There is a lot of advice out there about how to make travel, specifically airline travel, easier. We live in a time when flying around the country or the world has never been “easier,” but the era when it was fun to fly, when you dressed up and were treated respectfully whatever class you were flying, is long gone. The first time I flew I was eight years old, I was emigrating with my family from Toronto to Los Angeles and we had to fly through Chicago. I remember we dressed up, I remember the flight attendants making a fuss of my brother and me, giving us each a pilot wing pin (which would now be considered a potential weapon), serving us a lovely meal, and chatting with us and our parents, making sure we were having a good experience. These days that kind of experience is a rarity. But lately, particularly over the past month with a planned vacation and then a family wedding in the UK, I have been flying more, and have learned a few things. I also, from my own mistakes, offer suggestions as to what NOT to do as well. I am going to assume you know how to find the best airfares, there are so many helpful sites online these days, so I will skip that part. Below I submit a personalized and somewhat random list of pointers to help make a journey, particularly a long journey with a connecting flight, just a bit easier.
1.While a hard case that rolls is great for short trips, if you are checking baggage anyway I would recommend a soft bag as a carry on that can mush into a fairly small space. I learned this the hard way recently, when on one leg of my trip the jet I was supposed to be on morphed into a fairly small prop plane (more on that later) and I was separated from my carry on. So all of my resources for keeping me entertained, fed, hydrated, and distracted were suddenly gone.
2.Pack your carry-on as if it were your only piece of luggage. If they lose your suitcase, it might be for a few hours or a few days. So, change of underwear, basic prescriptions and personal products need to be included.
3.Think worse case scenario (ok, I don’t mean crashing) and prepare. Even though it adds weight, I always pack a paperback in case for whatever reason I can’t use an electronic device such as my phone or kindle.
4.Noise canceling headphones are worth the investment, and more helpful (and faster) for reducing anxiety than a valium or a stiff drink, which many of your fellow passengers will be (unsuccessfully) flagging a flight attendant for to knock back once turbulence begins. Do you ever do what I do when watching a scary movie on a laptop or TV, which is to turn off the sound? (Ok, yes, I am a wuss.) Somehow everything is less frightening when we turn down the volume, and these headphones go a long way into ushering you into a world of silence. Also a great way of discouraging a chatty neighbor if you aren’t in the mood to socialize.
5. Speaking of ushering you into a world, I will, as I have in another post, again, suggest a meditation app on your phone, even if you are not a meditator in your regular life. I download Headspace (http://www.headspace.com). For those of us who are a wee bit fearful of flying, they actually have a fear of flying meditation program. For those of us who just want to tune out, relax a bit, it does the trick. And for those of us who just need help, like, NOW, I highly recommend their mini-meltdown series, which are just 3-5 minute sessions that help you calm down and breathe and get you out of your panic mode. Last month it was when I was making a connection in Dusseldorf, Germany that I was informed that I would be taking a small prop plane, a long term issue for me. I went off into a corner, plopped down cross legged on the floor, put in the headphones and did THREE of those sessions back to back, holding tight onto my purse since it does make you feel vulnerable to close your eyes in a public place for so long. In 1987 I would have probably been approached by security, but today this apparently is not such a strange sight. It helped a LOT. (Incidentally, British Airways has Headspace video episodes specifically for flyers in their entertainment section.)
6.Cushy socks for cold feet, a mushable soft, cottony outer layer that you can wear it if it’s cold or make into a pillow. Some people like those travel pillows, they make me feel like I am in traction, or maybe I just have never figured them out. A lot of people like eye masks but they make me feel like I am on one of those game shows from the sixties. Or being kidnapped. Yes, I am a bit nuts.
7. When you are making a connection, if possible leave more time than airlines recommend. You have to figure many if not most planes will be late, and if you are connecting in a place that is not a major hub you may be stuck there for a long time if you miss your connection. I personally would much rather sit making phone calls or writing emails or even reading a local newspaper than dashing through an unfamiliar airport. Which leads me to:
8.Take a look at the map of an airport you don’t know that you will need to navigate. I made the mistake recently of not doing this, and it added undue stress to my trip. My daughters and I came out of a ten hour international flight into Las Vegas airport, which seems to have NO SIGNS anywhere. Lots of slot machines, but no signs. (Maybe this is part of the casino culture where they have no clocks around?) Where were departures? Where were arrivals? Where was American Airlines? I approached different people who gave me completely different answers. My daughters and I made our final connection in, in the words of the guy checking in our luggage, a “photo finish.” Not stressful at all.
9. Speaking of stress, try and understand that pretty much everyone is stressed out these days, especially, as I write this, with the horrible and random violent acts that have been going on around the world in the past few weeks, but really, in one way or another, since 9/11. Don’t take it personally when they ask you to take off your shoes or your jewelry or, as just happened to me in Boston, they do a pat down of your whole body. Try and keep your sense of humor. You may find it ridiculous, but it’s not personal and being anything but kind and pleasant won’t get you anywhere. The TSA woman is not enjoying touching you with the back of her gloved hand THERE, trust me.
10. At some point recognize that with all the planning in the world shit happens. You may be stranded, you may have to sleep in an hotel near the airport or, worse, spend the night AT the airport. Recently I sat on a tarmac for five hours for a six hour flight. I walked around, I drank a lot of water, I snacked on my almond butter packets, I chatted with a flight attendant who was so nice and interesting that after a while it felt like I was visiting with a friend. Travel can be difficult, but it is also a privilege that so many people never get to experience, and often an adventure, and keeping open to all of it, the bad with the good, is part of the deal.