A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Air Travel Survival

This guide is intended to optimize your enjoyment of air travel, if it makes life a bit more efficient in the process too, that’s great, but don’t get upset at me if it doesn’t okay. As travel advisers, we are well traveled and know a few things about travel, however, I am including some tips from some other well known and well traveled folks so you can learn from their knowledge as well. 

Preparing to Prepare for Air Travel

You will never be fully prepared. This is not my opinion, or even an opinion, it is a simple fact of life. No matter what you are doing, or more accurately what you are trying to do, you will screw something up along the way. It could be minor, like forgetting a toothbrush, or major, like forgetting all of your luggage. In step one, you come to terms with your natural human imperfections so you can move into step two with some of your sanity and dignity in tact. 

Buying Tickets

First of all, use a travel agent. I admit bias, because we are travel agents, but seriously, it’s free, we get paid by the vendor, not you. Having us do all of the hard work will make you feel like an eccentric billionaire, I promise. Just ring us on the phone and say, “I think I’d like to go to Fiji,” and we’re on it. The purpose of this article is to help you enjoy the flight and getting tickets to fly is important to that end, because while you may be limited to certain airlines and flights depending on your destination, you can usually control where you sit, which is important. I won’t tell you whether window, middle or aisle seats are the best, that is up to you. I will however advise you to look at the seat diagram carefully. The seats that back up against a bulkhead do not recline and are usually in front of the bathroom. The emergency exit row seats look tempting. Exit row seats have all of that leg room and may well be cheaper. First note that prior to takeoff, folks sitting in the emergency exit rows will be deputized as emergency exit operators and you will be responsible for at least half of the lives on that plane, this will result in fewer alcoholic beverages. Also note that in most cases the exit row seats are near the bathrooms and all of that extra leg room will be taken up by folks doing their airplane yoga routine while they wait for the toilet. You are in their park and not everyone that stretches out in flight is pleasing to the senses. And far too many of them are far too nosy. Go with business class, especially if there are perks like free drinks. If free drinks are involved you cannot possibly go wrong. First class is very nice, but on most domestic flights, it is not worth the cost as the seats are only marginally better and the free drinks can be obtained in business or comfort class in certain circumstances. For long international flights, first class or business is the only way to go. Save your points for first class or business class international, the seats often recline all the way back and you are pampered the whole time.

Pro Tip: Try to book flights that arrive at your destination in the morning. Arriving at a tropical resort at 10:36 PM local time is like paying for an entire day, but only getting less than an hour and a half, plus restaurants and room service close or reduce their menu options late at night in some locations so you may end up eating $15 worth of trail mix from the tray in the room for dinner. If you are flying to Las Vegas however, it doesn’t really matter, because time does not exist in Vegas, it defies all known laws of physics but the trail mix is still absurdly overpriced.

Hunter S. Thompson

Preparing for Air Travel

These steps will set you up for success or failure. Success means having an enjoyable flight that lands safely at the expected destination. Failure means you’ve landed safely at your destination without having enjoyed the process of getting there, or worse having a very bad time getting there. Now that you know you are imperfect and you will screw up something, don’t make a checklist, that will bore you to death and you probably won’t use it anyway. Do you really need a reminder to pack clothes? Get your important things, passports, sunglasses, and wallet etc… and put them next to your airplane clothes. Oops. I forgot to mention your airplane clothes. Get long, comfy pants, a tee shirt that is a bit loose, comfortable walking shoes and a hat and leave it out the night before headed for the airport. Comfort is important on an airplane. You do not need to look like some kind of Jetset champagne sipping airline advertisement model to fly in an airplane, you just need to look like you have enough credit to buy a $670 ticket to Hawaii. You may be tempted to wear flip flops to the airport, especially if you are headed somewhere tropical, but remember, airports are big and you will probably spend most of your day walking from terminal to terminal. Yes, TSA will make you take your shoes off and flip flops are easy on easy off for this purpose, but if you have TSA pre-check, you can board without taking off your shoes. What I’m saying here is that you should get TSA pre-check, you get to cut the line and keep your shoes on. It’s worth it.

Pro Tip: Being comfortable is not the same thing as being a slob. You are not about to binge thirty hours of mediocre Netflix originals with a tub of Cheetos and a 30 pack of Miller High Life. At least pretend like you are a civilized human being for a few hours and wear proper adult outdoor clothing. If you don’t know how to do this, then at least keep your shoes on for the whole flight for crying out loud.

The kid who ate glue in the third grade. Yes, somehow, he is now well traveled.

Packing

Get packing cubes and shirt folding packers. Put different items of clothing in different cubes. Pack enough clothes to last, and remember that you will want to change when you arrive and you will need something to wear on the flight home. They won’t let you fly naked no matter how drunk you get. Regarding the flight home, while saving room for stuff you buy on vacation sounds like a good idea, it far too often means sacrificing things you wish you could have brought for a couple of shirts and a thing of hot sauce. Usually these purchases can be placed in your carry-on, but be careful, that humungous novelty sombrero has but one possible storage option on an airplane and everyone around you will regret your last minute airport gift shop purchase. Yeah, sure, you might be able to get it into the overhead compartment, but then the pilot will decide to bang a hard right so only one side of the plane can see the Grand Canyon and other items of luggage will shift and forever deform your 350 peso sombrero. Get a dop bag and fill it with all of the toiletries you normally need, don’t empty out your bathroom cabinets, instead go out and buy the stuff you need and just keep it in the dop bag for future travel use only. You do not need to buy the miniature travel stuff if you are checking your bag, which you should do anyway, so just buy normal sized things. You are going on a trip, not making a miniature model of your bathroom. If you have a toothbrush that sits in a dop bag that is stored in your luggage, then you have already packed a toothbrush and will never worry about forgetting it. If you ignored my advice and you forget your toothbrush, keep in mind that they sell toothbrushes almost everywhere on the planet, and if you are headed somewhere they don’t sell toothbrushes, then you probably can get away with not brushing for a bit, just don’t tell your dentist. Unless you are fashion conscious, shorts and bathing suits can be reused over several days, so don’t waste space and weight packing every pair you have. Weigh your luggage with a luggage scale and remove or shift items to other bags until you are under the max weight. It is never fun paying extra for a pair of jeans you could have just left home, or worse, having to rearrange your entire luggage scheme in front of everyone in line at the ticket counter. It will ruin the whole flight, I guarantee it.

Pro Tip: Your main carry-on should be a backpack. I know you like your roller bag and a heavy backpack seems like a burden, but those suitcase like carry-ons get extra scrutiny at the gate and a ticket agent’s threshold for size forgiveness is relative and therefore varies widely. You could end up having to check your carry-on, which involves frantically pulling out the things you need on the plane in front of everyone boarding the plane.

Alber Einstein

Getting to the Airport

Plan on arriving two hours early and then get there three hours early. Rushing around is no fun. Having a few hours to kill at a bar near the gate after getting through TSA is like starting vacation early. It really doesn’t matter how you get to the airport as long as you enjoy it, but make sure your mode of transportation to the airport is reliable, effective and fast enough to get you there for pre-flight happy hour. 

Arriving at the Airport

Get out, take all of your bags and get in. Nobody is your friend, these bastards will cut you just to get their bags on the conveyor belt one minute ahead of you. Have your passport, license and credit cards ready, so you can put them down on the counter like a poker dealer laying a flop. If you have to spend even one second dislodging your driver’s license from your over-stuffed wallet, you have failed already. You might as well turn around and go home because vacation is ruined. Print your boarding pass. Nobody wants to wait while you figure out how to get your phone screen bright enough to satisfy the stupid ticket scanner, nor do we want to watch you flip your phone around until the QR code is properly oriented.

Getting through TSA

First of all, get TSA Pre-Check, it will save you time better spent at the bar. When you get to the line, have your documents ready, make sure your jewelry and other things that will make the machine go beep are put away in your carry on and be ready to pull out all the things they want you to pull out, like laptops and stuff. Taking off your shoes will take longer if you are not wearing flip flops, but your feet will be far more comfortable after miles of airport walking. If you are going to make jokes about bombs, or Crocodile Dundee knives while in TSA, do it quietly, unless of course a full body cavity search is your bag baby. The big machine that swivels around to scan you will pick up a tissue in your pocket. I know, it happened to me several times already. Please note, there are restrictions on liquids. As far as the TSA is concerned, an avocado is fine as long as you haven’t turned it into guacamole, because at that point, it shows up as liquified explosives in the x-ray machine and you will end up in GITMO. Smile at the TSA people, if you treat them well, they will treat you well, but don’t smile too much, you don’t want to give them the impression you are about to be in the company of a few dozen virgins. 

Finding your Gate

If all has gone to plan, you will have arrived at the airport well before your airplane and you will have an hour or so of free time to spend, don’t blow it by going to the wrong gate and then having to rush to the right gate at the last minute. Take a moment to find the gate. When you find the gate, take note of the bars and restaurants nearby. Pick the bar or restaurant nearest you and get inside. Now, you could put your name in for a seat, but sitting at a table or booth is boring. Head for the bar first. The bar is where all the interesting people are and it is also where drinks are served almost immediately upon request. I do not mean to disparage the wait staff, but the bartender has the drinks delivery down to perfection and nobody wants to wait while the lady at table five tries to explain what she does and does not want in her damn salad. 

Pro Tip: Seating at some bars may be limited during busy hours, yes, even at 6:00 AM, so if there are more than one of you, divide and conquer. One of you searches from one end, the other searches from the other. Tell-tale signs to look for are a finished meal and drink, though the latter could just mean another is on the way. A credit card on the bar is almost as good as a signed check and one hand on the luggage handle. Have a signal system in place to discretely let your partner know you’ve found a seat without letting the other jackals in the bar know. I like a simple come hither wave, but you can make up your own if you like. Also, if there are two seats but they are not next to each other, consider proposing a seat restructuring scheme involving people moving down one and or bringing one stool next to another.

Sun Tzu

Drinking at the Bar

Yes, I know you already have this one down, but bear with me for a second, because there are some important things to consider here. Time of day is important. Most of us do not get up at 6:00 AM to start drinking. I’m not judging you if you do get up early for the express purposes of drinking, but its not common, I’m just sayin. Get something that goes well with the time of day. Mimosas and bloody marys are great morning drinks, as is anything involving coffee, but don’t overdo it with the coffee, at some point you will want to sleep on the plane and coffee won’t help at all. If you are like me, you will not want to mix different types of alcohol over the course of your journey. For example, if you are going to Mexico, count on having tequila at some point later in the day, whereas if you are going to Hawaii, you will hopefully be offered a complimentary Mai Tai, which usually involves rum. Get what you intend to drink for the remainder of the day and keep destination related drinks in mind. Don’t drink beer. I don’t care how much you like beer, you can’t have it until you land and you have checked into your room. If you do not understand why you should not drink beer, be patient, the reason will hit you soon. Before you get loaded, make sure you have a way to figure out the status and boarding time of your plane. If the gate changes, you will want to know this information. Use an app, go out to check the board, whatever, just get to know the methods at your disposal. Eat something. Do not order something with the intent of taking it on the plane, especially a pizza. Order the food, eat it while it is hot and enjoy it, because the only meal on the plane will likely be approximately four miniaturized pretzels. Make friends. Tell cheesy airport jokes. Some of these people are miserable, their flights have been delayed, their Uber driver was a moron, and TSA touched them in ways that made them blush. Don’t be afraid to have a few more drinks before boarding, after all, you are not flying the plane. You can use that joke if you want, its a good conversation starter. Keep in mind that if you get too drunk the crew will notice and you will have a hard time getting more drinks on the plane. And you will want to get more drinks on the plane.

Pro Tip: Cheesy airport jokes are for the other guests, not the bartender. The bartender has heard more airport jokes than every comedian has written since the invention of air travel. Unless you are Jerry Seinfeld and you’ve spent the last three decades in seclusion writing cutting edge airplane humor the whole time, keep the jokes between you and the other guests only.

Literally every airport bartender alive today.

Boarding

First things first, you just left the bar, so you should go pee now, that way, if that liter of water and those three bar drinks hit your bladder a second time before boarding, you will be able to relax until the captain gives the all clear for bathroom use. Although the protocols might vary a bit by airline, just know that you already have a ticket and you will be boarding that plane one way or another. Prior to boarding time, find a comfy seat and relax. Let the alcohol take effect. Standing in the line that has formed before the doors have even opened will ruin your sweet buzz and make your feet hurt. If you can’t find a seat at your gate, wait at the next gate over, its not illegal. Have your boarding pass handy when your section gets called. You already know why you need this handy, do you really want to push that angry looking guy with the weird beard and ambiguous tattoos to his breaking point? You’ll start an international incident. Just be prepared. When you are aboard the plane, double check your seat assignment so you don’t have to backtrack through an angry crowd and accidentally bump tattoo guy somewhere unpleasant. Put your stuff away and sit down as fast as possible, because right now, there is someone who just got into the plane watching you and wondering just how stupid you are. Do you really want to carry the stupid label for the entire flight?

Pro Tip: Contrary to modern humor, the seatbelt is NOT useless. Yes, yes, I get it, if you crash into the mountain, that bit of fabric and metal on your lap will not do much to stop you from finding the outside of the plane via the reinforced cockpit door, but if the plane drops 10,000 feet in three seconds, it will keep you from bonking your head on the ceiling causing you to be paralyzed from the neck down. Just put it on. I still have no idea why the seat back needs to be fully upright though, so it‘s still fine to crack cheesy jokes about that.

Unknown random FAA employee.

Flying with Gadgets

Although perfume is not a gadget, I would like to make a few points if I may regarding the use of perfume. Don’t wear cologne or perfume. I don’t care how much you smell, rest assured that your perfume is only making the situation worse. Perfume smell travels at 917 miles per second man. It’s a fact, you can look it up online. You do not need all of your gadgets out at once. A phone and a book are fine. An iPad and a phone are fine. Why do you need all three? If you have an iPad, why do you need to have your laptop out? You are on vacation. Even if you are traveling for work, you had all sorts of time leading up to the flight to finish your work. Now is not the time and nobody is impressed with your work ethic. If you are watching movies on your laptop, remember that your iPad does the same thing, but takes up less space. Frankly, if you are going to use a laptop here is something that will make it worth all the effort of pulling it out, taking up too much space with it on your tray and irritating your seat mates with your bulky machine. Have some James Bond like portfolios open on your screen. You can make these things with simple off the shelf applications like MS Word and Powerpoint, all you need are grainy photos of angry looking bald men taken from across the street from the passenger seat of a Lincoln. Zoom in on the pretty girl behind the bald man in the picture and crop in on her. In the space below her image type the following: “Possible identity: Miranda Melitsos, AKA the Black Widow.” Keep doing this sort of stuff the whole flight and you will likely get a free martini out of it, but it will obviously have to be shaken, not stirred if you want to maintain your cover. If you don’t have time to follow mean looking bald guys around in a rented Lincoln, you could always download pictures of complex engineering schematics. Nobody knows what you are even looking at, it could be a suitcase nuke, it could be a new silent drive turbine for a Russian submarine. My final note, if you are in the center or aisle seat, the more gadgets and wires you have out, the more you will have to rearrange every time someone has to pee. 

Pro Tip: Look, I get it, the whole airplane mode thing is absurd and your phone probably doesn’t affect a single instrument in a meaningful way, but airplane mode does preserve battery life. Also, the plane is flying at 500 feet and going 40,000 miles per hour so what chances do you think you have at finding a cell signal? Honestly, nobody will miss your witty social media posts for the five hours you are in flight. Use your phone for music and games.

Aristotle

Drinking on the Plane

I skipped eating on the plane, because you were smart enough to eat a proper meal prior to boarding and the “snack” doesn’t count as eating anymore than golfing counts as exercise. The drinks cart comes around at least once, maybe twice if it’s a longer flight. Do not waste the opportunity when it comes. When the cart comes, you will already know what you are getting, because it involves the same alcohol you had at the airport bar. It will be more expensive, but what are you going to do about it anyway. Whatever you get, get doubles. Doubles means two miniature bottles of alcohol instead of just the usual one. A double drink may only last as long as a single, but it will work twice as hard. If your drink involves a mixer that comes in its own small can, see if you can get the whole can. Don’t be afraid to get too much ice, it melts and you will wish you had more later on. Whenever you interact with the crew, especially the ones pushing the drinks cart, be polite and act like you are a civilized human being who would be the person offering praise on national news for how well the flight crew performed in resolving some kind of incident and don’t be the person who looks like the incident waiting to happen, that is angry tattoo guy’s role. If the drinks cart comes around again, feel free to order more doubles. If the drinks cart does not come around, wait for a lull in bathroom activity and go to the service area and politely ask for more drinks using please and thank you. They can say no if they think you are too intoxicated or if they think you will become a problem, so it’s best not to give them any reason to think that way. Finally, do not drink beer. Beer is inefficient. You have to drink a considerable volume of beer to feel the effects and drinking a half dozen beers will nuke your bladder. If you keep drinking beer on a long flight, your routine will be as follows: finish beer, get up to pee, after peeing, ask for more beer. Not one person involved in this repetitive ordeal will be happy and you will be gassy.

Pro Tip: When the drinks are out you should consider consolidating the number of gadgets on the tray. If you are listening to music on your phone, put the phone in your pocket where it was designed to live anyway. Spilling $40 worth of drinks on a $1,200 MacBook Air is like destroying a Ferrari with a signed Babe Ruth baseball bat.

The Beatles

Putting the Seat Back

Reclining is controversial. I am adamantly pro-recline. If the seat behind you is a bulkhead seat and that guy cannot recline, that is his fault. The seats recline, you paid for it, you might as well enjoy all two point five inches of reclining. Enough said.

Pro Tip: If you decide to recline and you are near, or worse, in front of an anti-recline person, be prepared to have a conversation about how you are being ‘passive aggressive.’ Check for tattoo guy’s proximity to this conversation first and then politely inform them that your only intent here is to be passive and reclining is helpful to that end. Close your eyes and enjoy the flight.

Mahatma Gandhi

Talking to Others

Some people are talkers and some are not, you have to pay attention to the signals and adapt accordingly. I don’t mind small talk. Where are you from, what do you do for a living and other such questions are fine, but I do not want to be your best friend. I want to relax. If I do not engage you in conversation, do not be offended, and do not attempt to engage me in conversation. I will entertain small talk and then put my headphones on, that is the signal okay.

Pro Tip: Cheesy jokes have a way of discouraging the chatty types, but be sure it is really cheesy and not quasi clever. Here is a freebie: “Hey, when the peanuts come around, wanna split a bag with me?” The joke isn’t funny, I know, thats the point. Also, this joke implies a level of physical intimacy with a total stranger that for most humans is off-putting. Problem solved.

Dom DeLuise

Dealing with Delays and Stuff

If the pilot announces a delay, the first thing you need to do is start charging your gadgets, especially your phone. If you have a portable charger, now is the time to break it out. If the seat has a plug or USB port, use that instead, its free energy. Well, I mean you paid something for it, but you don’t need to pay extra for it. Getting upset is not going to help. It’s not as if the pilot arbitrarily decided to take a detour to check in on his summer home. The issue is too complex, it involves weather, traffic, events well beyond the control of any one person. For all we know the pilot ate the fish and the crew is simply buying time to find someone who can safely land a 737 and did not have fish for dinner. The closer you get to landing, the more involved you will likely need to get in figuring out whether or not you need to change a connecting flight or modify a hotel reservation, if you were smart, you used a travel agent who can do all of this for you while you enjoy a complimentary Snickers bar given in recognition of your amazing patience. But no matter what, know that it is beyond your control and see if you can’t use the inconvenience to get a free drink to accompany your candy bar, but do not expect a free flight to Hawaii because your plane landed twenty two minutes late.

Pro Tip: Landing is not the end, it is merely the beginning of the end. The plane needs to taxi, which takes forever because it rolls along at about 7 MPH and needs to get to Gate 475W, which is in its own special time zone. When it gets to the gate, someone needs to maneuver the gangway to the side of the plane. If you watched the moon landing, you know this is a difficult task that requires years of NASA training and billions of dollars in specially designed training equipment. When the all clear is signaled and the door opens, bet on at least thirty percent of the people in front of you not being prepared to leave the plane for some reason. I know they had the better part of an hour to put away their laptop and figure out what to do with a half bag of miniature pretzels, but they squandered that hour trying to spot DisneyLand while still over Colorado.

Neil Armstrong

Landing

When the plane lands, you can turn on your phone, but that does not necessarily mean you have to make calls on it right away. Put it in silent mode. Nobody likes your cool ringtones. Nobody will be impressed by your urgent business calls either, that is what email is for. 

Pro Tip: See above.

Guy in 36C.

Disembarking

Look, I know its frustrating. All of the crap that came onto the plane now needs to be removed from it. Be prepared. No need to stand up and hunch under the baggage compartment as the lady in 3B tries to dislodge her oversized “carry-on” from the overhead bin. Stay seated, its more comfortable. Once out of the plane, look for the signs and start heading in the direction of either baggage claim or your connecting gate. When you see a bathroom, use it. You may not have another chance to go until you get to your final destination. 

Pro-Tip: Take your seat belt off as soon as possible, this way, you will not attempt to stand up while wearing it, this is a novice mistake, but it can happen to the best of us.

The Buddha

Baggage Claim

This is the thunderdome of air travel. Nobody here cares about your situation. You could be rushing to deactivate a suitcase nuke coming down the conveyor belt, it doesn’t matter to anyone Jack Bauer, step aside because this is thunderdome. Get to baggage claim as fast as possible, keep in mind you already wasted two or three minutes in the bathroom so you can deal with baggage claim without the distractions of a full bladder. Once there, go straight for the beginning of the belt. Don’t loaf around behind the crowd like some kind of sheep, stand as close to the conveyor belt as possible without getting mortally injured by the fast moving mechanisms. Learn to recognize your luggage. When you see it, track it like a lion tracking prey. When you are within arms length pounce. Grab with both arms, put your whole body into it like a lumber jack swinging an axe. If you are with another person, hand that prize over to them as fast as possible so you will not be distracted with its protection while you await the rest of your luggage. If any of your luggage goes missing or gets damaged, the best thing you can do is utilize your impressive vocabulary of vulgarities to its fullest. The venting will be epic, but the emotional swing will bring you from the Samual L. Jackson Ezekiel 25:17 scene in Pulp Fiction to Mel Gibson on the rack in Braveheart. “My Luggage!” he cried as they told him it could take up to 24 hours to find it and have it delivered to the resort.

Pro Tip: Get luggage that is not black or common. Something with a unique shape or design will stick out. Adding colorful stickers or ribbons may seem like a good idea but will eventually fail, because baggage handlers will send your luggage through a device that shears off anything and everything that is not secured to your bag by ultra strong carbon nanotube filament.

Nostradamus

Leaving the Airport

Find your bus or taxi and get on it. If you are doing some sort of ride share like Uber or Lyft, then please at least find the pick-up location before ordering the ride. If you are somewhere other than the designated pick-up, the driver will call you and you will have several minutes of awkward exchanges that sound like this: 

Driver: “I’m your Uber driver Mark, I’m here, where are you?”

You: “Um, I’m by a pole with the number 12 on it.”

Driver: “Are you near the parking lot? I am in the parking lot on the second level.”

You: “There is a parking lot here and a pole with the number 12 on it and there is a Hertz rental car across the street.”

Driver: “I am in the parking lot, on level two next to a row of orange cones.”

You: “I see a fire truck parked next to a cement bollard about thirty feet down the street. I am wearing a red hat and I have a dark blue shirt on.”

Driver: “I am in the parking lot on level two in the ride share lane next to some orange cones. I am driving a black Mazda.”

…You get the point.

And one final note, please enjoy the journey.

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