Sanity Travel Tips

November 24, 2010 · 4 comments

In the not too distant past, I found myself crossing the Atlantic for the 75th time.

Me, as Ben Hur's Mother

I’ve also crossed the U.S. continent and zig-zagged over Europe more times than you’ve had hot dinners…!

I’ve been to every continent apart from Australasia and Antarctica, and have family dotted around the world.

In a nutshell, I travel a lot – and never for business.

In spite of the odds, I have never been upgraded.  So, I think I know just a *little* about flying long-haul in economy.  And, being six feet tall, I’ve learned a thing or two about comfort along the way.

So, when my friend Momsicle asked me if I would like to take part in her Sanity Travel Tips blog circle, I said, ¡Claro que sí!

Here are my top tips for travelling long-haul, no kids. (If you want the …with Kids version, check out the fabulous links at the bottom of this post!)

Tidy up before you leave home

When you get back, jet-lagged after 17 hours of travel, there’s nothing quite like finding fresh bed-linen, clean towels and a tidy dwelling.  It offsets the probability of having nothing to eat in the fridge, and gives you a clean space in which to unpack.

Fly direct

Unless the price difference is substantially higher than a flight with a layover, fly direct.  You’ll avoid a bunch of extra airport taxes; and the longer you spend in transit, the more you will spend on feeding and entertaining yourself.

Choose an appropriate layover time

It’s simple: 90 minutes for domestic flights; 2 hours for international.  More if you are a slow walker, inexperienced flyer, or want to do a spot of duty-free shopping.

Special meals

Back in the day (i.e. before 9/11) I could order a tomato-free special meal.  Nowadays, I can’t, but when I am booking a flight I still put in a request for a special meal – you get served first, and the food usually tastes better as it is made in smaller quantities.  I choose either a high fibre meal (lots of lovely fruit and veg, which minimises bloating on long-haul flights) or a Hindu meal (the spices really help whip your tastebuds, less sensitive at high altitude, back into shape).

Don’t be a check-in chicken

Do that $hit online!  It saves you time at the airport (go straight to bag drop) and if you get delayed en route to the airport, the airline will be expecting you.

What to wear

It always amazes me when I see women trotting along to the departure gate in heels or flip-flops.  Don’t their feet get cold and cramped?  Not to mention the other outfits that sacrifice comfort for fashion. As for me, I have a travel uniform that is both practical and stylish: flat shoes, leggings, and layers under a long cardigan. Soft, comfortable clothes that hide the dirt with minimal wrinkling.  I also pack my coat into my suitcase when I get to the airport so I don’t have to carry it around with me.  And it’s one less thing to deal with at the x-ray machine! (See Passing through Security, below.)

Anti-embolism socks

Probably the most important item I wear when flying for more than 4 hours, these tight knee-high socks support your calves and reduce your risk of developing a blood clot.  They’re a bugger to put on and take off, but you should probably invest in a pair if you are over 6 feet tall or under 5 feet tall; if you are over 35; if you smoke; if you take an oral contraceptive pill; or are at risk for stroke.


Whether it’s something to read, puzzle over, watch, listen to, or pop to knock yourself out, bring something to while away the hours. And obviously, pack anything in your carry-on that is either valuable, fragile, medical, or not quickly replaceable, like your glasses.

But you already knew that, right? ;) So, here are my essential hand-luggage items:

  • Pashmina – planes can get mighty chilly, and natural fibres feel much more snuggly than a scratchy ole airline blanket.  Plus, it’s lightweight which means I can wind mine around my head to cover my eyes but leave my nose free.  Yes, I look like Ben Hur’s mother (see photo), but it blocks out the light and keeps me warm, which in turn helps me to sleep.  And when I say pashmina I don’t mean rush out to Barney’s to buy some fancy cashmere number that can be pulled through a wedding ring (though those are nice too) – you can find them for $5, in a colour of your choice, on the street in most major cities.
  • Neck pillow – forget the stuffed kind, they take up too much precious room in one’s carry-on.  Go for the inflatable kind instead, and wait until you are cruising at 35,000 feet to inflate – the lower pressure at high altitude causes air to expand, so don’t inflate your pillow all the way.
  • Decongestant – you’d be surprised how many times I’ve found myself bunged up at high altitude.  When your sinuses are blocked, you will find it more difficult to pop your ears, and if you can’t decompress you will have an earache like you’ve never known.
  • Other lotions and potions. Apart from a decongestant, what else do you take when you’re limited to 3oz / 100ml bottles of creams which must fit comfortably in a quart/ 20x20cm zip-lock bag? For me, it’s easy: lip balm, facial moisturiser which doubles as hand cream, decanted Spanish cologne which doubles as a deodorant and hand sanitiser, eye drops, mini-toothpaste.  Remember, we’re going for comfort here, not a spa day, so pack your make-up in your suitcase.
  • Water container.  At $3 or more for a bottle of water at the airport, it makes sense to bring your own water container.  There’s always a water fountain somewhere.  (I admit I haven’t done this yet, but the next time I travel, I will…)
  • Passport wallet.  Holds your passport/s, along with your boarding card, customs forms, a pen, various frequent traveller cards, with a pocket for loose change.
    • Ballpoint/ biro pens are best for high altitude. Do not bring a fountain pen. It *will* explode.
    • Unless travelling within the E.U. on an E.U. passport, you will have to probably have to fill out at least one landing or customs form if flying internationally.  Fill out yer forms before you take off, and you won’t have to think about it again until you have arrived.

Passing through security

Smile and make eye-contact with the TSA.  Nine times out of ten, they will treat you with more respect and, IMHO, you will be less likely to be stopped for a random screening.

Other tips for passing through the x-ray machine more efficiently:

  • When waiting in line, loosen your belt and shoelaces so that you can quickly take them off when it is time to place them in the plastic trays.
  • Now is the time to also pat yourself down for any loose change in your pockets, or to remind yourself of any jewellery that might set off the alarm.
  • Use a neoprene (wet-suit material) case for your laptop: although you will need to remove the case from your hand-luggage to be screened separately, you won’t need to remove the laptop.
  • Remove any clothing that security will consider bulky – scarves, hats, jackets, coats (see previous note).
  • When it comes to placing your items in plastic trays, I think I’ve cracked the order of things, judging from the pleased reactions from security staff in the US, the UK and Spain: you put your zip-lock bag with your shoes in the first tray; your clothes and jewellery in the second; your laptop in the third tray; and your hand luggage in the fourth. I find that having a system, however anal it seems, means I pass through the metal-detector with less fuss, and can get assembled more quickly as each tray emerges from the x-ray machine.
  • Unless instructed otherwise, I always pass through the metal detector with my passport and boarding card in my hand.
  • If you are an able-bodied adult travelling without children, then you should be able to do this.  If you can’t, then you are carrying too much crap.

Duty-free and a layover

Wait until your final layover before buying duty-free items such as alcohol / perfume / creams, otherwise you risk having them confiscated by airport security.

Be considerate

Gone are the days when flying was a thing of luxury, so be considerate of your fellow travellers.  This includes:

  • Not jabbing the touch-screen – take it from me, this can awaken the person in the seat in front of you.
  • Being aware that you share an armrest with someone else.  This is especially critical when their touch-screen controls are in said arm-rest.
  • If travelling with a child, being mindful of the fact that your kid is probably kicking the seat in front of him/ her.
  • If nottravelling with a child, not being a passive-aggressive arsehole to the parents of a nearby child.  Just because they have a kid doesn’t mean they should be banned from travel.
    • If you are *that* bothered by kids’ screeching, invest in an iPod, dummy.
  • Okay, irrational pet peeve coming up: please can everyone stop using mini-suitcases as their carry-on?  I really hate it when the overhead compartment above my row is taken up with stuff belonging to someone sitting 5 rows away.  (Another reason to pack my coat!)

Aisle or window?

Choose a window if you want something to lean against to help you sleep; choose an aisle if you like to stretch your legs. Choose the emergency exit row if, like me, you are tall – but be aware that you must stow your bags in the overhead compartment during take-off and landing.

A brisk walk

You may have just landed in what is the middle of the night for you, but after a long flight I like to get my circulation going by taking a brisk walk off the plane to customs and immigration.  I also like the fact that I can often beat most of the queue at passport control this way too!

Other miscellaneous thoughts and trivia

  • I’m beginning to think that airmiles are bollocks unless you travel for business.
  • Air France has the best food (ah, those French foodies!) and will serve you champagne as an aperitif – even in coach.
  • Back in 1996, Air Lanka’s female flight attendants wore green saris that trailed on the floor behind them.  I trod on one and it ripped.  The flight attendant was very gracious about it, but I felt terrible.
  • Flight attendants hate it when you try to be helpful by stacking your food tray with someone else’s.  Each food-trolley slot fits precisely one tray.
  • Some flight attendants hate it when you hang out in the back of the plane and make conversation when most of the cabin is asleep.  Others love it, and twice I have been discreetly presented me with a bottle of champagne and chocolates from first class because of this. (The last time was when I moved to the States in 2005 – the flight attendant whispered Good luck in your new life! and added that Mel Brooks was wildly entertaining an English Duchess, and she’d pinched the goodies when they weren’t looking!)
  • I always swipe the unopened [airline – not personal!] goodie bags left behind in business class.  I’m past caring what others think, and they are filled with fab potions (and sometimes a discount coupon) in a usually quite practical travel pouch.  (I wonder what you get in first class!)

Are you hip to the art of travel?  Did I leave anything out?  What do you think of airmiles?  Share your tips in the comment box below!

And for great tips on travelling with young children, check out Momsicle and friends’ blogs:

  • Momsicle has embraced the red-eye and mood-altering substances…
  • Kim at Let Me Start By Saying believes that with the right packing list, a little compromise and some red wine, you can successfully travel with 2 kids.
  • Cyndi at My Convertible Life will try anything to get her toddler to sleep when they’re away from home.
  • Sue at Motherhood and Me won’t let a little poop in-flight get in the way of traveling all over the country to see her family!
  • Sandhya at Literary Safari has clocked around 65 hours in the air with her 14-month old, including a journey to India.
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