Top Travel Tips – Part 1
I love to travel and see new places, and as an American living in the UK, I do a lot of traveling to see my family and friends. I am very lucky that I have been able to do some traveling in Europe and even luckier that I get to go back to the US to visit everyone there several times each year. However, even as an avid traveller, no matter how many times I make the trip from the UK to the US, it always feels too long.
However, although the trip feels long no matter what, I have learned many things in the past few years which you can do to make the trip far more bearable (other than typing up blog posts like I am doing now). Since I am sitting on a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis as I type this, I thought it would be a perfect time to write about this since my tips and tricks are very fresh in my mind. I hope they may be helpful to someone!
Step 1: Booking
While I can’t necessarily afford to fly first or business class, or even economy comfort, there are more options when booking than it sometimes feels like.
First of all, the most obvious point is that the departure and arrival airports matter. I grew up in a small town nearly three hours away from a major airport, and this means that each trip (each direction) was three hours longer – plus added time in case of problems on the roads. It is definitely worth comparing flights to or from various airports if they are nearby and easily reachable. However, it is worth thinking about how much time it adds to your journey and how much it will cost to get to or from your chosen airport. The other thing to consider is whether you will easily be able to get to/from the airport at the right times. For example, if you plan to use public transport, do the trains/trams/buses/ferries run early/late enough or would you have to get a hotel? In addition, if flights are cancelled or delayed and you are far from home, then you are more likely to be stranded and have additional costs for accommodation/transport. I won’t go into all of the details but this happened to us last Christmas and it definitely wasn’t worth the few pounds we saved flying from London rather than Manchester. Not only was it a hassle, but we still haven’t received all of the money back which we spent on a hotel and train tickets when our flight was canceled.
The connecting airports also matter. This is probably less important if you are flying within one country or region, but if you are flying into the US from another country (I’m not sure if there are any other countries which do this but I haven’t encountered any), you have to collect your luggage and go through security and passport control at the first place you touch down. In other words, if you fly from Manchester to Atlanta and then on to Minneapolis, you have to spend a long time in Atlanta going through passport control, collecting all of your checked luggage, going back through security, and getting to another part of the airport for your next flight. I think Chicago O’Hare is the worst connecting airport I have encountered, but it is a major headache no matter where you land if you have to go through all of this, especially if you have a short lay-over and/or you are at a large or busy airport. If you are you coming from the EU and you go through Amsterdam or any other EU airport, at least, your luggage is checked through until you get to the US and you don’t have to go through passport control or immigration until you get to the US. You can just go directly to your gate. When you are leaving the US, you don’t need to collect your luggage or go through passport control no matter where you transit through, so the connecting airport is slightly less important. However, we still prefer Amsterdam Schipol airport. They definitely have the cleanest airport bathrooms I have ever seen!
No matter what flights are available, make sure you are happy with the connection times and you feel comfortable that they are feasible. For connections within the US or the EU (or presumably other countries or regions), you don’t need a very long connection time. However, if you need to go through passport control, and particularly if you are traveling to or via the US from somewhere else (e.g., Manchester to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Minneapolis), you have to go through customs and collect your luggage, then go through security and then re-deposit your luggage. Sometimes the connection times offered at booking are very short, but this takes a lot of time – I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving any less than two hours for this, and even this can be a bit tight if the lines are long at customs or security. Some airports are also very spread out. For example, in my experience it takes a lot longer to get from one side of Chicago O’Hare to the other than to get from one side of the Atlanta airport to the other. Ideally, as mentioned above, if you are going to the US from the EU, for example, and you have to have a connection somewhere, go through another EU city if possible. This way you don’t have to go through customs or collect your luggage until you reach your destination (because that is the first point in the US you will touch down).
If you have a connection, it is worth making sure that the airport you are flying into and the airport you are flying out of are the same. I have very nearly purchased tickets where we would have flown into JFK in New York and out of Newark or La Guardia. These airports are not connected in any way, and getting from one to the other would be an absolute nightmare (and presumably also quite expensive) because they are far apart in different areas of a big city!
If flight prices are similar, I think it’s worth using one airline or group of airlines each time you fly and making sure you sign up for the frequent flyer program. It may sound like airmiles or skymiles would take a lifetime to add up, but they actually add up quite quickly and it is great to be able to have free or far cheaper flights or other perks. At least with the Sky Team Alliance group, you can claim miles for flights you have taken previously, as long as they were relatively recent when you sign up for the miles programs. In addition, if you do enough flying, you will become one of the ‘preferred’ customers and you are eligible for all sorts of benefits and upgrades.
Step 2: Planning
When you book your flights, you might want to check to see whether you can select your seat(s) on the carrier’s website. If not, find out how far in advance you can select seats, and keep this in mind so that you check back for available seats. Seats fill up quickly on many flights, and especially if you are traveling with someone else, it may be important to find seats together – preferably not in the middle of the middle row of seats! Personally, I prefer to have a window seat so that I can lean up against the window to sleep as well as looking out, but many people prefer the aisle seats for getting in and out to go to the bathroom or to stand up and stretch easily. Also, most airlines board from the back to the front of the plane, and I prefer to get on the flight early, so I generally choose seats as far back on the flight as possible (unless I have a close connection coming up – then I like to be near the front so that I can get off of the flight sooner).
It may be possible to do this when you book, but otherwise if you have any special dietary needs or meal preferences, you can go to the airline’s website and request special meals. I have been quite impressed with the non-dairy meals. They are vegan, and they are pretty much the same every time I fly, but they are very tasty so I don’t really mind.
If you are traveling to the US from abroad (as a non-US citizen), then you either need a VISA or you need to complete the online ESTA verification. If you do not have one of these, you may be turned away at the border! If you are a US citizen, you don’t need to worry about this.
Step 3: Packing
Obviously, you need to think about what you need once you arrive at your final destination. This part will be totally different for everyone depending on where you are going and what you are doing, but I think my most-forgotten item is pajamas. Pajamas may not be the most important item to remember, but they can make a very big difference in comfort. And don’t forget to leave out a set of clothes to wear while you are traveling. I can’t tell you how many times I have proudly announced that I am all packed, only to realise that I haven’t left anything out to wear on the flight!
I think it’s also important to think about what you may need while you are traveling. For me, this includes my iPod, my netbook, snacks, an inflatable neck pillow, hand sanitizer, lip moisturizer, ear plugs, and a good book. In terms of the book, go for something light and fun – for me, if I bring a book I ‘should’ read, I am too tired and uncomfortable to read it, and I just watch movies or sit there wishing I had brought something which was easy to read. Magazines are nice for just flipping through. For sleeping, some people like the masks which block out light so that you can sleep even if it is bright on the flight, and I love the idea, but the one I have isn’t very comfortable so I only use it in absolute emergencies.
I like to bring a smaller under-seat bag in addition to my main carry-on bag with easy access to the items I may want during the flight. The exact size and weight restrictions for carry-on bags vary depending on the airline and sometimes the airport, but carry-on bags can be quite big and most are too big to fit under your seat. Therefore, you have to put your bag up above in the overhead bins, and especially if you are in a middle or window seat, it is difficult to access the contents of the bags during the flight. It is worth saving yourself room to stretch your legs, but I like to have a smaller bag to put under my seat which I can fill with my essential in-flight items (see above) so that they are handy when I need them.
I actually have a small travel pack with my neck pillow, ear plugs, light-blocking mask, tissues, and a pen and I never take these items out of the pack. This way, when I am packing, I can just grab this handy little kit and I know I have many of my most-used items on hand. It is small enough to fit in the seat pocket in front of me, and this way when I start to feel tired, I can grab what I need without waking myself up by rummaging through my bag under the seat. I don’t mind rummaging for my book or iPod or netbook, but I hate having to dig out things for sleeping when I am finally tired enough to get some rest!
I like to bring my own snacks. On long flights, airlines still provide some food, but it may or may not come when you are hungry. We always at least bring some granola bars for those times, and I usually try to bring a few other snacks as well.
Find out what your airline’s baggage restrictions are. This is normally easy to find on the airline’s website, and it is crucial that you check so that you can avoid being charged huge fees for over-sized or over-weight baggage, or having to re-pack your bags in front of an anxiously waiting crowd of people. This includes checking limits for cabin/carry-on bags, as these may be weighed or measured when you check in, and some airlines and/or airports don’t allow a carry-on bag and a personal item, so everything has to fit within one single carry-on (even if you are going to take a smaller bag of essentials out once you are on the flight). I am not sure if this is the case for overseas flights, but it is true on at least some low-cost European airlines. Anyway, the moral is, just double check the rules for your airline.
I like to pack an extra set of clothes and any essentials (including things like medication) and valuables in my carry-on luggage, as well as something comfortable to sleep in. This is very useful if your flights are delayed or cancelled and you don’t have your checked luggage with you. However, it is also handy so that if you are tired when you arrive at your destination, you have the items you need for the first night close to hand. In addition, occasionally luggage gets delayed or lost, and ever since I had a bag delayed by four or five days, I have made sure all of my most important items were in my carry-on.
On the subject of where to pack things, remember that each item containing a liquid must be under 100 mL/3 oz, and all of the liquid items must fit together in one small, clear plastic bag. I re-use the same bag each trip and keep it with my travel gear. When you are packing, keep this clear plastic bag handy, as it will need to be taken out when you go through security.
Also, keep your laptop/netbook in an easy-to-reach spot, as this will also have to be taken out of your bag during check-in.
Last, but certainly not least…and in fact, perhaps most importantly I would try to PACK LIGHT! I tell myself that I need to pack light every time I go somewhere, and I always think I am doing really well until I realise I haven’t put my shoes or coats or toiletries in yet. And then somehow I think of ten more things I need. For the first time, on this trip I actually managed to leave lots of room and weight to spare, and it was such a relief! Not only are my bags easier to carry and manoeuvre, but when we got to the baggage drop this morning, the desk agent was weighing and measuring each piece of checked and carry-on baggage. Normally I would have been in a cold sweat with a stomach ache already mentally re-packing things to fit. This time, I was completely relaxed and able to watch sympathetically as four sets of passengers (in about 15 minutes) had to totally re-pack their bags and throw things away and scramble to make all of their possessions fit and get to their flights on time.
Step 4: Final preparations – what to wear
I like to wear comfortable shoes which are preferably easy to remove and put on. At some airports, shoes have to be removed to go through security.
I always dress in layers, preferably including a t-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt/sweater, and my vest, as well as a pair of comfortable pants (trousers in the UK – I’m not wandering around in my underwear!).
I love my down vest (body warmer in the UK) for traveling. It is often cold after take-off, but wearing a full coat is uncomfortable and restrictive in an already very restricted space.
We have now reached the US, and it is wonderful to be here. I will post the second part of this tomorrow – check back for Top Travel Tips Part 2!