I fly a lot. I’m just about to get on another flight, this time to Hong Kong, via Munich on Lufthansa. Although I occasionally get treated to premium cabins, much of my flying is at the back of the plane. In fact, given the frequency with which I fly, I reckon I’d be quite high up the league table of economy class flying hours – most people who fly as much as me would do a lot more premium economy or business class, I suspect.
So here are some tips.
- Rack up status if you can. Which alliance you choose will in part be determined by where you fly from (if you are flying from an airline’s hub, then go with them, because you’ll more easily be able to spend your miles). If you have a choice, avoid Sky Team, because that includes the strike-prone Air France (and French airports are to be avoided, more on that later). One World or Star Alliance is best. I’m with BA for the former and Air New Zealand for the latter. Status helps if you are flying economy, because you get priority boarding and lounge access. And it’s easier to spend air miles or points when you have status.
- Boarding early is a big bonus if you have hand luggage only. This is because the big issue on most flights these days is overhead locker stowage: competition for it is fierce. So status will get you on the plane early, as will sitting at the very back (planes board economy class from the back). So as long as you don’t want to hop off in a rush, sit towards the very back. There’s more chance of an empty seat next to you there, too.
- Window seats are lovely, but I’ve decided it’s much better to have an inside aisle seat. Window aisles usually involve two people jumping over you regularly to relieve their small bladders. On most planes, there’s a block of four seats in the middle so only one person will have to jump over you. Small details matter. You are also more likely to get a seat next to you free if you are on the inside block.
- Take your own headphones, eye shades and ear plugs. These all make a big difference to the flight experience out back.
- As far as possible, choose to travel on a newer plane. Check with Seatguru.com to see which planes airlines are flying on specific routes. The best are the 787 and A350, and after this the A380. Avoid 747s like the plague: they are all ancient. The newer the plane, the more comfortable the economy class experience because the seat and entertainment system will be better. The age of the plane matters more than the airline in most cases. Even the American carriers are OK when they have new planes on their routes.
- Give yourself decent connection times. There are few things more stressful than a late flight resulting in a rush for the next one.
- Travel light, and travel hand luggage only if you can. It makes it so much easier and quicker. I hate waiting for luggage on the carousel. I also avoid hard-shelled wheelie hand luggage, though, preferring something soft-shelled, just in case there is a shortage of locker space. If you get on late and there’s none left, your bag will be checked, which is a pain.
- Airlines’ pricing strategy is beyond normal human comprehension. Hunt around if you are looking to save money. Skyscanner is a good start. And remember that if you book a return flight, you need to use the outward portion for the return portion to be valid, unless you are flying with budget airlines where each leg is priced separately and this rule isn’t enforced.
- If you are connecting, try to avoid doing it in countries where you have to go through immigration just to get back on the plane. For example, it’s better to fly to another European hub from London and then directly to a small US city, than to fly to a US hub from London and then connect. Think ahead and minimize hassle and stress. Also, avoid connecting through terrible airports, especially if you are spending some time there.
- Avoid French airports as much as possible. They are the worst: frequently understaffed, resulting in epic queues at passport control. And security can be glacially slow: they make you take every electronic item (including cameras and lenses) out. And last time I went through security at Lyon, everyone was being swabbed for explosives, and the queue was enormous. The staff were in no hurry.
- If you are hitting the ground running after a long haul overnighter, and you don’t have access to a shower, take what you need to freshen up in the toilets. I know it’s unglamorous, but a headwash and a shave really helps after being stuck in a plane for 12 or 24 hours. It’s worth researching in advance, because some airports actually have showers that normal people without lounge access can use.
- Don’t fret too much about lounge access. It’s useful for power points, showers in the middle of two long legs, and sometimes (only sometimes) for peace and quiet. But the British Airways Galleries lounges are often just as busy as the main terminal, and have few power points. Lounge food is almost always terrible, as is the wine. Typically, in a decent airport, food options are much, much better in the main terminal.
- Always get to the airport really early. If there is a problem getting there, you’ll still catch your flight. There’s no hardship in killing an hour or two in an airport, and it avoids any stress. The more you can eliminate stress from flying, the better.
- Finally, have the right mindset. Airports are buzzy, exciting places with lots of energy. Flying is fun: an adventure. And you get jetlag wherever you are flying in the plane. Having a positive outlook transforms flying from something tiring and difficult into something positive.