Hacking Air Travel

I travel a fair amount. This is the post where I plan to continuously refine and collect hacks that make travelling more enjoyable.

But first off, let me be clear on my scope. These are the unexpected things that I have picked up from other people or figured out myself. These are not seat exercises advertised in the seat back pocket nor is this a web site about earning air miles by buying silver dollar coins with your miles-earning credit card (although I do like that one). These are hacks.

Sit in the back, Jack

Window or aisle? Row 24 or 34 on a 767? Sites like seatguru.com have solved this question. But those answers are static and totally leave out the human factor. More important then where you are sitting is who you are sitting with. Three empty seats in the back of cattle class trumps one wide seat with a footrest in business class next to a chatty frequent flyer. Even one empty seat next to you with that extra tray table and foot room is a big win in my book. If there is only one empty seat on the plane, I want it to be the one next to me.

Airlines make you feel like you have power by asking, "window or aisle" but really we are at the whim of a seat selecting robot; an algorithm that determines your continent hopping happiness that is actually pretty easy to reverse engineer. It goes something like this: for a given person and their window or aisle preference loop over the available seats until a seat is found that matches their preferences. Like most algorithmic loops, they start at the beginning, or in our case at the front of the plane. Hence, all of the seats in the front get filled first. If you get a seat in the back, the chances that you will have an empty one next to you are pretty good. But the algorithm that we are hacking is slightly more complex than that. The seating algorithm also has to handle people that want to sit together. Instead of splitting up two people that are together the algorithm marches through the plane until it finds two empty seats together. So keeping this all in mind, my goal is to always aim for the back of the plane next to a seat where an individual and his/her preferences and potentially his/her partner are least likely to be placed. Most long haul flights have three or more seats down the middle. These are great for seat algorithm hacking, because they eliminate people with the window preference and because no one wants to be penisinbetweenis (as opposed to shotgun, left nut, or right nut in the calculus of high school seat selection ("can't call shotgun until we are outside") AKA stuck in the middle between two strangers). If you can see the seating chart, you can also eliminate couples by looking for a row that has only one empty seat next to an aisle. So in summary, my ideal seat tends to be a few rows up from the back (avoid the bathroom smell and the congregators) in the middle section with at least a single empty seat next to it.

(I am writing this sprawled out across three seats in the back of a long flight from DC to Africa. When I was checking in I asked for a seat in the back. I ended up assigned next to someone one row in front of an entirely empty row of seats. Oh yeah!)

(On my return 20+ hour flight I ended up with a four seat block all to myself)

Never blow your nose

Airplane air sucks. It's pressurized. It's recycled. It's dry. Flying for more than 12 hours usually results in a few days of bloody noses for me. I asked some doctor friends what was going on, and they explained that inside our noses we have thin membranes that don't like dry air. So I began snorting saline spray like Al Pacino snorting cocaine in Scarface.
That helped me feel better during the flight, but I still ended up with a sinus issues afterwards. My latest strategy is to make the nose off limits during flying. No saline spray. No blowing my nose. No nose rubbing. If my nose runs a bit, then catch the dribble on the way out. Let the fluids in your nose do what they are there to do: protect your membrane. In case this point isn't obvious, picking your nose while flying is so dangerous it's a wonder the TSA doesn't chop off fingers before flying.

Get up. Stand Up.

Sitting for a long time sucks. So head to a place where you won't bother anybody and stand. Bring a book and enjoy the feeling of blood circulating to your feet. Bonus points for hanging out in the galley for instant drinks and snacks. I really enjoy making crazy faces in the mirror of those tiny bathrooms.

These are not the droids you are searching for.

I am not very good at this one, but I am working on it. Essentially we are aiming for mind control. While getting into the ginormous queue at the airport you say to the line director, "you want to upgrade me to the first class line?". Or as you hand over your luggage you joke, "you were just getting ready to tell me that you have moved me up to business class". These have both worked for me. I know a guy that always points to the first class section and says "this way, right?" as he winks at the stewardess when he boards, and he often gets escorted to an empty seat in first class. I once sat with a friendly old bald guy in the exit row who claimed to get champagne on every flight he goes on by simply being fun and friendly with the airline staff. Of course there is a fine line between being friendly and flirting. Flirting works even better. The key is to realize that flight attendants are people doing jobs, and a bit of fun or human interaction or a chance to show off their power makes their jobs and their life better. Like I said, I'm not very good at this one. Especially the flirting.

Sprawl on the terminal floor

I spend a lot of time in developing countries. The airports are often crowded and less than sparkly clean. That never stops me from sprawling out on the floor, with my bag as a pillow and my feet stretched out in front of me. Will my clothes get dirty? Probably. Will I wash them? Definitely. It's important to maximize the hours with your feet up if you will be cramped on a plane for hours and hours.

Last one on wins

Why does everyone freak out when it's time to board the plane? So you can be the first one to sit in a cramped seat breathing recycled air? It's kind of like everyone standing up the second the captain dings the bell and the seatbelt light goes off only to end up standing around with your neck bent over sideways as the overhead bin crashes down on your head. Chill. I like to be the last one on the plane. It's like a free ten minutes of life. Go for a walk. Flip through a magazine that you would never buy. Drink a beer. Charge your laptop. Wait until everyone has gone. Wait until they start announcing your name. Then wander in, find your seat, and I bet you still won't be the last one on the plane, or at least the last one to be buckled up. There, I just added ten minutes to your life - you can buy me a beer sometime.

Massages near the airport

In Asia massages are cheap and traffic is crazy. I assume the worst about traffic and if I end up near the airport with more than an hour to kill then I ask the driver to drop me off at spa. You can usually pay $25 inside the airport, but for $5 on the outside, you get a sauna, shower and a massage that will make the upcoming journey just a fleeting nightmare between being pampered and being in the comfort of home.

Read while in line

Always have a book or magazine in your pocket. Long queues for security, missed flights, customs, buses, etc, etc are forgotten within the between the cover of a good book or magazine. Leave the journals, slide decks and legalese for later. Bust out Wired, the New Yorker or Neal Stephenson and find happiness.

2 Response to Hacking Air Travel

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is awesome. As a frequent flier I totally agree that getting in line is dumb. Why wait in a line? The only time I wait is when I am concerned about running out of overhead space. I usually ask early on how booked the flight is... if it is over 90% then overhead space will be at a premium and on a 12 hour flight, you don't want to be bag checked.

    My preferred seat is actually bulkhead. On certain flights you can get a two seat row with wide space next to it on either side. If the flight is going to be full this usually beats middle back. The trick is that these are often reserved until check-in begins, make sure you print your boarding pass at exactly 24 hours before flight time on the internet if you can. Choose your seat then if it is possible (most domestic flights are), and then recheck that when you arrive at the airport.

  2. Great advice, my only comments are that for (domestic, short-hop) travel when you're flying all-carry-on, it's often worth it to get in the line early to avoid dealing with having to gate-check it.

    Also, I hate - hate - sitting in the back on those same, carryon-only flights. I'd rather have an aisle at the front, grab my bag and go. But for the long haul, nothing beats a spare seat.

    Also, my most secret tip. Check in online at 23 hours and 59 minutes - some airlines open bulkhead and exit row seats on the day of the flight only - allowing you a few inches of extra, precious leg room.

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