A few months ago, my spreadsheet of “Airports at which I’ve taken off or landed” reached 100 entries. This kind of blew my mind – that number really snuck up on me. But I guess after this much flying, I should know a thing or two about it, so I’ve listed a few things I’ve learned.
- Learn to pack light. No, lighter than that. I’m still not a true minimal-packing ninja, but I aspire to it. Schlepping large bags through airports, paying for excess bags, etc, just sucks.
- Minimize task loading and free up your hands. I carry my laptop and its accessories in a backpack so it’s hands-free. I know it doesn’t look as cool, but I’ve given up looking cool in airports.
- Many smaller regional props and jets simply will not hold a traditional “roller-board” in their overhead compartments. When I have to carry a bag on board, I use soft-side luggage that will squish into the overhead. Otherwise, you’re facing gate-check, either waiting for it to roll up at the jet-way, or having to go to baggage claim to get it. In Europe they will blithely charge you a checked bag fee on the spot.
Stuff to have on long flights
- An e-reader. At least for me, it’s the one indispensible thing. I used to have a Kindle, but now have the Kindle app on my work-supplied iPad. I feel like a kid at Christmas when I fire that puppy up and see half a dozen unread “books” staring back at me.
- Real paper reading material. Until they calm down about electronics on take-off and landing , I want to have something to read on the going-up and coming-down bit. A New York Times or Times of London is a great way to kill the no-electronics time and it’s not expensive.
When you fly from the U.S. east coast to Europe, it’s almost always overnight. I haven’t reached the level of travel-fu that I get into the front of the plane that much, so I’ve perfected cocooning myself in coach. 
- Noise-cancelling headphones are a must. Bose has obviously cornered the marketing on these, but I think my Sony’s (which cost much less) are better. They’re still not cheap, but they’re half the cost of a single at-gate upgrade to business class.
- Sleep mask. I got a nice one at Container Store. Spend a few bucks for one that really does the job and feels comfy on your face.
- White noise generator. I have loaded sounds of a tropical beach, rainstorm, and (my favorite) mountain stream onto my iPod, iPad, and phone (all of which are with me on the plane). That way if the battery on one dies, I have back-up.
The combination of these three devices allows you to completely remove yourself from what’s going on around you. I have occasionally woken to discover they’d brought the cabin lights back up and served a pre-landing breakfast and I’d slept through the whole thing. Yahtzee! It seems the airlines are particularly insensitive about bringing down the cabin lights in coach (sometime on an overnight flight, note how much sooner the front of the plane goes dark before the coach section). The difference between getting a couple of 30-minute naps and a solid 2-4 hour block of sleep is difficult to overstate.
- Bring your own food. Airline food is (if this is possible) getting worse. Buy a meal in the airport and put it in your carry-on. You’ll be so delighted when they ask you if you want the “beef stew” or “chicken something” and you say, “Neither – just the side dishes please.” Then you only eat the brownie that comes for dessert.
- Practice your “disrobing-for-security” routine until it’s second nature. I now toss both my mobile and belt into my backpack while in the security line; it’s that much less to deal with as you reach the scanner.
- With the advent of the millimeter wave scanners (the full body scan ones that had Americans so scandalized for a while), you now have to empty everything out of your pockets (i.e. not just metal). This means your wallet, passport, and boarding pass. I am now putting those in a special side compartment of my laptop bag as I approach security. Partially so they can’t go walkabout during the scanning process, but mostly so I can’t forget them on the other side.
- If you carry toiletries on (I try to avoid it), have the baggie near the top of your stuff ready to come out. My sense is that (at least in the U.S.) there’s no quicker way to have your entire bag searched than to forget the liquids buried in your carry-on.
- Double-check that you’ve grabbed everything on the far side. Get used to carrying everything of importance in a specific pocket, and then as you exit security, pat yourself down to be sure that everything is in its proper pocket. Recently, I caught myself without my passport and saw that some “helpful” security agent had moved it to a different tray as it came through. That’s what started my routine of bagging wallet and passport before security.
Safety on the airplane
By and large, I’ve become quite sanguine about flying. If Something Bad happens on the plane, there’s not a great deal I can do about it, and I work hard not to worry about things I can’t change. However, I do have some things that I do as regards safety:
- When they tell you to find the nearest exit, do it. Count the seat rows to that exit and say the number out loud. Don’t count on the “lights guiding you to the nearest exit”. I figure I can count to that number passing seats as I go.
- I hate wearing shoes during a long flight, but I wait until 10,000 feet to take them off and I put them on as we begin our descent. If I need to get off the plane quickly, I want shoes on.
- If I see people in exit rows who shouldn’t be there, I say something. Recall that if the plane needs to be evacuated quickly, you’re counting on the person in the exit row (probably at the window) to unlock, remove, and sometimes throw a 35-40 pound door out of the way (some airlines want you to throw the door out; others want it placed on the seat). Ask yourself if you like the current occupant’s chances of doing that in an emergency. Airlines are stupendously bad about letting obviously unqualified people sit in the exit row, but generally it’s easy to shame the flight attendants into moving people who will be of no use. I’ve twice gotten exit row seats because I pointed out that the person in the exit row had no chance whatsoever of getting us out of the plane and they swapped me in. That wasn’t my intent, but I wasn’t ashamed to take advantage of it. And I promise that the day I’m not sure I can get that emergency door tossed out, I’ll stop sitting in exit rows.
- They tell you that if you have to evacuate the plane, don’t take your stuff. I’ve never had to evacuate a plane, but I promise you that people will be trying to grab their bags out of the overhead. At least, that’s what I suspect. At best, they’ll be trying to take their purses or whatever. I’ve made a promise to myself that if I have to get out of a plane, the only thing that will slow me down is helping somebody else out.
On short flights, I don’t care. On long flights, I want an aisle. There’s a safety component (you’re that much closer to the exit), but the main reason is so you have some moving room – particularly on overnight flights where there will be relatively little aisle traffic during the “sleep time”. I also prefer to not have to climb-over/disturb row-mates when I go to the lav.
But arguably the most valuable reason for having an aisle seat is that it puts you in that much better position to poach a multi-seat row. The value of having 2-4 seats to yourself (in coach) cannot be overstated. When you see the plane doors close, make your move. Of course, that means you’ve done recon during the boarding and know where you’re going. Generally nobody objects, particularly your current seatmates because your initiative is bringing them extra space for free. Some airlines (notably US Air) sell “premium” seating within the main cabin. They will actually bust you if you try to move into a “premium” seat within the main cabin (that is, some overly conscientious flight attendants do). It’s worth paying their premium seat upgrade ($15-$35) just to have a ticket in the seat-poaching lottery.
I need a full four-seat center row to really get stretched out, but many people (particularly women) can do it in three. You simply buckle the seatbelt around you in the center seat, deploy your headphones and sleep mask, and sleep across the ocean. In fact, on my most recent trans-Atlantic flight, I snagged a full four-seat row immediately opposite the lav. Nobody wanted it because of the constant coming and going, toilet flushing, etc. With my noise-cancelling equipment and the mountain stream soundtrack, I literally couldn’t hear the toilet (or anything else, really). I consider a four-seat row to myself to be essenstially equivalent to a first-class lay-flat seat in terms of sleepability, which (to my mind) is the only compelling value difference between the cabins.
When they tell you to check the seat-back pockets, etc. as you deplane, do it. This is particularly crucial when you’re leaving an overnight flight. No matter what you think, you are not operating anywhere near peak mental capacity. Specifically, don’t put your wallet or passport in the seat-back pocket.  I put them in an interior pocket of my computer bag, which is in the overhead. If that’s too dodgy for you, then carry one of those around-the-neck wallets and put it down your shirt.
 There’s a fundamental logic gap here. If our consumer electronics can “interfere with the plane’s navigation system”, then haven’t we given terrorists a great way to bring down a plane? I mean, how hard would it be to hack a normal-looking laptop to become a first-class RF-generator that would really “interfere with the plane’s navigation system”? Either they do or they don’t. If they can or do, then don’t permit them on the plane. But it turns out the airlines can make money from selling WiFi on the plane, and suddenly it’s safe now. [ClickAndClack] What kind of morons do they think we are? [/ClickAndClack]
 It’s called “economy” in Europe, and a friend of ours on Isle of Man just quaintly asked if we don’t call that section “couch”. “Ah no,” said her husband. “That would be first class.”
 Don’t laugh – guy in the seat next to me on a flight in the last 12 months found a passport in the seat-back pocket.