Monday, January 28, 2013

Travel tips

I travel a lot for work, and while it varies some, I'm usually flying somewhere at least two weeks out of every month.  Over the last few years, I've developed a few habits that make the process of flying quite a bit easier. Invariably, I see people struggling to get through the process of flying. Usually, they don't fly very often, so they aren't familiar with procedures.  Older people tend to have problems in particular because they don't fly often and because unfamiliarity makes them uncomfortable.

When I fly, I have three simple rules.

1.  Get organized. Airports and airlines thrive on procedures, so if you want to make flying as painless as possible, you should learn the procedures and follow them.  Beyond that, the single thing that makes the flying experience easier is having a plan for getting you and your bags from your door to your destination. 

Your travel plan should be a set of lists that detail the procedures from getting from point A to point B.  Mine typically includes a set of travel documents (boarding passes, hotel confirmations, rental car confirmations, etc.), a list of items to pack, and a rough schedule. 

A lot of problems can be avoided by making sure you have enough time to do everything you need to do to get on the plane.  For example, do you need to park your car at the airport? If so, where are you going to park, and how do you get to the terminal? Sometimes it can take a long time to find a parking space, wait on a bus, and so forth.  Remember that you really need to be at the check-in line  by at least an hour before.

In any event, a detailed plan will help you navigate through the terminal quickly by keeping you focused.

2. Be prepared.  More than just planning, you should think about the actual process of getting through the airport.  For example, you should pack as light as you reasonably can.  I try as hard as I can to confine myself to two bags:  My computer bag, with all of my work papers, and a "roll-aboard" carry-on that has all of my personal items in it.  Sometimes that means planning to wash clothes during the trip. Sometimes it means bringing multi-use items--for example, if I need to wear a business suit twice during the trip, I might bring a navy suit plus tan trousers that I can wear with the navy jacket for the second day.  However you do it, packing light can save you a huge amount of time by allowing you to skip the check-in line.

At security, you can save a lot of time by putting all of your "pocket" items--wallet, keys, change, phone, pens, watch, jewelry--into your carry-on while you're waiting in the initial line at security.  Once your boarding pass and ID have been checked, those can go in the carry-on as well.  That frees you up to perform the truly necessary operations quickly once you get to the X-ray machine:  remove laptop from bag, remove belt and shoes, remove liquids bag from carry-on, etc.  Once I'm through security, I usually take a few minutes to get re-composed.

It helps to wear slip-on shoes and to keep your travel-day wardrobe simple.

Being ready to do what needs to be done, when it's time to do it, can speed you along. But looking like you know what you're doing pays other dividends--you can avoid the exasperated stares from more seasoned travelers, and you're less likely to get singled out for extra scrutiny.

That last bit was a tough one to learn for me.  There was a period when I kept getting pulled out of line at security for the hand pat-down. It got to be a joke with my wife, who complained that I was getting all the hot TSA action.  Finally, I was going through security in Atlanta one time with a lot of time to spare, and I got pulled out again, so I asked the TSA agent why I kept getting pulled out.  He said, "Body heat and sweat."  I'm a big guy, so I generate a lot of heat, and I sweat--especially when I've been running to get a plane.  Anyway, it turns out that the machines that do the body scanning pick up a lot of false positives from heat and moisture. 

That little bit of information caused me to change my routine.  First, if I'm overheated when I get to security, I take a couple of minutes in the restroom to cool off with a wet paper towel, and I make sure I have several paper towels available in case it's hot in the security line.  Second, I've changed the way I dress for airplanes--I try to fly at times when I can wear more casual clothes.  Since making those changes, I haven't been pulled out for significant extra screening even once.

3. Be nice.  Sometimes things go wrong. Flights get canceled or delayed. Gates get changed. Security personnel act surly. Other passengers will do things that are unfair or unreasonable.  (My personal pet peeve:  Unruly children flying in first class.  When I fly in first, I'm usually paying extra for the privilege, and it is unreasonable for parents to disrupt that by bringing children who can't behave into the first class cabin.  Sometimes those unruly children are teenagers, by the way.)  Travel gives us lots of opportunities to become tired and frustrated and for things not to go right.  Be nice anyway. It will be over soon.

More importantly, there will be times when you need help or a little extra consideration. And when there are others competing for that help, it doesn't go to the rude people first.

At the same time, don't be afraid to assert your interests.  Sometimes all that's required to get that extra consideration is to ask for it--not to demand it, not to threaten to talk to supervisors, not to pitch a fit.  Just ask nicely and explain why it would be helpful. Please and thank you go a long way.

I hope your travels go smoothly.

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