities (and quasi-celebrities) mixing humor with seriousness in a formula that works.

  3. Planet Money: The perfect bite-sized podcast; each episode is about 15-30 minutes in length and typically covers an interesting topic at the intersection of pop culture and finance. Want to hear about the economics of the food truck business, or to learn more about how black market pharmacies operate? This is your podcast.

  4. Reply All: Reply All is a podcast about the internet. However, before you fall into a boredom induced coma, please take my word: this is a show worth a listen. Hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt use technology as a jumping-off point, weaving together tales of the internet with human interest stories reminding us that machines are only as good as the people behind them. I’d highly recommend a four-part piece by guest host Sruthi Pinnamaneni titled “On the Inside,” which follows a convicted murdered who ran a blog for years while locked up in a maximum security prison.

  5. The Tim Ferriss Show: You may know Tim Ferriss from...well, basically everywhere. He’s an investor, public speaker, writer, and all-around interesting guy. In addition to writing a series of popular books in which he shows readers how to optimize performance (you may have heard of The Four Hour Workweek and The Four Hour Body), Ferris has hosted his own television show and, for years, run a podcast focused on interviewing top performers in every field (think Jamie Foxx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Robbins) to better understand their success. Ferriss is one of the smartest and most thoughtful interviewers out there and this podcast is the perfect solution for a long flight - in part because some episodes push two or more hours in length.

  6. The Moth: Public speaking? Check. Tear-jerking moments? Check. Lots of laughs? Double check. The Moth is a podcast centered around a traveling stage show in which both professional and amateur speakers share stories with the audience. I’ve really fallen in love with the format and tend to get the most out of instances in which ordinary people share their extraordinary stories, including when an engineer tells the tale of his experience inside a Japanese nuclear plant during the earthquake that rocked the country earlier this decade.

  7. Extra Pack of Peanuts Travel Podcast: Travis Sherry is a personal travel hero of mine, as well as a magnetic personality whose enthusiasm comes through in every podcast. He is one of the most prolific voices in the world of travel, and to-date he and his wife Heather have churned out hundreds of episodes where they interview leaders in the travel space, as well as share their own tips and recommendations. Look no further for some inspiration for your next trip (pro tip: Travis’s episodes on travel hacking will help you understand the essentials around how airline miles work - and how to navigate the system to earn free trips).

Honorable mention: Serial: If you’re already familiar with podcasts, there’s a near certainty that you’ve heard of Serial - one of the most listened-to shows in the young history of podcasting. The show’s first season investigated the murder conviction of a young Pakistani-American high school student in the late 1990s. Creator Sarah Koenig’s brand of investigative journalism was so deep and riveting that it enamored listeners, even drawing the highest form of praise: mockery on Saturday Night Live. This podcast is my all-time favorite and the source of many heated debates about guilt, innocence, social justice, and racial profiling. So why didn’t it make my list of top seven podcasts above? Frankly, like many people, the program’s second season - while well-crafted - wasa huge letdown from the emotional rollercoaster of season one. That said, one could make the case that Serial should be the first podcast you listen to on your next long trip, so download an episode and see if you connect with Koenig’s storytelling.

As a traveler who has listened to hundreds of podcast episodes while on flights, buses, and trains over the last few years, I hope this whittled-down list will help give you some direction and inspiration. Podcasts are a great way to learn a little something and keep yourself highly entertained along the way