My [super basic] tips to help infrequent fliers hate traveling a little less

"You travel so much. I don't know how you do it."

It's rare that I go a week without hearing those words. My response probably surprises them:

I actually love the travel.

Sometimes my words are met with uncomprehending stares. Like, how could I possibly enjoy so many hours trapped in a metal tube jammed in with strangers? Some travelers, frankly, are gross.

I must be insane.

But I truly do love that travel is required in my job. I get to see incredible places and have unique experiences. Spending time face-to-face with clients, colleagues and business partners usually creates tighter bonds and yields more business opportunities. As a bonus, I used frequent flier miles to fly business class to Italy this year. How could I complain?

It's true that sometimes things go awry, but I know from experience that my attitude and some degree of preparation can make things better or worse. Why not choose better?

 

I flew more in 2017 than I ever have in my life, including more than 100k miles on American alone, which resulted in me hitting American Airlines' Executive Platinum status. Perks include the ability to check two bags for no charge, access to preferred seating (e.g., extra room seats up front), bonus miles, upgrades and even free meals and alcoholic beverages in coach if an upgrade doesn't come through. Oh, and a dedicated service hotline for when I need customer service.

(It pays to be loyal to one airline.)

With time and practice, I have developed an approach that keeps me as comfortable as possible while in transit. If you also travel a lot, these tips may seem overly basic to you, but I would love it if you added your suggestions in the comments.

Booking Tips

First, if you haven't signed up for the major airlines' frequent flier programs already. Do it RIGHT NOW. Don't take a single flight for which you don't get credit. If you flew recently without an account, you may be able to get retroactive credit. Check the airline's web site.

American, Delta, United and Southwest are the US airlines to start with. You should enroll in hotel loyalty programs too, but that's for another post.

When it's time to book a trip, I usually turn to a site like Kayak to figure out the itinerary that is best for me. My primary airline is American, but I don't love the way their search engine works which is why I turn to Kayak even though I don't usually book there.

While cost will almost always be a consideration when booking a flight, I consider factors including how long the flight is, if I need to go direct or can consider a connection, what the total travel time (so important), desired departure or arrival time, and whether or not alternate airports are in play (e.g., JFK vs LGA).

If you don't have status with an airline (I'm assuming you don't if you're reading this post), beware booking the cheapest available fare unless you are positive you can travel without checking a bag (or in American Basic Economy's case, putting a bag in the overhead bin). I generally do not recommend these "basic" fares because you'll almost certainly end up in a middle seat in the back of the plane, which is an uncomfortable way to fly, in my opinion.

The reason I'm dwelling on this is that if you start your travel day feeling nickel-and-dimed, you're likely to feel salty on the rest of your day, and that's not helpful!

Once you book your flight, choose a seat. You can do this either on the airline's web site or using their app. In the days leading up to my flights, I check the seat map in the airline app often, looking for the seat in which I'll be most comfortable.

For me, that's a window seat near the front of coach. I like to control the window shade 😀 and if I'm tired, I find napping in a window seat easier.

If I don't recognize the aircraft by seat map (believe it or not, I usually do at this point), I'll go to SeatGuru to avoid such pitfalls as a seat that doesn't recline or one that is notably drafty.

Preparing to Fly

I approach my flight with the mindset of "what do I need to be comfortable in case no one offers me anything for the duration of the trip?" Thinking that through will help you pack useful stuff in your carryon. 

If you're a novice flier, it is helpful to go to the airport earlier than someone like me - thanks to TSA Pre, I sometimes arrive at my gate in the middle of boarding. Do as I say, not as I do.

Some of the things I consider before I go to the airport include:

  • Can I fit everything in a carryon bag to avoid checking?
  • How long is my flight?
  • Do I have somewhere to go straight from the airport or can I dress for comfort?
  • What are the chances of an upgrade? If they're low, what kind of food should I take with me.
  • Where is my phone charger? Pack it now. Right now.

I'm a hangry sort of person so I almost always have some combination of string cheese, Kind Bars, Gardetto's and cut fruit in my bag. I am trying to eat less sugar, but it's obviously not going very well.

I always have a refillable bottle (my current fave is from Ban.do) because I drink a ton of water--even more when I'm flying. Before boarding my flight, I refill the bottle with at least water, but also ice if available. 

While I do not tend to be cold on flights, I prepare for that uncomfortable scenario. News flash: blankets in coach class are rare these days. Often I'll bring my ancient BCBG wrap that is just like this. It functions as a blanket and pillow as needed, and if I ever lose it, I'll be very sad.

Sometimes I will take a travel pillow but recently I lost mine somewhere in my apartment. Seriously, one minute it was there and the next it was not. 😜 Short term, if sleeping on a flight is an option, I get by just fine with a sweater. 

Some planes have entertainment systems, some done. If you have Netflix, choose something from the downloadable section. Bring a book or a magazine. It's good to have distractions in the air, obviously.

 

Reminder: you should be checking your flight's seat map again now.

At the Airport

If you prepared using the steps above, this part should be easy.

But let's say something goes wrong. Maybe your flight is delayed or perhaps the gate agent wasn't as friendly as you think he or she should be. If you remember one thing from this post, let it be this: keep your cool. Acting like an angry entitled jerk never helped anyone--not you, not your fellow travelers and certainly not the people working at the airport.

What does help is staying calm. Whether you achieve that via deep breathing or venting to a friend (via text or email! No one wants to hear you complaining aloud.), just do it and then figure out what your next move is. If the weather is bad and no flights are leaving the airport anytime soon, can you reschedule your flight for the next day and avoid sitting in the airport surrounded by disgruntled people? If yes, act quickly before everyone else is doing the same thing.

Be kind. Be patient. If someone is trying to help you, smile a little, and say please and thank you. Why not make an airline employee feel good about their efforts to address your situation rather than resentful? Save your anger for those circumstances when writing a ragey post-trip letter or email to the airline is truly warranted.

And if you turn to Twitter to look for help from the airline, choose your words carefully. Focus on what you're trying to make happen versus complaining. 

In most cases, your flight won't be delayed. The same "be kind" approach means acknowledging the flight crew as human beings with a job to do. Say hello and then take your seat. If you have access to an outlet, plug in your charger before you actually need it and if the outlet is shared, don't hog it for the duration of the flight.

And if you're in the window seat, be a dear and put the shade down at least after takeoff. I promise you: there's nothing to see at 40,000 feet.