I’m on record saying that air travel is an awful experience for the most part and has been for my entire life. I came to this conclusion long before United Airlines’ had a dismaying experience with a passenger who was dragged off a plane by police, sustaining injuries in the process.
I also came to this conclusion long before that event was followed by a parade of horribles throughout the industry, reported by smartphone and on social media.
As negative as I can be about the miseries of flight, over the years I’ve come up with some hacks that make it bearable. I put some of these to work on recent flights to Europe and Utah, in fact.
Here are my top seven:
1. Make a day of it.
Modern air travel is so much faster relative to what most people used to endure — long train, boat, or car rides — that we’ve come to believe that we’ll be whisked from point A to point B with no deleterious effects.
This is foolish. Just because your flight is two hours doesn’t mean that’s all the time you’ll be committing to the journey. You could get stuck in traffic on the way to the airport. You could be delayed at check-in or security. The flight itself could leave late. You could get bumped! You could miss a connection. And on and on.
Add to that the stress you’ll endure if you fly coach, with a cramped seat, and you’re confronting an ordeal.
My practice is to write off the travel day. Even if my flight is just a couple of hours, I plan to spend the day on the move and unless there’s a business commitment mixed in, I devote myself to the journey.
I get to the airport with hours to spare, have a bite to eat and something to drink, do a bit of reading, board the plane, take my flight, and then I don’t rush at the other end. In effect, I impose leisure on something that for most people isn’t leisurely.
All bets are off, of course, if I’m flying with my family. But when I’m, solo, I make it all about me. I didn’t adhere to this rule on my most recent trip, mainly because the schedule wasn’t completely under my control, and as a result I wound up a bit cranky by the end of my return flight.
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2. Use the lounges.
Some travelers have airport lounge access thanks to their ticket or relationship with the airline or lounge through a credit card. But if you don’t, I think it’s worth it to pay for daily access. In fact, I routinely now do this.
I usually spend around $50, and if you figure that I’m already saving a fair amount of money by flying coach and would have to feed myself in any case, I think it evens out and actually can be a money saving expenditure.
Even if it isn’t, it’s much more relaxing to hang out in the lounge than it is in the terminal or by the gate. I’ll often spend a few hours doing this, becoming a sort of temporary citizen of the airport.
3. Stay overnight at an airport hotel.
This often isn’t as expensive as you might think. On a recent layover in Lisbon, I decided to spend the night at a nice boutique hotel across the street from the airport, and I spent around $100.
Again, you’re taking care of yourself with this move, reducing the stress of getting the airport on time. For early flights, I think this a total no-brainer. You wake up, maybe enjoy a free breakfast, and you either stroll over to the airport or jump on a shuttle.
This works out best if the hotel is in the airport itself. Or nearby. I stuck by this rule in Lisbon this year and in Paris last year and the results were great. I arrived for my flights with plenty of time to spare.
4. Don’t fly coach.
Admittedly, this isn’t an option for many folks. But if you fly infrequently, I say it’s worth it to spend the extra money and enjoy a business — or even first-class experience when you take to the skies.
And remember, you can often use a credit card or frequent flyer/miles program to upgrade from coach. Or you can simply pay some extra money at check-in. Or just ask for an upgrade.
Again, not an option for everybody. But if you are somebody who can sleep on a plane, and you favor coach, you can essentially pass the agonizing episode while blissfully snoozing.
I’ve managed to do this on several occasions quite literally from takeoff to landing.
The trick, of course, is that you need to schedule the flights so you’re tired enough to zonk out. For this reason, overnight flights are a good choice.
6. Read a book.
In-flight entertainment is great — a vast improvement over the single-movie showings of my youth. And in truth, I often use my flights to catch up on films I’ve missed in the theater.
But I’ve also noticed that all that visual stimulation is fairly unrelaxing and can contribute to setting me more on edge after I’m already stressed by the flying experience itself.
So now I always make sure I have a book (printed or in a Kindle format) to get lost in. This is always a more calming experience for me. On my last trip, I went with a printed book and between some snoozes, it was ideal.
7. Take a train.
OK, this one is sort of unfair to the airlines. But plenty of folks fly between cities that are relatively accessible by rail, and although the US doesn’t have a proper European-, Japanese-, or Chinese-style high-speed rail network, many trains still travel from urban center to urban center, eliminating a lot of extra time spent getting to and from the airport.
The quality of service varies. The well-traveled Northeast corridor can be crowded, and the trains themselves are in need to upgrades.
But I’ve taken other city-to-city routes, and while your travel is slower, it’s more relaxing. I even recently took the Amtrak Acela from Washington, DC to Newark, New Jersey and thought that it was a breeze.
Sometimes, ya gotta know when not to fly!