I started writing this piece on the plane from Phuket to Koh Samui. It is the 4th January 2016 and this is already my second flight of the year. Suffice it to say, I fly a lot – mostly short-haul, these days, but I’ve done a fair amount of long-haul, too. There are certainly plenty of people who routinely travel by air more than I, but there are many more who do not.
As with all things, experience makes air travel easier. You begin to recognise the patterns and see where you can exploit them to make your journey more comfortable. I’m not going to say that this is any kind of comprehensive list of tips and tricks; this is just the few little pieces of advice that I have picked up, mostly as a result of bitter experience or pure dumb luck. As more occur to me, there may be a ‘part two’ in the future.
I will expand this point in a future post, but the fact is that you can easily travel for at least a week and as many as three (both of which I have done) with only carry-on luggage. The only time I use checked baggage now is if I’m carrying some of the more weighty parts of my camera kit or if I’m moving house. Having no checked baggage means no risk of your bag ending up in a different country to you, no waiting around at baggage reclaim, no risk of anything falling victim to the mysterious ways of baggage handlers and, if you’re smart about it, no waiting around in the check-in queue, either.
It is not a widely advertised point, but you are actually allowed two bags on the plane with you: your carry-on luggage, which is supposed to be stowed in the overhead compartment, and a laptop bag or hand bag (that’s “purse” for American readers), which goes by your feet.
It’s the only way to travel! On more than one occasion, I have arrived at the airport literally as my flight was boarding, shot through security and joined the back of the queue at the gate just in time to be the last person on, flashing the boarding pass on my phone and a huge grin. Of course, this does only work under certain very specific conditions: 1) You have no checked baggage (see above point); 2) It’s a small airport (Phuket International, for example, particularly if it’s a domestic flight); and 3) The relevant airline’s app doesn’t suddenly decide to cease functioning and your phone doesn’t run out of batteries.
Leaving it to the last minute to reach the airport has resulted in at least two occasions where I missed the flight so, while I still recommend the web or mobile check-in for saving you one of the most arduous queues of your journey, I can’t really recommend the late arrival, least of all if it’s an international flight.
I said in the introduction that I started this piece during my second flight of 2016. The first was a simple hop from Bangkok’s domestic and short-haul airport (Don Muang International) to Phuket. I got to the gate about two hours before departure time, which is unusually early for me. About an hour before boarding even started, though, I noticed that the line for the gate was already about 20 metres long.
This, frankly, perplexed me. I double-checked the departure boards and confirmed that the flight hadn’t moved to a different gate or changed time. Why were so many people prepared to stand in a queue for over an hour? I never did find out. Instead, I sat in comfort while doing some work, packed away my laptop as boarding was scheduled to start and only joined the back of the queue when it started to move forward. I’d checked in hours ago, so I knew the plane wasn’t about to leave without me and I wasn’t going to get to Phuket any quicker by getting in line. All I would do is make myself tired and irritable.
First In; Last Out
Continuing the tale from the last point, joining the back of the queue can be a double-edged sword. If it is a long-haul flight, it means that you’re last onto the plane, so you might have to struggle for overhead baggage space. However, this was a short-haul domestic flight. In many cases, such flights are parked out on the apron, not right at the terminal. This means that you will need to take a short bus ride to get to the plane.
Being last in the queue at the boarding gate meant that I was last to board the bus, having to squeeze myself in. This meant that I was right next to the door so, after the short drive, I was among the first to disembark. One Thai guy was a bit quicker than me out of the other exit to the bus and was first to board the aircraft. I was a close second. I cannot tell you how smug that made me feel!
A purely technical point, with no special trick to it: It is a fact not widely known that the armrest by the aisle can actually be lifted, just like the others between it and the window. There is a little switch on the underside and near the hinge of the armrest which, when pushed, disables the locking mechanism which usually keeps it fixed down. This means that you can get into and out of your row a lot quicker and more easily.
Rumour has it that such a switch exists on the window seat armrest too, which would make my favourite seating choice that much more awesome by allowing you to rest right against the bulkhead without having a huge lump of metal poking into your kidneys. However, I’ve extensively checked on long- and short-haul flights and have yet to find the switch.
Pain in the Neck
Within minutes of landing at your destination, you will usually hear the distinctive skree-click of people unbuckling their seat belts. Within seconds of the plane stopping, people are out of their seats and rummaging in overhead lockers. This happened when I landed in New Delhi in 2009 and it turned out that the plane had only stopped on the taxiway for traffic, which meant that a lot of passengers were very shocked when we suddenly started moving again!
My question is this: why? Delhi wasn’t going anywhere and these people were not going to reach it any sooner by being the first off the plane (particularly given the horrific mess that was New Delhi Airport’s immigration and passport control!). Even once we reached the terminal, it takes them a few minutes to hook up the skybridge. All it meant was that, just like at Bangkok in my earlier point, most of these people spent a considerable time stood up for no reason. If you’re tall like me and not fast enough to get into the aisle, it means a lot of time stood with your head to one side to avoid clattering it on the overhead lockers. Save yourself a pain in the neck, relax and just be patient.
While most airlines still forbid the use of electrical equipment during take-off and landing, increasingly more are accepting defeat, admitting that the claim that it interferes with navigational equipment is complete nonsense, and letting you use your tablets and iPods, so long as they are securely braced (and in airplane mode, obviously). British Airways was the first company I encountered which declared this in their pre-take-off announcements and my respect for them shot up considerably as a result.
In all honesty, I’ve been doing this for many years regardless. I know that the only reason they don’t want you listening to music during take-off is that it is one of the two parts of the flight where the aircraft is most at risk of crashing and they want to make sure everyone can hear the brace alarm. Given that the brace alarm is generally the last sign that something has gone horribly wrong (usually preceded by loud noises, vibrations, the aircraft dropping out of the sky and everyone panicking), I felt that it was a risk I could safely take.
During one take-off long ago, the fates shone upon me and I discovered that the perfect song to listen to during take-off is Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd. By sheer fluke, the song hit the transition between the slow intro and the wild guitars of the second half (somewhere around the 4:40 mark, depending on the version you’re listening to) at exactly the moment that the pilot opened the throttles and started his take-off run. The result was nothing short of epic. Since then, I have been trying to get the timing right intentionally and, in dozens of flights, I’ve never once hit it as perfectly as that.
If you think you know any better songs or know a good one for landing to, I’d like to hear it!