This post is way out of the norm for this blog so unless the title really grabbed you, I won't blame you for skipping it.
This post was inspired by a recent call to action by Chris Brogan. This summer teachers all over the world will be take advantage of one of the perks of our profession and travel for pleasure or professional development. While I don't fly as much as George Clooney's character in Up In The Air, I do fly enough to have "Elite" status on a couple of airlines and feel I have a few tips that can make flying a better experience for those who don't fly very often or are taking their first flights this summer. These tips are especially useful if you're taking a group of students on a trip somewhere, pass these along and make the experience a little less stressful for everyone involved.
Planning Your Flights
I've been known to fly in late the night before a presentation (see my recent trip to NETA as an example), but I don't plan it that way. Airlines have delays for all kinds of reasons that are often out of their own control; weather, work stoppages, FAA regulations. Expect your flights to go on schedule, but plan your itinerary around them not going on schedule. In other words, if you need to be in Omaha at 6am on Friday don't plan to take the last flight into the city at 11:30pm the night before. Instead book your travel to arrive at 3pm on Thursday and when nothing goes as scheduled you'll still arrive in time for that 6am appointment the next day.
Expedia, Travelocity, and similar sites often have the lowest prices for flights, but it's worth taking five minutes to comparison shop directly on an airline's website. I recently found a lower rate through the US Air website for the same flight that I found on Expedia.
Another word about Expedia and Travelocity flight bookings; if you sort search results by lowest price you'll often see that the fares quoted are for travel on multiple airlines for the same itinerary. There's nothing inherently wrong with flying from Boston to Chicago on US Air then switching to Delta for the next leg of your trip, but it can pose some extra work for you. I've found that if you fly multiple airlines on the same itinerary it can be difficult, if not impossible, to check-in online before arriving at the airport. I've also found that I'll sometimes have to check-in on each leg of my itinerary which can be problematic if you have close connection times. I no longer will book flight itineraries that are require swapping airlines that are not in partnership with each other (check Star Alliance to see a list of major airlines that are partnered).
Even if you only fly once a year, join your airline's frequent flyer program. If nothing else it shows an airline agent that you have intention to use that airline again (for all they know, you could be a big time traveler on a rival airline) and it might provide them with a little incentive to be extra helpful when you need it. For more about the perks of enrolling in frequent flyer programs check out Chris Guillebeau's work. He's even outlined some ways to earn free tickets without flying.
At the Airport
Whether you check-in online or at an airport kiosk you'll probably be presented with a slew of options to upgrade to a seat with more leg room, a seat closer to the front of the plane, or to first class. The decision to spend the money comes down to two factors for me; how long the flight is and where my original seat was. If the flight is less than two hours and I'm not assigned to the middle seat, I'll usually stay with my original seat. If the flight is long (Boston to Seattle for example), I'll usually pay to upgrade to a better seat. The few times I've paid (on Continental and US Air I've been comped) to upgrade to first class it has been worth it for me.
To check baggage or not is a matter of trip length and personal preference. I generally pack light so if I'm going somewhere for less than three days, I don't ever check bags. It's not an issue of not spending $25, it's a matter of convenience when I arrive at my destination. There's no chance of losing my bag when all I have is a carry-on and it saves me the hassle of waiting at a baggage conveyor for up to 30 minutes after my flight.
At security I have a system that saves me a hassle and keeps the line moving. My ID (and boarding pass if I'm not using a mobile boarding pass) goes in my front shirt pocket while my watch, wallet, phone, and keys go in the outer zippered pocket of my laptop bag. Most of the time I wear slip-on shoes to speed the process along too. At the conveyor my shoes, belt, and jacket go in the first bin followed by my laptop bag followed by my laptop and finally my carry-on bag. At the other side of the scanner my shoes come out first, then I pop open my laptop bag, stick in the laptop that followed in the tray, then grab my carry-on bag.
At the Portland, Maine airport you can literally see all of the gates from anywhere inside the terminal so I don't have to scope-out where my gate is. However, if I'm flying out of a big airport like Logan International, I like to go find my gate and confirm that the flight is leaving from that gate before going to eat or shop.
Getting on the plane.
(Disregard this next paragraph if you're flying on Southwest). Most airlines have taken to assigning boarding zones on your ticket. They do this for a couple of reasons; to reward frequent flyers and first class customers with priority boarding and to prevent huge human traffic jams at the gate. As tempting as it is to try to jump ahead in boarding zones doing so can make the entire boarding process longer.
The real cause of human traffic jams on planes though is people trying to put bags into overhead bins or under seats. Again I have a system for not being the cause of the traffic jam. Before getting on the jetway I put my iPod and phone in my pockets and take out the book/ magazine I'm going to read to hold in my hand. Then when I get on the plane I'm not fumbling to take things out of my bag before putting them away.
Getting off the plane.
Yay! The plane landed safely! Now let's all stand up and wait to get out of it! Just like my strategy for getting on the plane, when de-planing I just put things in my pockets or carry them instead of struggling with zippers on my bag. They'll be plenty of time to jam things back into my bag when I'm off the plane and in the terminal.
As much as I like recording important info in my phone, I still write down on paper the address of my hotel and or the name(s) of the person picking me up. It's just comforting to know that if my phone died, I can still get to where I'm going. If you're taking a cab or shuttle to your hotel, don't forget to have cash for tips.
The inevitable lay-over.
Fly enough and you're going to experience a long lay-over somewhere. In big airports you'll have lots of places to eat, but even small ones you can usually find passable meals. I recommend eating in an airport during a lay-over instead of shelling out $7 for a box of industrial grade cheese and crackers on a plane. You might spend a few dollars more, but you'll also eat better. Plus a full stomach will help you sleep on the plane. Depending on the airport you might also see an "airline lounge," I've never paid to go into one, but I have had access through my frequent flyer status. Trust me, even if you're really tired and grumpy it's not worth paying $50+ for a day pass to one of those airline lounges.
Traveling with Students.
This is not something I've done, but I have observed many a traveling student group. The ones that appear to be led by teachers not losing their minds have one thing in common; t-shirts. Call it dorky (kids probably will), but if the whole group has the same t-shirt (a group from my school is currently traveling wearing bright blue t-shirts with "DECA" printed on the front and back) the leader and group members can quickly count and identify each other. When I was a teenager I traveled on the US Jr. Olympic Archery Team and we wore the same "USA" team shirts in part because it was easier for coaches to pick us out in airport crowds. (The adult teams traveling for USA Archery wore whatever clothing they wanted).
Remember that if you're traveling as a group and a flight is canceled or you miss a connection, your whole group may need to be rebooked. It's much easier to rebook individuals than it is to rebook big groups. Have patience with the ticket agent, he/she is trying to help.