[Insert disclaimer about how long this post is and that we thought about cutting it into 2 posts, but decided against it because you probably wouldn't want to read 2 posts about mishaps while traveling...so here you have it, a long and somewhat helpful post.]
Sometimes when I travel I feel like a hatchet fish (you gotta see the picture). There are some people who are Master Travelers—they get off a 32-hour flight and their suit looks like it's freshly ironed, shirt looks brand new, their eyes look rested, and their bags are the first ones onto the tram. They've got it all together.
My brother is one of those travelers. He goes to every first class airport lounge and convinces them that he's a Double-Diamond Member and misplaced his card when he was staying at the Breege Hotel in Dubai.
I've been traveling on long distance plane rides since I was 4 (none of our extended family lived on the same continent as us). I wish I could say that I'm a Master Traveller, but I have learned a few things that help with Aeroplane Sanity, airport down time, and miles usage. So here they are.
1. Don't wear white shirts. White shirts are magnets crying out to coffee, wine, coke and apricot jam in those little sachets. I have never worn a white shirt and come out scot free.
2. Sign up for the cards. It doesn't matter if you don't think you'll ever use them again. I've found miles I didn't know I had that got me 2 round trip tickets from Harare to New York. Don't ignore the cards, but keep them organized in an app like 1Password or a old fashioned spreadsheet.
3. Be incredibly nice when you check in at ungodly hours. On a trip from Dar es Salam to Addis Ababa and back down to Harare (I changed my travel agent after that), I was on a 2am flight. Most people in the line were angry, grouchy, and unthankful. I almost gave in, but I pushed through my irritation and happily greeted the check-in lady. Well, she upgraded me and the 2 business people I was with (they ended up thinking more highly of me too because of it).
4. Have a special place for all your documents and let it be the 'only place'.
5. I’ll make this one a separate point because I need it. Make sure you have your passport. This sounds like a given, but I've done this twice and it almost cost me my entire vacation both times. On one account, I actually managed to travel to 3 different countries without a passport (that's for another post). The other time, my now business partner broke into a locked building, got my passport out, and then flew to meet me at the last stop before the border. That’s when I knew I could trust him.
6. Use your miles wisely. Credit card companies, hotels, international banks, most of them offer a sign-up bonus when you get their credit card or account at their establishment. It’s a marketing cost for them, and they make boo coos of money when you sign up. (Did you know a bank loans up to 10 times what they have in their vaults? It’s true. Put $1 in your bank, they legally can loan another $9. I think it's called Fractional Reserve Banking—what a name).
Anyway, you can get from the middle of the USA all the way to the middle of Africa for 80,000 miles on United. Sounds like a lot? It’s not, sign up for 1 card, use it for mild business expenses and you’ll have a 50,000 sign up bonus along with the 30,000 points over 6 months of usage. I haven’t paid full price for an international plane ticket in years.
7. At all costs avoid two airports for Transit: Newark, New Jersey (EWR) and Addis Ababa (ADD). I always avoid EWR. It’s rare that I get to avoid ADD, unfortunately. But hey, I’m using my miles wisely.
8. When you have more then 4 hours on a layover, you’re tired and you’re hungry. Let me let you in on a secret traveling code, if it costs less than $10 and it’ll make your life more comfortable, buy it. Bottle of water and you’re parched—$10? Ridiculous price? Buy it. A cot in a dark, air conditioned room in Amsterdam airport—nice nap time. Wifi to call a good friend and have a laugh—$10, do it. It makes the travel more enjoyable, especially when flying through ADD, where smoking is allowed in a glass box with no lid on it—yeah that’s effective.
9. Check price before you order coffee in the UAE. $10 for coffee is not uncommon. Stick to Rule 8, but you can only have 1 coffee, what a shame.
10. Wear comfortable shoes. And even the most comfortable shoes will be uncomfortable by the end of the flight. So what to do? Throw those shoes off every change you get! Let your feet be free and rule the air. Don’t elevate them into other people’s faces, but do elevate them when you can.
11. Be careful who you talk to. Some folk can talk for 10 hours straight. Never don’t open that can first thing on the flight. Best ways to do this: avoid eye contact, put your headphones in, act sleepy, read a book, journal, hold your breath when they ask you a direct question, feign death.
12. Here’s an easy one, sign up for priority pass. It gets you in hundreds of airline lounges around the globe. It’s free.
13. Adapt to your surroundings. Turn the magazine holder into a foot rest. And the tray table into a miniature trundle bed.
14. Ask your neighbor if they mind rubbing your back, but wait until just a few minutes before landing just in case they say yes.
A few honorable mentions of the most horrible things to happen to me on a flight:
Had an Ethiopian kid dump orange juice all over my face and back at 3am. He was running through the plane with a full glass and smashed into the back of my chair. Idiot.
Had a Chinese girl’s nappy (diaper) burst in the chair in front of me. I was abiding by rule #10 and had my shoes off. Dumped urine all over my feet. Yeah, always carry an extra pair of socks after that mess. The parents spoke zero English (except for "Okay") so they let the girl sleep for another 30 minutes before realizing what happened. "Okay! Okay! Okay!"
Was late for a flight and had my wife and two kids with me in the buggy. An executive was pushing through the line trying to get in front and was asking people “When’s your flight depart?” then would skip people. He got to us and asked (we were already so late we were missing our flight). He yells “Ha! You’re gonna miss your flight, let me go in front of you…” And away he ran.
I was seated next to Rev Jesse Jackson from the USA. I didn’t want to sit next to him, I wanted to sit next to my biz partner, so I asked his bodyguard across the aisle if he would trade with me. He stood up and faced me squarely and said NO. I implored, “Oh come on, just switch, I’d like to sit next to my friend here.” NO, he said stone-faced. So I asked again, “Hey man, come now, just sit over here by your friend and I’ll sit by mine. It’s a good plan.” Then I smiled. He switched with me reluctantly. My partner and I laughed the whole flight. The bodyguard and diplomat didn’t even talk to one another.
Flying from ADD to IAD, we had to do a stopover in Rome (FCO) to fill up the plane. They didn’t allow any of us to deplane. So we sat on the tarmac. Plane had a malfunction. AC stopped working. What’s worse than a 17 hour scheduled flight? Oh yeah, a 22 hour flight without AC.
I was sleeping in the ADD airport on a row of chairs. I awoke to be wet, soaking wet. I looked up and the roof was dripping water right down the back of my chair and pooling underneath the small of my back. No, I’m not a sweaty hog, fix the roof people! Hopefully the planes are in better shape than the airport. (see what I mean about avoid ADD at all costs)
Chicken or beef? Good question, both. Befriend the stewardess—I got 3 pizzas on a KLM flight one time and it was superb pizza.
(photo via bmackey)