How to travel ✈︎ like a pro

I traveled far and often during the last few years — in 2018 alone I boarded 50 flights and spent more than 200 hours in the air, enough to circle the globe 3.4 times — mostly for business and mostly to Asia. So my friends started asking me — do I have any travel advice?

Well, here is what I learned.

Hamad International Airport. © Cristian Kit Paul

First, the important stuff

  1. Important Check that your passport doesn’t expire in the next 6 months. You probably won’t be able to use it if it does;
  2. Important In order to be able to know at all times where your boarding passes, passport and immigration forms are, keep them in one place that doesn’t change, be that your breast pocket or somewhere else. This way, you’ll have to periodically check one single spot — if you can’t feel them, you instantly know they’re missing/lost;
  3. Important Provision for some fallback options in case critical items gets stolen or lost:
    • One extra credit card and some emergency cash (only international currency), in case your wallet gets stolen or lost — do not keep it in the same place as the wallet,
    • One photo ID, in case your passport gets stolen or lost — do not keep it in the same place as the passport.
  4. Important Be always serious about privacy and security, but even more so abroad, where you are more vulnerable — you will use lots of foreign Wi-Fi networks that you know nothing about, for instance. Take a few precautions:
    • Use 1.1.1.1 for DNS resolution,
    • Use a good VPN,
    • Disable the Guest account in your laptop, etc.
  5. Get a good mobile hotspot (or use an old phone) and buy a prepaid data SIM card as soon as you reach your destination. In some countries (Hong Kong, Singapore) some hotels will provide a mobile hotspot or local phone — ask your hotel;
  6. Get a capable power plug adapter, if you’re flying in an area with a different power plug standard;
  7. Sign up for the frequent flyer programs of your most-used airlines. Higher flyer status means check-in at the business class counters, priority boarding, lounges access and luggage extra weight, among others.

What to (and not to) wear and carry

Think of it as your travel clothing as equipment. It doesn’t have to look amazing, but it has to work really well.

  1. Temperatures may sometimes vary a lot, so you need a comfortable hoodie or sweatshirt with the following features:
    • Hood — on some flights, in certain sections of the airplane you are going to freeze;
    • Not too tight — so you can take it off and put it on in confined spaces (on some flights, in certain sections of the airplane you are not going to only freeze, you are also going to cook);
    • Double zipper — if possible, so you can unzip the lower part only if necessary;
    • Large breast pocket with zipper — large enough to accommodate full boarding passes, passport, lounge invitations, immigration forms, etc (my choice for travel documents spot);
    • At least two side pockets for mints, change, headphones, pills, etc.
  2. If you hate hoodies, get a beanie, trust me;
  3. Comfortable shoes with no metal parts (snickers, if possible), that can be taken off easily and, equally important, that can be put easily back on before landing, when your feet will be considerably swollen;
  4. Travel pillow for long or overnight flights (disregard if you fly business);
  5. Mints;
  6. Do not wear lots of cologne — tastes are subjective and what smells nice to you may not necessarily smell as nicely to your co-travelers.

Cabin luggage essentials

Carry On baggage

Permissible carry-on luggage dimensions may vary — see Skyscanner’s Guide to hand baggage sizes and weight restrictions — but there’s the goddamn weight issue. Some airline, including Qatar Airways, have an absurd 7 kg weight limit for all your cabin luggage combined.

My favorite carry-on troller is the Rimowa Topas Cabin Multiwheel, which is 4,8 kg, empty. My TUMI Brief Pack backpack has another 2 kg, empty. Total: 7 kg, empty. More than once my cabin luggage weighted more than double the maximum allowable weight. What can I say — I have always depended on the kindness of strangers behind those check-in counters. The lesson: be nice. Be very nice.

Hand luggage

What to pack in your hand luggage:

  1. Laptop, tablet, camera — don’t place it in the checked luggage (that can get lost or delayed);
  2. Phone (and laptop) chargers;
  3. All presentation-related cables, dongles, adapters in a transparent bag — they are mission critical;
  4. Headphones;
  5. Any removable or external batteries, power-banks (you’re not allowed to place them in the checked baggage);
  6. Pen, blue or black — you might need to fill in some immigration forms;
  7. Pills for:
    • Headaches, because you probably spent the last days and night preparing that huge presentation and all that adds up,
    • Nausea, in case of nasty turbulences,
    • Digestion, because economy class food is terrible and you’re probably going to be too nervous to be able to abstain,
    • Diarrhea, because your client wanted to show you last night what real local food is all about.
  8. Zipper locks. On some long routes cash get stolen from cabin luggage overnight when everybody is asleep.

I was robbed on a Hong Kong flight out of LHR — the thieves took my emergency change in 5 different currencies, but left me a £20 bill. The lesson: locks on all backpack zippers, currency in the hoodie pocket.

In order to plan your cabin luggage redundancies, presume that you get stuck somewhere (miss a connecting flight, get delayed or canceled), or that your checked luggage gets lost or delayed.

  1. Spare t-shirt and underwear;
  2. Spare cosmetics and toiletries in a transparent (on at least one side) bag — all containers smaller than 100 ml;

Checked luggage

  1. Make sure there’s a sturdy tag with your name, phone number and email address attached. If your frequent flyer program provides physical card-tags (basically your frequent flyer plastic card as a luggage tag — Qatar Airlines used to provide that), use that either as name tag or as in addition to the name tag;
  2. Important Do not place batteries or power-banks in your checked-in baggage (lithium metal and lithium ion/polymer batteries are prohibited in checked baggage);
  3. If you have lots of devices to charge, get multiple chargers, with 4–6 charging ports in addition to the emergency charger placed in your cabin luggage;
  4. Most hotel rooms have very few power outlets. If you carry lots of equipment, you might need a power strip;

After the check-in on Incheon (ICN) I heard my name called over the airport PA while preparing to fly out of Seoul. I reported to the desk to find out that my luggage contained a lithium battery. The lesson: no batteries in your checked luggage.

What to do in the 48 hours before flight

Here are some checklists to go through while preparing

  1. Charge your devices to the max. All of them — phone, watch, tablet, camera, Kindle — including external or spare batteries, Mi-Fi spots, everything;
  2. Now is a good time to download everything you might need while you’re offline — your music, podcasts, movies or shows you want to be able to listen or watch during flight;
  3. Check-in online, check-in early — this way you can get the best seats (front of the plane and exit row seats), get a digital boarding pass and use the baggage drop-off counters (which are usually less crowded). Passengers without a seat assignment are the first to be bumped.

Phone, tablet and watch

Your phone is a mission-critical device. If you miss a connecting flight, get delayed or canceled, or have to contact someone immediately after landing, a functioning phone is crucial.

  1. Back up your phone and tablet — to a cloud service if possible. If it gets stolen or lost you might buy a new one and restore it via lounge or hotel Wi-Fi from the cloud backup. If you’re an Apple person, backing up the iPhone (into your computer or iCloud) backs up your Apple watch too;
  2. Check that your phone is protected with a password and your SIM has a non-default PIN;
  3. Check that Data Roaming on your phone is OFF. You don’t want to switch on your phone in a country where data is €13/MB — it might suck data worth a couple of hundred Euros in the first minute;
  4. Install a flying assistant app (I use App in the Air, Khoi recommends TripIt) to help you keep track of all your flights and provide assistance per flight (and there’s a lot of it — from auto-check-in to real-time flight status). If you use a smart watch, install the assistant face complication — it provides useful info, like gates and flight status;
  5. Install the airline app and sign up in case you don’t already have an account with them. Some offer a lot of features (from mobile check-in and digital boarding passes to baggage tracking);
  6. If you use a smart watch, create a travel face comprising the assistant face complication — it provides useful info, like gates and flight status — and all the timezones you need (origin, transit airport(s) and destination timezones).

Computer

  1. Back up your computer via your regular backup routine;
  2. Make copies of the crucial files you’re going to need in your trip (documents, presentations) on a thumb drive or a cloud service — if you end up with a dead computer, you can still access the files;
  3. Activate FileVault (on macOS) or other form on disk encryption. If your computer gets lost or stolen, you don’t want its HDD to be easily accessible;
  4. Turn on your firewall;
  5. Turn off all unnecessary services. Turn off all Guest User services, especially Guest User File Sharing (check that you don’t have anything else enabled);
  6. Don’t update. No critical system or software updates. You don’t want a botched or bricked phone or laptop before a flight, especially at the end of the flight awaits a high-stake presentation;
  7. Make sure you don’t forget the charger;
  8. Make sure you have all the adapters you might need (Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter and USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter come to mind — but you know your drill).

Boarding

Try to board early — if you have priority boarding, use it. Don’t be late. Boarding late is slower and the overhead bins might get packed in your area forcing you to store your cabin luggage in an inconvenient place.

For long flights, boarding is a 60-minute messy affair, but — in case you’re not alone in your row —, under the cover of chaos you might be able to perform “the move”:

  1. Look around and identify the empty rows around;
  2. Wait for the cabin crew to announce “Boarding complete”, “All customers aboard” or similar PA announcement;
  3. When you hear it, move on the empty row. If you’re smooth and polite, the cabin crew will probably let you get away with it;
  4. If you missed the moment try after the “Fasten seatbelts” signal switches off;
  5. Remember, all seasoned flyers know “the move” and you might have some competition. Some will probably try it preemptively, even before the “All customers aboard” announcement;
  6. If “the move” succeeds, you’ll be able to lie down and sleep across 2, 3 or 4 seats, for hours — that’s deep sleep with your hoodie over your head, so you’ll need to bring your hand luggage from where you left it and place it under the seat in front of you or use zipper locks to lock it if you plan to leave it in the overhead bins.

In flight

  1. Always set your mind to the destination timezone. Set your watch on the destination time. Forget the origin timezone. I’m serious;
  2. Try not to eat the economy-class food on long flights. Eat during transit or bring a sandwich;
  3. I suggest that you don’t drink alcohol — it doesn’t help with sleep, hunger nor hydration;
  4. I also suggest that you don’t drink coffee if it’s after 6 PM in the destination timezone when flying east;
  5. If you’re using on-board wi-fi, do your messages or email as quickly as possible while it works. Mid-flight you might often lose internet connection;
  6. If you forgot to switch off Data Roaming do it now;
  7. Do not recline your seat before or during service/meals — please don’t be one of those assholes;
  8. Be courteous with the cabin crew;
  9. Don’t forget your stuff in the seat pocket in front of you (iPad, eyeshades, headphones etc).

In transit / during a layover

  1. Get as quickly as possible to your lounge, on foot — if you have lounge access — use the opportunity for a mini walking workout;
  2. After joining the Wi-Fi network, make sure your phone switched to the correct local time;
  3. If you’re using App In The Air or other flight trackers, double-check them. App In The Air does make mistakes once in a while and boarding times are almost always off by 15-30 minutes for long flights (60 minutes boarding). Check for last-minute gate changes;
  4. Eat whatever they offer in there or shop for some good quality food around the lounge (nut bars, if you’re really a pro);
  5. Hydrate and — if you don’t have any additional security checks — get a can of beverage in your hand luggage;
  6. Recharge your devices even if they’re almost full;
  7. Download the content you might want next;
  8. Don’t be loud — loud Facetime/Skype is the worst;
  9. Use the toilet — it’s almost always cleaner in lounges and you have time;
  10. Important Most lounges are silent — they don’t make flight announcements. Check for departure times and last-minute gate changes.

If your connection gets canceled late in the evening, while in transit, book an airport hotel room and immediately checkin, deal with the cancelation later.

After landing in Athens from a long flight out of Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA via Doha, I was preparing to board the 2nd connecting flight when massive deadly fires erupted around Athens and innumerable flights had to be canceled. While dealing with the cancelation, I managed to book a room at the airport hotel only to find out at check-in that the hotel was overbooked and my room was unavailable. The lesson: check in immediately, deal with the flight cancelation later.


That’s it.

These are advices based on my personal experience and some of checklists above were compiled for my own needs — they serve me well, but travel is not a one-size-fits-all thing — so pick up what looks useful and adapt it to your needs. Use it as a starting block for building you own travel checklist.

Have a nice flight!


1 thought on “How to travel ✈︎ like a pro”

  1. Perfect! I would just add that noise canceling headphones are a must on long flights. Your head won’t be as numb when you land. And I would also like to underline and second your comment about being very nice when traveling, It’s always the right thing to do, and I have been heavily rewarded more than once, including free first class upgrades (also helped to dress nicely for that).

Leave a Reply to Richard Reens Cancel reply