Airplane Travel Tips: How to Optimize Your Experience

Megan Lee

You might think that the term “optimize” is only relevant to the puppeteers behind search engines, but who doesn’t want to arrange their life’s circumstances so they operate as smoothly and efficiently as possible? I know, for me, figuring out ways to optimize multiple areas of my life, from meal planning and time management — and yes, to even my travel planning skills — just makes good sense. So, what exactly does that look like? How can one optimize their flight experience, from start (browsing for flight deals) to finish (landing in exciting destination).  We’ve rounded up our best airplane travel tips to optimize your flight experience — read on to find advice fit for modern, savvy travelers who share in my aversion to inefficiencies.

Optimize… Your Flight Purchases

Sign Up for Airline Newsletters

Always be in the know! Signing up for airline newsletters and updates on their Facebook pages is a great way to get early alerts on sales. Air Asia is a prime example of this, as you’ll get an early warning of their sale dates and routes coming soon to be discounted.

Learn How to Get Cheap Upgrades

Gone are the days of dressing smartly and asking nicely for that business class upgrade. There are a couple of creative ways to get affordable business class upgrades on flights these days. One of them is to bid in a business class auction run by your airline. Some airlines sell off the remaining business class seats a few days before departure in a blind auction.

Here’s How it Works:

  • Buy your ticket in economy class
  • Receive an email from the airline informing you of the option to bid for a business class upgrade. (We received ours a week prior to the flight.)
  • If you don’t receive and email check on the airline website; here’s a list of the airlines that offer bidding for business class upgrade and links to the relevant page on their website
  • Select the price you’re willing to pay for the upgrade and place your bid; your credit card will not be charged unless the bid is successful
  • You’ll be notified about 24 hours before flying if your bid was successful

Always Read the Fine Print: Avoid Unnecessary Fees

Read the fine print on your budget airline booking, on your boarding pass, and on the company website; I can’t stress this enough. Budget airlines are designed to scam you out of money by taking advantage of your assumptions. The norms of other airlines don’t apply when you fly on a budget airline.

Some commonly held assumptions are:

  • Online check-in is free and available whenever you want (nope)
  • Carry on bags are free (nuh-uh)
  • Carry on bag size and weight limits are the same as other airlines (hahaha)
  • Checked baggage fees are reasonable (I’m actually crying a little right now)
  • You have a designated seat (pssht)
  • They have free food (no one has free food, what is this 1987?)
  • At least they have free drinks, right? (not for you, plebeian)
  • Not even coffee and water? (seriously, not even coffee and water)

Budget airlines are practically a different mode of travel—like pogo sticks. If you don’t respect them, you’re gonna get hurt.

Always Fly Carry On: Save Time & Minimize Baggage Fees

By not checking a bag you are already ahead in three important ways:

  • You don’t have to arrive extra early to check a bag or stand in that long line
  • You are excused from the tedious wait around the baggage carousel upon arrival
  • There is no chance that your bag will be lost by the airline in transit

Editor’s Note: I estimate that not checking a bag saves me a minimum of one hour per flight I take. This year’s flight count is at 30 (so far). That’s almost a full work week saved in half a year.

Most people know about the steep fees that budget airlines charge for checked bags. What most people don’t know is that each low-cost airline has their own specific—and significantly smaller—carry on baggage allowance rules. And they are super serious about them.

You know that little suitcase shaped cage thing at the gate that says, “Your carry on bag must fit within these dimensions?” Yeah… budget airlines actually use those. If your backpack is stuffed to the gills and doesn’t fit in that little cage, you’re paying full price to check it at the gate. What’s worse, these size and weight restrictions are subject to change with little or no notice.

Here’s a guide to the latest Carry On Size and Weight Limits for popular budget airlines in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Optimize… Your Packing Space

First of all, travel with the right kind of luggage. The Outbreaker travel backpack is the perfect carry on and it opens to pack like a suitcase, making packing (and accessing your stuff later) easy. Whatever you do, don’t travel with a top down, bucket loading backpack. Packing and unpacking those is terrible.

How to Pack a Backpack

Layer the items by weight putting the heaviest on the bottom. Stand up long items so that they take up less space. For example, put a packing cube in length-wise so its space mirrors the backpack’s shape. Put your wallet, or ID, in an outside zippered pocket for easy access, but shove them deep into the pocket, so pickpockets can’t simply unzip and snatch your wallet off the top.

Your laptop, or tablet, should lay flat against the back, so you can easily pull it out for airport security. Use packing cubes or clear Ziplock quart freezer bags (they’re tougher than standard sandwich bags) to keep like items together. I use a quart bag for my pens, one for snacks, and one for cords. If you pack an extra set of clothes in your backpack, use a packing cube to keep them clean and organized. Slide the packing cube down one side of your backpack. On top, put the items you’ll need quick access to on your flight: quart bag of liquids, and a book to read.

Airplane Travel Tips for Liquids

The 3-1-1 rule is now standard worldwide and as long as your liquids fit in that quart sized ziplock bag – it’s a go. Medicines and baby formula can remain separate.

  • Abide by the TSA rules and follow the 3-1-1 standard (less than 3.4 ounces, 1 quart size bag, 1 bag per traveler)
  • Use smaller travel size containers of your favorite products (this saves you money so you don’t have to buy whole new bottles – squirt some of the product you already have into these handy, little containers)
  • Use contact cases to store make up (moisturizer, eye cream, cover up)
  • Consider squeezable bottles for those liquids like shampoo, lotion, and sunscreen (GoToob is one great option)
  • Try travel friendly products (check out what comes in travel sizes to try those at home before purchasing)
  • Consider dry versions of usually wet things, like shampoo and conditioner bars, to free up space in your ziplock
  • Think wet wipes or baby wipes for make up removers

Optimize… Your Flight Gear

There are a few things that will make your flight more comfortable and help you arrive feeling less stressed and better rested. Know what your items are and pack them. These are my basics:

Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 20 / 25 ($250-300)

Several travel friends — and Forbes! — have all quoted Bose as having the best headphones for flights. For those who prefer compact earbuds, opt for the Bose QuietComfort 20 ($250). If you favor over-ear headphones, go for the Bose QuietComfort 25 ($300). Both are noise canceling.

Cozy Socks: Smartwool Socks ($10 – 20)

“Warm fuzzy socks are a must,” says RPCV Megan Burden, “My feet always get so cold!” Ditto — which is why I never travel without a pair. Smartwool socks are my favorite brand for flights.

Travel Pillow: Aeris Memory Foam Pillow ($24)

I’m not much for travel pillows but last year I bought the Aeris Memory Foam Pillow and use it on weekend trips back east. It takes up about as much room in my carry-on tote (the Baggu Duck Bag) as a sweater. Overall, it’s comfy, affordable, and packs down relatively well.

Sleep: Dream Essentials Lightweight Contoured Sleep Mask ($10)

Clint of Trip Hackr recommends the Dream Essential Lightweight Contoured Sleep Mask. Not only does it block out light completely, but it also sits above — not on — your eyes.

Optimize… Your Travel Outfit

What you wear on your travel day matters. Feeling comfortable is as important as looking presentable. Choose your travel clothes to maximize comfort and style while minimizing weight in your bag. In other words, wear the heavier things. Here’s what some of  the Tortuga team prefers to fly in:

Simple, Comfy, and Put-Together

Shannon, a travel blogger and writer for the Packsmith blog doesn’t have a specific go-to outfit, but she likes to keep things simple, comfy, and classic. She chooses items she already has in her wardrobe and tends to wear some variation of:

  • Jeans, usually jeggings (she’s definitely on the jeans side of our jeans versus travel pants debate!)
  • T-shirt or sweater
  • Coat if it’s winter; cardigan if it’s summer

For shoes, her go-tos are sneakers or boots. She tries to wear shoes with socks that slip on and off easily and she avoids bare feet through TSA at all costs! For longer flights Shannon usually wears leggings, a stretchy dress, and an extra sweatshirt — after all, long flights always seem to feel a little chillier, right?

Fred, a founder of Tortuga Backpacks, understands that as a traveler, you sometimes need special features in your gear. At the same time, you don’t want to board an airplane looking like you just hopped off the Appalachian trail, which is why Fred usually keeps it simple and wears:

For shoes, Fred wears either his Nike sneakers or Sperry Top Sider boat shoes, depending on the trip.

Layers, Layers, Layers

What Packsmith writer Laura wears when flying has got to be comfortable and adaptable to hot/cold environments in a second’s notice — as her inner temperature can switch rapidly. Because of that, she likes to dress in layers and straps a jacket on to the outside of her carry on so it’s easy to grab. When she flies, she loves to wear:

For shoes, she usually sports the Softwalk Taylor Too shoes. If she’s planning on going for morning jogs during her trip though, she’ll opt for her New Balance shoes, rather than letting them take up precious space in her luggage. Like Laura, I also plan my airplane outfit knowing that I’ll probably get super hot running around the airport, then freeze my butt off as soon as I board — no matter what time of year. I always keep a pair of Smartwool socks and my cardigan at the top of my carry on, and wear:

  • Black stretchy pants from Necessary Clothing, or my jeans on shorter trips
  • Black Infinity scarf from Forever 21
  • Whichever basic top I’m most in love with at the moment
  • Lululemon in flux jacket in grey (I love to hide in hoods while sleeping on planes or busses!)

For shoes, I’m also a huge TOMS fan but will opt for slip on boots, like Aldo’s Hassick boot, if I’m traveling in the winter or sandals if I’m heading to a warmer destination.

Optimize… Your In-Flight Entertainment

Not all flights have inseat entertainment any more and with the laptop ban looming, we may not be allowed to binge watch our preloaded Netflix in flight for much longer. What’s a traveler to do? Pack snacks and make the best of it!

Food for Long-Haul Flights

Every article about long-haul flights starts with one recommendation: Stay hydrated. That is sound advice. Plane cabins are dry, so drink plenty of water to hydrate your body and skin. Instead of waiting for thimbles of water from the flight attendants, bring an empty water bottle that you can ask to have filled up or that you can fill in the bathroom. Any plastic bottle will do. My go-to reusable bottle is a Camelbak. The Wirecutter recommends the Klean Kanteen Classic.

Once I’m dressed and hydrated, my next concern is what I’m going to eat. An edible inflight meal is uncommon. Don’t count on eating airline food. Bring your own food and, if you get something decent from your airline, consider it a bonus. Melissa d’Arabian of the Food Network’s Ten Dollar Dinners recommends “protein plus complex carbs” for inflight snacks. On flights, and in general, I try to avoid anything refined, processed, or artificial. Snacks that work well on flights:

  • Nuts – Especially almonds. Avoid salted nuts which will make you more dehydrated
  • Fruit – Bananas, apples, or dried fruit without added sugar work well and won’t make a mess
  • Trail Mix – Stick to mixes of nuts, dried fruit, and seeds. Avoid ones with chocolate-covered anything. Trader Joe’s has a huge selection of good trail mixes
  • Bars – Clif Bars work well as do fruit and nut bars. Just check the nutritional information because many bars are loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients
  • Whole Grain Salads – d’Arabian recommends quinoa-based salads with olive oil. Unlike leafy green salads, they won’t wilt
  • Dark Chocolate – For enduring a 12-hour flight, you deserve a treat

As a courtesy to the rest of your row, avoid smelly foods. Tuna may be compact and healthy, but it also stinks.

How to Pack Your Snacks

Be sure to leave room in your personal item for your airplane snacks. Tupperware tubs will stack nicely at the end of either the daypack or the duffle. Be sure that anything perishable or “crunchable” that is stored in a ziplock bag is laid in carefully on top so that it doesn’t get crushed. Small snack items, like bars, or small containers of nuts or candies can be organized in a packing cube so that they aren’t rolling around in your bag and finding their way to the bottom, opening up and… oh no! M&M’s everywhere!

Entertainment for Long-Haul Flights

Now that you’re clothed and fed, let’s make the flight fun, productive, or at least feel quicker. Entertainment is a matter of preference. Books, a Kindle, or neither? Music on your smartphone? Movies on your iPad? Work on your laptop? Whatever works for you.

Long-haul flights are a great time to disconnect. You will be unavailable by phone and disconnected from the internet. Download movies to an iPad or sync Spotify playlists to your phone for offline listening. Even after watching a movie or two, you’ll have plenty of time to clear your head.

Regardless of your distractions of choice, make sure to bring a pen. You’ll need it for customs forms. If inspiration strikes while you’re in the air, you’ll have the pen for jotting notes or making sketches. Leave room for serendipity.

TL;DR

Given my desire to maximize efficiency in all areas of my life, it’s only natural that I’ve scoured the web for air travel tips for first time and veteran globetrotters. With just these few small steps and extra consciousness towards effective planning strategies, these airplane travel tips will have you optimizing your flight experience in no time. Like a well-conditioned muscle, it only takes a few trips before you’ll mindlessly incorporate these airplane packing tips into your regular flow.

In short, pay special attention to…

  • Flight booking techniques
  • Excessive, unnecessary fees wrought from budget airlines or traveling with more than a carry-on backpack
  • What you choose to pack (flight gear) and how you plan to pack it (space optimization)
  • What you wear, from head to toe
  • How you prep for in-flight entertainment, including airplane snacks

…and your flight planning optimization will be good as gold.