"It is better to travel well than to arrive" - Buddha
In the last year or so, I've spoken with a number of soon-to-be-frequent travelers, and passed along a bit of accumulated travel wisdom to each. My wife and I were talking about the merits of travel tactics at lunch again today, and it occurred to me how many tips and tricks you aggregate over the years. I've been a 'frequent traveler' (defined as being in the gold/executive tier of airline loyalty programs) for just shy of half of my life.
For what it's worth, and there are plenty of websites who would probably argue with me on each of the following points, but here are the rules I travel by and am rarely disappointed.
[Disclaimer, if you are traveling as a group tour or with children, these may be of considerably less utility to you, but you'll know which ones apply to your own circumstances]
Long before: Pick an airline that goes to your expected most-frequent destinations, or the one with the largest presence in your local airport. Sign up for their loyalty program (but not their credit card, they are not competitive for interest rates). Stick with this airline. Fly them whenever possible unless they are much more expensive than the competition (and consider shifting your loyalty to the competition).
Why? This is the latter half of the 'fly early, fly often' motto of travel. The more you fly, the more frequent flyer miles you accumulate (useful for free trips and upgrades) but more importantly, the higher status with the airline you accrue. Status = priority boarding, priority for standby lists (this will show up later), and priority for requested & impromptu upgrades to higher classes of service.
Next: Think about the trip. Do you want an aisle (easy in/out to bathroom) or window (good for those with travel sickness, and you rarely get bumped while sleeping). If you are taller, do not go for the bulkhead, go for the emergency exit aisle. You will want to have eyes on your briefcase, and not have to put it up/down the overhead because some overzealous flight attendant doesn't like it hidden under that blanket at your feet.
Go to SeatGuru.com, and look at the airplane you will be traveling on before you pick your seat. That 747-400 you are flying on United in Business fully reclines but has no underseat storage for example.....or 43H in Coach doesn't recline so you're not going to be walking well when you arrive. Nothing worse than being across from the busy and smelly lavatory or galley on an overnight flight when trying to sleep.
Preparation: Pack light.
When I travel, I have one rolling bag (just small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of most aircraft) and my briefcase (the one I use exclusively for air travel). I'll pack clothes appropriate to the weather at the destination, plus/minus clothes that can be adapted if it gets warmer/cooler (sweater, etc.). I also plan ahead of time to locate the dry cleaners closest to my hotel (if the hotel does not have one) so I can have them launder a shirt or two during my trip. Packing two suits and wearing one (more on that in a bit), one extra pair of shoes, three or so shirts, and assorted other items will fill my rolling bag about 80% (leaving room for presents for my girls on the return trip).
Plan on wearing loafers or similar shoes that will pair well with your fine clothes the day of travel.
When I initially started traveling, I had a briefcase that must have been 40lbs. My shoulders and back still ache. Now, I have a lightweight sturdy-weave bag with enough pockets to get done what I need, and isn't a ten bound bag when empty.
Filling the briefcase has been an evolving process, as the technology has improved. Now I have it down to the following:
- Business Cards (3x normal supply)
- Pens (2) (You'll need this for the airline arrival documentation when traveling internationally. Use rollerball or ball point so your fountain pen doesn't explode on to the person next to you)
- Breath Mints (useful after airline coffee and/or overnight flight without mouth wash in the lav)
- An 6 pack (ea) of Tums, Tylenol PM, Airborne, and your vitamins/medication. If you have allergies, double up on allergy medication when packing.
- Moleskine for taking notes
- Hardcopy of your reservations, confirmation numbers, hotel information, and maps/directions to office/hotel. This is about 10 pieces of paper, and sits comfortably in a manila folder that I will accumulate receipts in during the trip. You want the maps/directions if you have a taxi cab driver who has temporary memory loss about the location of your destination and decides to take the scenic route. You will also want a scanned copy of your credit cards, passport, and the number of the local US consulate in the event you lose your wallet/credentials in transit, along with a 'please contact in case of emergency' form filled out and current in the front pocket of your bag.
[do not only load this on your laptop or smart phone, as if you are on a long flight and have drained your batteries, you don't want to have to go in search of an AC outlet in the taxi to let him/her know your destination]
- Smart phone, preferably with GPS and decent camera built in (two less things to carry)
- Electronic book reader (Kindle, Sony Reader, etc.). Lighter and smaller than two paperbacks, and the books cost less than new dead-tree equivalents.
- Magazine for takeoff/landing when you cant have the reader on
- USB cables to charge phone & ebook (2)
- Power supply for Laptop
- A USB keyfob with your presentation/meeting information loaded on it as a backup, separate from your other luggage (in your pocket is good). This is the insurance policy that you can still do that important keynote or board presentation when your laptop mysteriously disappeared in the airport taxi line. [By the way, I have always password-protected and encrypted my laptops due to this type of situation. It's just safer.]
- Moisturizing lotion
- [For international travel] Local power adapter 'pig-nose' for the laptop power supply, airplane power adapter (this is a distinct benefit to my Mac, these are light and small), eye mask, extra socks, tissues, 3x protein bars, 1x large water acquired post TSA checkpoint in airport. Foreign currency (if you had some from the last trip). Passport. Pre-filled international arrival declarations form (it's a pain completing those when blurry eyed at 0600 on bumpy approach into Heathrow or Beijing).
Total weight of the bag is ~20lbs for international trips. I used to use the laptop or smart phone as an ebook reader, but they consume too much power and you never know when you will be near a power outlet again, so consume it like you would use water in the desert. The bag will feel light, but thats because there is no extraneous garbage to weight it down with, just the essentials.
Days before you travel, go to the local store and buy 3-4 oz plastic bottles, and label each one with your shampoo, conditioner, hair products, etc. Buy a small travel-size deodorant, toothbrush, and toothpaste. Put them all in a ziplock bag, and place it in a conveniently accessible outside pocket on your rolling bag (more on this in a bit). The hotel may or may not have these items in the room for you when you arrive, and nothing is as lovely as reaching for the shampoo in the shower and realizing the hotel room doesn't have any, and your meeting is in 30 minutes.
The night before you travel, electronically check-in and print your boarding passes. I've waited in line at San Jose airport for 30 minutes just to print a boarding pass. That way, you can also confirm that the seat is open next to you or change your seats around at the last minute.
Fly Early. The earlier you fly in the day, except when it makes sense to fly late due to international travel, the lower the odds that your flight has been delayed, backed up, or otherwise over-booked. Show up the hour before the flight (or two for international trips) as instructed, so you dont have to run through the airport and can pick up the water you will need for the trip, compose yourself, etc.
I know I'll get comments saying "why wait in the airport when you can get extra sleep or family time?", which I would agree with if I knew how long the security line was with 99% probability. I don't fly unless I absolutely have to, so the thought of missing the flight because I wanted an extra 30 minutes of sleep doesn't make sense. The cost of missing it is just too high, and I can sleep on the plane.
Check the flight status before you leave home, and/or subscribe to flight update SMS messages from the airlines. These are life-savers.
Having said that, don't always trust them. Consider them a suggestion. I received an SMS from United Airlines that my flight had been delayed three hours, so I left the house 2.5 hours later than originally planned. I received a call en-route to the airport that the flight was leaving in 10 minutes and that I had missed the boarding call. The delays are fluid, so it's better to read one of those books on your e-book reader in the airport than miss your flight.
Wear nice clothes. You'll get better treatment by all of the airline and TSA personnel. Also, the suit coat will keep you warm on the international flights, which get damn cold.
When you arrive at the airport, stop and take everything off your body but clothes (watch, phone, etc.) and put it in your briefcase. Keep your passport and boarding passes. Then, when you get to the TSA checkpoint, you wont have to fumble for anything with a bunch of impatient people behind you grumbling. Pick the shortest line that doesn't have families with strollers or wheelchairs, grab two bins, put your shoes, the aforementioned ziplock bag of toiletries, and suit coat in one....your laptop in the other. Everything else goes on the conveyor as is. Hand that boarding pass to the nice TSA person and waltz through. No beeps, no delay.
[Affluence bonus- If you have enough status to get upgraded, or bought a flight in a higher service (business, first), many airports are implementing 'Lexus Lanes' for frequent travelers to whiz through without standing in the long line for coach/vacation travelers]
Unless you're invading Normandy, don't check your bag. I don't check my bag anymore, period. You wait too long on the other end, and it can get separated from you (and your destination) easier. I'd rather roll a bag on to the plane and roll it off vs. wait at the lost bags counter for an hour at the airport, and 2-3 days for my bags to arrive. My father in law didn't get his bags and medication for 3 days on our London trip two years ago. That caused issues.
Some airlines realize that traveling with children or for long trips can be cumbersome, and are implementing door-to-door baggage services, where they pick up your bags the day before and FedEx them to your destination. Had they had this option on my international trip with my children, I would have paid 3x the asking price.
If you are asked to gate check your bag, do so without complaint. You'll see it again on the jetbridge on the other end. Of the hundreds of times I have gate-checked a bag, I have never had one lost.
Buy a big plastic bottle of water when you pass through security. Don't think that the flight attendants will get to you often enough. If you are stingy, pack an empty plastic bottle and fill it up at the water fountain. The protein bars you packed will also come in handy about hour four of the flight.
I have been a member of a number of the airline lounges, be they Admiral Clubs, Red Carpet Lounges, and the like. If you fly more than 3-4 times a year, just bite the bullet and get a membership. They have free food, free wifi, and clean bathrooms. If you have a three hour layover, its better than the uncomfortable airport chairs, and the insanely-overpriced airport WiFi.
Note, if you are traveling internationally, the lounge equation abroad is often based on class-of-service and not on your lounge card. This is awkward if you are flying coach internationally and walk into the Star Alliance lounge expecting service, for example.
Wait for your section to be called. Please. Lets all be civilized people.
Take your briefcase full of your essentials and keep it at your feet. You boarded early due to your status, so take your rolling bag and put it within direct eyesight above your head. I've heard stories of people losing their overhead bags because someone accidentally/deliberately grabbed the wrong bag. If you checked the night before and the adjacent seat is most-likely empty, put your briefcase under the seat back in front of that seat and enjoy the extra legroom.
If you upgraded due to your status, plug in your laptop and two USB cables and charge everything all flight long. You want to arrive full of power, not drained.
Drink water. Drink lots of water. You get dehydrated easier flying and traveling in general. Also, and I'll get crap about this too, but don't imbibe when you fly. There are a few reasons:
- Your body is already dehydrated, so dehydrating it further with alcohol isn't going to help overall health
- Alcohol has greater effects at altitude, so you will get wasted on that second glass of wine. Not the way to start those negotiations.
- Alcohol messes with your natural melatonin production, so it will exacerbate the jetlag.
Use the moisturizer before takeoff, and the toothbrush before landing. The customs official will thank you.
If you are traveling East, over the Atlantic, eat before you fly, skip the alcohol, get on the plane, take one of your Tylenol PMs (or equivalent), slurp down one Airborne (airplanes are horrific for catching all sorts of fun diseases), slip off your loafers and slide on the extra pair of socks, pull on a blanket, buckle your seatbelt on top of it, slip on the eye covers, and go to sleep. Skip the airline entertainment and meal. The ORD (Chicago) to LHR (London Heathrow) flight I took last month was only 6:30 hrs. You dont want to be sawing the rubber chicken entree with those wimpy plastic knives when you could be sawing logs to offset the jetlag to come.
If you connect (try to avoid the number of connections, by the way) to another flight at a hub airport, proceed directly to the other terminal before you stop in the bar/restaurant/airline lounge. Some trains/people-movers/shuttle bus' take considerable time, and you can always catch that Starbucks in terminal 3 just as easily as you can the one in terminal 1.
Check the monitors. Check the monitors. Check the monitors. Yes, I know the nice flight crew on the last flight already gave you your connecting gate information, as did your smart phone. Check the monitors. Check the monitors. They change gates for the darndest of reasons. You dont want to sprint to gate 72 in Denver only to find out that they moved it to gate 18 and the flight crew didn't have the most recent information.
You arrived and have all your bags, so head for the immigration and customs desks with all haste. This is where you can really save time and catch an earlier flight. You dont have to wait for the baggage claim, so you will have an advantage.
If you arrive early and there is an earlier flight to your destination, go ask to get on it. If you have status, you will get priority on the standby list (I told you we'd come back to this). Between tail-winds and an earlier flight, I got home over four hours earlier than scheduled on my most recent London flight.
Oh, and another benefit to not having checked a bag......if you are rolling your luggage, you can jump on those earlier flights. If you checked bags, they make you fly on the same aircraft as your luggage. +1 for rolling.
If you arrived late, and missed your connection, be polite but firm with the airline customer service people and do not leave the front of their counter until you have an acceptable resolution. If you missed your connection due to a scheduling issue or hardware (airplane maintenance) issue of the airlines, they will compensate you with a hotel room. This is (again) why you roll your luggage and do not check it.
When you land in your final destination, if you are in another country, proceed directly to the ATM in the airport and get local currency. Do not use the currency exchange kiosks in your country or theirs. The banks may hit you for $3-4 in fees, but its better than the exchange rate in the kiosks. If you have to grab a taxi or train, use credit cards if you can, and conserve the cash.
Depending on when you have landed, your hotel may or may not let you check in. Most have 12-o-clock or 2pm check-in times. You can expect to leave your rolling bag with their bell captain and take your briefcase with you. If you can check in, do so and unpack so you aren't as wrinkled the rest of the trip. Put 1/2 your cash in the hotel safe, along with any valuables. Your phone can tell time, leave the Rolex in the safe.
Walk around. Work out. Swim if you can. Get out and get some fresh air. It will immensely help offset the jetlag as well. Stay up as late as you can local time (within reason) and then take one of those Tylenol PMs you packed. It will help you stay asleep for the night instead of waking up when your body thinks it's morning. On my first international trip (18 horrific hours over three connections from San Francisco to Buenos Aires in a center seat in coach), I went for a swim at the hotel and had a great meal after cleaning up and I was back to 100%.
Don't 'lay down for a quick nap or rest' in your hotel on arrival. You'll wake up fully rested at 8pm saying 'Oh shit, I just lost an entire day!'. At least that's what my mother and I said on our trip to Paris in 2000.
If you are there for a week and packed three shirts to travel light, bring one to the cleaners the morning after you arrive (or leave it in the hotel laundry bag if your hotel has the service, which is usually 2-3x market rate). Do the same on day two. Do not do it on day three, because if they dont return your shirt/suit, you dont have any time to hunt it down before you leave for your flight.
Night two, take another Tylenol PM and Airborne. You may feel acclimated by then, but you aren't. Better safe than tired or sick on day three.
Don't be stingy with a) the caffeine during the day, b) the Tums in your travel valise, because the local food and/or eating times don't agree with your normal patterns, and c) bottled water ALL THE TIME. The water will offset the dehydration the caffeine can contribute to.
Don't buy heavy gifts unless you have already figured out how to ship them back. The same goes for expensive or one-time gifts that you cannot carry on the flight, or ship insured. I actually had Vatican Museum tour tapes stolen from my checked bag at the Rome airport. I'm pretty sure that luggage thrower is going to hell for that.
And dont go out for an all-nighter the night before the flight unless you are less than 25 years of age. It was fun to sleep on the plane back from Vegas when I was 21. It was not fun to be dehydrated and hung-over all the way back from Singapore when I was 33.
That's it for now. There are other tricks and tips about avoiding pickpockets and bad restaurants, how to pack without getting wrinkled clothes upon arrival, and how to avoid tummy troubles with the local water, but I'll save those for interested commenters.