On flying

on flying - tips for airline travel

Flew back from Vancouver on Saturday night. The plane in the top left picture above is the ancient BA 747-400 that we were flying on, getting ready for boarding. The plane was creaking at the seams a bit: it had to abandon taxiing and return to the stand to have its electrics looked at. We sat on board for 30 minutes while they rebooted various bits of the electrical system, and lights went on and off, and eventually they sorted it.

I travel a lot. I fly all the airlines and across different classes, and I’ve tried to fine-tune the whole flying experience to make it as painless as possible. Passing through airports is a pain, but it’s the little things you can do to improve the process that, together, make the experience tolerable. Here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, fly on modern planes if you can. Forget about the airline: if the plane is new your flying experience will be much better. New planes have more comfortable seats, larger entertainment screens, and everything tends to work. I’d rather fly on a new plane with a less good airline than the other way round. BA is a good airline but it tends to put the old 747s on the popular routes. I fly with them to Cape Town but the planes are the very oldest, and the only reason I persist is because there aren’t any other direct options from London.

Second, it’s worth flying on airlines which are trying hard. Turkey, Singapore and UEA are all making a big effort with their airlines, which they see as playing a role in national PR. I’ve been flying Emirates a bit of late and they’re excellent (very new planes, with wifi on board), although you usually end up in Dubai for a few hours in the middle of the night. Mind you, it’s relatively easy to get status on their frequent flier program so that you can use the lounges in Dubai.

Ah yes, frequent flier status. It’s worth getting some, but don’t fret about getting to the highest levels of status. I’m Gold on Star Alliance, Bronze on BA, Silver on Emirates. The first gets me lounge access and priority boarding, the second just priority boarding, and the third access to business class lounges in Dubai only. Plus you can do more with your airmiles, with all three. The one bonus I really like is priority boarding, because these days, when everyone is trying to fly hand luggage only, the real competition is for space in the overhead lockers. It’s a major pain if your carry-on gets checked because there’s no room, especially if you have tight connections. It’s also a hassle queuing to board.

Lounge access can be nice, but these days there’s less need for it. Lounges used to be the only places you could get reliable wifi and power, but most modern airports give you free wifi, and if you hunt you can usually find power. And the eating and drinking options in the main airport usually far surpass the quality of what’s available for free in the lounge. Lounge food and drink is usually pretty bad, and if you want Champagne you often have to beg for it. I like the peace of the lounge, but it’s no big loss not to hang around in the main part of the airport.

It’s a bit like business class flying: most of the benefit is a psychological one. Airlines play up to this. If you fly to Australia or New Zealand or San Francisco, you’ll be equally jet-lagged if you are in the front of the plane or the back. If you have a lie-flat in business, you’ll probably have slept quite a bit better, but your body clock won’t be any better aligned, and you (or a client) will have paid a serious premium for the privilege. If you can get over the perceived stigma of flying economy, then you’ll have saved enough money to buy a new Macbook Air or an Olympus Pen F, plus a Michelin-star level lunch to boot. This is how I think of it. Business or First class travel is simple conspicuous consumption.

Many people like to stick with just one frequent flier program, but then you end up travelling by less convenient routes, on older planes (sometimes), and paying more for your flights. It’s better to have the flexibility of a few to chose from. I draw the line at SkyTeam, though, because of the frequency of French strikes. It’s now bigger than Oneworld, but smaller than Star Alliance. I’ll stick with Oneworld in addition to Star Alliance because of BA, though, and its Heathrow hub.

Get to airports early. The inconvenience and stress that come through being short of time and almost missing flights far outweighs any benefit of having an hour or so extra at home before flying. Just decide you are going to get some work done at the airport and give yourself a decent cushion, and then if there’s a problem with your transport you won’t risk missing your flight. Most stress around flying is totally avoidable, yet it’s amazing how many people rush panicked to the gate because they thought they were being smart cutting timings fine.

If your airline has an app, use it. These apps usually alert you to things like delays or boarding times, and they are the easiest way of managing your airmiles/frequent flier status.

Finally, pack light. Buy clothes with a view to travel. Reduce duplication. Be ruthless. Packing light and flying hand luggage only makes travelling a much nicer experience. I don’t even use a big, wheeled carry-on these days, so I don’t have to worry about finding space in the overhead lockers. It reduces the potential hassle or stress of flying even further. The whole flying experience is much better if you feel empowered and in control, and these days with modern technology and a bit of planning ahead, you can be in control of your flying experience and have a stress-free time travelling the world.

Those are my views. Any tips for frequent fliers? I’d love to hear them.

4 comments to On flying

  • Jason Amos

    I would only add the necessity of your own noise cancelling headphones for long haul.
    It’s amazing the difference the cancelling of the background engine noise makes for resting.
    It is also amazing how you can also sleep in any position offered in the economy seat!

  • Chris Hall

    Agree with everything you say. One more tip. Get to the check in desk as it opens and request an exit row seat. More legroom for free!

  • You do fly a lot so it’s very interesting to read your comment. I would add, take your phone charging cord with you so you arrive ready for action, book a window seat so you can walk.take ear plugs you really sleep far better and grab a blanket as you board. They’re always in the first overhead locker in the section. Refer to the air hostess by name, you “seem” to get better service and when you land and are ready to disembark you don’t need to be the first person to be standing up, there’s almost enough time to finish the chapter in your book. Drink lots of water and since you are in the isle seat you can go pee without pissing the other passengers off!!

  • keith prothero

    I know you pack light. just that one Canadian lumberjack shirt :)

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