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Off Topic: Airline Travel Tips

This blog has been silent as of late because the Survey Geek has been spending way too much time on airplanes.  Some of it has been flying, but most of it seems to have been on the ground waiting.  It has been a tough summer for air travel and colleagues have been asking for tips, hence this post. 

Here are some rules that I try to follow:

  1. Fly early in the day. As the day wears on the delays pile up.  Try especially to avoid late afternoon and evening flights in the summer; those afternoon thundershowers can wreak havoc and create monster delays.
  2. Fly direct whenever possible.  Every plane change is a delay opportunity.
  3. If you have to change flights, allow more like two hours instead of the airline-recommended one hour unless there are frequent flights out to your destination and you can afford to wait for the next plane when you miss yours.
  4. Manage your seat selection; don't just take whatever the airline gives you.  There are three points in time when it is important to do this: (1) when you first buy your ticket; (2) just after the frequent flier upgrades are done and some good seats open up; and (3) when you print your boarding pass.  On this last point, print as soon as you can and check your seat options before printing.
  5. Buy your ticket directly from the airline.  You generally will pay the same but when the airlines have to move people because of delays and cancellations they take care of their own first.  All of us have probably had the experience of getting an incredible deal on a hotel room in a first class hotel from and then being assigned to a smoking room next to the elevator or across from the vending machines.  The airlines are no different.
  6. Never put yourself on the last flight out unless you don't mind sleeping in airports.
  7. Never assume that you can fly in two hours before an important meeting and be on time to the meeting.  The amount of cushion you give yourself should be in direct proportion to the importance of the meeting.
  8. Get a paper ticket if you can.  It's easier to jump to another airline if you have a paper ticket rather than just a boarding pass.
  9. Buy early.  Prices go up and seat selection gets poorer the longer you wait.
  10. Travel light and carry on.  Storage space is precious and baggage handling a disaster waiting to happen.  Is anybody really going to care or even notice if you wear the same shoes every day or bring one less pair of pants?  The delay in getting your luggage can be a killer, especially late at night when airports go to skeleton staffs.
  11. Carry a supply of energy bars, candy bars or whatever snacks appeal to you.  You might be stuck in an airport that has no flights going in and out but don't expect the restaurants, stores or airline clubs to stay open late to service you.
  12. When you visit an unfamiliar airport pay attention to the line at security on your way out and plan your return appropriately.
  13. If you have an iPod, invest in a pair of noise-canceling earphones.  Active models (like the famous Bose) are big and bulky and they work by messing with frequencies which obviously affects the quality of the music.  Passive, in-ear models (Shure has an excellent line) are essentially ear plugs that shut out external noise and the music is fantastic.  (Don't confuse these with the el cheapos that came with your iPod.).  They take up no space and can help preserve your sanity when the fates turn against you. Plus, you can listen at safe volume levels which is hard to do on airplanes with regular earphones.
  14. Not all airports are created equal and try to avoid or at least plan for bad time with the worst of them.  There is a site that tracks them.
  15. Familiarize yourself with the plethora of Web sites that can make you a smarter traveler.  The best of them includes: , , and
  16. When flying out of DTW, be aware that the parking situation is awful, especially during heavy vacation periods.  On all but early morning flights, be prepared to be shut out of the McNamara garage (it's gotten really pricey anyway) and shunted off to one of the color lots.  It may be better to plan ahead and either use off-airport parking or not drive at all.

Happy travels (if that's not an oxymoron)!