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Tips for frequent international travel

I travel pretty regularly, about 35% so far in 2010. When it goes wrong, travel can be exhausting, frustrating, complicated, stressful and even debilitating. I’m always looking for ways to make my trips run more smoothly. On a recent flight to Taipei, I wrote down a few of the techniques which I’ve successfully put into practice and found helpful. This is not an exhaustive list; I’ve omitted a lot of the common and obvious tips I’ve seen elsewhere.

  1. Make a packing list. This one may be obvious, but a lot of people neglect it. Perhaps they think making lists is boring and fussy, but really, it isn’t. Without a packing list, it’s easy to forget to do the things which will make your trip better. Use it every time, and bring a copy with you (or store it online) so you can add the things you wish you had brought or done. A simple, ever-improving packing list is the most effective technique I have found for making travel less stressful and more enjoyable.
  2. Carry a water bottle with a tight-fitting lid. I use a 32oz Nalgene bottle, which fits nicely into the seat next to me or under an armrest, and gives me enough water for even the longest flights. I fill it up after passing through security, at a cafe, bar or lounge, and generally decline the beverages offered by the cabin crew. Staying hydrated helps me feel better during the flight, and leaves me with less malaise when I arrive. I don’t need to manage a tray table or armrest full of cups and other debris, so I can sit more comfortably, with the tray table folded away.
  3. Consolidate essential items using multipurpose equipment. For example, invest in a power adapter which has USB sockets onboard, and carry USB cables instead of wall chargers. Versatile items like this save on space and weight. I can charge two devices this way, but the equipment is smaller and lighter than even a single wall charger.
  4. Learn how to sleep on an airplane. Getting some sleep on a long flight really helps to offset the effects of traveling. There are several resources out there with practical advice on how to do it. One thing which really helped me was to buy a high quality eye mask which blocks out all of the light in the cabin. The one I use looks a little funny and is not cheap, but is very comfortable and effective. It’s made of memory foam with a soft, washable cover and works much better than the ones the airlines give away for free. I no longer bother with a neck pillow, and use the flaps built into the seat to lean my head against. I’m surprised at how many people don’t know about this common aricraft feature: virtually every long-haul seat has something like this, even in economy, though it may not be obvious how to use it.
  5. Buy duplicates of things like toiletries, and keep them in your travel kit so you don’t need to pack your everyday items (and risk forgetting them) each time. The less packing you need to do, the less time it will take, and the less opportunity there is for mistakes. This also saves time unpacking when you get home, and lets you buy a smaller size of the item where available.
  6. Optimize border crossings Carry the forms you’ll need for customs, immigration, etc. in your carry-on. They don’t always provide them at the counter or on board the plane, and it’s a hassle to rush to fill in the form at the last minute. If you have a few of them with you, you can fill them out early (perhaps even before you fly) and then hustle to the front of the queue. For countries you enter frequently (especially your home country), programs like Global Entry (US) and IRIS (UK) will save you a lot of time by allowing you to use an automated kiosk to cross the border.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 3, 2010 at 17:33

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7 Responses

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  1. Good tips – especially the water bottle one. I’ve been meaning to copy that from you for at least the last two UDSes!

    I don’t travel quite as much as you, but I’ve definitely found that prior preparation and optimisation help a huge amount. Even simple things like arriving at the front of the airport security line with all your metal in your bag, your coat off and your laptop in hand. It should be obvious, but I always watch people frantically repack bags at the front of the line, or get pulled aside for a pat down because they didn’t remove their metal objects.

    Ultimately though I think the best tip I could offer a traveller is to maintain a relaxed and slightly detached mental state throughout. Many travellers seem to force their way through the experience at a significantly elevated level of stress. It can’t possibly be healthy and seems to be a poor strategy when things go wrong.

    (The sleep thing is really weird, I’ve noticed on several flights this year that I’m drifting off even before takeoff, even if it’s the middle of the day. I think I’ve somehow conditioned myself to just be sleeping on planes!)

    Chris Jones

    October 4, 2010 at 09:16

  2. It’s actually not very recommended to sleep in a plane, at least not for long periods, because it raises the risks of deep vein thrombosis.


    October 4, 2010 at 09:35

  3. I always buy a bottle of water before boarding, for much the same reason.

    I don’t sleep, generally; the quality of rest is too low. Instead I make sure I stand up and walk about regularly, and hang in the galley at the back. For 12h+ flights sitting down all the time is murder on your back.

    But I always, always use earplugs on board. The constant, loud whine of engines and airconditioners is by far the most tiring part of flying. With earplugs, and with moving around I tend to feel fairly alert when I arrive.

    A final tip is to schedule extra time at every airport if you can. The worst part for me is to stress for connections, or go directly from airport to the meeting. Make sure you get an extra half an hour or an hour. Use the time to take it easy, walk about – you’re going to be sitting a lot again shortly – and generally just relax and refocus. There’s usually some kind of spa or place you can get a real shower; use it after any long flights, and especially when you arrive. It makes a world of difference to feel clean and fresh.


    October 4, 2010 at 10:56

    • I never found earplugs I liked, they always seem to slowly work their way out, which not only feels very disconcerting, it’s also quite disruptive!
      I’ve taken to pretty religiously wearing noise cancelling ear-bud headphones. I found a set that are comfy enough to wear for a longhaul flight whether I’m listening to music/movies or not. They don’t get 100% of the ambient noise, but the difference is pretty staggering.
      The one thing that you do notice is that suddenly you can hear a lot more conversations around you because people are speaking up. Not great if you’re trying to sleep on a day flight, but if everyone else is sleeping then it works well.
      It also means that when you are listening to music/movies, you can have the volume much lower (some in-set systems actually don’t go low enough, I’ve found) which can only be a good thing, and lets you hear announcements and talk to the cabin staff without digging for a pause button :)

      Chris Jones

      October 4, 2010 at 12:37

  4. I always try to do the water bottle thing, but I’ve had water that I purchased AT THE GATE (well inside security) taken away by Chinese military 15 feet before entering the aircraft at HKG. On that same flight, a couple next to me on the plane brought fried chicken and 4 sodas in their carry-on. Still, having water on a long flight that I can control means traveling with a 1.75L camelbak backpack these days (not just a hydration pak).

    Knowing customs tricks at different airports can be very helpful. In San Jose, Costa Rica – RUN, RUN, RUN to get to the non-resident immigration line … or you’ll be there 90 minutes waiting. Don’t get a coffee or go to the bathroom first. RUN to get at the head of the line.

    IME, the customs lines into the USA are all about the same (LAX, CHI, ATL), but I honestly get chills every time the agent says, “welcome home” regardless of how close I am to my home city … except when coming from Canada. It doesn’t really feel like I left anyway. ;)


    October 5, 2010 at 00:16

  5. My mom’s tip was always to carry one change of socks, underwear, and a shirt in your carry-on in case your luggage got lost/delayed.

    Tony Yarusso

    October 5, 2010 at 02:33

  6. I’m kind of a gear/optimization geek and I like to keep a variety of tools available at all times. This can be tricky when flying. One thing that I find helps for dealing with security screenings is to keep all contraband items in a single separate nylon pouch that I call a “Red Kit”. Knives, screwdrivers, pliers, torch lighter, etc. all go in the Red Kit and then into my everyday backpack. If I know I’m going to be flying, I simply pull the Red Kit out and leave it at home or toss it in my checked bag. This way, I don’t have any vital tool confiscated at screening, and when I return home, I can simply toss the kit back into my pack. No items lost or forgotten.

    Sean J Stanley

    November 8, 2010 at 19:55

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