Making Travel Less Painful

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Scott McCartney shares 25 tips for making travel less painful. Some of them you already know, and Top 10 lists are certainly common on other news sites. I thought I’d share my favorites and how they’ve helped me turn flying into something fun instead of a chore. I think there are also a few places where Scott’s advice could be revised.

Email me if the link doesn’t work and you’d like me to forward the complete article.

Get elite status

This is the real key. You can get “fake” status through a credit card or a la cart buy-ups that will allow you to board early, skip lines, or pick a better seat. Sometimes that’s enough. But it isn’t going to count for much when you really need it. You don’t have to have top-tier status. I have pulled the “Do you know who I am?” trick only twice in my life, when I was only a silver or gold elite, and that was still enough.

The first time was when we were stuck in Houston for hours due to a thunderstorm, and it looked like they were finally going to let some regional jets depart late at night. The customer service agent originally refused to rebook us on the 10 PM flight (delayed from 7 PM, and we were supposed to leave at 2 PM), but when I reminded her I had silver status and asked if that counted for anything, she relented. The second time was when we were late for a flight and a redcoat at Newark rudely refused to let Megan take her bag through the security checkpoint because she claimed it was too big. I knew it would fit and made a point of saying so, explaining that I had gold status and had taken that bag with us on several trips in the past year. Again, the agent immediately relented.

Pack smart

Most of us know not to pack valuables, but it’s also important to strategize what you do pack. I used to be a horrible over-packer. Huge heavy bags that wouldn’t qualify as a carryon, even for short weekend trips. Now I make sure everything matches everything else and ask myself if I really plan to wear everything I take with me. Only one “extra” outfit is allowed. I have to remind Megan that just because one or two outfits are super cute doesn’t mean she should take up half her suitcase with these clothes if she can’t wear them with anything else.

And while Scott didn’t mention this, another benefit of packing light so you can bring a carryon is that you improve your chances of getting voluntarily bumped off an overbooked flight. :D This can easily mean a few hundred dollars in future travel and maybe even a confirmed upgrade.

Check-in early

Scott doesn’t seem to distinguish between checking in online and printing your boarding passes from home. While he suggests doing both, I only check-in online. This is the key part. As soon as you check-in, your seat is relatively safe. It also makes sure you have an assigned seat (assuming you didn’t already select one, which you should have). Without being checked in or having an assigned seat, you could be involuntarily bumped, which is not good.

I don’t print my boarding passes at home unless I expect a zoo at the airport, like during the March 3 integration of United and Continental’s computer systems. I like the smaller pieces of paper you get at the airport, but this is purely personal preference. On the other hand, I also don’t use a mobile boarding pass because there are too many opportunities for things to go wrong if your phone dies, you lose an internet connection, or the scanners don’t work. Paper is simple.

Plan ahead for security

Really, we should all know what to expect from the TSA at this point. I try to minimize what’s in my pockets in advance and put into my bags what I can. I don’t do this with everything. If I want my phone after going through the checkpoint, I don’t put it in my bag. I’m just going to take it right out again. But I’ll put my car and house keys in my suitcase since I won’t need them until I get back home.

Dress sensibly. Slip-on shoes are great, and although I’m not a very dressy person when I fly, I do like to wear my Nike Free sneakers, which don’t have a separate tongue and can slip on and off without untying the laces. Avoid coats unless you really need them. Since I usually need it in Seattle but not where I’m going, it’s one of the things I put in my bag after reaching the airport, usually in the front pocket of my carryon.

Do you remember Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air? Megan says that profile fits me to a T. Hopefully I won’t be firing people for a living, but the early scene where he’s going through security, picking out the fastest line, and has all of his belongings ready to go on the conveyer belt in 30 seconds or less is definitely something I do on a regular basis.

Anything else?

I’m sure I’ve skipped a few things. What favorite tricks have you found make travel a breeze?

Scott created Hack My Trip after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Malda

    Important point about boarding passes: Always print them at home, and always print TWO copies. If you happen to get selected for extra screening (you are flying one-way, the TSA doesn’t like something about your ID, etc) and either the ticket counter staff or TSA stamp the dreaded SSSS on one of your boarding passes, the second copy will come handy to show to the TSA at the checkpoint to save yourself and the TSA some time.

    • Lam

      What is the dreaded SSSS? I don’t fly much

      • Scottrick

        This is an indication on your boarding pass that you’ve been selected for secondary screening.

  • Steve Kalman

    @Malda I use electronic with paper backup. I don’t think they’ve figured a way to do the SSS on the smartphone boarding passes.

  • Haloastro

    Good tips.  I would just like to remind your readers that just because you’ve taken a bag with you on multiple trips before, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t larger than the legal carry-on size.  Oversized carry-ons (which a lot of people bring on board these days) will still fit in the overhead bins, so that is also not a criteria, and just slows the boarding process as the bins fill up faster when everyone is boarding with oversized bags and they run out of space.

    As far as electronic BPs go, all of the airline apps that I’ve used store the electronic BP on my phone, and an internet connection isn’t required.  You’re spot on about checking in early, especially if there’s any chance the flight may be oversold (I always do this), but I’ve never understood why people feel the need to print their BPs at home.  I fly a lot, and I’ve never had to wait more than a minute or so for a kiosk – the small pieces of paper are far more practical for carrying around if you really want to have a paper BP.

    • Scottrick

      I agree about the bag. It was on the borderline, and I’ve since bought her a TravelPro that I know is within the guidelines. It always fit–but infrequent flyers don’t generally know  whether it will or not.

      Maybe my issue with e-BPs is that at least when it comes to web pages, my iPhone consistently tries to reload sites even when there’s no internet connection. I generally use an emailed BP rather than an in-app BP for whatever reason, and that might be tripping me up, too. But for whatever reason, I like getting a paper copy at the airport, and I’ve never gotten the dreaded SSSS.

  • http://www.willtravelforwork.com/ Nick Vannello

    I finally got smart and shelled out a chunk of cash for a TSA friendly bag for my computer. The bag has two compartments that “butterfly” open and scans flat through the scanner. I have a MacAir and an iPad; both, when by themselves, are no problem and don’t need to be removed from a normal bag. However, when they lay on each other, they become “too thick” and problematic for the scanners.

    The new butterfly bag has saved me time in line and I don’t have to worry about retrieving my laptop that was normally in a bin by itself.