As a non-drinker, I won’t be joining Alcoholics Anonymous soon, but as those who know me will attest perhaps, I need Flight Addicts Anonymous.
There’s something about flying to a different country which is appealing, alluring, tempting, compelling, calling … it’s the being there, it’s the seeing things, it’s even the pleasure and thrill of being in a metal cylinder ten kilometres above the Earth’s surface managing the competing tensions of thrust and drag, lift and weight.
I’ve compared different carrier’s international business class offerings, I’ve posted aeroplane takeoffs and even flew around in circles to check out Qantas’ in-flight Wi-Fi.
I think part of the appeal is the ability to sit and think. My regular day is surrounded by screens from the time my eyes open to when they close – large screens, small screens, I have information, and requests for information, coming to me via every possible medium all day every day. Even my watch is in on the act. Even if I’m asleep the phone can call. Thankfully, on-call days are long behind me, but emergencies can still happen. Yet, in the sky I’m offline. It’s the only time in my life I am unreachable.
If you travel internationally, here are my thoughts on things you can do to make your experience more enjoyable.
Register with Smart Traveller
Nothing will go wrong! Except maybe it might. Register your travel with your Government. For Australians, that’s Smart Traveller. If disaster strikes make sure the Government knows you’re overseas, where you expect to be, and how to reach you.
What’s the most important thing about flying? Ok, it’s landing safely. What’s the second-most important thing? It’s being comfortable. Nothing else matters as much. Yes, flying is wonderful, it’s awesome, and I’m addicted. On the other hand, flying in economy sucks. The seats are too small, they’re uncomfortable and you’re packed in with hundreds of others. Still, the alternative is fewer passengers per flight which leads to more planes in the sky adding to airport congestion, flight delays and environmental impact, and all this leads to higher fares.
So, get a good seat. The best time to do this is before you board, and ideally as soon as possible after making a booking. If you’re already on the plane the best you can hope for is a gap in a nearby row that you can hop to after takeoff.
Find a seat before you leave. If your airline status membership offers uncharged seat selections (Qantas gold and higher, for example) you need to be using this!
Use sites like SeatGuru to see the plane layout and read other people’s opinions though ultimately your choice will vary on many factors. Some people love the window because it is magical looking at the view and seeing curious archipelagos and boats and landscapes. Others love the aisle because nobody is stopping you from using the toilets or stretching your legs. Nobody loves the middle seat. Some planes, due to their curvature, have only two seats on the sides at the rear of the plane vs. three – alleviating the middle seat. This gives a nice area for couples. It’s also a strategy of the sole traveller to take this, hoping and hoping nobody chooses to sit next to you – after all, what weirdo would unless the plane is just full. Yet, the bumpiest part of the plane is the rear (the smoothest is with the wings) and you’re near the toilets too which in turn means a queue of talkative people will form near you.
What is the best seat for you depends on many factors – who you are travelling with, what you like to do, even how strong your bladder is.
Of course, this really only applies to economy, and to an extent premium economy. If you’re in business class, particularly airlines that have two-metre lie-flat beds, no seat is bad.
Now, if your airline does not offer uncharged seat selection or you do not have the status required to use it, appeal to your airline’s customer service line, live chat or social media channels. Ask if they can help you out. Be friendly, polite and grateful. At worst, ask at check-in if there’s anything they can do to help. I’ve always found the customer service teams kind, generous and helpful.
So, get a good seat!
Download TripIt for your smartphone. Set it up and forward your itinerary to it. Like magic, TripIt extracts all your flight information giving you a handy reference, but that’s only the start. TripIt will keep you informed which gate to go to, if your plane is delayed, and even which carousel your luggage will be at. You don’t need to look at a monitor again. In fact, TripIt will tell you before it is on the screens most of the time.
TripIt offers a paid Pro annual subscription, but the free version has a tremendous amount of utility.
Decorate your luggage
I’m a fairly conservative, non-flamboyant type of person. I like my things to look tidy and professional. Throw this thinking out when it comes to your check-in luggage. First of all, they’re going to get trashed anyway. Your brand-new pristine bags will come back to you battered, grazed, and even with zippers broken off and lost, so dispel any illusions about aesthetics from the start.
Instead, focus on having an efficient and trouble-free experience retrieving your luggage. Put a sticker, multiple stickers even, on your bag. Use the Apple logo sticker that came with your iPad – what else are you going to do with it? Use some stickers from a conference. Heck, use your local pet shop’s sticker.
No matter what your bags look like, be assured there are thousands of the identical bag travelling each day too. Make it distinctive. You want to know, unambiguously, that the bag you spot coming around the carousel bend is yours. Don’t be the person who picks up someone else’s bag and has to put it back. Don’t be the person who watches luggage coming towards them, racked with doubt, only to decide as it sails past they should have grabbed it.
During the flight, the cabin crew will hand you an arrival declaration card you need to fill in. You are then expected to fill it in, on that teeny tiny tray, while the plane jostles and bumps to the whim and will of the air, in low light conditions. Assuming you even have a pen with you, that is.
If you have any reason to think you’ll be going to that country again – which includes your own country because (presumably) each time you exit you come back again – get a spare. Then on your next trip, fill the cards in at home before you leave. Get a new one on the plane for next time and repeat ad infinitum.
Status, status, status
What’s a real estate agent’s mantra? It’s location, location, location! What’s a frequent flyer’s mantra? It’s status, status, status.
Travel is awesome! At the same time, it does kind of suck. I’ve said it above, I’ll say it here, I’ll say it and think numerous times as I question the sanity of why I keep doing this.
After safety, comfort is number one. While waiting in the airport you can choose to sit on the floor, lamenting the exorbitant prices of airport food outlets, hoping you can find a solitary unused – and working – powerpoint somewhere to charge your phone, tired and dusty and sweaty.
Or you could go to the airline lounge. Even the worst airline’s worst lounge is still so much better than sitting on the floor in the general concourse. There is food, drink, chairs, power, and mostly peace and quiet.
Sometimes it’s busy but the lounge is an oasis, a haven and a sanctuary. Have a shower. Get a toothbrush and toothpaste (because dental hygiene never takes a holiday, even if you do.)
Easier said than done … the airlines don’t just let anyone in. You need status, and it’s even more important than points. Points can give you flights and upgrades, but status will get you in the lounge. It’s not easy – particularly with the low rates eked out to economy passengers, and also harder when your regional airport is primarily serviced by budget carriers.
Yet, if you can get there, the lounge is awesome and it’s your privilege, nay, your duty to take advantage of it once you’ve earned it. Leech that electricity and food and beverages like your life depends upon it!
Look after yourself. Did I say travel sucks? It’s awesome, but you know what sucks? Travel sucks. You’re going to cross time zones, your body is going to get confused what day it is, you’re going to sit for a long period of time in a pressurised container at high-altitudes.
Airline crew will tell you to watch out for deep vein thrombosis, and your doctor will tell you to vaccinate yourself. Everyone will tell you to be wary about drinking water in certain destination countries.
Yet, few people will tell you to look after your mental wellbeing.
Be mindful of your own thinking and moods, particularly if you are prone to certain types of thinking. Be aware of the symptoms of anything that is not your normal happy self and recognise it for what it is – a temporary affliction caused by the physical turmoil of thrusting yourself almost one thousand kilometres through space per hour.
Take care of yourself.
In fact, on a long flight, one of the best things you can do is sleep, depending on what time you arrive. If you are going to land at night maybe don’t sleep. On the other hand, if you’re going from Sydney to Los Angeles you leave Sydney at 10am and arrive at Los Angeles at 6am the same day – before you even left Australia! Your body doesn’t like this, your mind doesn’t like this. Sleep on the plane. Ask your doctor for recommended options if you need help (which will be pretty much anyone in economy!)
Hopefully, you slept on the plane and are ready for action!
If not, well, if it’s daytime don’t sleep once you’ve landed. You’ll take longer to acclimatise, you won’t sleep at night, and you’ll be wrecked the next day too.
Check into your hotel and do something. Make yourself. Explore the neighbourhood. Ask the concierge about afternoon and night-time tours. Find the hop-on/hop-off bus.
Land, get to your hotel, shower and change, then do something. Have fun, and sleep well that night. You’ll feel awesome in the morning, and you’ll also feel accomplished. It’d be so sad to spend so much money to go on a holiday only to be miserable and feel your time was wasted.
Find out what the price of global roaming is for your mobile phone carrier and plan. Some carriers will give day pass options where, say, $10 gives you unlimited calls and text and 200Mb of data. Or some will give you more data or less data, but find out what it is and know before you leave.
If you don’t know the price, or it’s not a price which is acceptable to you, don’t turn on global roaming. You can still use your smartphone in Wi-Fi areas.
Another option is to buy a local SIM card with several gigabytes of data after you land. The airport stores will be overpriced, but a local phone retailer in a local shopping centre to your hotel will have more reasonably-priced options.
Don’t let yourself get bill shock. Be prepared before you leave.
Understand, also, ways you can minimise battery usage and roaming data usage. If you’re going to nap on a bus trip, for example, put your phone into battery saver mode. It won’t be pulling for new messages and will save you money and data while preserving the battery. Turn off notifications for apps that you don’t really want to hear from. Disable mobile data for apps that don’t need it at all – mostly games that don’t have an online component but use it for advertising. They can stick to Wi-Fi; don’t let them erode your global data allowance to bring you a 30-second video.
Don’t use any of the airport currency exchange options. Seriously! Well, unless you like high fees and low currency exchange rates. Or, more realistically, unless you have left it to the last minute and have no other option.
My recommendation is to get a transaction-free international debit card and then withdraw money from an ATM, if you need cash, and use the debit card for all other purchases.
I use CitiBank. Their exchange rates are terrific. Their website and app less so, but recently I visited Taipei, Taiwan. Travelex at Sydney airport offered me 6,000 New Taiwanese Dollars for $400. Instead, I got 8,000 NTD for $350 from the ATM in the corner at Taipei airport. That’s 33% more local currency for $50 less!
If you aren’t travelling with friends, make new friends at your destination. If you’re a business traveller remember the people you meet and see, particularly at conferences and events. You may see these people again.
One awesome thing about travelling is catching up with friends who you may only see twice a year, in different parts of the world each time. I have a great couple of pals who I have seen in San Jose, Las Vegas and San Francisco. We have a blast and it is always a delight when I see they’re at a conference I’m going to. Other friends, I’ve caught up with in the United States and India. I am not sure we’ve actually crossed paths in Australia ever.
That 17″ gaming behemoth laptop is wonderful, but keep it at home. Take the lightest and smallest – but yet still fit-for-purpose – laptop you can. I have a 13″ MacBook for travel. I don’t even need the Pro version; just a web browser, the Microsoft Office suite, an RDP client, KeePassX, OmniFocus, and some other apps and tools are all I need for the few days I will be away.
By all means, if this can be your daily laptop too then that’s great, but I have a more powerful and larger-screen option for regular use. For travel though, keep the weight down, and remember you will try to use it on a teeny-tiny table. If you’re in economy add to this the fact the person in front of you will, inevitably, slam their chair backwards at some point.
Forget those big, complicated-looking sets of plugs that you’re supposed to plug into a power socket, and then plug your regular power cable into it. These are bulky, and often cheap and just rubbish. They also won’t fit into tight spots, and they won’t easily balance if you’re plugging into a wall as opposed to a board.
Instead, work out how to plug into the power directly. For your smartphone and tablet, find a local USB power plug. For your laptop, find a local power plug that swaps in and out.
Apple MacBook owners should check out Apple’s international adapter travel kit. Other laptop manufacturers may offer similar options.
Let’s not be morbid, but let’s be pragmatic. Not all planes land as planned. Millions, billions, of people travel without incident annually – air travel is safe, even the worst airline by whatever metric you use has experienced and trained staff in control of equipment that adheres to unbending principles of physics. The excellent, must-read book Cockpit Confidential goes to great efforts to explain why air travel is not inherently risky.
Yet, you know, sometimes it doesn’t go to plan.
Before you leave take a moment to send a kind message to your loved ones, friends, family, even your pet. You don’t want their last memory to be how you shouted at them the night before for keeping you up when you were tired and had to pack.
I’m not superstitious by all means, but I’ve made this my little habit, and pre-flight ritual.
Disregarding that motivation, do it anyway. It’s the right thing to do. Why not make the world a better place one conversation at a time?