I’m this close to getting million mile status on United, which will give me and Mark gold status for life (economy plus and shorter security lines always, y’all), and when you tally up the miles I’ve flown on other carriers over time, I’m well above the seven digit threshold, which is a much cooler-sounding way of saying: I’ve spent waaaaay too much of my life on planes and at airports. (At an average cruising airspeed of 475-500 knots/546-575 miles per hour, that works out to 75 full days in the sky. And it’s actually longer when you factor in the slower speed during each flight’s descent. That also doesn’t count airport time, which is certainly another month or two.) This also works out to more than 1000 take-offs and landings – and another 1000 hotel nights – so it’s safe to say I’ve had pah-lenty of time to figure out the tricks to travel as efficiently as possible.
Speaking of travel, reminder to Twin Cities folks that Carl from 1500 Days, Noah and Becky from Money Metagame, some other special guests and I are having a meetup Thursday (tomorrow!) at Minnehaha Regional Park. Look for us on the picnic lawn or at picnic tables in area N on this map starting at 6 PM, and bring something to sit on along with anything you’d like to consume. Around 8:30, we’ll move to Brit’s Pub downtown to join up with the meetup being led by Physician on FIRE that’s going to the state fair.
When I sat down to write all this out, I quickly realized that there’s way too much info for one post, so today we’re talking about travel strategies for maximum efficiency, and next week I’ll share packing tips, including how and why I never check bags, even if I’m going to multiple destinations in coldest winter and need to wear business suits. (Only exception: when we’re flying with skis. I have yet to find a hack that will make those fit in the overhead bin.)
So fasten your seat belt low and tight across your lap, make sure your tray table is stowed and your seat is in its full upright position. And let’s dig in.
I love travel, despite the less pleasant aspects of it, and I believe firmly that going into it with the right attitude makes a world of difference. Every time I fly, I see people who are nervous, who are quick to start yelling the second the flight is delayed for 10 minutes, or who look terrified, like deer in headlights. And I can’t help but think that they are having a very different, far less pleasant experience than I am, even though we’re on the exact same flight. So let’s start with attitude.
Always Pack Your Sense of Humor
I used to let travel delays get me worked up, but much like Mark and I decided to institute the work complaint ban a few years ago, I also decided that I was going to treat anything bad that happened – any flight delay, misconnect or other random mishap – as a comedy of errors. Because there’s generally nothing you can do but sit there and wait it out, I’ve discovered that it’s far more pleasant to laugh about it than to get agitated.
Everyone in the travel industry has a hard job. Those nervous, angry and scared flyers I see are people that gate agents, flight attendants and TSA agents have to deal with constantly, which makes for a stressful job. Be kind to everyone whose job it is to get you somewhere safely, or to welcome you to a hotel after a long journey, because it’s the right thing to do. But also, doing that might occasionally get you a perk, like a free drink on a flight or a nicer hotel room. (Free airline upgrades don’t just happen anymore because you happen to be nice, so let that dream go. But free hotel upgrades happen all the time.)
Become a Trusted Traveler
If you fly even once a year, sign up for TSA Precheck, or – even better – Global Entry, which gets you Precheck along with speedy passage through immigration when you return to the U.S. on international travel. (If you don’t have Global Entry, download the Mobile Passport app, which also makes customs a breeze.) Precheck and Global Entry are each good for five years from your next birthday, and – fun fact – if you sign up right after your birthday, you get almost six years for the price of five. So worth it. Even if the Precheck security line is longer than the regular security line, it moves much faster.
Plan for the TSA
Even if you have access to the Precheck security line, you still have to go through security. So plan for that. Don’t wear your most complicated lace-up shoes, don’t carry a ton of metal and change in your pockets and, if you travel with food, pull it out and put it in its own bin before you put your bags through. Food confuses the scanners and often warrants secondary screening, and it goes much faster if they’re just looking at one food container instead of digging around in your whole bag.
Flight Times Matter
If you care about being on time or catching connections, pay attention to on-time rates for different flights. But generally, delays tend to cascade as the day goes on, so your best bet for on-time flights is very first thing in the morning. I know. Flying at 6 AM is a bummer. But you’ll always be on time and never miss your connection when you do that. (If you see me at the meetup Thursday night and wonder why I’m yawning, blame the 5:55 AM flight.) And if you care about upgrades, your chances of getting them are best on Saturdays and Wednesdays.
Get the Best Seats
Here’s something that I wish wasn’t true: even as a 1K status flyer on United, I almost never get upgraded on cross-country flights, and it’s 50/50 on any flight over an hour. (And I’m about to jump down from 1K to gold at the end of this year. Please keep me in your thoughts during this trying time.) So I’ve made it a science to figure out how to get and keep the best seats in economy. First, know your aircraft. Most mainline airline flights in the U.S. are narrow-body planes like the Airbus 319 and 320 and various iterations of the Boeing 737. On these planes, the only real difference between seats is whether they have slightly more legroom or a criminally negligent amount of legroom. So of course if you can sit in economy plus or whatever your airline calls premium economy, all the better. But if you can’t, you can still try to make your seat experience positive in a few key ways:
1. Unless you have the seating chart for every plane memorized for every aircraft in a given airline’s fleet (it’s a sickness), use SeatGuru when you book your ticket to get you into a decent seat to begin with.
2. If you’re flying with a companion, don’t choose seats right next together, but choose a window and aisle on the same side (example: 27A and 27C). If the plane doesn’t fill up, you get a row to yourselves, and if it does, then you make someone’s day who thought they were stuck in a middle seat when one of you trades with them.
3. Especially if you are a solo woman traveler, I can’t recommend enough booking a bulkhead seat. These seats have the tray tables in the armrests, because there’s no seat in front of you, and as a result they have longer, wider armrests which are marvelous for keeping nextdoor neighbors more contained in their seats and minimizing some of that spreading.
4. If you’re hoping for an empty seat next to you, choose a seat as far back as you can in your section in a row in which the other desirable seat is already taken. In United narrow-body planes, 12F is the seat most likely to earn you an empty middle next to you because it’s usually the non-reclining row in front of the exit row, and gate agents tend to seat standby passengers starting on the A side of the plane, so 12E is usually the last seat in economy plus to be taken. In the back of the plane, the last E seat before the lavatory has good odds of staying empty, so long as the D seat is taken. (Otherwise a couple wanting to sit together might grab it.) And if you’re truly serious about increasing your odds of an empty middle seat next to you, keep an eagle eye on the seating chart on the app, and move your seat if you see things shifting around as standbys clear if you think you’ll improve your odds.
Work Your Angles
No matter how good a sense of humor you keep about it all, things will go wrong. Flights will get canceled. Connecting flights will take off without you. Endless weather delays will pop up out of nowhere. Keep your cool, but then work every possible angle simultaneously to get rebooked in the way that works best for you. Stand in line at customer service while at the same time calling the customer service line and tweeting at the airline. And while you’re on hold with everyone, research your other flight options – including on other airlines – so that you know exactly what to ask for and whether there’s space on those flights before you get to the front of the line. Most of the mainline carriers will book you with another carrier if you’re significantly delayed, but you’re out of luck if you’re on Southwest or one of the super budget carriers.
We’ll get into what to pack next week, but a core principle of efficient travel is to spend as little time packing and unpacking as possible. And that means never fully unpacking. Whichever bag you use as your primary carry-on should contain the basics at all times: toiletries, medication, pajamas/workout clothes, chargers and any travel accessories you always like to have with you. Same for your small personal item that houses your everyday carry items. I’ll share a peek into my bags when we talk packing lists, but among the things that only ever leave my bag for an occasional wash are: packing cubes, hanging toiletry bag, sleep kit (eye mask, ear plugs, meds for emergencies), dirty clothes bag, ballet flats in bag, cube with pajamas/workout clothes, computer cable, iPhone charger, headphones, backup power supply, travel pillow, umbrella and a few other odds and ends. Which means I never use time trying to find those things or putting them away, and packing for any trip is a matter of throwing in a few changes of clothes, and then pulling out dirty laundry when I get home.
Create Systems and Habits So You Don’t Leave Things Behind
I’ve traveled with colleagues who are constantly leaving things behind, and I’ve always been determined not to be one of those people. Mostly because it’s annoying to have to spend money to repurchase something, but also because it can throw a wrench into your plans if you leave your cell phone charger and have a dying phone when a client is trying to reach you. That’s why it’s important to create good habits and systems so that you don’t leave things behind. A few things that I do that help a ton are:
1. Avoid spreading out all over the hotel room. In the main bedroom, choose one area like the desk where you’ll set things down, and concentrate everything there so you’re more likely to notice if you’re leaving something behind. In the bathroom, place anything you take out of your toiletry bag on a towel or washcloth so you’ll see it when you’re packing.
2. If there are instances when you have to deviate from that approach, create visual reminders. I need to take my razor into the shower, and to avoid forgetting it, I leave its case open either on the towel with the other items, or just below my toiletry bag.
3. For cell chargers, get in the habit of never just leaving the charger plugged in, or if you do, only plug it into your computer, not into a wall outlet. I’ve now trained myself to unplug the charger and put it back into my bag whenever I unplug my phone from it, and I’ve never left one behind ever.
No matter how fun it is, travel is exhausting, so prioritize your sleep. Ask for a quiet room in every hotel you stay in (sometimes this gets you upgraded for free), and book long-haul flights based on time to minimize jetlag. The later you can arrive in the day, the better. Those east coast flights to Europe that have you arrive first thing in the morning European time are the absolute worst for jetlag. And make yourself sleep on the plane if it’s intended to be an overnight flight, no matter how many dessert platters they bring you, and even if you manage to get your independent movie players to sync up perfectly. #nerds
Don’t Wait Around
There are so many things in travel that you don’t need to wait around for, so free yourself of these times sinks! You don’t have to wait for the rental car receipt. You can just drop the car with the keys in it and go catch your flight. (They’ll email you the receipt.) You don’t have to check out in person from your hotel. You can either check out on the app and drop your keys in the express checkout box in the lobby, or you can do the slightly jerky but still legit method of just leaving your keys in your room and peacing out. And if you drop the habit of checking bags, you will never again need to so much as look at an airline ticket counter. Which means you also don’t need to have your cab or Lyft drop you off at any particular airline drop zone, and can instead figure out which door is closest to security and get dropped there.
There are never enough plugs, and half the time the promised plugs on the plane don’t even work. Bring a power brick with you on every trip.
Don’t Bring Home Hitchhikers
If I’ve ever happened to see your hotel room, there’s a good chance I’ve shouted something like, “Eek! Get your suitcase off the bed!” Everyone does this, and everyone needs to stop now. Why? Because bedbugs are back. Like for real. Only put your belongings on hard, non-upholstered surfaces like desks, coffee tables and dressers. If you get bitten, it’s not awesome but it’s not the end of the world. (I’ve been bitten many times. At very nice hotels. In the U.S. Usually on the face.) What is the end of the world is also taking those bedbugs home.
And then there are germs, which you also don’t want to bring home. Don’t freak out too much about germs in hotel rooms, but do wash your hands after handling the TV remote. (Or don’t touch it at all.)
Maximize Your Benefits
I won’t try to tell you how to travel hack, but if you’re not already consolidating your travel with one airline and one hotel megachain, change your ways right this second. If you don’t travel often, and your singular motivation is to travel as cheaply as possible, then fine. Shop 100% on price, use Hotels.com points and get every chain bonus. But if you care about quality of travel, it pays to be loyal, which means booking directly through the airline or hotel chain and sticking with them. And not just because of upgrades, though those are awesome. But because you often get free stuff when you consolidate business with one company, like free breakfast in the Starwood lounge that you can sneak all your FinCon friends into.
And more importantly, straight up better service. Every airline has a different phone line for each status level, and you can bet each one has progressively better service than the last. If you might get silver status on an airline, that automatically bumps you ahead of everyone calling the general number when a huge row of thunderstorms cancels all the flights on the east coast. Certain status levels also have flight change fees waived on the day of travel, get checked bags for free, or have greater availability of award tickets. But also, upgrades.
Drink the Tap Water But Not the Plane Water
Don’t waste time or money buying bottled water. Drink the tap water out of the hotel faucet, preferably filling your own water bottle instead of using the questionably clean glasses in the room. (See any dish washing equipment on that housekeeping cart? Nope? Exactly.) But never drink the airplane water.
UPDATE: Skip Housekeeping
During your hotel stay, keep the “do not disturb” hanger on your room door the whole time and skip the housekeeping. First, this avoids any concerns about the security of things you leave in the room. (Though don’t leave super valuable stuff behind if you can help it, and never travel with high-value items you don’t truly need to have with you. Leave ’em at home.) Second, this saves resources like water, electricity and cleaning supplies from being used unnecessarily. Third, it avoids anyone knocking on your door before you’re ready to be awakened. You can always grab more towels or shampoo off the cart if you need them. But do tip your housekeeper by leaving a fiver or more on the desk when you check out, because they did still prepare your room for you.
Watch for the Salute
After the tow cart unhooks from the plane and backs away, the marshal with the sticks will salute the pilot and send them off. Watch for it. It’s like your own little Easter egg.
Got any travel tips you can add? Let’s hear ‘em? And any questions you’ve still got lingering? Ask away!
Want extra Our Next Life content? Get the e-newsletter!
Subscribe to get our periodic newsletter with tons of top secret, behind-the-scenes info we'll never share here on the blog.
Categories: we've learned