Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll Go – Part 2

And how to get there without going nuts

This week I’m collecting everything I learned (or thought I learned) during my period of extensive business travel. In Part 1, I kicked off Topic 1: Flying.  Today, I’ll finish off the process of going up, up and away.

Other factors to consider include: how easy is it to change flights if you need to depart at a different day or time or possibly even from a different city? I remember once I ended up driving to a different city for an unplanned customer meeting and I got royally screwed trying to change my USAir return ticket from City A to City B. If I recall, I ended up having to buy a whole new ticket. If that’s likely to be a factor for you, best to know the policies up front. Also, check into things like whether there are meals and/or snacks. That was another problem with USAir – they sometimes ran out of their crummy, expensive meals before they even got to me. I got to fly for 6 hours on a little bag of pretzels. I stopped flying regularly before all of the extra fees for bags and such went into place, but these days that’s one more factor to weigh before you declare loyalty to one carrier.

So for me, choosing a flight meant going to the website of my preferred carrier (or sometimes my top 2-3 preferences) and plugging in the info on the travel dates, destinations, etc. Then I looked at departure/arrival times, connections, available seats, and even plane types until I got what I wanted. This is a pain in the neck, no two ways about it. But it was a time investment up front to save me discomfort and frustration later on. It got easier once I decided I only wanted to fly JetBlue, unless I had to go somewhere they didn’t service.

B. Choosing a seat. I almost called this section “picking your seat,” but that’s too easy to make fun of. Anyway, I also put a lot of thought into my choice of seating, based on those air-travel factors that stressed me out the most. There are going to be stress-factors in your trip, no matter how carefully you plan. But if you can eliminate some in advance, I always felt that was a big plus.

For me, two of the more stressful aspects of the actual flight were missing my connection and dealing with my luggage. And they’re related – if you miss your connection, any checked baggage is likely going to be taking a vacation without you. Also, if you are in danger of possibly missing your connection, you’ll want to get off that first flight – with your carry-ons – as fast as possible.

Enter stress factor number two – being separated from my carry-ons. You’d think that being at the front of the plane would be important to somebody concerned with having to dash to a connection. You’d be right, except that dashing to a connection was, in risk-management terms, medium risk and high impact. It was only semi-likely to be an issue, however if it did occur it could be disastrous. By ensuring that my flights were far enough apart, I changed the risk-level from medium to low. In fact, I almost never missed a connection.

What remained high risk, however, was what would happen with your bags if you sat up front. You see, airlines generally board from the rear. And travelers bring more baggage on board than they ought to. This almost always leaves the folks sitting up front out in the cold. By the time they board, the overhead compartments are filled with other peoples’ crap. Now I’m a light packer, but if I was staying for a week I needed to bring a carry-on, and I wanted that thing right near me. When it’s time to de-plane, I didn’t want to have to swim up-stream like a salmon to get to my bag which had had to be shoved in 15 rows back because there just wasn’t any other stowage space for it. That kind of crap really stressed me out!! High risk! High impact! High Blood Pressure!!

I’m tensing up just thinking about it. Ok, so since I’ve made it so that I’m unlikely to miss my connection, being first off the plane is less important to me than getting space for my bags. And, other than preferential boarding privileges (which I was never able to get), the best way to do that was to sit near the BACK. On JetBlue, this had the added advantage that sometimes in Vegas they would open the back door and deplane folks from both ends. That’s what they call a win-win. But, regardless, I like to sit near the rear of the plane so I’m among the first ones on. Then I never have trouble stowing my carry-on near me.

Also, it goes without saying that you avoid the middle-seat like the plague, but I also put a lot of thought into the window/aisle decision. I ultimately chose aisle. While it can be a hassle getting bumped by every extra-wide passenger who walks up the aisle or getting your foot run-over with the beverage cart, the aisle seat had some advantages that I liked.

For one thing, the side of the plane often curves. This leaves the window seat with less room to stow their gear under the seat in front of them, because the space just isn’t as wide. I never had trouble actually jamming in my laptop bag, but in the aisle I often had room to put at least one foot next to the bag if I wanted to stretch out. In the window seat, there just wasn’t enough space for me and my bag.

Even more basic, in the aisle seat I could get up and down as I pleased, without bothering anyone else in my row. It might be a hassle for my row-mates, since I usually had my tray down and my laptop out, but that’s the price they pay for not choosing the aisle seat.

Lastly, consider the end of the long flight when everybody’s tired and cranky and glad to finally be on the ground. What does everyone do as soon as the “fasten seatbelt” light goes off? They stand up. Well, they stand up if they’re near the aisle. If they’re near the window, they huddle there kind of hunched over, because the baggage bin is overhead and they can’t stand all the way up. This affected me less than a lot of people because I’m short, but I still liked being able to hop into the aisle, grab my bag from the overhead, and stand ready to disembark as soon as possible.

I will say that the JFK to McCarran flight (NY to Vegas for the airport-code-impaired) can be very window-worthy, especially when you fly past the Grand Canyon and the Vegas Strip (especially at night – the Luxor in particular is very cool). But once you’ve seen it you’ve seen it, and then the aisle starts to look appealing again, such as around hour 4 when your row-mates are fast asleep and you really need to get to the bathroom.

On any individual trip, choosing your air carrier, your flight and your specific seat can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make it. Adding in the long-term implications of choosing a preferred airline adds its own level of complexity. But if you think about your priorities, both near and far, you can make choices that will minimize the stress of flying, which will go a long way to reducing the stress-level of your trip.

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