How To Have A Generally More Pleasant Air Travel Experience

I'm not, by any means, a person for whom travel SHOULD be awesome.
Publish date:
September 9, 2014
travel, airports, air travel, airline, knee defender

It was a flight from Boston to Phoenix. We were somewhere over the Rockies. I had my Kindle still reading a 70% charge and a lucky empty seat between me and the aisle when the airplane hit a huge airbump, stabilized, and went into descent without any warning. People gasped audibly, overhead compartments opened. Air masks dropped.

I travel for work. I travel for adventure, I travel to see friends. And I'm not, by any means, a person for whom travel SHOULD be awesome.

I've been in three emergency landings, so I am not a calm flier -- turbulence will send me into yoga breathing. I'm big, so most economy seats are a co-torture device (physical torture for me, as I sit with my arms crossed for the flight, and emotional torture because I know my seatmates are uncomfortable too). Oh, and I'm not the good life in first and biz class is out of reach.

Traveling is stressful. The system is working against you -- the airline rules, the customer service agents, the TSA, and the simple fact that we live in a society where absolutely everyone feels entitled and few people seem to embrace that they're part of a community. Which is a problem, when you're in a flying tube in the sky.

Despite that, I have embraced a travel philosophy that means I can travel fairly well and eliminate a lot of stress. These tips aren't for everyone, but hopefully will help some of you.

1. Skip the discount sites, buy from airlines

When you buy through discount sites, the airlines you're flying see you as less of a customer and are less prone to help, and you often won't get a seat assignment, which is a problem (any time you hear an airline say "only a gate agent can do this, but you'll have no trouble at the airport" it is code for YOU WILL HAVE TROUBLE AT THE AIRPORT).

You'll get into all kinds of codesharing messes where no one claims responsibility for you as a passenger. Get on the flight path alerts for each airline you might fly and use tools like Hipmunk to understand the best fares, but buy direct from the airline. I generally know what a good fare from PDX to SF or PDX to NY or PHX looks like, so I know when to buy.

I also know which airlines I won't fly. Ever. Some airlines are just unpleasant- whether due to boarding policies, seating policies, extraneous fees, etc. Its worth noting that Southwest will, if the seat is available, give you a voucher for the seat next to you if you're a "passenger of size." JetBlue has always been exceptionally service friendly. The only way I'd fly USAir or RyanAir is in a body bag. AND THEY'D PROBABLY HAVE A DEAD PERSON SURCHARGE.

2. Don't create travel roadblocks

You know the saying that everything is time or money? I had a biz partner who would look at fares to a location and grab the lowest. I would look at the same fare and see a red eye flight with a bad connection. There's a reason fares are lower. If you can avoid connections, do so. It means one less chance of a missed connection, of delayed or lost luggage, or a delayed or cancelled flight. It also means less overall hours of travel, because despite the tube in the sky, it just takes time to travel. Nonstop direct, FTW.

3. You don't need that much luggage. Seriously.

Yes, I used to be that person who maxed out the allowed baggage and would always prefer to check it because it was less to schlep around. The best thing I ever learned was to travel light. You just don't need as much as you think.

Even now, with less baggage, I'm still surprised by what I arrive home without having worn or used. I can now travel for multiple weeks with a small carry-on. Wherever you go, there's likely to be laundry. Or you'll buy things. And the whole thing about traveling with hair dryers and shampoo and pillows? Please. Where are you going that won't have a hairdryer? Most hotels allow you to request the kind of pillow you want, and you can run into a CVS once there and buy some shampoo and conditioner. It's worth the $7. Learn to live with less on the road, you'll be thrilled.

4. Stop being surprised that the TSA is the TSA.

There is an actual TSA policy. It's on It's worth a read, because the TSA is full of overly empowered, intimidation experts. But the TSA line is full of people who act like the TSA procedure is brand new and surprising, every time. It's not.

  • You will need to remove your shoes. Wear shoes that are easy on, easy off. But not flip-flops, because in an emergency, those can be dangerous. Cotton slip-ons are awesome. Velcro is awesome.
  • You will need to remove your computer and put it in its own tray.
  • You will need to surrender bottled water or drinks before you go through security. Don't act surprised. Buy more on the other side. You will need your liquids to be less than 3.5 ounces and in a plastic bag that you can quickly grab and put in a tray. And you, with the homemade cupcake jars? Yeah. Knock it off. You're holding up the line. Ship it ahead.

5. Don't be afraid to opt out.

I opt out of the backscatter machine because I think it's a violation of our rights. I opt out every time, and I've heard it all. Here's how to do it.

  • Put your items into trays but then pick them up and hold them, standing between both lines. Recently, I've noticed there are often chairs there for this purpose. Do NOT send your items through the X-ray yet, because you don't want to lose sight of them, and do not hold up traffic around you. Alert the agent standing there that you are opting out, as soon as possible.
  • The agent is going to tell you (especially if you're female) that its going to be a while. Smile, and say ok. They are going to tell you that you need to send your items through. Politely explain you will do so as soon as the agent is available. This is your right, as defined by and the head of TSA at JFK security. Always be polite.
  • If 10 minutes have gone by, request a supervisor, politely. This almost always immediately hastens an agent becoming available. Again, be polite.
  • When your items come off the belt, since you can't touch them, ask them to put your computer on TOP, since if the TSA breaks something of yours, you will never see justice or compensation for it.

6. Being a flight attendant is hard. So be nice.

I generally start each flight with two things: a small package of Sees Candy bought and sealed at the airport, which I hand to the flight attendant as I board, and a "Thank you." This will alter your entire flight, I've found. Just saying thank you. If you need a seat belt extender, ask as you come on the plane to the attendant at the front of the plane. "I'm in seat 12D and need a seat belt extender."

Being friendly and kind is helpful, as you might expect. If you see someone having trouble getting a bag into overhead, get up and help. If someone comes through with screaming kids, staring at them or their parents won't make them stop screaming.

Make eye contact during the safety protocols, because it's polite. Put away your phone when they ask, because it shouldn't be a surprise you have to and it's not their job to be your mom and it makes other passengers nervous.

7. Travel with the right tools.

You're probably not going to be able to use your laptop on the flight. They're hard to keep out of overhead, they don't fit between you and the seat in front of you, and you're going to need to turn them off for takeoff and landing. Grab a tablet instead. Even with a keyboard, it's still smaller. Have the apps! Download the app for your airline -- most now have boarding passes. Buy your inflight wifi the day before for a discount. Download a movie to your tablet before the airport and skip the $5 fee.

Use noise-cancelling headphones. I could kick myself for not dropping the dough on these earlier. I am amazed by the white noise of air travel they block. And the reduction in children screaming, people talking, etc. They are worth every single penny.

Bring travel chargers -- don't be the hog at the airport, grab this power extension and make new friends. Even better, have a portable on you.

8. Upgrade.

I'm not talking about biz class or first class. Let's face it, unless someone else is footing the bill, those upgrades are out of reach. But in most cases, I find Economy Plus to be worth every cent. On newer Delta planes, the seats are generously bigger and located in front, and if you're larger, you're less likely to need an extender. Legroom is usually a benefit. Plus there's pre-boarding and expedited lines at the TSA checkpoint.

Worth noting: Lately I've been the beneficiary of some incredibly appreciated upgrades. I flew back from Europe this year in biz class because even though I didn't have enough miles for any status, when the flight was overbooked, Delta bumped me up because I was a member. It wasn't the first time, but again... it pays to be nice. I was once upgraded internationally because I had struck up a genuinely friendly conversation with a flight attendant over our heart socks (it was Valentines Day). During the flight, I wrote her a thank you note for the upgrade. On the flight back, I walk on and BAM. Same attendant. She brought out the pilot to say thanks for the note, and upgraded me. AGAIN.

But the upgrade not enough people talk about? TSA Pre Check. It's $100 and an hour of your life. DO IT.

9. Prepare for turbulence, because it will happen.

Some time ago, I realized that in turbulence, picking my feet up off the floor helped. No idea why. I close my eyes, and imagine I'm in a Pink Jeep Tour, 4-wheeling over rocks. I picture, in my mind, the tires making contact with the ground. And for whatever reason, it all helps. I feel like I'm on the ground.

10. Keep a sense of humor. Remain respectful.

I see a lot of BS while flying. Hey there, clearly ambulatory guy trying to preboard before the wheelchairs...not cool. Seventy-year-old grandma nodding that she's willing to accept the responsibility of the exit row? GET OUT OF MY EXIT PATH. This is a shared, communal experience, so basically, don't be a dick.

As the airplane bumped and descended, I slunk down in my seat and white knuckled the armrest. Without thinking about it, the man in the aisle -- a 50-something white guy -- and I clasped hands and just stared at each other, silently. Although it was my worst nightmare, I got a total sense of calm just by staring at another person and knowing I wasn't alone.

And then the plane righted itself and the captain apologized for the unexpected swell coming off the Rockies and we continued the flight without talking much, and no one mentioning what had happened. But that moment sticks with me.

In a real emergency in the air, these people around you -- the guy behind you, the screaming baby, the person taking up too much space next to you -- those are going to be your new best friends and maybe your salvation. Don't wait until that moment to be better to them.