Efficient travel tips from an airline pilot

My sister has been a commercial airline pilot for more than a decade. Whenever I’m taking to the skies for travel, I hit her up for tips. (Because who knows more about efficient airline travel than pilot, right?) The following is some of the organized travel advice I’ve garnered from her over the years.

First, if an overhead bag fits perpendicular to the airplane and baggage overhead bin, place it with its wheels out. The bag will fit in deeper in the overhead bin when its wheels are pointing toward the aisle. Throw your coat on top of that bag if you can. While you’re packing, prepare a small bag to be kept under the seat for things you may need during the flight. Your small, under-seat bag might include electronic devices, chargers (many seats have outlets), any medicine, travel docs (passport, etc.), wallet (you may want to buy inboard food or order Direct TV), packed sandwich or snacks (bananas, apples, granola bars) and your own bottle of water that you purchased once inside security. Also consider bringing your own headset if you want to watch TV without using the painful coach headsets, a neck pillow, and something light to throw over yourself in case it is chilly.

It seems easiest to pack your zip-top bag of liquids into the aforementioned small bag, so only one bag has to be opened at security. This also prevents your liquids from getting crushed/squeezed in the larger bag.

When it comes to avoiding delays, taking the first flight of the day can be very helpful. The first flight out is ideal since MOST airplanes have been at the airport overnight and there is less of a chance you’ll encounter delays related to late inbound aircraft. You’ll also have less of a chance of other flights getting canceled and rebooked on a morning flight, there are typically smaller security lines, smaller crowds in the terminal, and fewer weather delays as early weather tends to be less intense than it is later in the day.

While enroute, look at the airline magazine in the seat back pocket. These magazines contain airport diagrams for major airports. This helps give you an idea about where you’ll be when you get off the airplane. It helps you to anticipate where to exit the airport for pickup (arrivals is typically on the baggage claim level) and where to transfer to your next departure gate when continuing on to a connecting flight. Feel free to ring the overhead bell to call a flight attendant and ask for the anticipated gate arrival number. The crew typically knows the gate assignment 30 minutes prior to landing.

You might prefer the window seat for the view, but put a bit more thought into where you’re going to sit. Window seats are good for sleeping. Choose a seat near the wing if your body does not like to fly and you have tendency to have air sickness. Choose a seat near the front of the coach section, near an exit door or in economy plus/business/first class for a quick exit on and off. If you’ll be on a 50-seat regional jet, choose the single first three seats to (usually) have more personal space on a smaller aircraft.

Step into your seat and let passengers pass until you see a break in the boarding passengers to step out and find an overhead bin for your bag. Seating in the front of coach aids in getting first dibs on overhead space, so you never have to search. Some airlines board by zones … look for zone one first for the same bags reason.

Additional tips to make your experience more pleasant:

  1. Pack lightly. Take advantage of laundry service or a washer and dryer at your destination if you’re staying more than four days.
  2. Anything you bring with you can be lost or forgotten. “Do I really need it with me?” should be your mantra.
  3. Keep certain items packed at all times in your luggage.

Finally, follow these considerations for getting through security: wear slip-on shoes, don’t wear a belt, and avoid wearing large jewelry. Travel can be a hassle, but a little effort and some organizing can make all the difference.

5 Comments for “Efficient travel tips from an airline pilot”

  1. posted by PatGLex on

    I am getting ready to fly to Boston in April and I thank you for your tips! I do already choose the window seat but for the exact reason you suggest: sleeping. I prop my head against the wall and crash through much of the flight. I will remember, though, the single-seat option on regional airplanes. I also plan to be one of the last people off the plane, no matter where I am sitting. It’s less hassle to gather bags etc. when there aren’t a hundred — or twenty — people all jostling to be first out. And I make sure I have a carry-on that will fit under the seat by my feet, because I hate putting bags in the overhead. The carry-on does have my for-the-flight stuff (snacks, toiletries, a book, my itinerary, etc.) and maybe a change of shirts for the possibility that the checked bag is lost.

  2. posted by Andrea on

    My favourite travel tip is take a picture with your phone/tablet of all checked bags. If something DOES go missing, it makes it very very easy to describe it in great detail, and if you are arriving somewhere where you do not speak the language, you can point and they can understand what bag they are looking for.
    Also – put a luggage tag with you the hotel/resort address on it (and the dates you are there) when you are departing. Again, if it goes missing, it can’t hurt.

  3. posted by Liz on

    Like Andrea said, put your destination details on your luggage tag!

    I actually always put a printed itinerary in the front pocket or on top of the packed stuff in each bag (both checked and carry-on) so that if things go missing it is that much easier to find me. I put it inside so that if luggage tags fall off (which they do!) there is back-up inside the bag.

  4. posted by Travelgirl on

    Wow…I’m a flight attendant and this article is perfect! I’m posting it on my facebook. Thanks!

  5. posted by Mike Hathaway on

    Step one, own a bag that is legal for the airplane you are flying.
    Step two, don’t pack it so it puffs out or use the unzip extenders.
    Step three, test your bag in the overhead bin baggage checkers, if its to big check it.
    With the exception of drunk people the one thing keeping the plane from leaving the gate is people with bags that are to big. For some reason very few gate crews check. Your bag should slide easily in top first wheels pointing out. I use a hard sided pelican 180 case that is legal and is impossible to overpack or expand in size. The one time It did not fit the flight attentend told me that the first few bins where smaller and did not accommodate the “legal size” so i moved down a row and it slid right in.

    Always have a backpack or something similar for your second under the seat bag and pack it extremely light in flight use items only. That way if you overpack the carbon and it does not fit you can open and grab the few essentials stuff your backpack and gate check.

    By the way I have had it happen a couple times now where gate crews offered anyone who gate checked there cary on front of the line boarding privileges. What an awesome idea. I pulled out my camera threw it into my backpack and sent my carry on under the plane.

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