- I’ve taken more than 30 flights in 20 countries since March 2018.
- Travelling for so long has led to lots of mistakes and realisations about how to make every flight better.
- Some of my most important tips include carrying petroleum jelly to mitigate dry plane air, choosing flag carrier airlines whenever possible, and using Skyscanner’s “Everywhere” feature to get cheap flights.
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Over the past year, I have flown a lot: I’ve taken more than 30 flights in 20 countries since March 2018.
That’s a lot of time in security lines, in airport lounges, and cramped plane seats, and then breathing stale, recycled air and watching movies I never would in “real” life.
Still, with every flight I take, I feel that flutter of excitement and anticipation as we get ready to take off. And, yes, it may be weird, but I get excited about finding out how above or below the mediocre baseline an airline’s food is.
I’ve made more than a few rookie mistakes, even after visiting dozens of countries. Last August, I got fleeced for over $US100 in fees on a flight with a budget airline. You never stop learning.
1. Before you book a flight with a budget airline, make sure you know any and all extra fees you may have to pay.
Last August, I booked a cheap flight from Sofia, Bulgaria, to Lisbon, Portugal, for what I thought was the bargain price of $US89 on WizzAir, the budget Hungarian airline.
But, after booking, I found that I was charged fee after fee that ended up costing more than my flight ticket, including fees for baggage, administration, airport check-in, and an in-flight meal.
All in all, I ended up spending $US126.50 on fees for an $US89 flight. My cheap airfare didn’t end up being so cheap after all.
2. When in doubt, book with a flag carrier.
Usually, when looking for airlines, I search the consumer-aviation website Skytrax’s list of the world’s top airlines and cross-reference that with the best deals.
These days, that list is dominated by international flag carriers – airlines owned or previously owned by a government – like Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates Airlines, and Cathay Pacific, among others.
The main reason I like to fly flag carriers is that the airlines tend to have a motivation to create a good experience beyond just making a profit. In recent years, many flag carriers, like Singapore Airlines and Emirates Airlines, have had huge successes using top-notch flight experiences to draw positive attention (and tourists) to their countries.
Even with smaller flag carriers like EgyptAir and Air Astana, I’ve had excellent experiences.
3. Emirates Airlines is, by far, the best airline I’ve flown on.
After a year of flying, I’ve found that my favourite airline has been Emirates Airlines, thanks to its roomy planes, excellent service and entertainment options, and good food.
It tends to be slightly more expensive than other options, but I’ve found that the comfort is worth it.
This comes with one big caveat: I have yet to use Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, and ANA All Nippon Airways, the three airlines that rank ahead of Emirates, according to Skytrax World Airline Awards.
4. Carry petroleum jelly on planes to line your nostrils. It relieves headaches and dry nasal passages caused by dry plane air on long flights.
Planes are notoriously dry places with humidity lower than the Sahara. I am very sensitive to dry plane air, which often causes me to have dry nasal passages and can even trigger migraines.
To mitigate the dry air, I line my nostrils with petroleum jelly. Since I started using it, I’ve noticed a drop-off in dryness and migraines and even in how often I get sick on planes.
But beware of thinking petroleum jelly is a cure-all for getting sick on planes: Most germs are found on surfaces, and using petroleum jelly in your nose too often can have negative effects.
5. The biggest determining factor in my preference for one airline over another is how new the plane I’m flying on is.
Over the past year, I’ve reviewed nearly every flight. I never thought I would be the kind of person who knows what the term “seat pitch” means, but I can now confidently tell you that it’s the distance between “a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it.”
I’ve eaten more lukewarm pasta and dry chicken dishes in tinfoil than I can count and have watched bad movies on dozens of seatback entertainment screens.
One takeaway is that my experience with an airline is usually correlated with how new the plane I’m getting on is. The worst flights I’ve had involve Boeing 737s from the 1990s, while the best usually involve newer Boeing 787s or Airbus A380s.
These days, before I book a flight, I use Flight Aware to see what kind of plane the airline uses on a particular route. It’s never a good surprise to get on a plane and find that the entertainment is a tiny overhead screen 10 rows ahead of your seat.
6. The biggest difference between the economy and business classes is the ability to sleep comfortably. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth the extra cost.
No one can really tell you whether upgrading from economy class to business class is “worth it.” It depends on your financial situation. Spending an extra $US4,000 to upgrade for a 14-hour flight matters a whole lot less if you make $US300,000 a year than if you make $US30,000.
It matters even less if your company is paying for it, as Business Insider did when I flew Emirates back from Dubai to New York in February so I could ride business class in an Airbus A380, the largest and most expensive commercial airliner in history.
While the chauffeur service, elaborate preflight lounge, three-course gourmet dinner, and inflight cocktail bar on Emirates were unforgettable, most airlines do not offer services that extravagant for business class.
What you are paying thousands of dollars for – whether on Emirates or United – is the ability to sleep more comfortably. For some airlines, like Qatar Airways and Emirates, that means a pod-like seat that turns into a lie-flat bed. For others, it could just mean more legroom.
Only you can know whether that’s worth the extra money.
7. If you want to avoid jet lag, slowly adjust your sleep schedule in the days before your flight to correspond with your destination.
I am constantly taking long-haul international flights, switching time zones, and then working the next day. I rarely suffer from the worst effects of jet lag, however, thanks to careful preparation and some science-backed strategies.
In the days before the flight, I slowly adjust my sleep schedule to match that of the time zone I am going to, forcing my body to go to sleep earlier or later, depending on the destination time zone, a strategy backed by researchers on the subject.
On the flight, I drink tons of water and operate according to my new time zone. When I land, I force my body to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime.
8. If you are frequently travelling internationally, getting Priority Pass is essential.
While each is different, all tend to have a few essential features: comfy chairs to work or relax in, speedy WiFi access, televisions, a buffet of fresh food, endless coffee and alcoholic beverages, and, most important, a space away from the chaos of the terminal.
The easiest way to get access, if you travel frequently internationally, is to get Priority Pass. Priority Pass is a network of 1,200 airport lounges that members can access. While Priority Pass sells memberships directly, if you have a travel-focused credit card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you get membership included.
Access to lounges has made travelling much more relaxing and enjoyable.
9. But in my experience, Priority Pass is nowhere near as good if you are travelling only in the US.
While I loved my experience with Priority Pass abroad, many American users complained last year of overcrowded lounges with poor service.
I recently used the new Alaska Airlines lounge at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. While the lounge was well-designed and clean, food and beverage options paled in comparison with what I’ve experienced at international lounges.
I brought this up to my partner, who has travelled for business in the US extensively and has used Priority Pass at a dozen US airports or more. She told me that, in her opinion, the Alaska Airlines lounge was one of the nicest US lounges she’d ever visited.
10. Carrying a technology “Dopp kit” has reduced the stress I feel on flights because I can stay organised.
After returning home to reset after my first six months on the road, I realised there was one item I needed to pack that would make my flights easier and more organised: an electronics travel organiser, often known as a Dopp kit. The kit works like your regular toiletries bag but for your devices. I packed it with all my travel adapters, cables, chargers, devices, and accessories.
Whenever I get on an aeroplane, I just whip it out and stow my backpack in the overhead compartment, knowing I have everything I need. When I leave the aeroplane cabin I can flip the kit open and quickly take inventory. The kit is so loaded with doodads that if there’s an open space, it means something is missing.
11. If you don’t want to pay $US100 for Global Entry, use Mobile Passport.
A lot of travel bloggers recommend Global Entry, a US government program for approving “trusted travellers” to gain quicker access through customs after international travel. It requires a $US100 application fee and a screening process.
Instead, I use Mobile Passport, a free app officially authorised by US Customs and Border Protection that lets you complete customs forms on your phone.
Like Global Entry, Mobile Passport users have their own separate line at major US airports, getting you out of long customs lines but without the hassle of the screening process or the $US100 application fee.
12. If you aren’t too picky about your vacation destination, use Skyscanner’s “Everywhere” search to find the cheapest flights.
Sometimes, when you are planning a vacation, where to go isn’t the most important part of the equation.
For me, any number of factors can determine the destination: Is it relaxing? Is it interesting? Is it exotic? Have I been there before? If a destination hits any of those factors, I could be interested – as long as airfare is the right price.
When I’m booking flights, I almost always use Skyscanner’s “Everywhere” search, which lets you search for flights all over the world to find the cheapest destination to fly into on the dates of your choice.
13. Always carry slippers (free hotel slippers work great).
Aeroplane floors are gross and loaded with germs. Wearing shoes on a long flight is uncomfortable. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out how to solve this conundrum.
Then I saw my partner packing a pair of complimentary hotel slippers into her carry-on bag. It was genius.
The slippers are light, thin, comfortable, and easy to put on as soon as you get settled in an aeroplane. No more walking into the aeroplane bathroom in just socks or struggling to put your shoes back in a cramped aeroplane seat.
14. When booking “hacker” multicity fares, make sure the layover is long enough to get through customs or changing terminals to make your flight.
One of the most popular strategies to save money on airfare is “hacker fares” or “secret deals” offered by fare aggregators or metasearch sites like Kayak, Skyscanner, Expedia, or Kiwi.
These deals will often give you a multicity route to your final destination through two connecting flights on separate airlines.
While you can save a lot of money on “hacker” multicity flights, airlines are not obligated to help you if you miss your connecting flight, meaning you’ll be left with the bill for a new flight.
If you insist on booking “hacker fares,” know what you are buying and check that your layover is long enough to account for delays or customs checks.
15. If you don’t like your seat, ask for a better one at check-in or the gate.
The truth is that you can get a lot of things in life if you just ask: a new seat, a hotel-room upgrade, great recommendations for where to party in a new city.
If I’m ever unhappy with my seat assignment before I get on a plane – maybe I forgot to check in early or I purchased a “basic” ticket in which you are automatically assigned a seat – I talk to an airline employee either at check-in or at the gate.
More often than not, they are happy to change your seat. You just have to ask nicely.
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