Air travel tips

One hundred and forty one.

Close as I can guess, that’s how many planes I’ve been on. Between travel for work, vacations, digital nomading, school, and my family living far from where I do, I travel a lot. So, with all that experience, there are some things I’ve picked up over the years that I’d like to share in case they help others.

Board late

This is my number one tip (obviously). People are always in a rush to get on the plane, and I (now) simply don’t understand it. In the airport, you have more leg room, you have free internet (usually), you have places to plug in your devices, you have food… why would you rush to get on the plane? If you get on early, you’re going to have to sit, and wait, cramped up, with no internet, and your computer stored for take off, until everyone gets on board and settled – even the person who decided to argue with the flight attendants about overhead bin space (you’re just going to have to gate-check your bag, Barbara).

No matter my group number, I wait until almost last call. It allows me to get more work done in comfort, I spend less time on the jet bridge, and as soon as I’m seated, we take off. Now, obviously, some people need more time getting on board – families, older folks, people with mobility challenges – and this tip probably isn’t for them. But if it’s feasible for you, this can really make flying less of a hassle.

Know airplane etiquette

Perhaps this is selfish of me to put on here, but truly, knowing plane etiquette can make the flight more enjoyable for everyone. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is when people don’t know the armrest rule. Each seat has its advantages: the window seat gets to see out, the aisle gets more leg room and easy bathroom access, and the middle seat gets both armrests. It’s just the way it is. An aisle or window seat person who takes one of the middle armrests is making life measurably worse for the person sitting there.

There are other rules that I won’t mention here – I could write a whole article about that alone – but I’ll mention one other that some feel strongly about (I personally don’t, but I’d be remiss in leaving it out): if possible, don’t recline your seat. You’re not going to get much out of it, and for taller folks behind you, it can be very uncomfortable. I, personally, don’t mind if people in front of me recline, but I don’t recline myself in sensitivity to those behind me.

Pack lightly

I’ve covered elsewhere some ways you can pack lighter, but here I’d like to briefly talk about why. Perhaps it’s obvious: packing lightly literally means your luggage won’t be as heavy and unwieldy. And yeah, that’s an advantage, but it saves you time in a bunch of different ways as well.

Imagine, if you will, the ideal: no luggage at all. Maybe it’s silly, but I often daydream about having no luggage in an airport. And such a wonderful dream! What would it be like? Well for one, no worrying about checking baggage before security. No baggage claim at the end. No lost luggage. Leg room extending under the seat in front of you. No stress about gate checking. No overhead bins.

Packing lightly allows you to approach that ideal. More than that, it gives you options. If you only take a backpack (as I do), you get to choose whether you want more leg room or not worrying about overhead bins. You have the option to get to the airport later, since you don’t have to check anything. And of course you get to leave earlier without waiting for your checked baggage at the end.

Bring something to do

You’re going to be sitting in one place for hours. If you don’t bring something to do, you’re going to get bored, and fast. So bring something to work on or read, because sitting in silence is a recipe for a frustrating trip. This also keeps you from having to interact with the other passengers; as Sartre says, Hell is other people.


Airplanes dry you out. It’s just a fact. To make sure you’re not exhausted and grumpy, it’s important to hydrate – even if it means you have to get up to use the restroom. However, bringing a water bottle can be a hassle, since it has to be empty through security.
I forego the water bottle, and just ask the flight attendants for two drinks. That way I’m not carrying extra weight, and I’m keeping healthy.

Have your electronics accessible for security

In the US at least, you have to take off your shoes, belt, any metal, empty your pockets, and take out most electronics. So it’s important to keep that in mind when you pack to get through security as fast as possible. Make sure it’s easy to pull out your laptop/tablet/e-reader, wear shoes you can slip off, and if you can, get a head start on emptying pockets before you get to the bins. When you get through security, move your bins as far along as possible to make room for others, and put your bin away after you’re done.

Don’t check in at the airport

Most airlines these days send you an email to check in to your flight 24 hours ahead of time. Take advantage! If you opt for a mobile boarding pass and you packed lightly, you can go straight to security after arriving at the airport, which is a big time saver. It also keeps you from getting bumped if the airline oversold the flight, and allows you to pick your seat (if you want to).

Rewards cards

Paired with air travel, rewards cards can offer some nice benefits. Many offer point multipliers on travel, so putting plane tickets on your card is a great way to rack up points.

But there are other advantages as well. Both Chase and American Express offer cards that come with free access to certain airport lounges – which is a nice perk when you’re on a long trip. You usually have to opt in for this sort of benefit, so make sure you do so – I’ve used the lounges at a few airports, and while they vary in quality, all are a pleasant break from the gate area.

What do you think? Something I missed? Let me know!

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