Most of this is about reducing stress. Travel is stressful, especially if you don’t do it all the time. There’s a lot of unknowns but all those things can be planned for. Given a few risk mitigations, the trip can be so much easier and smoother. Most of this applies to U.S. domestic flights, but it’s not a bad idea for international. We’ll talk about international airports at the end, because some of them are ...special. Some of these recommendations may come across as jaded and some of them are. I am. I travel for work, a lot. It’s not glamorous as everyone thinks it is. Now I feel like I’ve traveled enough that I can write down my thoughts, help others out and maybe, just maybe, make things a little bit better for those who don’t. Anyway, let’s get on with it!
No really, plan ahead.
It isn't silly, really. I put it on top for a reason. Pack your carry on, most people use a backpack (NOT a camping backpack, more on this later) of some kind which I highly recommend. If it only has two compartments, consider buying a new one and there are a good selection now and a lot of them are really good. Why does this matter? It’ll keep things together and making things ready for quick access helps out everyone -- that means… (as of this writing)
Have literally any electronic device bigger than a phone (basically anything with a lithium battery) in a spot you can pull out quickly. This means in seconds, not 2 minutes. Try it at home. Seriously, practice. Don’t be that guy. And don't put it in the front of your suitcase. This leads to broken stuff and lots of regret later.
Traveling with the kids? Do not have them carry things they have to dig for. See the above. There’s always one family that little timmy has his nintendo buried in the bottom of his duffle bag that’s bigger than he is. Mom starts yelling, kid freaks out, an explosion of clothes … you get the idea. Carry all the kids electronics in your bag and redistribute after security, or better yet, at the gate.
Most overhead bins are a very certain size and smaller on older planes. If I force my suitcase closed (by sitting on it), it will not fit in the overhead on some planes, BUT if I don't force it -- it fits on just about all of them so take note. Shorter flights are even worse and you might have to gate check your normal sized bag. CRJs are in this class. Under the seat too can be a problem. Sometimes my backpack fits in one side (middle seat, window) and not the other (aisle seat). Different planes are setup differently, all the way down to the actual seats.
This does not mean bring a damn camping backpack. That’s for camping, not for planes, and takes up more than 1 space in the overhead -- which is not where it belongs. This stupidity started not long ago and some genius thought it was a great idea and told all their friends : go to REI and get a 60L backpack! Hey, camping kiddo, it won’t fit under your seat and this isn’t “clever” so sign up for a new adventure to the baggage claim and check it. Sadly, most airlines (looking at you United and Delta) won’t correct this but will shame you. I wish they did both.
What I’ve learned to do : I got a decent sized backpack from 5.11 called a “covert18” (whatever). It has a buncha zippable pockets that are perfect for a tablet (samsung s3) and a 15” laptop. Two quick zippers and each are ready, unobstructed. I also do not fill it to the brink of bursting, ever. A few thought out things (a battery for recharging for instance) but generally there's a lot of space. If I’m traveling with family - the adults are the pack mules, kids electronics go in the backpack and they get it after security or later depending on how busy it is. I like to get out of the way as fast as possible.
When it comes to my actual suitcase, I got a samsonite and I’m quite happy with it. It fits perfectly in overheads and usually there’s enough room above it I can stuff a jacket above it. Bonus, I can pack 5-6 days worth of clothes in it without having to sumo smash it. Totally worth it. Get travel size everything
This blows my mind. It’s been a rule for a long time, it’s not new, it hasn’t changed, so let me spell this out -- 3oz, no more. Your 16oz bottle is enough to hide a lot of things. This is why TSA gets pissy about it. Get travel sized everything. Bed Bath and beyond has a ton of them and it’s kind of awesome. You can find them at the grocery store too. Consider this a perfect time to try out a ton of stuff I normally wouldn’t care -- have some fun with this.
That suggestion of “get to the airport early” isn't for airport security.
That one time you have a car problem, or there’s an accident and traffic is backed up, you get pulled over because you were late or a goat herder decides its a good time to take them down the road, or your uber driver decides to take the scenic route -- all things that can make you miss a flight. That suggestion of 2 hours before your flight is rarely for the airport, it’s for all the things that can happen before, around and TO the airport.
What I’ve learned to do : if it's a new airport, I check google maps for trip times. Usually during rush hour so I get a feel for worse case. I also pack the night before, make sure things fit, double check I have my wallet, ID, passport, etc. I'll even put them in the pair of pants I will wear the next day.
Empty your pockets before you even get in line.
I know, again, sounds silly, but there’s always at least one person in line that doesn’t understand this. You will be asked numerous times “are your pockets empty?” and without fail, someone “forgets” their wallet, their phone, toaster, whatever. For the love of all that is captain obvious, clean out our pockets before you get in line. Completely. All of it. Yes, that includes paper, coins, boarding pass, phone, wallet, panda, twinky, headphones, etc.
What I’ve learned to do : Well before I get in the security line, I stand aside (that means OUT OF THE WAY, against a wall usually) and I begin putting stuff away. I have a watch, a pen, a small flashlight, my wallet, my phone in my pocket and when I get to the airport, all of it goes into the top 2 zipper parts of my bag, including my wallet. I take out my ID and store everything else, all of it. If I only have an electronic pass, I keep my phone out then immediately put it in the top compartment, slide my ID back in my wallet. I don’t need my boarding pass (and neither do you) until I’m boarding after TSA scans it, so all of it gets tossed in. After security, grab your stuff and go
You may find at least one or two people trying to reassemble themselves -- don’t. After the bins come through, grab and go. Usually those places are quite active and unless you’re at the Omaha airport, you won’t be the only one going through. Grab your stuff as quickly as possible and go just past the end of security. Most, if not all airports have a place for you to put yourself back together.
What I’ve learned to do : I grab my stuff as quickly as I can and move out of the way. I don’t put my shoes back on, or my belt, or even put my laptop/tablet back in my bag. It’s literally grab-grab-grab and I’m out. That said, this is a perfect time to reassemble myself completely. Wallet, flashlight, pen, phone, watch, boarding pass? All go back to where they belong at this point. This is where having a usual place is super helpful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mildly panicked when my wallet isn’t where it should be. Most of the people you see are working I have to throw this in, mostly because every family I see on vacation thinks everyone else is or the two kids going to see a friend. That means they have 10x more junk than they need, stand in the middle of high traffic areas looking around, and are “surprised” by everything in and around security. I’m not so lucky, I travel a lot and out of the 52 weeks in the year, I will be travelling twice at best “for fun”. That’s all. Imagine if you had people standing around in your office building with no idea what they’re doing. It’s kind of like that.
A few rows back is better.
This doesn't apply to first class, but I did have to learn this one the hard way. Some planes have overhead space that cannot be used or it's significantly reduced. It's taken up by oxygen tanks, first aid kits, and other things that cannot be helped. Also note where the bulkheads are because there is no space to put a backpack, so the overheads get double duty.
What I've learned to do : If the normal people class starts at row 9, I pick row ~12. Exit rows are good too, but sometimes they're further back than I want to mess with. On popular flights, I make sure I'm not in the isle because I don't like to be bumped into that much.
Travel international? Don’t fly economy
Go for everything but economy. No it isn’t cheaper, but you’ll board sooner, have overhead space and it’s a lot less stress. Almost every carrier now has what I’ve dubbed “poor man’s first class” -- Economy Comfort. Sometimes this means priority lines for check in and boarding.
What I’ve learned to do : I never fly economy for international flights. Period. If it’s longer than 4 hours, I’m flying comfort at minimum. Nothing sucks more than boarding zone 4 or 5 and there’s no overhead space, checking a bag and dealing with that mess. International Airports vary wildly I had to learn this the hard way. Amsterdam is nice, efficient and they do not screw around. Kiev (Ukraine), sometimes? Lima (Peru), Liberia (Costa Rica) ...meeeeehhhhh. Here’s what I mean.
Most of this is due to the problems in that area. Lima and Liberia have problems with people trying to take things out of the country they shouldn’t. Like birds. Or monkeys. Seriously, it’s a thing. I try to look up these problems to have a vague idea of what to expect. Usually it’s a surprise.
Showing up in Amsterdam (AMS) I found they work efficiently. There’s a lot of people ready to move things quickly, lots of signs showing where to go, good design too -- I just happen to end up where I needed to be the first time I was there. A lot of the security in place is the same as the U.S. (but different) and none of it surprised me. Lima on the other hand, I show up, put my bag through an X ray and walk through a metal detector. Done. Oh, then I had to do it again, THEN I go to my gate.
All those priority lines you enjoyed before? Those may not matter, as partner airlines my not care, at all, that your a five million miler with diamond platinum elite status in these airports or even at the gates. You may have to stand in line to check in with everyone else. This means both sides, security and boarding. Yo TSA precheck mean nothing here.