It's 6am. I’m surrounded by people barely awake but trying to remain so. The lucky ones have seats that they have slumped into, the exhaustion and bone deep weariness evident. Others are staggering around like zombies, not cool looking well-coordinated zombies reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, but a poorly directed low budget B movie type where they move with an unconvincing lurch and shuffle. Conversations are brief and measured, the risk of a misunderstood intonation which could lead to anger evident.
There is a rumour that there is free clean drinking water but we’ve all heard this before and know better than to get excited or dare to believe, let alone take that fruitless quest to where the friend of a friend of a friend said it was. So it’s either pay for water or go without. Some have taken to drinking alcohol and are trying to force an air of carefree abandon, as if it’s all good and that drinking at that time of the morning is fine given the circumstances. The food on offer is limited and lifeless pap that the vendors know they can overcharge for given we have no choice, it’s them or nothing.
Empty vacant eyes glance furtively around, willing time to pass so they can leave this hell hole. The harsh artificial lighting and the feeling of being trapped does nothing to improve the mood. Parents, normally so loving and nurturing of their offspring, grow snappy at their energy which they seek to temper so they can rest at this ungodly hour, the cries of “Darling, No” growing louder and more impatient.
I’m sure you’ve guessed where I am, the description of this desolate lifeless pit of despair probably gave it away quite quickly, and perhaps not the exact location since it’s repeated in countless places the world over.
Of course it’s the departures lounge at any major airport where, due to the desire to travel, you’ve agreed to be there at a ridiculous time of day. And having got to the airport, walked for miles, sorted out check in, gone through the drudge of security where you have watched people surprised at having to hand over their phone, belt and carry on, thus delaying the process (like the clues as to what was going to happen weren’t there for ages as you waited in the queue) you are in a holding pattern, waiting to leave.
Flying is never an easy experience and whilst they say the travelling is all part of the adventure inevitably it’s all "hurry up and wait", there’s the overpriced food and drink, the lack of comfortable seating, and the constant checking of the time before you again need to hurry up, this time to the gate, and wait, whilst the plane isn’t really boarding despite what it says in flashing red letters on the departure board.
So here are our tips for trying to make it as stress free as possible regardless of what time you are actually departing.
Check and double check. The day before departure you will want to check into the flight, use that as an opportunity to double check the departure time and make sure you know which terminal it is leaving from. It’s also an opportunity to make sure you have passports, airline tickets, visas, insurance policies etc. and make up a little pack ready to take. Then a quick check when you leave the house to ensure you have the pack and you are good to go, the same applies when leaving your holiday accommodation for your return journey.
Screenshot or (and) print out your the boarding pass. You may have the airlines app on your phone but what happens if it fails when you are trying to check in? A simple screenshot of the boarding pass is a good back up. And whilst I know we all rely on technology, it can fail so I always print out my boarding pass as well. Last thing you want is to be refused boarding as your phone has died at the vital moment. Some airlines charge for checking in and printing the boarding pass at the airport.
Know your airports. You may think you know the one you fly out off since you travel all the time but airports change constantly. So a quick google can show you any changes and refresh your memory. And checking out the destination airport means you know where the way out is, ATMs, transport etc. Same with any en-route airports or layovers, a little knowledge beforehand can make the whole journey go smoother. If you know the gate layout at an airport and you are going to be waiting, find a gate that’s not in use, near it will be free seats so you can relax and typically power sockets (used by the cleaners) so you can recharge your devices.
Decide on packing. Whilst it’s possible to do a holiday of a week or more using just carry on there are times when you need to check luggage. If you can do it with carry-on make sure you are familiar with the airlines policy - especially the size and quantity of bags, these vary greatly. If you are checking in luggage make sure you book that in advance. It’s typically a lot more expensive to check in a bag if you have to pay at the airport. And if you are checking in a bag check the weight, a small set of scales will save you the high cost of excess weight. Plus if you do have spare capacity consider packing anything you might have taken into the cabin, a lighter load to carry will make the journey easier.
Ziploc bags for the win. Always carry a few, they have so many uses – not just for the liquid and cosmetics check on the flight but for snacks, putting your phone in to keep it dry you get the idea. It’s worth noting some airports have started charging for bags at security now so this can save you some money (a staggering £1 at Bristol airport for three small bags!).
Check in next to first/business class. If you have to check in with an agent then finding the queue next to the first/business class check in can speed up the processing, the agents don’t have many people to check in so will check in economy passengers when they are not busy.
Bear left. A personal observation based on the fact people will favour their dominant hand, since most people are right handed they will go right. So if you are going through security or passport control go left when people go right.
Travel with a multi plug and charger. We all use our phones for more than just phoning these days – videos, music, and writing – so the battery can get depleted, even when in flight mode. On some aircraft they have USB sockets so you can charge your device, at airports there are dedicated charging tables. If they are full look around at the pillars and walls, there will be sockets used by the cleaners where you can plug in your multi plug and charger. At the same time as charging your phone, plug in your kindle and battery pack so when you finally make it onto your flight you have plenty of power.
Decide on your travel outfit. Having a favourite set of clothes that you know are comfortable for air travel makes the whole experience better. You want something that you find comfortable to wear, loose natural breathable fabrics are best. If you have clothes with a slogan make sure it’s not offensive or rude, airlines are cracking down on this so passengers don’t get offended. Don’t forget comfortable shoes and socks. I have a pair of merino wool socks that are a joy. Layers is better than something bulky, cabin temperature on a flight can be hit or miss. On a recent flight where it was cold there weren’t enough blankets to go around so being self sufficient was a definite bonus. And consider keeping your travel outfit for the journey home. After time away when you’ve run out of clean clothes it’s tempting to do the sniff test and pick the least pongy item but remember that the smell that isn’t offensive to you may be to others. Your travel outfit having only been worn that once will not only give you a comfortable journey home but your fellow passengers will appreciate the lack of odour.
Stow before going through security. As you wait in line start to empty your pockets so when you get to the head of the line you can simply pop your bag and coat through the scanner along with the specific items that need to be isolated and through you go. On the other side take your bag and coat and move away from the security area, you can then sort yourself out without people getting in your way or you feeling rushed to move along.
Keep things to hand. Not just the travel documents but make up a grab bag of what you will need when you get to your seat. How many times have you stood in the aisle on a plane waiting while person after person faffs with their bag trying to get out all the items they will need? If you can pull out the grab bag then you are sat down quickly. If you keep your items in that bag you ensure you don’t leave anything on board, and when it’s time to leave you simply pop that one bag back into your carry on and you are ready to go. I find a small roll top waterproof bag works well, once rolled you have a handle. Not only can use it as your flight carry on but it’s a waterproof bag for your holiday.
Have a plastic water bottle in your luggage. Most camping shops will sell roll up (or flat) water bottles. Despite my joking earlier there will be places that will fill up your water bottle. Worse case the coffee shop or where you eat will do it since you’ve paid to eat/drink.
Bureau de change at the airport. These tend to offer you the worst option for exchanging money. Either order the currency before you go so you can shop around or consider a card that is made for withdrawing money abroad.
Don’t rush to board. If you have made it to the boarding gate and the flight is loading don’t rush to board. The flight is not leaving without you now. Wait until towards the end of loading, that way you are straight on, sat down and off you go. The risk of this is if you have carry-on luggage, you may have to surrender it to the hold. Alternatively, if the locker above your seat if full walk back towards the front of the plane to find a space, that way you can grab your bag on the way off, you don’t have to wait till everyone leaves so you can work your way backwards to where your bag is.
And finally - A tip from a friend - give yourself a free upgrade. If you are the last onto the flight and there are seats in business sit down and hope the cabin crew don’t realise. If they do, nothing lost, shrug and smile. If they don’t you can have a more comfortable flight. I, of course, would never do this.
And then repeat the above for the flight home to make the whole process as painless as possible.