23 Air Travel Tips From Super Frequent Fliers

One of my views out the window, though I can’t remember where.

I’ve been logging a lot of time in the air in the past few years, training and working with NPR member stations, shooting a political video project, hanging out my Europe-dwelling parents, freelancing for the Knight Foundation and just plain ‘splorin.

But my road warrior days are coming to an end next month, when I’m banned from flying due to the spawn in my system. So I thought I’d share some of my rules for the road in case you’re about to, say, be in five cities in eight days and want to avoid spending the night in a freezing cold baggage claim.

Below are my tips, along with travel advice I solicited from friends who log Hillary-Clinton-level frequent flier miles: John Bracken (professional innovation agent), Brad Willis (international poker blogger), and Matt Mullenweg (international man of mystery). Please send me yours or leave them in the comments and I’ll update this post.

UPDATE April 2013: Reader Alex Volnyak found this post useful and he took the time to translate it into Czech for any of you Czech readers out there. Please check it out if you’re interested. And thanks, Alex!

PLANNING

Book hassle-free with Hipmunk if you’re planning a trip outside your work-mandated travel system. Hipmunk displays fares in a way I’ve always wanted — in a grid that compares times, prices, length of flight and connections all on one screen. It also ranks flights by an “agony” meter, which is derived from a formula that includes price, number of connections, flight time, etc, to show you the most reasonable fares with the lowest amount of travel hassle. (You can also use it to search for hotels and cars.)

Scout your layover stops in advance. You may not have a choice about where you’re going, but you can at least be comfortable on the way there. If you do not have an airport club membership, use frequent traveler forums to find the best place to spend your layover. A little advance scouting in any airport can make a layover a little less miserable.” -Brad Willis

PACKING

Keep a duplicate set of toiletries so you never have to pack or repack your Ziplock bag of assorted 3.4 ounce (100ml) liquids and gels.

Roll-up your clothes instead of folding them, or, wrap them in tissue paper to save space and keep them from getting too wrinkly.

I pack only my skinniest shoes and wear my fattest, most space-hogging shoes to the airport. They tend to by my running shoes, which come in handy should you want to exercise while you’re away from home.

SECURITY and CUSTOMS

If you are traveling enough, you should sign up for “TSA Pre-✓,” a security pre-clearance program (not available at all airports) and the US Customs Department’s Global Entry, which allows you to fast-track your re-entry into the US. Sometimes the lines at customs can mean the difference between making your connection to your home city or not, so if you’re doing a lot of international travel, the $100 pricetag for five years of Global Entry is worth it.

“It may not be official, but a photocopy of your passport is a lot better than pleading, crying, and begging with the federales.” -Brad Willis

Often I pack my laptop bag into my roller bag, but I keep that inside laptop bag unzipped, with the zipper facing out. When I get to security, I just unzip the roller bag and slide my computer right out for scanning.

At security checkpoints, always take two or three plastic bins together instead of one at a time.

When retrieving your belongings from the conveyor belt, never stand right up against the place where they come out, creating a bottleneck while getting your shoes back on. Always wait at the very end of the scanning apparatus, past the end of the belt, where the smart people stand.

IN AIRPORTS

Always be charging. You never know when you’ll need that last bit of juice, so whenever there is an outlet available, top off each of your gadgets.” -Matt Mullenweg

IN FLIGHT

This is how you’d find me if you sat next to me on a plane.

Regarding armrests, a couple of options. Obviously your ideal situation is to upgrade to first class but on the new United those are more competitive. So your options are to get to the seat before your potential armrest opponent and lift it up so it’s up in between the seats until the opponent arrives. Once he arrives, pull the armrest down with your full arm pressed on it, so he never has a chance to compete. Two, you can try the sneezing trick, wherein you snot all over the place and your seatmate removes his arm.

Consider multipurpose clothing, says road warrior Brad: “Douglas Adams had a towel. I have a fleece jacket, and it goes with me on every trip. I’m in Las Vegas now where it’s 110 degrees. I have the jacket. It’s a blanket! It’s a pillow! It’s a jacket! Hell…it’s a towel!”

I choose window seats so I can lean up against the window panel and sleep the whole trip, but if you’re not a sleeper, get yourself an Esquire magazine, my favorite in-flight reading besides SkyMall.

If you are flying Southwest (open seating), here’s my husband’s approach to open seating: Find the fattest guy on the plane in a window seat. Choose the aisle seat in his row. Chances are, no one will take the middle seat between you.

Since American and Southwest offer Wifi, and the new United offers Direct TV, there’s certainly electronic entertainment you can pay for. But as pal John Bracken offers, “My tip is not to use in-flight wifi.” (It really is pretty bad, across the board. Like using Prodigy on your 486.)

SUSTENANCE

I never get on a flight without a bottle of water because I often sleep through the beverage service and wake up parched. Also, apparently hydration is generally good.

At every meal, I make it a point to eat a leafy green vegetable or some fresh fruit while on the road. This is not something I do at home, but I’m less concerned about catching colds when I’m at home.

RENTAL CARS

Name your own rental car price on Priceline, unless you are super loyal to your “PICK A CAR ANY CAR” rewards program. Because I almost always get cars for 75% off advertised prices (we are talking $12 a day rentals) when I book on Priceline. I don’t get hotels or flights here since I don’t find that to be as reliable. But rental cars? Priceline baby, yeah!

When you pick up your car, locate which side of the car the gas cap’s on. Memorize right or left side. This will help you tremendously when you’re fueling back up in a hurry before returning the vehicle.

PRODUCTS 

Elise recommends: The FlightAware app, which offers real time location tracking (among other features). While in the air you can check it to see the route your plane has been diverted to, or the numerous circles of the airport you’re making because of weather. It’s great for the data-curious.

Matt recommends: PowerGen Mobile Juice Pack, since his pro tip is to always be charging. “It also has a built-in flashlight and a shiny part you can use as a mirror,” he says.

Brad recommends: Tech Trap. “Want to further speed up your trip through security? Tired of putting everything in your bag and then having to dig through it to refill your pockets? Two-words? Tech Trap.”

Thanks again to my jetsetter friends for sharing your wisdom. And if you have some time or sanity-saving tips we missed, please leave a comment or email me.

UPDATE July 14: As Jim wisely notes in the comments, I should have mentioned that I only knew to bug those particular dudes for their tips because we are connected on TripIt Pro, which despite its limited interface, is useful for keeping me updated on the travel plans of those in my network and stores all my itineraries in one place. When necessary, it updates me with gate changes, delays and cancellations.

33 thoughts on “23 Air Travel Tips From Super Frequent Fliers

  1. I’m shocked! No mention of TripIt? (or any other service tracking all the flights/hotels/cars and the related info?? 🙂

    Seriously though, TripIt, or Evernote, or any other app that keeps all your travel-related goodness in one location is a must, especially for those multi-city trips.

    1. Excellent point, Poof. I wouldn’t have even known to bug John and Matt, for example, had I not been connected to them and TripIt and consistently outranked by their number of trips and miles. Post updated. Thx.

    1. We won’t talk about how long it took me to figure that out, but I have never rented or borrowed a car since that didn’t turn out to have an arrow on the fuel gauge.

    2. I was going to point out the same thing (as I have pointed out to many of my co-workers). I’ve never had a rental that didn’t have it (although my car at home doesn’t).

  2. Also frequent traveler here. To not get sick on the road, you want vitamin D supplements (at least 5000IU per day.) We most often get sick because we’re stuck inside (no sunshine = no vitamin D!) and around lots of other people (handshaking = best way to pass around cold/flu viruses.)

    I take 5000IU of vitamin D per day and offer a hug instead of a handshake (yep, even to people I’ve just met!) I don’t get sick, and as an added bonus, the vitamin D helps protect against sunburns, too.

    -Erica

  3. A tip if you’re taking a long, international trip – use a travel agent. I know many think they’re obsolete in this “book it yourself” age, but if you get stranded after your flight is delayed or canceled, you can give them a call or email and they will work for you to get the best solution to your problem. They will have all the options right at their fingertips. The airline isn’t always going to do what’s best for you. If possible, find a home-based agent, who is more likely to be available at all hours – evenings and weekends too – to solve your problems, instead of the corporate 9-5, M-F type.

  4. Well done on a good article. As a frequent flyer i suffer with jet-lag symptoms. However when we set up our Vitamin and mineral supplement business we started stocking an antioxidant product called Montmorency Cherry and this has helped reduce my jet-lag symptoms considerably.

    I have included a link to my blog article about it.
    http://www.vitaday.co.uk/blog/?p=175

    Kind Regards
    JOhn

  5. Thank you for the link to Hipmunk! It really seems cool.

    I knew Dopplr but it seems TripIt is better so I’ll also check it. 🙂

  6. The old armrest battle! That’s classic. Hey on the Flightaware app, I’ve found that the USA Today AutoPilot works very well too…and it uses tripit as Jimmie was referring to. I’d be interested to hear more about what you do with NPR though.

  7. Outstanding advice!

    I hate that I can’t bring my own water on flights these days with the crackdown on liquids, but at least water on board is still free.

  8. Another tip: many airports have free wifi, but in my experience, the service is poor, if not totally inadequate. If you do not have frequent flyer club privileges, you can usually access the club’s wifi just outside the club entrance and the signal is usually much stronger and faster.

  9. This probably sounds obvious but I always practice pack a few times before the actual big overseas trip. No matter how often I go I find that practice packing helps me to only take one carry-on suitcase and one shoulder bag and I don’t check anything in. I have had special functions to go to and the suitcase with my formal wear didn’t make it to my destination and got delayed and depending where you’re going sometime getting it to you can be difficult. I like to practice pack a bit in advance so there are no surprises the night before and no staying up late deciding what I absolutely need and what can be left behind. Yes, and rolling clothes works great. And if you have to pack a suit or a long dress most hotels have or know of a place to steam the outfit to make it perfect again. I also look for formal wear in general that travels easily when shopping.

  10. Great tips! I am traveling and happy to report I could use my frequent flyer miles to for my rental car! Saving me $500 to spend on fun! Whoop!

  11. One more good tip – try to plan your travel beforehand. It’s very important when you are going to dangerous or just new country with opposite culture. You should try to create the map of your trip http://well-way.com will help you. Than you have opportunity to choose all interesting places and create good route.

  12. Solid pointers. I’ll add one of my own – pack a power strip. As much as outlets are at a premium at airports, being the man who can turn one fought over outlet into five or ten is not only useful, but a great way to meet people.

  13. TIP: In my experience, if your connection shows “Delayed” on the board, don’t trust it. We missed a connection that showed a 2 hour delay and got to the gate an hour ahead of the delayed departure time to discover that the flight left just 10 minutes after the originally scheduled departure. The flight was “oversold” and there were a lot of other passengers in the same situation. Since we missed the flight, the airline didn’t need to compensate us for an oversold flight. They just booked us standby on the next flight – which was the following morning.

    I think the airlines can manipulate the delay times to cause people to miss the flight and avoid the oversold reverse auction for people to give up their seats. I can’t prove it yet….but I am working on it.

  14. It’s super cute, your blog. As a frequent flyer i suffer with jet-lag symptoms. However when we set up our Vitamin and mineral supplement business we started stocking an antioxidant product called Montmorency Cherry and this has helped reduce my jet-lag symptoms considerably.

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