When I was considering the Chief Medical Officer role at ASCP, there was significant travel on the table. Prior to ASCP, I was already a seasoned traveler, having been to every continent except Antarctica. I had a few travel tricks up my sleeve. However, the nearly 2 weeks per month that I find myself out of the ASCP offices have evolved my travel skills from seasoned to ninja. For your enjoyment, here are some of my best tips.
Join and explore a loyalty program. We all have frequent flyer miles with one or more airlines; however, consistent use of a single airline or group of airlines (Star Alliance, Sky Team, etc) will rapidly add up and provides perks and benefits you may have to research a bit. Most importantly, don’t get discouraged by one bad flight and switch! They are called loyalty programs for a reason. In addition to upgrades, lounge access, early boarding, and free premium snacks, perks like premium economy for the same price as economy make a huge difference as planes seats get tighter.
Book economy, fly business. Economy non-refundable tickets are the least expensive typically, especially when booked on a Tuesday. If you’re booking a common business commuter flight (Chicago to NYC, Boston to DC), make sure you’re staying over a Saturday and watch prices to book effectively over time. Typically, business customers book last minute (paying highest prices) so prices are lower when booked very early; however, commuter flights are often packed with business travelers so booking early may not always be cheapest. When you get to the airport, ask if upgrades to business are available when you check in but be patient! Booking the upgrade at the gate desk is often significantly cheaper. Set a limit for yourself. “I won’t upgrade unless the cost is less than $XXX.” This will keep your personal budgeting in check and not let your exhaustion or irritation with your last economy leg lead to something rash.
Plan ahead. If you’re planning a vacation, especially a long flight (not a typical business flight), research prices way ahead of time and watch them for some time. There are websites into which you can load your favorite flights and received pricing alerts. Even if you’re a business traveler (for example, attending conferences), you’ll likely know the dates early and be able to do the same. The earliest flights of the day are often the cheapest but remember the opportunity cost to you of having to get up extra early (especially if hauling little ones!).
Carry on. Don’t check a bag. There are exceptions but, for the most part, don’t check a bag. Consider the laundry services at your hotel or access to laundry machines. When you are packing, lay everything out and ask yourself, “Am I going to die if this is not with me?” If the answer is “no,” move to the “maybe” pile. If you’re bringing gifts, carry them in a reusable sack as your personal item. Speaking of reusable sacks, organizing your back pack with a few of these means you can pull out “computer” or “clothes” or “other” quickly and replace them easily (it’s like file folders). If you are going on a big trip and just can’t do without a checked bag, try to fly direct and/or make sure you have a full one hour (domestic) or two hour (international) layover between flights— both will increase the likelihood of your luggage arriving. If you are a business traveler, INVEST in a very good carryon bag. Because carryon luggage at the low end of the scale is assumed to never be checked, one bad flight can destroy it.
Toiletries. I know you have a strict beauty regiment with 12 products you can’t live without but consider lightening your load when possible. All hotels provide basic toiletries and there are stores everywhere (clearly, if you’re vacationing or working very remotely, there may be limitations, but remember context and consider the essentials). Most large format toiletries have to be checked and that’s adding challenges you don’t need. Some of my pro-travel colleagues who MUST have their complete hygiene system check bags but always use the suggestions I mention above about checked bag security. A clever, lovely friend of mine once said (when I asked why she was wearing only mascara in the middle of Africa), “If I just have this one thing I do every morning, I feel normal.” Sound advice.
Security. There is general anxiety about going through security but there doesn’t have to be. First, it’s for your safety and, unless you are a criminal or a terrorist, the security people are there for your protection and they are quite nice. Second, if you get TSA pre-check, know the drill. Nothing infuriates fellow travelers like a confused passenger in the TSA pre-check line disrobing and regurgitating the contents of their bag into a bin. If you’re not TSA pre-check, be ready to remove coats, shoes, laptop, belt, all pocket contents, and sunglasses. You can do all of that during your 10 + minute waiting in line. You should not do it when you get to the table—that’s why the line is so long. Third, when you travel internationally, the rules are always different but the security agents are still just human beings doing their job. Politeness and paying attention will make all the difference. Fourth, some of us are more likely to experience friction with security because of the way we look, our clothes, or even our perceived attitude. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s annoying… but we know this and can prepare for it. Displaying courtesy and politeness at all points in the airport will get you through security quickly. If you happen to have a difficult experience, I encourage you to send a strongly worded, formal letter later (you can write it on your smartphone on the plane… just don’t send it until you are back home). There is no point in ruining your trip over someone else’s potential unfounded fear or ignorance. Lastly, I understand the world is liberated (being liberated) and we all think we have the freedom to do as we wish l; however, showing up to a security check point drunk or stoned or reeking of pot will get you heavily screened and searched. The rest of us enjoy the show but not the delays.
Boarding. The bin above your seat is not assigned to you. The space under the seat in front of you is. The bin above your seat is determined to be full by the crew, not by you. Other peoples’ bags are going to touch yours. The crew can and will place your bag correctly in the overhead bin. When you find your seat, quickly store your bags and sit quietly with your seatbelt unfastened and your hands in your lap. Don’t pull out your laptop. Don’t have 5 things in your hands and in the seat pocket. Your personal item under the seat in front of you should contain anything you’ll need during the flight. Organize yourself at home before you depart—not while the rest of the plane is trying to board. People will like you. The crew will like you.
Seat selection. If you know you get up frequently to use the restroom normally, book an aisle seat. If you pass out on airplanes at takeoff and wake up at landing, book a window seat. If you are in a middle seat (someone has to be), it’s frustrating but it does not entitle you to more space than the people on either side of you. Booking early and checking in early is the best way to score a window or an aisle. We are all trapped on the same plane and courtesy wins the day. If you are rude or discourteous, the crew will notice and you will have a miserable flight.
Jet lag. It happens. It’s terrible. It can take you out for a day or more of your trip. There are apps and websites that explain how to avoid, reduce, or beat jet lag. But each person’s physiology is different and these remedies may fail. Common chemicals used include melatonin and caffeine. You’ll have to find your own way of coping but, for fun, here is mine. First, sleep when it’s dark and stay awake when it’s light. Avoid napping during the day. Second, if you are on an overnight flight to an earlier time zone (US to Europe), do your best to sleep on the plane. I don’t recommend drugging yourself but earplugs and an eye mask can do the trick. Lastly, the first night you are in your final destination and about 1.5 hours before bed, run a hot bath and drink a very cold beverage (beer is my preferred coolant but anything cold, with calories, and no caffeine will work). Turn the AC down to a low setting so the room is chilly (even if it’s winter).The hot bath relaxes your muscles, shifts your blood flow, and tells your brain to cool down your body. The cold liquid helps do this. Why? We are naturally diurnal and our bodies are warmer when we are awake than when we are asleep (and the switch is related to light cycles and perceived time of day). After the bath, don bathrobe or towel and sit in the cool room for 15 to 30 minutes so your body dries with water on it (more cooling effect!). Now that you are chilled, crawl in bed and sleep. As I said, this works for me and it may not work for you. And, of course, it requires a bathtub.
Consumption. Drink plenty of water. Deep vein thromboses are no laughing matter. Being well hydrated and getting up to use the restroom a few times is actually good for you. Don’t drink tea or coffee on an airplane (google it to see why). If you’re on an international flight and the alcohol is free, pretend you’re at your grandmother’s house. A glass of wine or a cocktail are fine but becoming inebriated will do you no favors. It can also cause you to sleep when you shouldn’t and it dehydrates you. Make your own choices about eating food on the airplane. It’s often hit or miss so my decisions are made in real-time.
Here’s some self-explanatory one-liners to wrap up:
- Wear comfortable, slip on shoes
- Loose fitting pants (with belt)
- Leave you giant pillow at home
- Headphones! No exceptions
- Ziplock bags to organize electronics
- Always have a pen
- Seats are for people, not bags
- Understand time zones in advance
- Learn “Hello” and “Thank you” in the local language
- Carry at least two universal travel adapters
-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.