Monday, March 1, 2010

Oh the Places You’ll Go – Part 4

And how to get there without going nuts

So my plan last week had been to write a multi-part series covering pretty much everything I could brainstorm that I’d learned about business travel (and travel in general) when I was doing it a lot. That plan got derailed by a very unusual two consecutive snow days. We get snow days here in Central New York State a few times a year, but more than one in a row is not very common. And last week’s storm was bad enough that I saw reported on the national news that Syracuse University closed for the first time in some number of decades. Anyway, the kids were all home with me and I just got nothing of consequence done. I didn’t work on my new short story (that I had hoped to bring to my writer’s roundtable tonight), I didn’t work on my novel, and I didn’t blog. I did take the kids sledding once, but the snow was both deep and wet, which didn’t really make for very good sledding.

Anyway, bringing this sucker back on track, today I’ll tackle part 4 of my travel series. To date I talked about choosing both a preferred airline and a specific flight, and also covered my thoughts on hotels. I had ended up traveling extensively with JetBlue and Hilton Hotels and was pretty happy with the overall experience. The flights and rooms worked well for me when I was on the road, and when it came time to take my family on vacation the reward programs really paid off. We got our flight to Orlando for a song because of all my JetBlue segments, and we’ve gotten free hotel stays in Toronto and Rochester through Hilton – and both of those vacations saw us staying at Homewood Suites, which drastically cut our out-of-pocket food costs as well.

As I’ve said before, the key, in my mind, to minimizing travel stress is to figure out what stresses you out and deal with that aggressively. If you can minimize the things that really worry you, chances are you’ll be fine. Because even if the other stuff goes haywire, it’s not the stuff you sweat about so who cares, right?

For instance, I hated the feeling that I was holding up the security line. I didn’t like the pressure of all those people behind me when I was fumbling with my shoes or my bags or whatever. It was far from my most stressful travel concern, but it was SO easy to mitigate that it would have been crazy not to. So I came up with a system that let me breeze through security with minimal hassle from the guards and minimal performance anxiety in front of the hundreds of other people in line behind me.

Topic 3: Security

The key, for me, was to know what I was going to have to do at the security gate and then have everything ready for action like I was a secret agent on a mission. The way James Bond always has exactly what he needs at hand? That’s how I wanted to feel. So I started by dressing and packing with the gate in mind.

My jeans, for instance, were a no-go for travel. Sure they were comfy, but my only suitable belt has a very heavy brass buckle. It’s nothing fancy – it’s not the kind with a flat face with a design of a cowboy roping a doggie on it or anything  - it’s a regular Levi’s brand belt buckle that just happens to be made out of heavy brass-colored metal. And unlike the buckles I wear with my business slacks, it’s guaranteed to set off the metal detector. Now, I didn’t want to be fooling with my belt at the security desk, nor did I relish the idea of my pants falling down as I walked through the gate, so that belt was not welcome when I was flying. If I thought I’d want my jeans on the trip, then they got packed along with the silly buckle. I also made sure to wear my loafers so I wouldn’t have to fiddle with untying and re-tying my shoes.

I also took all of my personal items – the ones that couldn’t go through the metal detector – and put them inside my laptop bag. The risk was that if my bag got stolen, I’d also lose my blackberry, my watch, my wallet, and my car keys. However I mitigated that risk by being so smooth going through security that I was never really concerned that it would get out of my sight (except when it was inside the x-ray machine, obviously). So when I got out of my car, all of that junk went right into my laptop bag. EXCEPT, I kept out my boarding pass and my driver’s license, since they needed those at security. Those two items went into my shirt pocket. I always wore a shirt with a pocket – it’s a really good place to put stuff you don’t want to worry about misplacing. Lastly, I arranged my laptop computer such that it was easy to snatch out of its bag when the time came. I did the same with my little baggie of liquids (if I had one) in my carry-on. I left my bags partially unzipped and arranged just so.

So the security gauntlet went as follows:
1. Wait in line…. wait some more, etc.
2. At the security podium, pull my boarding pass and license from my shirt pocket and present to the agent. Then put them back.
3. Grab a couple of plastic bins as I approach the conveyer belt
4. Usually there’s a long table at the front of the belt where you place all of your stuff and get it ready – I’d slap my bags and plastic bins up on there.
5. Remove shoes and toss into a bin.
6. Yank laptop out of bag and place into a bin
7. Yank baggie of liquids from bag and place into the bin with my shoes.
8. Toss my jacket/coat, if any, onto the belt as well, and shove everything down onto the conveyer as conditions permitted. (I always waited until my stuff – particularly my all-important laptop bag) actually went into the x-ray machine before approaching the metal detector. This helped keep it in my control.)
9. Go through the metal detector (presenting my boarding pass to the agent there if necessary, which it sometimes was but usually wasn’t.)
10. Grab my stuff out of the bins and start jamming them back onto my feet, into my bags, etc.
Total elapsed time: No idea, I never clocked it. But 60-90 seconds for steps 3-10 is probably in the ballpark.

I always felt like I knew exactly where all my stuff was and it made the whole process very organized. I’ve seen people leave stuff behind at security, and they were always the ones with their personal effects leaking out of every orifice in a random, haphazard, “I wasn’t prepared for this” fashion. I liked my way better.

Related to the above, one of my other big stress-factors was always the fear of missing my flight because I was late. I know that I’m very capable of screwing things up, like missing my exit on an unfamiliar highway or getting lost or finding that it took an obscenely long time to return my car or get through security. That was another stress factor I had to contend with, and I did it by arriving EARLY and leaving nothing to chance. I was always one of the first handful of people at my departure gate, usually at least an hour before my flight and very often even a bit earlier than that. Yeah, it meant I had to sit in a somewhat uncomfortable chair and read or work on my laptop, but the alternative – sitting somewhere else outside the airport and trying to work or eat or whatever – would have seen me constantly checking my watch and fretting that I was going to be late. That wouldn’t have been good for my blood pressure, so I made sure to get to the airport early. I probably spent well over a week in total hours just hanging around in airports (between arriving early, standing in the security line, waiting at the gate, and then factoring in layovers) during my heaviest travel year, but at least it was a relatively stress-free week.

Next time – the conclusion! How I’d dress and how I’d pack for maximum ease and comfort on my trips, plus some tips for the hotel.

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