The holidays mean a lot of things, and one of those is that more people will be travelling. The period around Thanksgiving is the busiest air travel time all year in the US. As the holidays approach, I thought some of you might appreciate a few travel tips from someone who has learned a thing or two about air travel. Hopefully these tips will help you have a more enjoyable, smoother and quicker trip. And if you follow them, people around you and on your plane will have one, too 😉
- Before You Go
Selecting flights – To avoid delays, fly earlier in the day. The knock-on effect of delays incrementally worsens as the day goes by. If you have the option of multiple flights that depart or arrive around the time you want to go, opt for the bigger aircraft. Larger planes in general are more comfortable and have more features (such as television monitors) and are more likely to have a seat empty next to you. Larger aircraft also tend to be staffed by more senior and seasoned flight personnel, meaning the chance of delay is decreased and your flight experience may be more pleasant.
Selecting seats – It’s about more than just avoiding the middle or making sure you get a window or aisle seat. Especially if you’re on a long flight, you want to get a seat that is not uncomfortable for other reasons. Some people, especially infrequent flyers, care a lot about where the safest part of the plane is. The short answer: the further back you sit, generally, the safer it is. This is open to debate and since it depends on what happens (e.g. the back might be the worst in certain circumstances) but statistically the further back, the safer. Since air travel is still very, very safe overall, I tend to prefer to sit in the most comfortable seats. These are somewhat subjective. Some frequent flyers love certain seats on certain planes. SeatGuru.com can help you find what are considered to be the best seats and avoid bad seats, such as those that don’t recline. Some people want to be sure they are near a power port. I prefer a window seat towards the front. It’s generally much quieter up front (especially on the MD-80 aircraft) and you get off the plane more quickly.
Pack light – Especially if you’re just going for a few days, how much stuff do you really need to bring along? It will just make your bag larger and heavier. Unless you have elite status or are travelling Southwest or Jet Blue, you’re probably paying a fee per bag…and guess what? There is a weight limit. If your bag is over 50 pounds (maybe less on some airlines), you’ll have to pay a surcharge. And you do not want to be one of those people at the airport ticket counter with your bags open, taking things out of bags and moving things around and putting your skivvies on the dirty carpet for everyone to critique. Or, you may have to discard something to get your bags below the weight limit. Also, you’re holding everyone else up and you might cause someone behind you in line to miss their flight. Another reason to pack light is that cabs aren’t as big as they used to be. If you have several large bags and are travelling with others, you might not be able to get them all in the cab. If there will be a washer and dryer available at your destination, just bring enough clothes for a few days.
Don’t wrap presents – Don’t try to bring wrapped gifts in your carry on. TSA will probably make you unwrap it to see what it is. It’s probably best not to wrap gifts in checked luggage, either for the same reason. The wrapping is probably going to get rumpled or torn during the journey anyway, so it’s probably better to wrap it when you arrive.
Limit your liquids – You can carry as many liquids and in any size container you want in your checked luggage. However, for carry-on bags, current TSA regulations limit each traveler to no more than the number of 3.4oz containers that will fit inside a 1 quart transparent storage bag (e.g. Ziplock). They even give baggies to you for free at the airport if you need one (or like me, you need a fresh one). Even if the amount of liquid inside the container is 3.4oz or less, the container cannot be larger than 3.4oz. Someone in front of me always thinks they can carry on 2oz of perfume in a 6oz container. I promise you that if they see it, the TSA will take it away from you. Some TSA agents will let you go through with more than 1 quart sized baggie of 3.4oz containers of liquids, but don’t count on it. Put your baggie in a front pocket of your carry-on or somewhere it is quickly accessable.
Be unique – Checked bags often look a lot alike. Find a creative way to mark yours so that you can easily spot it from a distance when it’s on the luggage carousel at bag claim. A colorful piece of yarn should do the trick. Be sure your checked bag has a tag or something on the handle with your name, address and cell phone number so the airline can contact you if the bag is lost.
Sign up for flight alerts – Most airlines offer a text, e-mail or voice alert program. They will notify you of your gate and the status of your flight at a specified time (eg 2 hours) before departure. It will also notify you of any gate changes or delays. Travel companions or people picking you up at the airport can also sign up for these. Very handy to receive a text message notifying you that your flight is delayed if you’re wondering if you have enough time to stop for a bite or something like that.
Do you need a visa? If you’re travelling internationally, find out if you need a travel visa to enter that country.
Check in – That’s right, on most if not all airlines, for domestic US flights you can check in and print your boarding pass before you leave your home or office. You might not feel the need to do this if you are checking a bag, which means you have to visit the Sky Cap or ticket counter anyway. However, the airline might give your seat away if you are not checked in at least 60 minutes before your scheduled departure. Note the word scheduled. If your flight is delayed and you are aware of this before you leave for the airport, you should still check in for your flight. The best thing about doing this is that if you don’t have a bag to check, when you arrive at the airport you can go directly through security and to your gate. When you arrive at your gate, you don’t need to see the gate agent – you already have your boarding pass!
Know where you’re going – Determine your terminal and gate number so you know where to go at the airport. This may impact where you park. Also, have an idea where you’re going to park if you are not being dropped off. Watch for signs at the airport advising that certain lots may be full and have a backup plan.
- At The Airport
Check your flight – Immediately find the flight info screens and determine if your flight is still at the same gate and if it’s delayed or not (even though you should have received an update on your cell phone if you signed up for updates – sometimes they don’t work). If you’ve had a gate change, you may also have a terminal change, and at some airports the only way to get to another terminal is before you go through security.
Check your bags – If you have a lot of luggage, it’s probably best to use the Sky Cap out front. This saves you from having to lug everything inside (and sometimes upstairs depending on the layout of the airport). The line may be shorter as well. Otherwise, feel free to get in line at the ticket counter to talk to a live person who will check you and your bags in – if you have enough time. Just never, ever use the kiosks, because that’s what I use if I have to check a bag 😉 Actually, the kiosks are very handy and once you tell the machine how many bags you have, it prints your boarding passes right there and a ticket agent will call your name for the label for your bag. It is rare that you would actually need to speak with a ticket agent other than to tag and weight your bag – really only if you are encountering a problem with your itinerary, ticket or having a problem using the kiosk. You can even change your seats or stand by for an earlier flight using the kiosk.
- Going Through Security
I happen to think that the security checkpoint is one of the biggest exercises in futility and biggest wastes of time, energy and money in history. The reason I feel that way is a whole other post, but all you have to do is look at the size of an airport and have a look at the fenceline and gates allowing access to “authorized personnel” to realize it’s not that hard to get on a plane undetected if you really wanted to. Anyway, it’s the requirement today and you have to play the game if you want to fly.
ID Check – The first step is to go through the ID check. Before you get in the security line (or while in line if the line is long) get out your government-issued photo ID (driver license, passport, military ID) and your boarding pass. Someone in front of me always thinks they can use any photo ID, such as the one that their employer issued. Why people think this will work is beyond me and it just slows down the process for everyone behind you. Virtually everyone over about 15 has some form of government-issued photo ID and if you don’t, it’s easy to see why you’re a suspicious character. After you have your ID verified, you can put your ID away – you won’t need it again. But keep your boarding pass out. TSA agents will probably be bellowing this to the crowd like you’re all a bunch of 6-year-olds.
Preparing for x-ray It cannot be overstressed that this is the most important step in the process. You need to be paying attention to what is going on around you and really be thinking about what you’re doing the entire time from the moment you pass the ID-checker until you completely clear security. For one, you might slow down the process and two, you might lose something – like your cell phone or boarding pass. It’s easy to put something down and forget it. Stay off your cell phone, or you may get yelled out (or forget something, or hold up the line). I always put mine in my briefcase so I don’t set it down and forget it, or get distracted by it if it vibrates. Now, start thinking about how many of those grey bins you’re going to need and untie your shoes.
The bins – What goes in the bins? Generally, a laptop if you have one goes in one bin all by itself. Do not put anything else in the bin with the laptop, or some TSA agent will scream at you as if you are stupid. Your baggie of liquids goes in a bin, but generally you can put other things in the bin. Your shoes can technically go directly on the conveyor belt, but I usually put mine in the bin with my liquids. I always throw in any coins or metal objects (such as cufflinks) and sometimes my belt. If your belt buckle is large enough, it may set off the metal detector and you will either be sent backwards to remove it and send the belt through and then walk through the x-ray machine again, or you’ll be subject to being pat-down and they’ll use the wand on you while everyone else in line watches. Also, any outer clothing such as a heavy coat, sweater or suit coat will need to go in a bin – they’ll make you take it off if you try to go through the x-ray machine wearing a coat.
Preparing for x-ray – I make a game out of the preparation process – trying to stay as close to the person in front of me as possible. My cell phone and wallet go into my briefcase. I untie my shoes as I approach the bins. As soon as I reach the point where I can grab 2 bins and put one on the counter, I do so. I take out my laptop and put it in the first bin and keep it in front. Then, I take off my shoes and put them in a the second bin. I pull my baggie out of my carryon and put it next to my shoes. I take off my suit coat and fold it over and put it on top of my shoes and baggie. If it’s winter and I have an overcoat, it goes on top of the shoes as well. I’ve never been told not to stack all that on top of each other. Finally, I take off my cuff links if I’m wearing them (although I usually don’t when I fly) and my belt and they go in the bin with the shoes, baggie, etc. At all times, I’m aware of where my boarding pass is. By the time the person in front of me is putting his or her things onto the x-ray conveyor, I’m ready to go with my two bins on the counter, one stacked on top of the other, and my carry-on and briefcase on the floor, so I can make more room on the counter for people behind me so they can expedite their preparations.
x-ray – I put the bin with the laptop through first, because it will be scanned quickly and I can pick it up quickly and get that first bin out of the way. I put the bin with shoes, etc through next, followed by my briefcase and finally my carry-on bag. Wait for permission to walk through the x-ray scanner and if you successfully jettisoned all metal, it shouldn’t beep. If it does beep, back up immediately and remove whatever metal you have. Do it quickly or you might get the pat-down/wand treatment. Worse yet, you’ll be glared at. Hand your boarding pass to the TSA agent. He will check to be sure the ID checker scribbled on it and then wave you through.
Gathering your items – I immediately put my boarding pass in my pocket so I don’t have to worry about it and my hands are free. Go to the other end of the conveyor line and wait for your things to pop out. Slower people in front of you may cause items to pile up. Don’t expect TSA agents to do much to prevent this from happening except to remove empty bins. Try to be helpful. I grab my laptop out of the first bin and put that first bin in the stack at the end or hand it to a TSA agent. Then out pops the bin with my shoes, etc. If my briefcase is immediately behind, I’ll put my laptop away before dealing with my shoes. If the scanner is taking his time looking at it (which they sometimes do because I usually carry a lot of electronics) I’ll just set my laptop on the rollers and pop my shoes on my feet. I don’t tie the laces in line. I put cuff links in my pockets and put on my belt and coats. Then I put my laptop in my briefcase, double-check to be sure I still have my boarding pass, then pick up my briefcase and carry-on bag and move quickly to the seats on the other side of the security check point, where I sit down to tie my shoes, put my cuff links back on and gather my bearings. I also take my cell phone out of my briefcase at this point.
Getting to your gate – Right after security there are usually flight monitors. Check your flight again for any gate changes and to see if it is on time. Look overhead for directions to the gates to see which way they go. At some airports, the gates increase logically from left to right. At others, the odd gates are on one side and even on the other (like street addresses). And at other gates, the numbering system makes no logical sense. There are usually maps on the walls with the layout of the terminal, a “you are here” arrow and restaurants/shops. Don’t be afraid to ask an employee for help. If you have small children or have mobility issues, don’t be afraid to ask for a cart ride to your gate. Sometimes these can be pre-arranged. But most importantly – don’t stand in the middle of where everyone is walking. The airport is a very, very busy place with people going in all directions, many of whom (especially during the holidays) have no idea where they are going. Please, be courteous to others and try to stand in a spot that is out of the main walking path.
At the gate
Even if you still have a lot of time, I recommend going directly to your gate. That way, you’ll know where it is and there may even be facilities (restrooms, Starbucks, etc) nearby. Make sure the gate information system is displaying information for YOUR flight – mostly make sure it says the flight is going where you want to go. If you’re really early, there may be a flight before yours using that gate. Don’t panic, but re-check to electronic screens to be sure your flight is still scheduled to leave from that gate. If the gate agent isn’t busy, you can ask him or her if your flight is leaving from this gate later. If there is an electronic monitor at the gate with changing displays, information about later flights at that gate may appear as well, so it may be worth your time to watch the screens cycle fully once. Gate agents usually appear at the gate about 1 hour before the scheduled departure time. At smaller airports (especially around lunch time or dinner time) they may not come until later, especially if the flight is delayed. If it is less than about 45 minutes until flight time, check to see if there is an aircraft at the gate. If not, your flight might be delayed (unless you’re flying Southwest, where they can turn a plane around in 15 minutes).
Once you’re sure you’re at the right gate, feel free to wander off and get food, coffee, etc. I like to stay as close as possible to the gate in case there are announcements, such as a last minute gate change or a delay. No one knows more about the status of your flight than the captain. But your chances of interfacing with the captain are slim, so your next best bet is the gate agent – who the captain usually keeps fully apprised of any delays. This is also a good time to get some food if you’re going to need to eat before you land. Please don’t purchase hamburgers, french fries or other fried food. It stinks up the whole plane when you bring it on board and makes everyone else miserable. Just save that kind of meal for another time. Please.
Preparing to board – The estimated boarding time printed on your boarding pass is just that, an estimate. It depends on the size of the aircraft and how full it is, if there are delays and how busy the gate agents are. Usually, domestic US boarding begins about 25-30 minutes before scheduled departure time. If the plane is really full, it may be earlier. If the plane has a light passenger load, they may cut it closer. For international or long-haul flights, boarding may begin 45 minutes before departure time.
Go potty – Please use this time to use the restroom. There is always a small army of people who want to use the lavatory on the aircraft as soon as they board. There is nothing exotic about the aircraft lavatory. If you want to see what it looks like, visit a port-a-potty at a construction site. Aircraft lavatories are universally cramped, dirty and smelly. Even in First Class. Do yourself and others on the plane a favor and relieve yourself before you board.
Get organized – Determine approximately when you’re going to board. If you have small children or mobility problems, inquire with the gate agent about pre-boarding. Don’t abuse this, however and expect your entire entourage of 12 cousins and friends to board with you because there is one 6 year old in the group. Once you have an idea, gauge when you should get out some of the things you need from your carry-on. If you’re going to put a briefcase, purse or small bag under the seat in front of you, put everything you’ll need in there. That way, you can put your larger bag in the overhead compartment and leave it alone. If you want to put everything in the overhead (which you might not be able to do if the plane is full), you should be get as prepared as you can before you board the plane. Regardless of where you are sitting, it is pretty cramped on board and difficult to move around, especially when you are digging through your bag looking for gum or your contact lens case. Now is the time to get out smaller items, such as your iPod and headphones, gum, a pen, etc and put them in your pockets.
Boarding – If you’re booked in First Class, then you board after the pre-boarders. If you have elite status, you board after First Class. Many airlines board after that by row number or group number. It’s a good idea to try to figure out where you are in that process. If your boarding pass says “Group 1” then you’ll be among the first to board. If you are sitting in the rear of the aircraft, you’ll be among the first to board. Please board only when your group number or row numbers are called. There is a logic to this process, and they are boarding the people at the back of the plane first, so that boarding goes more smoothly. If you try to sneak into an earlier group, two things are going to happen. 1) The gate agent will reprimand you for being a sneak and 2) people around you will think you’re a creep. If you’re lucky enough to get through, congratulations, you just cut in line like a 5th grader and should feel incredibly guilty. If getting on the plane earlier is THAT important to you, pay for a First Class ticket, fly often enough to earn elite status or join a program like AAirpass Also, don’t hover close to the gate doorway or the line if your group or row number aren’t going to be called soon. It’s just common courtesy to stand out of the way of others trying to get to the gate. If you have a boarding pass with a seat number on it, they won’t give your seat away as long as you board at the appropriate time.
Emarking (getting on the plane) – This requires a separate section from “boarding” which deals with getting permission from the gate agent to embark. When you get to the end of the jet bridge, this is the time to push down the handle of any roll-aboard bag you may have (not when you get to your seat). Pick the bag up, turn it sideways and carry it down the aisle. The aisle is not that wide and if you try to roll it behind you, you will do two things: 1) bang it into the seats, scarring up both the aircraft seats and your bag, and 2) bang it into the knees/arms/hands of other passengers sitting in aisle seats. Also, if you are travelling on a twin-aisle aircraft (B767, B777, B747, A300, A330, A380) check to see which side of the aircraft you are on. Seats A-D or E are on the left side, seats higher than E will be on the right side. If seated on the right side, go ahead and cross over immediately to the other aisle. If you’re unsure, ask the flight attendant as you enter the door of the aircraft. Walk back to your row with all your bags. Do not try to put your bag into the first overhead bin that you see (unless your seat happens to be there). This is incredibly selfish. On every flight, some turkey puts his roll-aboard in the overhead over row 9 when he’s sitting in row 32. This results in there being more bags in the front of the aircraft and when the last people to board get on the plane, there is no more room at the front for any bags even though no one is sitting nearby. Just don’t do this. If you are on a small regional jet, there will be no room for roll-aboards and you have to valet-check or gate-check your bag. You surrender it at the end of the jet bridge and put it on a gadget with other bags that will lower it to the ground and your bag will be put in the baggage hold. They’ll return your bag to you at the jet bridge at your destination – you won’t have to go to bag claim.
At your row – When you find your row and identify your seat (A is against the left window) if there is an empty seat at the aisle, put any small bags you’re carrying there, otherwise put them on the floor. Then, lift up your roll-aboard into the overhead bin. If you are smallish and your bag is heavy, don’t be afraid to ask a nearby passenger for help. Most travelers are remarkable willing to help in this area, mostly because it expedites the boarding process. Remember this old joke: what does “TGIF” printed on an Aggie’s shoes stand for? “Toes Go In First.” On airplane overhead bins, they should print “WGIF” for “Wheels Go In First”. The overheads are designed for wheels to go in first and bags overall fit better that way. Please don’t put it in sideways – this leaves less space for others. On some aircraft there are 5 seats per row: 2 on one side of the aisle and 3 on the other side. The overhead bins on the side with 3 seats are deeper. If your roll-aboard doesn’t fit in wheels-first above the side with 2 seats, look for space on the other side. If it doesn’t fit in the side with 3 seats, your bag isn’t really small enough to be considered a roll-aboard and you should have checked it. You should volunteer at this time with the flight attendant to let them gate-check your bag. By now, some of the other 125+ people trying to board have piled up behind you. You need to now immediately step out of the aisle and let people pass. This is also why you should have already taken things out of your roll-aboard that you need. Absolutely do not begin rifling through your roll-aboard now looking for anything. You are now delaying the boarding process, and you have revealed yourself as a bad, bad, selfish person. Pick up your smaller items and slide into your aisle and settle into your seat. If there is someone sitting in the aisle or middle seat that you need to get by, it is preferred (if they don’t do it automatically) to ask them to stand up and aside while you get into your seat. You shouldn’t have to crawl over anyone to get to your seat.
Settling in – It’s okay to temporarily set things in an empty adjacent seat. But pretty quickly you should get out whatever you’re going to want during the flight and put it in the seat-back pocket in front of you, then put your bag under the seat in front of you. It is much more difficult to try to pull your bag out from under the seat once the row is full and people have their seat belts on. If you happen to be sitting in a bulkhead seat (there is no seat in front of you) then you will have to put your small bag either in the overhead bin, or perhaps under the seat in front of the bulkhead wall if it will fit. You can’t hold it in your lap, either for takeoff/landing. Also, don’t leave your things in the empty seat next to your for too long. If you’re flying during the holidays, it’s almost certain someone will sit there. When that person inevitably comes along, they’ll need to be able to set their small things there while they put their roll-aboard away. If the seat is still empty once the aircraft door has been closed, feel free to expand into the empty seat, but share it with anyone who is also adjacent to the empty seat. Also, don’t try to swim upstream against the flow of people coming in to get to a lav or magazine rack. That’s just ridiculous. Once it seems most people have boarded and the aisle is reasonably clear, now is the time to get something out of your roll-aboard if you absolutely must (medicine, etc).
During the flight – Unfortunately this section is filled with more “don’ts” than anything else, but it generally makes the flight more comfortable for everyone. Please try to keep your seat. Don’t keep getting up. It annoys people around you, especially if they are trying to sleep. If you have a bad back or leg and need to stretch, most people would probably understand but again, be aware you’re going to be annoying your fellow passengers. Potty emergencies come up, especially on long flights or when you’ve consumed a lot of liquids. You should feel free to use the lav if you need to, but refrain from doing so out of boredom or if you don’t really need to go. I assure you – it’s disgusting in there. Be aware that most airlines won’t allow you to line up near the lav, so you need to just wait to get up until someone else comes out. If you are on a long-haul flight, the most common thing is for almost everyone to go right after the first meal service. It’s natural to want to go after a meal, and most people are probably planning to settle in for a movie or some sleep. Plan accordingly (I tend to wait until most people have already gone, or my seat mate gets up). Also, absolutely do not attempt to use a lavatory in another class of service. Part of the privilege (and expense) of paying for or earning a First Class or Business Class seat is fewer people in the cabin. If you go from the main cabin into First Class to use the lav, even if it is much closer, you’re being a conceited jerk. Don’t recline your seat too quickly. The person behind you might be leaning forward or have a drink on their tray table. Don’t grumble too much if the person in front of you fully reclines their seat – they can do so and should expect to be able to do so. If this is a problem for you, try to pre-reserve a seat behind one that doesn’t recline. Don’t listen to audio without headphones. No one else wants to listen to your music or movie. Don’t lean on other people. Share the armrest.
Deplaning – 80 percent of the people unbuckle their seat belt before the seat belt sign is turned off. I don’t know why people do this…they still have to move the jetbridge over and open the door, which takes a few moments. Plus, unless you’re sitting in the first row of first class, you have no chance of getting off the plane very quickly. I’ve been on planes when they’ve gone through and made sure everyone had seat belts fastened because they need to move the plane 3 feet. Just keep your belt on until the seat belt light is turned off. Make sure you collected everything from your seatback pocket. Put things back in your small bag if you can. If you’re in the aisle seat, step out into the aisle and if you have something in the overhead, unlatch the overhead bin door – carefully; things really may have shifted during takeoff and landing. Get your bag down only if there is room for it once you bring it down. If it’s really crowded around you and if you’re not near the front, you have plenty of time. If you’re in the back of the plane, expect about a 5 minute wait until you can move. Passengers deplane by row. Let faster or unburdened passengers (without many bags) around you go first. If you’re going to be slow or take a long time to get your things down, do yourself and everyone behind you a huge favor and just stay seated. Wait until others have passed by and then get your bag down. If you had to put your bag a few rows behind you, just wait until the necessary rows have passed by. Don’t expect others to wait on you to come aft for your bag. It slows down the deplaning process immensely. Some people are trying to make connecting flights. Also, it’s just rude and selfish. You can move back a few rows at a time if there is a break in the line. It’s really important to move quickly and move along. Again, if you’re slow or not in a hurry, just sit in your seat until others have gotten off the plane. This holds true when going up the jet bridge as well. And don’t stand just inside the doorway from the jetbridge trying to figure out where you need to go. Stand aside and let others pass by. This is just common courtesy, but you may forget or not realize you have a bunch of people coming up the jet bridge behind you, many of whom may be in a justified hurry.
Navigating at your destination – Look for overhead signs directing you to bag claim/ground transportation. This is almost always in the same direction. Mostly, you can just follow the crowd, at least initially. If you have a connecting flight, find out your connecting gate information (they usually read connecting gate information on the plane just prior to landing) from the monitors or an airline or airport employee at the gate. If you are being picked up, have an advance plan for where to meet or just head toward ground transportation. If you checked a bag, just follow the signs for bag claim, then look for your flight number on the monitors at the baggage carousels. At some airports, there is a separate place to catch a shuttle for hotels or rental cars, or to catch a taxi – they are usually well marked. Wait for your bus there. At smaller airports, you may find car rental is still on-site.
Good luck. I hope you found this helpful and that it may make your travel go more smoothly. If you are travelling for the holidays, I wish you safe and pleasant travels. To everyone, I wish you all a wonderful, joyous holiday season.