Showing all posts tagged travel:

Travel Observations (An Ongoing Series)

When you travel enough - a status I remember with vague fondness, the childhood before entering the adulthood of Travelling Too Damn Much - it’s all a blur, and it’s the little differences that begin to stand out. The hazelnuts you get when you fly with Turkish Airlines. The deep-voiced prayer before take-off from Saudi. The generalised contempt from Air France cabin crew. These are colour notes, expressions of their national character. Where it gets interesting is beyond this space.

I have been awoken - several times - from a sound sleep by British Airways cabin crew because my bag was not shoved far enough under the seat in front of me for their exacting standards. Fine, it could be a hazard in an evacuation – except that I was sitting in a window seat, the only hazard was to me, and I still have no idea why BA, and only BA, are so excessively devoted to verifying the position of cabin baggage.

They are also distressingly nervous about the whole refuelling procedure. If you’ve ever boarded a BA flight during refuelling, you will know about it, because about once a minute there is a blaring warning to KEEP YOUR SEAT BELTS UNFASTENED while the aircraft is being refuelled. Most other airlines recognise the complete futility of worrying about seat belts during fuelling, as any mishap involving avgas will see the aircraft engulfed in a fireball long before it could be evacuated, seat belts or no seat belts.

Lest this start to turn into an anti-BA rant, what is up with non-English-speaking airlines hiring people with atrocious - nigh on incomprehensible - accents to record in-flight announcements? In every instance the announcer is one of the worst English speakers of that nation that I have encountered, equalled only by the country’s railway announcer. Look, it’s a one-shot recording; hire someone people will actually understand. I remember getting more information from the Greek-language announcement than from the English one on the late unlamented Olympic Airways.

On the topic of announcements, all airlines’ cabin crew just love the sound of their voice. Look, it’s very nice of you to welcome us and so on, but many of us have heard the same message roughly once a week (if not more) for many years. By the eighteenth announcement that interrupts our in-flight entertainment, always at EAR-SPLITTINGLY LOUD VOLUME, we are about ready to storm the galley and risk explosive decompression to throw you out of the plane at ten thousand feet. The worst is the multi-lingual crew, who feel the need show off every. single. last. language they speak, including ones utterly irrelevant to the route being flown. If you must make these announcements, at least give us the chance to skip them, once we’ve heard one language we understand?

I know, I know, first-world problems, but here we are.


Photo by Marco Brito on Unsplash

Very Metal Hurlant

Terminal 1, Paris Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG), looking like something drawn by Enki Bilal in the snow.

The interior of the terminal is also pretty cool. The whole building is a ring around an empty core, criss-crossed by transparent Habitrail-style walkways, complete with disconcertingly bouncy moving walkways.

France: please don’t ever change.

Still Beautiful



Lufthansa Boeing 747-400 at FRA this morning, looking like it’s just getting going. I’ll miss these planes when the last ones retire.

One more:



“Does my nose look big in this?" 😂

The Smoke from the Air



Lovely day to be flying into London!

I was flying into LHR this time, but a couple of weeks ago, I was flying out of LCY. Here’s a shot of Canary Wharf from the other direction, looking out along the runway:



This is why, despite flying way too much, I still love the window seat.

Stick THIS in your carry-on!

Airline carry-on restrictions: WTF?

On my last few trips I’ve noticed a marked uptick in the probability of pax being pulled up for a check of their carry-on bags, leading almost certainly to those bags being gate-checked.

I travel a lot, and mostly for short trips - meaning one to three nights away, often with multiple stops in between. This means that having my luggage checked dramatically increases the chance of SNAFUs. Therefore I own a super-light roll-aboard, pack sparingly, and weigh it before departure to make sure I’m below the stingy 8kg limit.

Lately, even this level of paranoia has not been enough. I have had my below-weight roll-aboard gate-checked because my rucksack was "too big".

Now this is a standard 20L day-pack, not some expedition-grade monster, and it contains a MacBook, an iPad, their retinue of charger bricks and cables - and that’s pretty much it. Sure, there are usually some mints and a stick of lip-balm rolling around the bottom, but it’s not like I have a tent and a sleeping bag in there. Yet, this is apparently outside the regulation size for a "personal item".

My question is, what do airlines think a "laptop bag" should be? The only way I could lose any significant weight would be to leave the charger cables at home, and that would negatively affect the usefulness of the laptop just a bit. Meanwhile, women’s handbags are never checked, despite the fact that my wife carries a bigger and heavier bag when she goes shopping than I shoulder for travel.

There is some sort of assumption here about what a laptop bag is that I’m not sure airlines get.

The paranoid assumption would be that they are trying to make us pay extra for checked bags. I do indeed often travel on hand-luggage-only fares, but it’s not to save money. In fact, it’s the other way around: I never check luggage unless I am forced to, and therefore I take advantage of these (very slightly) cheaper fares.

The real problem here is people - monsters - putting two bags in the overhead lockers. Regardless of size, this is a jerk move. Unless you’re sitting in an emergency-exit or bulkhead row, where you have to, don’t do this, period. Your roll-aboard goes in the overhead locker, and your personal item goes at your feet. If it doesn’t fit, that’s a clue you’re doing it wrong!

As for airlines: enforce what matters. If the limit is 8kg and someone rocks up with a bag that’s practically spherical and straining at its zippers, and which weighs in at 15kg, that’s fair game for a gate check. In fact I would argue that such blatant fare evasion would be worth a paid gate check, but I don’t want to give airlines any ideas!

However, if someone has a rollaboard that fits in the cage, doesn’t abuse the weight limit, and has one more bag that they keep "at your feet or under the seat in front of you", as the announcement puts it - let it go. Seriously, those people are good customers who don’t cause trouble because their entire ambition is to get through the airport as swiftly and efficiently as possible. They have the equipment and experience to do this; all they ask is that you work with them, rather than against them.

This has been your First World Problem for the week.

Check In and Chill Out - Part Two

Yesterday I wrote about travel tips for road warriors to survive the holiday season. Today, I wanted to share some advice for less frequent travellers.

There are a few simple tips that can make time in the airport much less stressful for everyone, but they are the sort of thing that I had to learn through experience, instead of being able to refer to one source for all the information. Here is my attempt to gather some useful tips in one place.

My first piece of advice is about preparation. I wrote about luggage and packing; choosing the right bag and packing it right will make the whole trip more pleasant, but especially that bit at the airport where you will be spending quality time with your chosen piece of luggage. Of course if you only take one or two trips a year, it's not worth going for the high-end road-warrior stuff. I buy Tumi because it's the only brand that stands up to what I put my luggage through, but I'll be the first to admit it's expensive and its looks are, uh, challenging. It's still worth shopping around for decent luggage, because the wrong luggage can mess up your trip before it has even properly started.

Check in online! Your airline will tell you when the check-in window opens (usually either 24 or 72 hours before departure). Make yourself a calendar reminder, especially if you are travelling in a large party and want to sit near each other. Check in online, and save your boarding pass to your phone. Basically, you don't want to go anywhere near an airport check-in desk if you can help it, especially during holiday season. Even if you have luggage to check in, there are separate baggage drop desks which you can use if you already have your boarding pass (either saved on your phone, or printed at home). The lines at these desks should move faster - but again, everything is slower during holiday season, so give yourself plenty of time to deal with luggage.

Your airline’s web site will also give you the opportunity to fill in required passenger information, known as APIS. This usually means your passport number and its expiry date. Note that you may also need to fill in a separate document with the government of your destination country, such as the ESTA for the USA. This is also required even if you are only going to be in transit through the US, so don’t be caught out!

Your airline will tell you what its policies are for carry-on and hold luggage. Follow these to the letter, because they do check, especially at holiday times. If you have a connecting flight, especially if it involves a different airline or a change from international to domestic, different policies may apply. Don't be That Guy (or Gal) frantically repacking luggage at check-in, then shuffling through the security checkpoint looking like the Michelin Man because you're wearing seven layers of clothes that didn't fit under the weight limit. Yes, I speak from experience!

If your itinerary involves connecting flights, it’s worth making sure whether your bags will be checked straight through to your final destination, or not. For instance, if you make a connection inside the US, you will have to clear customs, retrieve your checked bags, and then go back through the check-in process all over again. You should allow extra time for this, and also note that the US domestic flight will almost certainly have different rules (lower weight limits, perhaps smaller number of items) for checked luggage than the international flight.

Security checkpoints will have the same policies regardless of airline: no liquids over 100ml, all liquids packed in a transparent bag, total volume not to exceed 1L. Some airports will provide the transparent baggie, but not all, and some will charge you for the privilege. Best to pack your own baggie at home, or simply avoid the problem by packing all your liquids in your checked luggage.

You will need to take large electronics out of your carry-on bag, but this means different things depending on where you are. It used to be simple: in the US, only remove laptops; in Europe, also remove tablets. Cameras? Best to ask. Now, that US policy might be changing.

Empty your pockets - of everything, not just metal. These days, most airports have millimetre-wave scanners, not just metal detectors, so it’s best simply to take everything out. To speed things up, put the contents of your pockets into your carry-on, together with your belt, watch, etcetera. This way, when you get through to the other side, you can grab your bag and go. Sort your pockets out later, without holding up the line or getting jostled by a thousand other people.

You may be able to pay to access Fast Track lanes even if you are not a frequent flyer or flying business class. At this time of year, that's probably a good investment. Check your departure airport's website; they often have deals, especially if you also pre-pay for parking (something else you need to allow time for, because all the parking lots are full and you'll end up two miles' walk and a long shuttle bus ride from the terminal).

Once you're through security, keep an eye on time. These days, most airports don't assign gates until quite close to boarding time. Don't hover in front of the screens waiting for a gate to be assigned! Your airline or airport's app or website should give you updates, so you can find yourself a corner in a bar or café to wait in comfort, instead of standing around in a crowd of bewildered tourists. There are also dedicated apps that will put a flight board right on your phone. If you’re worried about roaming, most airports have free wifi, at least for a time. Here’s a tip, though: park yourself right outside the frequent-flyer lounges, and you may be able to sneak onto their unlimited wifi instead.

Flights are full at holiday times, so there’s no way around it: boarding will be a scrum. If you have assigned seating, you only need to deal with that scene if you need to ensure space for your carry-on, in which case, yes, queue up early - or pay for early boarding, if your airline gives you the choice. On the other hand, if you checked your big bag in to the hold and you don't need space in the overhead bins, there is no downside to remaining seated and boarding the plane after the worst of the crush is over.

Once on the plane, be prepared to move smoothly. Know your seat row, and head there straight away. If you’re on a larger plane, there might be two aisles, but cabin crew will direct you to the right one as you board. When you reach your row, get out of the aisle promptly, stow your carry-on in the overhead bin, and sit down. Do remember that there is a special place in hell for people who put more than one item in the overhead lockers, or put their luggage above a different row than the one they are sitting in.

The one exception is if you are sitting in an emergency exit row. You should be notified of this during check-in, but there are a couple of nuances that are worth knowing about. First of all, you do indeed get extra legroom, but you have to be "able-bodied" by the airline's definition, to assist in an evacuation should it be required, so if you're pregnant, elderly, or in any way disabled, you may be asked to move. Secondly, you cannot have anything with you at all - handbags, jackets, everything has to go in the overhead lockers for take-off and landing. Finally, space in those overhead lockers might be limited precisely above the emergency exits, so make sure that you board early if you need to stow a lot of stuff.

My best advice to both seasoned road warriors and nervous travel newbies is just to relax and go with it. Me, I'm going for a driving holiday. See you when I get back.


Photos by ANDRIK ↟ LANGFIELD ↟ PETRIDES, Tom Eversley, Ashim D’Silva and Bambi Corro on Unsplash

Check In and Chill Out

Or, How To Survive Travelling for Business During Holiday Time

I'm a member of a tribe, seasoned road warriors who spend far too much time in airports, as my wife can attest (sorry love). We recognise one another from our Tumi bags and purposeful stride through the frequent-flyer lane. As part of our survival strategy, we develop an intimate knowledge of how to get from one terminal to another at CDG with a minimum of stress, where to get edible food in LHR, and how long it will take to get to different gates in FRA. We know whether you should pick up duty-free in AMS or in JFK, and in which season you should avoid ORD. We breeze through security, everything neatly laid out in trays, with no wasted motion.

All of this hard-won knowledge works very well for ten months of the year, but at holiday times, our turf is invaded by hordes of people who are not as used to travel as we are, sand in the gears of our smooth progress through the Aerotropolis.

What is to be done

First of all, there is absolutely no point in getting stressed out. Planning is key, and even so, SNAFUs will happen. Yeah, plan for those too.

Part of the preparation process starts before you even leave home. Choose the right bag, and pack it right.

Arriving at the Airport

Once at the airport, the thing to remember is that at this time of year, there are simply more people than usual in airports who are not used to flying. Inevitably, this causes delays - both at security checkpoints, and everywhere else, as they wander around indecisively, or suddenly realise that they need to be somewhere else. All this means is that the rest of us just have to be that much more prepared, including by simply leaving ourselves more time.

Getting frustrated at people who hold up the security checks because they have liquids in their carry-ons or whatever won't get you through any faster. This happened just in front of me at security in MXP earlier this week, when the guy in front of me started berating the guy in front of him on his third trip through the metal detectors. Of course the tirade didn't help at all; it just got everybody on edge before their journeys had even properly begun. And yes, this was the priority lane; at this time of year, it's no defence, because infrequent travellers with business-class tickets are mixed in with the frequent flyers with their loyalty cards. In fact, many airports allow passengers to purchase Fast Track passage separately from their ticket1.

Instead of getting stressed out at the Muggles in our midst, see if you can smooth things along, perhaps by giving directions, or helping parents (whose hands are always full by definition) with their luggage. Sure, nobody likes a screaming baby on their flight - but guess what is most likely to set the baby off? Seeing Mummy or Daddy all stressed out. Send some good vibes their way - and hey, if it doesn't work, that's what noise-cancelling headphones are for.

Air Side

If you don't have lounge access, or your airline or alliance doesn't have a lounge where you are, bear in mind that terminals are very busy at this time of year, so don't assume you will be able to find somewhere to sit - let alone charge devices. Charge everything before you leave, and carry extra batteries. If you have the luggage space, a spare shirt & change of underwear is probably not a bad idea either, just in case you end up delayed or rerouted unexpectedly.

Finally, passport control is (even more of) a nightmare at this time of year, with long queues probable, especially in smaller regional airports. The holiday season represents a massive surge in numbers for airports that are often all but empty for the rest of the year, and because border checks are the one function that cannot be staffed up by students on work-experience or zero-hours contracts, they cannot easily flex capacity in response to increased passenger numbers.

Again, experience helps (know where to stand on the bus to be first through the passport check, fill in your landing card or whatever while still in the plane), and that frequent-flyer card may get you in the FastTrack lane here too, but ultimately, you just need to allow extra time. Catch up on the emails you missed while you were in the air, call your family back home and tell them you miss them, research dinner options in town, and simply wait your turn. There is nothing you can do to speed the line up, and any attempt will just stress you out.

Business travel is stressful enough without adding to the stress. Give yourself extra time when heading to the airport, finish listening to that podcast while you stand in line, go over your prep materials one more time while you wait to board. Check in and chill out.


Photos by Angelo Abear and Glen Noble on Unsplash


  1. Some airports even offer their own loyalty programmes, with perks including lounge and Fast Track access, as well as various discounts. The Milan airport system has a pretty decent programme, as do many others. Just the rewards from parking at the airport keep me in points for when I need them, for instance to get the whole family into the lounge when we travel as a unit. 

Sit Back and Recline - Maybe Not

url.jpg

Another instance of air rage over a reclined seat. This one is a bit more severe than most, though:

The pilot doubled back after a man began choking the woman sitting in front of him, who had reclined her seat.

The bit that leaped out at me was this:

NBC News reports the pilot declared an in-air emergency, but airport police said the plane never took off.

So it sounds like the woman reclined her seat even before takeoff? Of course this does not justify the passenger behind choking her - but it does go some way towards explaining why he would do that.

I have long legs, and I very much wish people would not recline their seats back into my knees - but I realise that is their prerogative and part of the service they paid for with their ticket. There are rules about when the seat can and cannot be reclined, though, not to mention courtesy and common sense. As cabin crew always tell us, “seat backs should be fully upright for takeoff and landing".

I would also add that they should be upright during meal service and until the tray is cleared away, and that reclining on a sub-one-hour flight (like the LAX to SFO flight in the linked story) is a jerk move.

url.jpg

In fact, what could solve this recurring problem would be to repurpose the now-redundant “no smoking" sign as a “no reclining" sign. When the sign is lit, no reclining. When the sign goes out, that’s fair warning to get your wine glass / laptop / knees / whatever out of the way of the way of the descending seat back in front.

This won’t help with those configurations that Spanish airlines in particular are so fond of where there is legitimately no room for the person in front of me to recline, because my knees are already jammed up against the seat back even in the fully upright position, but at least it should cut down on altercations. Then again, I did once find myself on a transatlantic flight behind a woman who spent the entire flight fully reclined. I struggled to get comfortable and squirmed about a bit, and she eventually enquired nastily whether I was going to stop poking her in the back. My suggestion that she could avoid any “poking" by raising her seat was not taken well by her…