As an international travel writer, airlines and airports are my home away from home.
And as we all know, the post-9/11 air travel environment has become a sort of endless-loop Airport Disaster Movie– long Federal security lines, cash-strapped airlines desperately trying to survive bankruptcy by slashing their amenities along with their fares, exasperated underpaid front-line customer service employees. And record-setting crowds showing up for those $89 fares, overwhelming an airport infrastructure that was never designed for today’s demands. Just running the gauntlet from Short Term Parking tto Check-in, through TSA screening to the gate and finally the boarding jetway can feel, sound and smell like an evacuation-riot scene from ‘War Of The Worlds’ . Minus Tom Cruise. And minus the aliens. (Unless you count that bizarre looking character over in 28C.)
But with a little planning, you can make YOUR experience bearable. Even enjoyable.
Here are 12 great tips for a better flight:
- Know the latest security regulations. Check the Federal website www.tsa.gov for current updates before you start packing, and avoid surprises. Remember, those long Security lines are run by Homeland Security, not the individual airlines. Dress for your flight with the screening in mind– with easy to remove shoes (handy for the plane, too) and minimum metal. Drop metal items (belts, phones, keys) in an outside pocket of your carryon bag before X-Ray and you can skip the grief of trying to re-dress yourself with all those loose items from the plastic bin at the other end of the moving cattle chute. You, and the line, will move faster.
- ‘Early’ equals ‘reduced-stress’. Beat Murphy’s Law Of Airport Delays and get to the airport much earlier than your airline’s website suggests. At least an hour earlier, and more if you need one-on-one counter transactions (checking bags, printing tickets, etc). You’ll beat The Wave of others checking in for your flight and have time for a calm, well earned beverage-of-choice on the other side.
- When packing, organize all those small loose miscellaneous things with clear Ziploc bags. I like the gallon size. Saves a lot of groping around in the corners of your rollaboard. (Also handy for anything that, when pressurized inflight, can and will leak or ooze.) Put a couple in the outside pocket of your carryon for use inflight to manage your various stuff, including the trash you’ll accumulate. Your overworked, salary-slashed, pension-robbed cabin crew will thank you.
- That hard working cabin crew are your key allies in creating a pleasant flight instead of having Eleven Hours In Middle Seat Economy No-Frills Hell.
And an appreciative attitude on your part can make all the difference.
One easy way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the crowd is to bring a small present for the crew. As I board the aircraft door, I present the Purser with an inexpensive bag of chocolates I’ve brought as my random-kindness gift . Individually wrapped, and enough for the whole crew, and in an unopened, obviously-not-tampered-with bag. After takeoff word will spread, it generates good karma throughout the cabin, and either way it’s a nice gesture to fellow human beings doing an often trying job. Try this at your next hotel stay as well. Everyone likes to be acknowledged.
- Airline food in Economy never pretended to be Fine Dining, even when it was free, and now it’s pretty much gone the way of T-Rex and friends. Don’t count on there being a snack box available for purchase, either. Use one of those Ziploc’s for snack rations. Hard boiled eggs, apples, power bars, and a bag of mixed nuts all travel well. And if you have special nutritional needs, bring them. Bring some small bills if you plan on buying drinks (think ‘exact change’. The old ‘We can’t make change for your $100 ploy, so hey it’s on the house” days are gone).
- Stay well hydrated. You need about 8 to 10 ounces of water every hour inflight to keep even with dehydrating cabin air, a major factor in jet lag. I never travel without my collapsible travel water bottle, made of soft clear vinyl which rolls up flat and pocket-size as it empties. The brand name is ‘Platypus’, available for around $6 at camping stores (REI, Hudson Trail Outfitters, etc). 1 or 1/2 liter sizes. Get the pop-up sports cap model. And great for walking around your destination with once you land.
- Blankets and pillows have pretty much vanished too, a victim of cleaning costs. (Somewhere, there must be gigantic warehouses full of aging pillows and blankets awaiting the return of better days for the airline industry). Eagle Creek makes inflatable neck rests and lumbar pillows that pack well. A light nylon windbreaker, the Wal-Mart type for jogging, can double as a blanket substitute. (It’s 60 degrees below just outside that window at 30,000 feet, with a 600 mph wind chill.Brrr)
- Design your own custom First Class amenities kit with sleeper eyeshades, earplugs or better yet noise canceling headphones, and thick socks or slippers for padding around the aisle after you kick off your shoes. But put the shoes back on for the unisex lavatory; those wet floors mid-flight don’t get that way from the sink faucet. Don’t forget a little pocket flashlight, or one of those great little clip-on LED reading lights, to read, and find your shoes, in case you’re one of the lucky winners whose seat light is burned out.
- Ah, sweet sleep. For long flights, some swear by Melatonin, some by Benadryl, some by Ambien or other prescription drugs of choice. (I swear by Bose noise-canceling headphones and Eagle Creek sleep-shades and the unabridged 4-volume ‘Complete Speeches Of Alan Greenspan’). Insider’s insomnia tip: the supercharged coffee blends especially designed for airline coffeemakers are much more caffeinated than same-brand store blends. Ditto what’s labeled ‘Decaf’. And remember the hidden caffeine in soft drinks.
- Inflght entertainment has gone electronic high tech, with 2000 or so channels. Which is great, except that YOURS may be among the 30% on the full, every-seat-occupied aircraft whose expensive but fragile entertainment system is broken, and as downsized and budget-slashed airline maintenance departments are trained to say, “deferred”. So bring Plan B: the one favorite (and only one; weight and bulk) book you’ve been meaning to start, your iPod, and a journal or notepad for to-do lists and inflight inspirations. And/or a couple of Netflix DVDs for the laptop. And don’t forget multiple writing instruments. It always amazes me that grown adults with jumbo mortgages and Blackberry’s can somehow manage to discover they are halfway across the Atlantic without so much as a free hotel-room Bic.
- You can save valuable B amp; W (Bulk and Weight) on travel guidebooks by bringing only the xeroxes of the pages that matter to you this trip, not shlepping the entire books. And keep handy all the relevant numbers for your trip–flight #’s and times, airline and hotel reservation numbers (including the local ones for your destinations if outside the country–the 800 call centers can look those up for you in advance. So when you’re in that departure line for your return flight from Buenos Aires and they announce the flight just canceled until tomorrow, you can be on the pay phone rebooking yourself while The Baffled Lambs are still lining up for their two hour ordeal at the Customer Service counter).
- One of the best things you can do for your flight is–relax.
Pack smart, travel light. Remember Bulk amp; Weight. We always need about 50% less than we bring, and usually two things we didn’t think to. Make a Permanent Packing List (or several, classed by type of trip) and update it after each trip with what you used, didn’t, and anything you wished you’d had. Let purely travel gear stay in your travel bag between trips. This can help avoid the last day (and last midnight) before your departure becoming some frantic last minute pack-a-thon. Make it a priority to exercise or swim or jacuzzi the day before, keep pumping the vitamins, and do whatever it takes to not arrive at the airport sleep-deprived and over-adrenalined.
With some of the tips above, you’ll know you’re ready to roll with any surprises that come along (and not all travel surprises are bad). Your calm will attract calm in others–including all those front-line people , from curb check to inflight to Arrivals baggage claim, who can help you make your Economy trip into a First Class Experience.
Look for my upcoming travel articles here on AC, and…I’ll see you at the airport.