11 October 2010

women's tips for civilized air travel, part 1

I travel a lot for business. Not George-Clooney-in-Up-In-The-Air a lot, but still plenty. Like days of my life in the air every year (and days more spent traveling to and from airports, going through security, schlepping down concourses, etc.). And my annual mileage has steadily increased over the years. But as much as I get secret joy from seeing those frequent flyer miles pile up in my account (oh, let's face it... my joy is not so secret), I don't particularly enjoy air travel. (I'm actually kind of a wuss about flying, and I still get edgy in turbulence.) So I've tried to figure out ways to make flying as comfortable and stress-free as possible.

I've put together my Top 10 Women's Tips for Civilized Air Travel (many of which are entirely unisex), since air travel poses a few extra challenges for us women. Today I'm sharing the first five tips. These are all based on my experiences, and they might not work for everyone. You might find some rather obvious, others not, but I find it helpful to remind myself of all of these things from time to time. I hope you find them useful, too.

Come on back for the remaining five tomorrow, and please share your best travel tips! (Update: You can read the other five tips here.)

1. Be loyal

Flying has become such a stress-laden experience that you need to secure for yourself every possible advantage. (This is why so many frequent business travelers have such strong opinions on these things, as I do. It's a jungle out there!) If you fly very infrequently, or if you really must fly in the most economical way possible, then by all means book solely based on price. But, if you can afford to pay a couple of extra dollars occasionally, pick one airline and stick with it. If you can, choose based on which airline has the most flights out of your local airport (or even has a hub there), or has the most flights to the places you travel most frequently. I travel most frequently between LA and Washington, D.C., which are both United hubs, so I fly United 99 percent of the time. If I go to Europe and can't get a United flight, I'll fly Lufthansa, which is part of the Star Alliance along with United, and thus those miles still go toward my status.

Being loyal to one airline means only good things. First, you'll accrue all of your miles to the same airline's frequent flyer account, making it more likely that you'll actually earn enough miles to pay for a future trip at some point in the foreseeable future. Second, the airline will treat you better, possibly a lot better. If you fly once a year and are signed up for the frequent flyer program, you will rarely be in the last boarding group, meaning that the plane will almost certainly still have overhead bin space available when you board. If you travel at least 25,000 miles worth (five or six coast-to-coast trips will get you there), then sticking with one airline will get you a LOT better treatment. In most airports, you'll get to check in at shorter lines reserved for those with elite status, and you'll get to use the premium security lanes, which are a lot shorter, and tend to have mostly business travels in them, which makes them faster. This alone makes it worth it. But it also means that you'll get access to the better seats near the front of the plane (sometimes with extra legroom), you'll get bonus miles every time you travel, you'll get to board the airplane earlier than others, you'll have a better chance of getting onto the flight if you have to fly standby, and (this one is the Holy Grail) you'll be eligible for those coveted upgrades to first class or business class. Most airlines let status members check their bags for free and avoid other little fees, and some even offer perks like free companion tickets. If you fly the same amount each year but spread it across airlines, you will miss out on every single one of these benefits, and you'll make it harder for yourself to get something worthwhile out of your frequent flyer miles.

The main reason I offer this tip as a tip for women is because I cannot count the number of times men have tried to cut in front of me in the boarding line, assuming that I shouldn't actually be lined up with the status members (i.e. at the front of the boarding line instead of the back) because I'm a girl. (I've seen this happen to other women as well.) Whenever this happens, my first reaction is to let it ruffle my feathers because of their sexist assumption, but the reality is that tons more men travel for business than do women, and so in this case the stereotype is often true. (Just look at first class the next time you fly... I guarantee it will be at least 80 percent male.) But, all I have to do is hold up my boarding pass, showing my status, (often with a little "Pardon me," for effect, because after all, how rude!) and then they usually back right up. We girls have to represent!

2. Dress for comfort

Gone are the days when you could show up at the airport and be magically upgraded to first class just because the agent at the check-in counter thought you looked fabulous. There are far too many elite status members on every airline who have flown tens of thousands of miles to earn those upgrades, so if you are not one of those members, you'll be sitting in coach.

While that's bad news on one hand, it's great news on the other: there is absolutely, positively NO REASON to dress for style when flying. You're going to be walking potentially long distances, lifting heavy luggage and sitting in an uncomfortable seat for hours, so you might as well be comfortable.

Unless I'm taking only short flights, I wear jeans, a t-shirt, and a couple of layers of sweater, jacket, etc. Even if the weather is hot on the ground, it always gets chilly up in the air, and most of us ladies get cold easily. So you will be glad you brought that sweater. I like to have a wrap with me, too, which can serve as a blanket, a pillow or a shawl. Wearing a dress or skirt is something you'll surely regret, since your legs will be freezing, and you'll be restricted in how you can contort yourself without exposing yourself to get comfortable. I also highly recommend wearing socks, so your feet don't grow icicles.

I have changed out of a business suit at the airport many, many times. Generally I do this after getting through security, but not always. I don't love changing clothes in a public bathroom, but it's worth it to be comfortable.

(Update: I've changed my tune slightly on this, in light of the new TSA naked scanners. Now I recommend being comfortable, but also dressing to avoid suspicion at the security screening. Read all about it here.)

Along the same lines...

3. Wear easy footwear

Comfort and easy on-and-off are what you're going for here. I see so many women wear heels, cute boots and all manner of impractical shoes in the airports, and I know that they must be regretting it. Slip-on shoes are your best bet for getting through security quickly, and you want shoes that will be comfortable while you're trekking the concourses. I actually break my own rule and wear running shoes pretty often when traveling, which are not ideal because you have to sit and tie them after you go through security. For me personally, I still find them worth the trade-off, because they're comfortable as all get-out, they let me wear socks to keep my feet warm in-flight, and they let me run in case I have to sprint to make a connection. (They also let me keep my bulkiest shoes out of my luggage -- see #4 below.) But I also have a range of casual, flat slip-ons that make the security screening a snap.

4. Carry it all on

If it's not enough that most of the airlines are charging to check bags (the average seems to be around $25 for the first bag and $50 for the second, not counting extra charges for oddsize bags or luggage that weighs over 50 pounds), consider that checking a bag means you have to wait in line at the check-in counter instead of going straight to the security line, and you'll have to wait for your luggage at baggage claim once you reach your destination. This could potentially add HOURS to a single trip. You also have a better chance of your bags not making it if you have a tight connection or get rebooked on a new flight based on a delay, and many airlines won't let you get on the standby list for a more convenient flight if you have checked bags.

Doing only carry-on might mean packing very differently, but this is just a matter of forming new habits. You don't need a new outfit for every day of your trip, and you probably don't need more than a few pairs of shoes. When we went on our two-week trip this past August, which involved a wedding in Wisconsin, a week in New York City, and a few days in D.C., Mark and I each managed to squeeze everything into the allowable carry-on limit. It certainly helped that it was summertime so we didn't need bulky clothes other than his suit, and that we had multiple destinations so no one would know when we were repeating outfits, but I have also done a week-long business trip in the dead of winter and still managed to squeeze everything into my carry-on bags. Here are my best tips for making everything fit:
  • Wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane (jacket, jeans, running shoes, etc.).
  • Use the right luggage (rolling carry-on bags that are the full allowable size limit are ideal, and your "small personal item" can be quite a bit bigger than a purse or laptop bag as long as it fits under your seat -- my "small personal item" is a bag that can hold my purse AND laptop bag AND toiletries AND anything I might want while in-flight like a wrap, snacks, eye mask, etc.).
  • Pack mostly dresses (they take up soooo much less space, and wrinkle-resistant fabric is key).
  • Pack multi-tasking pieces in the same color family (nice jeans, versatile black pants, dresses that work for day and evening, a sweater or blazer that can go over anything -- I prefer as much black as possible so it's easiest to mix and match).
  • Pack only the shoes you really need (for me that's usually running shoes and a pair of black heels for a business trip, or for personal travel it's running shoes, nice-looking but comfortable flat sandals, a pair of strappy silver heels that will go with everything, maybe a pair of casual black closed-toe flats and maybe a pair of flip-flops).
  • Pare down your beauty products (only what you use every day).
  • Don't bring things the hotel or your host will have (hair dryer, robe, etc.).
  • Be realistic about what you'll need for the trip (don't bring a ball gown on your ski trip, for example -- virtually everyone overpacks).
  • Don't be afraid to do laundry at your destination (all hotels offer the service, and if you're staying with family or friends you can probably ask them if you can do a load or two).

5. Aim for security speed

It goes without saying that you should always check in online, so assuming you've done that, and that you're carrying on all of your luggage (see tip #4 above), your first stop at the airport is the security screening checkpoint. Knowing all of the details of the procedure, and doing a little careful observation along the way, will help get you through as quickly as possible.

First, know what the current security procedure is, and what the rules are. TSA has a helpful site that will give you the latest info, since there are small changes made to the procedures all the time. Once you know the rules, make sure that you've packed appropriately, and know when you can bend the rules a little bit. Example: though they say that all of your liquids have to go in a clear plastic bag, that bag does not have to be a Ziploc bag, and the Container Store sells some very sturdy, reusable clear plastic travel bags that hold up a lot better and still conform to the size restriction. I prefer to keep my carry-on toiletry bag packed at all times, so all I have to do is throw it in my bag and I'm good to go. Also make sure you don't have anything in your luggage that will alert suspicion (I've found travel candles to be a frequent source of additional screening, so I no longer pack them).

I assume you know what you're doing with regard to taking off your shoes, taking your laptop and/or e-reader out of your bag, and so on. But that's not the best predictor of how long it will take you to get through security. To get through quickly, you must keep your eyes peeled. You may have two opportunities to choose your line, so try to watch for which lines are moving fastest. First, you'll get in line for the ID check, and you may not have a choice here, but while you're in line for the ID check, watch how the lines for the x-ray scanners are moving. I don't ascribe to the racial profiling George Clooney's character extols in Up in the Air, but I heartily agree to avoid whenever possible getting in line behind elderly folks, young people with huge backpacks, anyone who looks like they are clearly unfamiliar with the security process, and families with small children or strollers. But (this was my big revelation), don't just watch the passengers themselves. Watch the TSA screeners sitting behind the monitors at the x-ray machines. Some move vastly more quickly then others, and you want to be in the line for the fastest screener. (Often you can't see the actual screener, but you can watch the belt in front of the x-ray machine to see how quickly bags are going through.) Mark and I have experimented before and each gotten in different lines at the checkpoint, and the speed of the screener is a far bigger determinant of how fast you'll get through than what type of passengers are in front of you.

(Update: I've changed my tune slightly on this, in light of the new TSA naked scanners. Now I recommend choosing your security line on the basis of which line doesn't have the scanner. Read all about it here.)

Tips six through 10 tomorrow are more about the in-flight and in-airport experience. (Update: You can read part 2 of the tips here.) Did you find anything helpful in this list? Anything you disagree with? Do tell!

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  1. Fab posting! I'm relieved that I don't think the points I had drafted for my part 2 are covered here, so you won't think I'm plagiarizing ;)
    Makes me think, strategies for long-haul and short-haul are necessarily somewhat different.
    You make an excellent point about the proportion of men vs women in business class. Sad but true. When I worked for an airline and was lucky enough to fly Club class, I found I could never get quite comfortable in the - supposedly - luxurious, ergonomic seat. I came to the conclusion it was designed for a 6 foot male physique, not a 5'3 female.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful tips..Usually I do all these things while traveling and for my long way journey keep novels,puzzle solving books,i-pod etc with me for my entertainment..
    Cheap flights to Tokyo

  3. These are really very useful tips for all the women.. I was looking for such tips so that it is easy for me to travel.. When I have to travel alone, I messed up with many things but now it will be easy..


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