Travelling Like You Want to, When You Have To

Written by on CSS Wizardry.

I’m not the world’s most well travelled person by any stretch of the imagination, but—especially since working for myself—I’ve done more than my fair share of flying. I enjoy going to new places, but I really don’t enjoy the getting there. Flights are an expensive, uncomfortable, time-consuming, necessary evil, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make them as painless as possible.

I’m on a nice short flight to Copenhagen as I write this, so in a similar vein to posts from Craig and Cennydd, I thought I’d share some of my own flying advice.

Arrive Early

Echoing both Cennydd and Craig’s sentiments, the single biggest favour you can do yourself is be early. Really early. If your flight leaves at 1040, act as though your flight leaves at 1000; tell everyone concerned—like your cab driver—that your flight leaves at 1000, and then get to the airport 2 hours before that. Being late for a flight is way too stressful, and allows zero room for error once you’re in the airport (huge queue at check in; bottlenecks at security).

Being this early relaxes you. Go find somewhere quiet to sit with a coffee; grab some breakfast; catch up on email. Airports are great places to force you into doing boring tasks. Use this time to save a bunch of stuff offline: films, email, etc. This is stuff you can then have on the flight.

Check in Your Baggage

A lot of frequent flyers will tell you the opposite: avoid queues at check in desks and baggage carousels by only travelling with hand luggage. There’s nothing wrong with this advice, but it has its own downsides. The amount and kinds of thing you can take with you are limited; security gets much more complicated by having to remove and display your half-dozen tiny gels and shampoos; you have to drag a suitcase around everywhere with you; you have to battle for overhead bin space with everyone else.

By checking your bag in you can over pack. Pack an extra pair of trousers in case you spill a drink down yourself. Pack three different styles of shoe in case your client decides to take you out into the countryside. Don’t limit your options for the sake of a few minutes at a baggage carousel. If you’ve flown 11 hours, you can spend another 30 minutes waiting for your suitcase.

It’s also useful (important, even) to get a physical boarding pass. It’s all well and good using your phone (or watch) to board flights, but if your phone runs out of battery (more on that later) or gets destroyed (and that) then you want a backup.

Pack (Minimal) Backups in Your Hand Luggage

Airlines will mess up. They’re worryingly good at it. On my recent trip to Uruguay, American Airlines managed to delay me—without access to my suitcase!—by 24 hours on the way out, and then lose my luggage for two days on the way back. By having a spare pair of socks, boxer shorts, and a t-shirt in my hand luggage meant I could at least feel a little fresher by getting changed in an airport bathroom cubicle. You can buy toothpaste etc. from an airport if you need to.

Have a Security Routine

Mine is usually to dump all keys, coins, and anything I will not need in the airport or on the airplane into my hand-luggage. Don’t be having to dig this stuff out of your pockets in the middle of the queue. You’ll just end up fumbling around, getting flustered, and slowing (everyone else) down.

Have your laptop and iPad etc. in your hand ready to be placed into a plastic tray. Take your belt off whilst you’re waiting in line. (Be careful not to do this too early though, because, well, y’know…) Untie your laces if your shoes have a tendency to set off the metal detectors. When you’re at the front of the queue you should be able to drop electronics into one tray, your belt and bag into the other, and whip your shoes off last and place them on top and then just breeze through.

This means on the other side of the scanners I put my shoes back on first, then my belt, grab my bag, scoop up my laptop, and then go and reassemble myself away from everyone else.

Security staff do notice you doing this (You do this a lot, don’t you?!), and they do appreciate it. It usually means your security experience will be a little nicer than the average.

Travel JIT

So many people I know will plan out every leg of their journey days beforehand. Normally I like to work everything out just before I need it—Just-in-Time. I check in at the airport rather than worrying about it two days in advance. I use my time at the airport to work out what I do once I’ve landed: Where is my hotel? What time is check in? Are there any good places near it to grab lunch? Do I get a cab there? Which Metro station do I need to get to?

Front-loading all of your travel plans days in advance gives you too much to remember (and more than enough to forget). Access that information just before you need it, and no sooner.

I look all of this stuff up on my phone and screenshot everything. I might not have a data plan where I’m going; Citymapper might lose its state and reset back to its home screen; Chrome might refresh itself offline and lose the page. Screenshots mean I can just look at the last images in my Camera Roll and have everything there without having to worry about data connectivity and/or jumping through several apps.

Move onto Destination Time Immediately

As soon as you get onto the plane, put all watches, phones, etc. onto the same time as your destination. My key to beating jet-lag is to adopt destination time immediately.

Airlines have an annoying habit of serving meals at origin time, meaning you might get served breakfast after you’ve just put your watch forward to some-time-in-the-mid-afternoon. This won’t always work, but try to ask the air staff if they can provide you something more substantial to move your eating onto destination time, and then decline the larger meal they provide later on in favour of something more befitting of the timezone you’re moving onto. Hacking your eating patterns is a key way to fight jet-lag.

Arrive at Bedtime

If you’re travelling long-haul, always try to arrive at bedtime in your destination and do not sleep on the flight. This means that by the time you arrive you’ll be absolutely exhausted and, conveniently, you’re going to be going to sleep on the correct timezone. You’ll sleep like a baby and probably wake up around the correct time and feeling okay in your destination.

As a rule, travelling west (as you look at standard map of the world) is much nicer than travelling east. Travelling east, you lose time (it’s going forward); travelling west, you gain it. With this in mind, I try to leave on long-haul flights west in the evening, and east in the morning.

As an example, when I worked in New York late last year I left the UK at about

  1. I moved my watch back to 1600, arrived in New York at about 2300 NY time (0400 UK time), got to the hotel about 0000, and went straight to bed. I was out like a light, slept amazingly well, and was up bright and fresh at about 0800.

When I travelled to Australia for CSSConf earlier this year, it was something of a feat of endurance. For the 22 hours of flying I refused to sleep. I moved my watch from London time to Melbourne time immediately, I stayed awake the entire trip, and arrived at my hotel ready to collapse at about 2300.

I got an amazingly deep sleep and was out feeling fresh and eating breakfast at 0730 the next morning. I managed to fly to the other side of the planet avoiding jet lag.

Use the time when everyone else is sleeping to tap up the fight staff for refreshments, watch films, blast some loud music on your earphones.

It’s also important to mention that you should really try to avoid napping or catching up on sleep if you do get tired on day one. This will throw you completely off kilter. Power through and keep awake until bedtime on day one and you’ll be fine for the rest of the trip.

Be Picky with Your Seats

This is of particular importance to me as I’m 193cm (6′4″) tall, but get the extra legroom seat. It’s cheaper than going up a class, and provides you with enough room to stretch out and move without disturbing your neighbour. If your extra legroom seats are on an exit row then you get the added benefit of being the one row that is expressly forbidden from having baggage placed at your feet. This means that no matter how many people are on the flight, no matter how scarce overhead space is, your legroom is always going to be safe.

Tip: You can use TripIt Pro to set up seat tracking for you, so you will get a notification when better seats become available.

As I don’t sleep on flights, it doesn’t matter too much whether I take a window or an aisle seat. Window seats give you a wall to lean against, aisle seats make it an order of magnitude easier to get in and out of your seat (this is actually quite a big deal: you need to get up and walk around as much as possible, and then some more). Middle seats are the devil.

Get to Know Your Neighbour

Particularly if you’re travelling long-haul, it can really help to get to know the person in the seat next to you. Not in a creepy or invasive way, but smile at them as they seat themselves, say hello, be polite and friendly. Tell them that if they need anything, they just have to ask. This sets up a bit of an unspoken agreement that it’s now cool for you to do the same back. If you need to get past them, just go for it. You were polite and friendly. You offered the same for them, they’ll give you that in return.

(Plus it’s just good to be polite and friendly. I meet a lot of fascinating people on flights. Just now it was a guy who’s a professional violinist who’s off to entertain a load of people in Estonia. Pretty cool.)

Get Decent Earphones

Some good, comfortable, noise-cancelling earphones will be your best friend on a long flight. Crying children, engine noise, groups of obnoxious men who’ve been drinking in the airport since 0700 (It’s just a bit of banter [NSFW], mate.): they all disappear into the background.

I use the Shure SE425s and they’re incredible.

Buy as Much Refreshment in the Airport as You Can Comfortably Carry

Flights will always have at least one round of refreshments, but the offering on short-haul is pitiful, and on long-haul it’s infrequent. I tend to load myself up with more water than I could possibly manage, and some sugary sweets to keep me perked up. Waiting for an hour for a member of staff to fetch me a thimbleful of water is something I’m keen to avoid.

Portable Power Supplies and/or Backup Phones

I have a really, really beefy portable power supply that I use to keep my primary phone charged up. My phone is my lifeline when I’m travelling as it has everything in there, so running out of charge isn’t really an option.

Backup phones aren’t usually that necessary, but they can be used when everything else has run out of juice, or you can use two phones with a SIM from your origin and destination countries.

Backup phones proved incredibly important on my recent trip to Uruguay.

Finances

Explicitly make sure your bank knows you’re overseas so that they don’t go and cancel your cards. Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to pretend it isn’t the case, money can solve almost any problem you might have. Missed a flight? Buy a new ticket. Lost luggage? Buy a few new clothes. Someone managed to destroy your phone? Pick up a new one. You can always go and claim things back on insurance, but having access to your cash when abroad is so, so important. It will fix almost every issue you’re likely to come up against.

Take It Easy When You Get There

My usual drill when I arrive is to take it easy. Don’t rush to get off the plane; let everyone else do that around you. Grab your hand luggage, head into the terminal. My first port of call is always the bathroom, regardless of whether or not I need it. I’ll freshen up, check that I look at least half presentable, and then head to baggage reclaim. Taking it slowly off of the aircraft, and my bathroom stop, means I’m usually arriving as my suitcase is. No point rushing off of the plane to spend 20 minutes stood stationary. If I do have a wait for my bag, I’ll jump on the airport wifi and look up some miscellaneous things: places to see/eat nearby, public transport statuses, locate an Uber, etc.

You should always, always avoid arriving into a city on the same day you’re expected to speak/work/etc. if possible. This means the rest of the day is yours. Go explore, find somewhere nice to eat, and keep on the relaxed theme.

tl;dr

There will be loads, loads more that I’ve missed out, but those are my key routines and habits when I travel. It makes it so much simpler. I rarely have to rush, it’s never stressful, I arrive relaxed, and I never get jet-lag.

  • Take it easy. If travelling is going to take ‘the best part of a day’, you might as well draw it out to fill the whole day.
  • Don’t rely too much on others. Sort yourself out, try to stay as self sufficient as you can.
  • Have backups. Things will happen that are completely out of your control; have backups to deal with it.

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