Diving into the frequent flyer game is tricky. Which are the best programs? When should you redeem points? Is loyalty to one airline worth the steep price? But once you‘re in the game, the rewards can be rich. Todd Bliwise has been studying these things for years, and has it all figured out. He’ll be sharing his tips and tricks with us in this column, Speed of Flight. Today: How to make your flights easier.
1. Choose a non-U.S. carrier.
They offer the best in-flight amenities, even in economy. We aren’t talking the luxury of business or first of course, but we are talking the more basic things that make a flight more comfortable. Emirates in particular has made economy comfort an art—offering menus, hot towel service, ear plugs, eye shades, pillows, and blankets, even in economy. Little items like these can go a long way to make that long flight (especially In Econ) go by a little bit quicker.
2. Download the app of the airline you are flying.
The new apps (like Delta’s and United’s) work seamlessly with your smartphone to provide real-time updates—like if your gate is changed or if your flight is delayed, cancelled, or even moved up to leave earlier (which happens sometimes). In most U.S. airports, these apps also allow for paperless boarding—one less thing that you have to worry about while you juggle all your belongings.
3. Develop a packing routine.
The reason? It’s simple: to ensure you don’t leave anything out or behind. I’ve always done the packing as though I were dressing myself in the morning, starting with shoes and socks, working up to shirts and accessories. This is also a good way to keep track of what you are packing instead of just throwing everything into your luggage there at once. Speaking of luggage…
4. Invest in very good luggage
I swear by Briggs and Riley for my roll aboard, and Tumi for my computer case/briefcase. These have withstood my 1,500,000 miles without issue and—most importantly—have put up with tons of abuse. Plus, good luggage makes you look like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. One of my favorite features of the Briggs and Riley luggage is that it is expandable—from carry-on size to 23 inches—for when I feel the need to break my cardinal rule and am forced to check luggage.
5. Pick the correct side of the plane.
This is for all your window-gazers out there: Sit on the side of the plane that’s opposite from the sun. You never want to be “that guy” who has the window open with the sun glaring into the cabin, blinding your seatmates. This is true, especially on polar-bound Asia routes from the US. Remember that on westbound TPAC (trans-Pacific) flights, the sun will stay on the south (left) side of the aircraft until 2/3rd of the way through the flight, when you will come back down south (these routes often travel in very high arches, often over or near the poles, depending on the time of year. For Europe routes (eastbound travel), the left side is your friend.
6. Don’t cut it too close.
Many people say that they like getting to the airport, clearing security, and walking right onto the plane. This is not wise. There are just too many variables that could hinder that timing—it’s just way too risky. If you arrive early, pay the fee to get access to a swanky airport lounge and drink your weight in alcohol. Okay, fine, don’t binge drink, but a couple of stiff drinks not only gets you your money’s worth, it will allow you to relax and then stroll, on-time and stress-free, up to your gate.
7. Invest in noise-canceling headphones.
Yes, those large over-the-top things that make their wearer seem anti-social can make a huge difference on the airplane. Many travelers don’t realize that a substantial component of stress from travel is from all the noise. I find noise-reduction headphones make a world of difference, though the screaming child behind you will probably find a way to creep into your ears anyway. I’ve had a Bose pair for years—I find them more comfortable for sleeping on long flights, but many people have gotten on the Beats by Dre bandwagon
8. If you travel internationally, get Global Entry.
It’s worth every penny and worth every second of that awful and unnecessary interview process. Being able to whisk right through customs makes a big difference. With the reduction in TSA pre-check members (thankfully), Global Entry will almost always guarantee the traveler access to the expedited security lanes when traveling on a U.S. carrier.
9. Run or work out the day of a long flight.
This is one of the easiest things you can do to make that long flight so much better. When your body is physically exhausted, not only is it easier to sleep, but you’ll feel like you’ve earned those hours of sitting and be more relaxed. If you’re in business class or first class, the best part is having a bigger appetite for all that great food. I always joke that have my greatest workouts on the day I fly just for that reason. Just please, make sure you shower before the plane flight. Please.
10. Have a good book or movie ready.
Yes, this one is obvious—but more and more planes have installed in-flight entertainment systems, prompting flyers to leave their own entertainment at home. The only problem? They don’t always work. It would be terrible to be stuck on a long flight with nothing to occupy yourself with, all because you assumed there would be TVs and movies. Plan ahead. Download a movie to your computer or tablet, or bring a good old-fashioned book, just in case those pesky screens don’t work. And if they are working, remember to not poke that touch-screen so hard—the person in front of you can feel everything!
11. Don’t take over-the-counter sleeping pills on flights under 8 hours!
If you absolutely must, take them long before takeoff and be prepared to be very groggy when you arrive at your destination (the half-life of many of these pills lasts 9-12 hours). If you want to take a sleeping pill on a flight to, say, Europe, it’s going to leave you feeling awful when you land. On longer flights, take them during the meal, and you will be set.
12. Understand meal times.
If you’re in economy where you cannot dine-on-demand, make sure you know exactly when your meal is served. If flying to Europe, dinner will be served within an hour and 30 minutes after take off, followed by a pre-landing meal an hour and 30 minutes prior to arrival. For trans-Pacific departures from the U.S., there will often be 3 meals, with the same times for departure and pre-arrival meal, but mid-flight, many airlines will offer a third service, usually a light snack. On these long flights, you can often find little snacks set up in the galleys for passengers to help themselves between meals.
13. Be nice.
If you want to ask about upgrades, seat changes, or anything else that involves the redcoats or gate agents, be nice! Seriously, a little empathy goes a long way. These front-of-the-line staff deal with the absolute worst aspects of air travel, and have to deal with it over and over again on all of their shifts. If you are going to ask them to help you, it goes a long way to be polite and let them know you are patient and one of the “good guys”. Often this will also go a long way to getting what you want!
Todd Bliwise is the founder of An Avenue Apart.
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