Saturday, July 26, 2014

How to Survive Air Travel - For Real


Photo: Wikipedia

I've travelled quite a bit by air, I enjoy the travel, but agree it can get uncomfortable and frustrating at times. That said, Craig Mod's advice on Medium just isn't realistic, so I have a few tips.

  • First, accept that it takes a certain amount of time to travel half way across the country or around the world. Many frustrations are created by unrealistic expectations. Eight hours to get to Denver? Yeah! Compared to the two-day drive it would otherwise take. Seventeen hours to Istanbul? Sure! Much better than the week or two it would take by boat. Don't lose your sense of wonder. You're travelling by air! It's like being in the future.
  • Second, be realistic about the time it takes. Airlines have the concept of  'gate to gate' to take into account for taxi time. You should have the concept of door to door' to take into account your taxi time. How many times have I observed people arriving at the airport, already late, because they did not take into account traffic and local conditions? When I can, I take trains to the airport rather than cars or taxi, because trains are much more reliable. I take into account things like rush hour or service interruptions. Don't leave ground transportation to the last minute. Plan ahead, book ahead. Make sure you're going to the right terminal.
  • Third, unless you know your airport really well, plan to check in no later than an hour ahead of time for domestic flights, two hours for international flights. Some airports require even earlier arrival check.If you arrive earlier, that's fine, but keep in mind that check-in for a flight won't happen any earlier than three hours before departure, so don't panic if you arrive four hours earlier and can't find your flight.
  • Mod's advice about being relaxed and being calm is very well taken. Airports have signs, which you can find pretty easily if you're moving at a relaxed pace, but are impossible to detect if you are in a rush. Instead of search the whole airport looking for the thing you want (like a check-in counter) look for a sign. They're usually strategically located, at entrances (and therefore, probably behind you if you're in a rush). If you can't find a sign, find an information desk or security and ask. Don't ask a detailed question: just the basics (especially if language is an issue). I ask "Air Canada?" rather than "Can you tell me there to check into flight AC465 to Istanbul?"
  • If you can check-in in advance, do so, and print your own boarding pass. Pick your search ahead of time, if you can. When you arrive, if there are self-check-in kiosks, use them if you haven't checked in ahead of time. No matter what, when you approach the ticket counter, be ready. Have your itinerary and/or boarding passes and travel documents such as passports and visas in your hand (it's amazing how many people spend an hour in line and then spend time in front of the counter searching for their information, as though they hadn't expected that they might need it). I have a special blue pouch just for these: passport, itinerary, boarding passes, nothing else. It has a string so if my hands are full I can hang it around my neck.
  • At the check-in: be nice and pleasant. Introduce yourself and where you're going ("Hello, my name is Downes, D-O-W-N-E-S, and I'm on AC 8799 to Toronto, final destination Istanbul. I'm checking one bag." - often, that's all they need and you've just done half their job for them). Know what you want; if you don't have your seats assigned yet, ask for what you want (I always say, "If possible, could I have a window seat please?") and do this right away. Smile. You're happy to be here, at the front of the line, just a few minutes away from where you want to be, you're happy this person is there to help you.
  • If you need something special, just ask, and then wait really patiently. If they say they can't do it, it's because they can't do it; asking a second time won't change that. If they appear non-responsive, it's because they're trying to do what you ask - the computer system is slow and awkward and it takes time to change a flight, move a seat, etc. Waiting patiently while any airport service staff does their job is the key. Here's the trick: generally, there's nothing you can say that will speed up what they're doing, and most anything you say will slow it down. Just be clear, state what you need once, and accept the response for what it is.
  • In security. You should have regular 'travel clothes' that you know won't set off the alarm. Before you get to security, take all your pocket contents and put them in your shoulder bag. Or your coat pockets, if they zip (always travel with zip-up coat pockets). This is especially important for wallets, etc. They will ask for your boarding pass, so have that ready. When you get to the tray, pull out your computer, and put it with your boarding pass holder on the first tray, by itself. Shoulder bag and jacket on the next tray, carry-on luggage last (pull out the liquids and put them in the shoulder-bag tray, on top). If you plan ahead like this it will take about ten seconds to set up everything, you'll breeze through screening, and be one of the good ones that security people love.
  • Note: only Americans remove their shoes. If you're not American, or not in the United States, leave your shoes on. Unless you have steel toes.
  • Luggage. Need I say, pack light? But even better, pack well. Weigh your luggage before you depart (hand-held luggage scales are cheap and can be found in any airport). Put all your liquids and gels (except for the absolutely necessary) into your checked luggage. Otherwise, use the clear plastic bag and put them in an outside pouch so you don't have to search for them at security. Don't overstuff your carry-on, and don't try to cheat on the size, because if you do, it won't fit into the overhead or under the seat. I carry a shoulder bag with my computer and essentials, and a rolling small piece of luggage. Note that on small aircraft you'll be separated from your small luggage, even if it's carry-on, so put priority items in your shoulder bag.
  • Seat selection is very very personal, but as a rule, if you can, take a window. I know that this runs contrary to a lot of travel advice, but if you want to be left alone during your flight (especially if you want to be left alone) the window is where you want to be. On the aisle you will be constantly bumped by people are service carts, and you will be asked to get up to let your seatmates out. At the window you can lean up against the side and close your eyes.  Exception: if you plan to get up a lot, take an aisle. Second exception: if you are travelling on a small plane, take an aisle, because the curvature of the fuselage really cuts into seat space.
  • Power up your devices before-hand. Yes, I said devices. In addition to your regular mobile phone, invest in a backup nano, just in case it dies or gets stolen. Bring extra earbuds. Some airlines have special two-pronged sound systems, so get an adapter (available in airports) (I'm looking at you Lufthansa). For long flights I also like to bring a tablet so I can preload and watch my own movies. Also, you can now buy portable power supplies, to recharge your devices en route. I also bring a pen and crosswords, just in base, and buy newspapers in the airport. 
  • Keep in mind (again) the total time of travel - you will be listening to audio or reading your phone in the check-in line, in the security line, in the passport line, in the boarding lounge, in the boarding line, and in your seat. Remember, it's not a three-hour flight. It's a six hour trip, door to door.
  • In the airport, pre-flight, walk. Maybe not the whole time, but some of the time. I always find my gate first, then settle down to relax later (caution: any time you enter through a guarded door, ask (a) are there services past this door, and (b) can I return through the door if I need to - if the answer to both is 'no' don't go through the door until it's close to boarding time). If you're eating, take the time to find healthy food. Remember food safety, even in your own country: food should be cooked and still hot, avoid deep-fried food, choose solid cuts of meat, not burgers or 'fingers', avoid breads and buns and muffins.
  • Dress light but not too light. Every summer I see people surprised that airplanes are air conditioned and can get cold in the sky (where it's -50 outside the window). Dress in cotton rather than synthetics (unless the synthetics handle sweat really well). Make sure whatever you wear has a pocket above the waistline (to hold your electronics - your pants pockets will be under the seatbelts and hard to get to). Wear shoes, not flip-flops (to protect your toes from dropped luggage, boots, etc).
  • Do not store your stuff in the seat pouch. I repeat:  Do not store your stuff in the seat pouch. If you store stuff in your seat pouch, consider it lost. You will forget it. Also, people steal stuff on airplanes (yes, it has happened to me). 
  • And please, for the sake of everyone else, be clean. Bathe or shower before the flight and brush your teeth. Avoid the garlic, just for the day. And like your mother said, go to the bathroom before you go out. Believe me, nobody wants to smell that for the duration of a hot sticky six-hour flight.
  • Don't put your luggage under the seat. I know the airlines are always telling you to do this, but it's far better to take less and put it in the overhead. Why? There's often electronics under the seats these days, and hence, no room for luggage. So you will end up spending the whole flight clutching your knees.
  • The most important advice of all: the in-flight posture when you get into your seat (preferably a window, otherwise wait until your seatmates have taken their places): your feet are in front of you, not tucked under the seat (to avoid foot wars with the person behind you). Your arms are crossed, holding your device, or in your lap (to avoid armrest wars with your neighbour). You have your audio playing. Close your eyes. Now you hear only the sound, see only darkness. The rest of the aircraft and the passengers are gone. You are alone. Breathe. Relax. You have nothing you have to do, nothing you need to worry about, for the next few hours. Enjoy this period of absolute calm.

    This posture takes practice. It's like a form of meditation, but you don't have to think of it that way. You might get a few minutes' sleep; that's OK. Over time you will become attuned to the minor changes in environment; the smells and sounds telling you to open your eyes for meal service, for example. You don't have to stay this way for the entire flight - I don't, usually - but stay this way as long as you want. You don't have to listen to audio; if I have to keep my earbuds out I just adopt the same posture and listen to my own thoughts. Some people use earplugs; I don't. Some people use sleeping masks; I don't.

    This one tip has transformed flying from a stress-filled nightmare to the time of day I look forward to the most.
  • Stay hydrated. I always buy one bottle, sometimes two bottles, of water (you can also bring your own bottle and fill them up in the washroom, but I like the convenience). You should also bring cough drops or lozenges. I haven't tried the mask solution Mod recommends, but I can't see it being especially effective. Usually I'll have some water left at the end of the flight, which I drink on the descent, which helps with ear-popping.
  • Go ahead and eat the airline food, if you want (and if they even serve it) on the longer flights, unless you have serious issues with the taste or content of it. If you bring snacks, bring things like nuts and dried berries, which will fill you up and give you energy without loading you up with junk food (they're also small and easy to carry). Better, if you can, eat before the flight.
  • After the flight, remember that you are still en route. Your trip is not over. When you planned ahead, you should planned for this step as well, so you should know whether you're looking for a taxi or a train or your own car. Again, watch for the signs, especially in an unfamiliar airport. If you have baggage, follow the baggage sign relentlessly (be careful: U.S. airports can have different baggage areas for different airlines, so watch for which baggage area you're seeking). 
  • And be careful, especially if you're on the road. People with luggage are prime targets for pickpockets. While you're fussing with your luggage, they're lifting your wallet. Don't carry anything in outside pockets, don't carry stuff on your back or in your back pocket. I assemble everything into a single rolling piece - my bug luggage on rollers, my small luggage tied to my big luggage with a bungee cord, my shoulder bag on top of my big luggage, one hand always free. I use two-wheels rather than four because while four is convenient in airports, it's extra weight, and not useful on rough sidewalks or cobblestones.
  • If I'm travelling to a new place, then I use Google Maps ahead of time to find my hotel. Make sure you do this even if they say they'll meet you at the airport (because, sometimes they don't). Go straight to your hotel if you're on the road, check in, settle in, and call home to report that you've arrived safely. Because people worry.
The one key to what Craig Mod said was to assert the maxim: be calm. I agree with that. But being calm isn't simply a matter of willing yourself to be calm, as he suggests. It's the result of planning and preparation, knowing what you need to do and doing it, as much as possible, ahead of time. And be nice. If you go in there with attitude, you're going to get attitude. If you go in there with a big smile and a generous spirit, the seas will part in front of you.

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