Long ago, international air travel was glamorous. Sadly, no longer.
Today it’s something that most of us have to endure.
We’re herded into cramped seats, trapped next to complete strangers and served tasteless food, which really only serves to alleviate the boredom..!
Like many who travel regularly, I have developed a routine that helps me weather this trial. Here, then, are the steps I take to ease the stress!
Before you travel
Moral of this section: plan ahead..!
If you’re travelling to anywhere in Asia or Africa for the first time you should check which vaccinations are recommended for your destination.
Some vaccinations need to be done up to a month before you travel and some involve two (or more) shots.
So as soon as you know your destination check the vaccination requirements, and make sure you leave enough time for them to run their course and become effective.
The next thing to do is check the visa requirements for the country you’re visiting. If you need to get a visa the waiting times can vary significantly, unless you pay (and that’s usually a lot!)
So give yourself plenty of time to arrange your visa, if you need to get one.
You can usually find the visa requirements for the country you’re visiting on their government website.
Look those up and get everything ready before you visit the consulate or embassy. Without a doubt there will be queues there, so having everything ready will save you frustration and repeat visits.
I had to make a repeat visit to the Saudi Arabian consulate here in Hong Kong a few years ago, because the photos I supplied were smaller than the sizes specified on the Saudi website!
Details matter – so look them up and make sure you have everything you need.
Next, make sure you have at least 6 months validity on your passport.
I have no idea why countries insist on 6 months validity, even if you have a return ticket, but they do.
Some years ago I got caught out when I was literally one week under the 6-month window.
I was flying to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the check in staff at first did not want to accept me for the flight.
I eventually persuaded them that they should, but I had to sign an indemnity that absolved Cathay Pacific of any responsibility should I be refused entry in KL.
I then spent the next several hours wondering what might happen when I arrived, and trying to come up with various plans for dealing with it.
As it happened, after the immigration officer at KL airport called his supervisor for a discussion, I was allowed in – but it was a tense few moments!
Booking your flight and checking in
I always do everything online because it gives me full control and, where possible, I use airlines that I know and use regularly.
I am a member of 3 airlines’ frequent traveller programs and I have all my travel details (passport details, contact details, seat preferences, meal preferences, etc) registered with each of them.
This greatly speeds up the process I have to go through when booking my flights and it ensures I’m always credited with my frequent traveller miles (or points).
However, although I have registered my seat preferences, I choose different seats depending on how long the flight is (window for short flights, aisle for long flights).
I can view the seating layout maps and make my choice based on the aircraft and its configuration – emergency exit row seats, or rows where there is a different configuration because of the aircraft shape.
For example: on the Emirates 777 flights from Hong Kong to Dubai the seating layout in economy is normally 3 – 4 – 3, but at row 50 it goes to 2 – 4 – 2 because it’s near the tail of the plane where the fuselage narrows.
Because of that change, the aisle seat in row 50 has a lot more lateral space than the aisle seats from row 49 forwards. And 80% of the times I’ve flown that route no one is placed in 50A. A win!
Aside from that, I generally go for rows at the back of the aircraft because, in most places, the back rows are first to board.
Since I’m always carrying a computer, I want to be sure of getting it into the overhead bin above my seat, and being in the first batch of people to board makes this more certain.
Finally, I always check in online. This is because I can change my seat if I need to – for example if they’ve changed the originally scheduled aircraft, resulting in a different seat layout from when I booked my flight.
Wherever possible I do not have check-in luggage. For any trips of up to a week I can get everything I need into my carry-on rucksack.
Because some airlines weigh your carry-on bag, and because I always have my computer and charging adaptor with me (which are relatively heavy), I take the minimum amount of clothing and no liquids (see how I deal with those in the section on security).
During my stay I rinse my shirts and underwear each evening, so I only need to take two of each.
Of course, this becomes more difficult if you have special events to attend that require different attire, but it works well for me 90% of the time.
Being first onto the aircraft also means being last off it, but if I have no check-in luggage I really don’t mind.
My aim is to get through immigration and customs, and be out of the airport and on my way as quickly as possible.
Although I’m one of the last off the aircraft, I invariably walk past my fellow passengers and make it out through customs while they are still patiently awaiting their luggage.
Of course, this doesn’t always happen! And when I have check-in luggage I just have to resign myself to the wait.
But, again, this works well for me most of the time.
Immigration and security checks
With some planning, the immigration and security checks on departure can be made a lot less stressful. Here’s what I do after collecting my boarding pass and before I start making my way through immigration and security:
I always wear a shirt with a breast pocket (I put that on before I leave home, of course!) that will take my passport, boarding pass and, where necessary, my ID card.
This makes it easy to get at them when I need them.
Next, I remove anything that may set off the scanners: watch, keys, coins, belt, mobile phone and wallet, and put them in my carry-on bag.
My carry-on bag is a ‘Fast-Scan’ rucksack that has a proper, protective laptop compartment. It opens absolutely flat, so (in most locations) there’s no need for me to take out my computer for the security scanners.
In many airports you’re required to take off your shoes, but not always. And often, they’ll let you keep wearing them if they’re trainers or rubber sandals.
Therefore, if I’m in an airport with which I’m not familiar, I undo my shoe laces, ready for easy removal if necessary.
I also do not wear a jacket when I fly (they require that you remove jackets at the security check stage).
You will be reminded at check-in that you cannot have any liquids (e.g. mouthwash, contact lens solution) or pastes (e.g. toothpaste) of more than 100ml in your carry-on bag.
If you do, they will be confiscated at the security check.
So I don’t pack any of those. On the way out of Hong Kong I buy them at the convenience stores in the airport (air side) after I’ve gone through security.
On the way back home, it doesn’t matter because I have all I need at home.
Once I’ve got that organised I set off, and my progress through immigration and security is generally smooth and quick as a result.
The only frustration is being held up by the people in front of you at the security scanner, who are frantically removing everything under the beady eye of the security official..!
Once I’m through security I retrieve my phone, wallet and watch from my carry-on bag, but I also make sure that I have a pen that I can keep in that trusty breast pocket.
You’ll see why in the next section!
You’ll often hear that you should wear loose, soft, comfortable clothing on flights, and this is absolutely true.
Wearing tight clothing, particularly tight jeans, can become very uncomfortable after 12 hours of shifting around in your seat!
One thing I strongly advise against, though, is removing your shoes! Don’t do it!
Many people do this, but if you want to go to the washroom during the flight you will need to put them on again, and that is difficult because your feet swell in the reduced air-pressure.
However, that is a lot better than walking bare-footed to the washroom. I don’t even subject my socks to that.
So by all means loosen the laces or straps, but don’t remove them.
The temperature in the aircraft can be quite cold, so I always wear a long-sleeved shirt and long trousers. And, of course, you can always ask the cabin crew for a blanket.
In many cases you will be given a landing card and customs declaration to fill out for your destination country’s immigration. This is why I always make sure I have a pen in my breast pocket.
Doing so means I can fill them out without having to get up and open the overhead bin to rummage in my bag for something to write with.
Being able to do that during the flight helps to speed you through the formalities when you arrive.
With all my documentation and my pen easily accessible in that trusty breast pocket (including the immigration card and customs declaration where necessary), look for the ‘Aliens/Foreigners/Visitors’ lane in immigration, and try to avoid queues that contain families with kids.
You’re unlikely to need your pen if you’ve filled everything out correctly, but there’s always a chance you may have overlooked something – or forgotten to sign the declaration.
It’s easy enough to do when you’re sleep deprived after a 12-hour flight..!
Most times the immigration queues will be the slowest part of your arrival – unless you need to wait for luggage. So patience is required here.
But once you’re through, you then only have to negotiate customs, which is usually pretty straight-forward.
Some places make you put your bags through a scanner but as long as you’re not carrying anything suspicious you can simply collect them on the other side and go find a taxi.
So that’s the routine I generally follow. It has served me well and I find I can get through most airports pretty efficiently.
There are always going to be hiccoughs, of course, so be prepared for those. It’s easy to become impatient when you’re worried and tired, but doing so only slows you down more.
Keep cool and travel safely!
The Expat Traveller