How I fly: a guide for the nervous

I used to hate flying. I still do, in fact (even though I quite like planes). But I’ve had to get used to it. I’ve done a heck of a lot of long-haul flying over the last few years, so much so that I’ve started to develop little habits and customs. I’m not one of these super-efficient flyers like George Clooney in Up in the Air, but I do have my own wee drills that go some way to ensuring pleasant and enjoyable flying.

Pretty soon, my folks are going to be joining me on a 12 hour flight, and for bad flying-ness they knock me into a cocked hat. I’ve just spent a good two hours pulling together some advice for them on making a rather stressful experience as pleasant as possible, and figured it would be a better use of my time if I put the fruits of my labours up in the blogosphere lest any feart of flying Googlers stumble across them. What follows is even less entertaining than my usual fayre, and considerably drier. If it helps just one person, though, then I’ll be happy.

So, if you’re going to be flying anywhere far in the near future and don’t fancy sending your blood pressure through the roof – or if like me you’re a nervous flyer who wants to make things as palatable as possible – you may wish to read on…

1. Organise. This is patently, patently obvious, I know. But organisation and back-ups take so much of the stress out of flying. Put the important documents you’re going to need to check in (i.e. boarding passes, tickets, passport) in a secure but easy to reach place in your hand luggage, the kind of place that means you’re not going to have to rummage around for them, but also where you’re not going to worry about them falling out. Make backup copies if possible. Give a set of your travel documents to a trusted friend (make sure you get them back and shred the duplicates when you come home though!) Include both a destination and return address inside your luggage, with the dates of when you’ll be away;

At the airport so early my flight isn't even on the board yet. This is actually too early to get there, even by my standards.

2. Get there early. With check-in, security, boarding and perhaps connections, there’s enough to worry about without having to bust a gut getting to the airport on time. For long-haul flights, I always like to be at the airport 3 hours before. This includes leaving plenty of time for transport to the airport – work out how long the train, bus, taxi or whatever is going to take and then aim for a slightly earlier one. Oh, and check to make sure there aren’t roadworks, closures or line disruptions. I find this makes me panic less if the bus gets stuck in traffic, or when I inevitably run late finishing tidying up the house before leaving. Being there more than 3 hours before might seem like overkill, but as I say my aim here is calmness, not efficiency…

3. Don’t skimp on expense getting there. If you’re paying five or six hundred quid for a flight, I always maintain it’s worth paying a tenner or so more to make sure you actually get the blasted thing. This doesn’t mean you have to charter a Rolls-Royce to get to the terminal, just that it’s worth taking a slightly quicker conveyance to the airport. For instance, taking the Heathrow Express one-way from Paddington to the airport (you can take the regular Tube on the way home) isn’t all that much more expensive than the Underground, and will get you there in a fraction of the time whilst avoiding the various failures, blockages and delays that sometimes affect the Tube;

4. Get yourself checked in right away. Goes hand-in-hand with arriving early, I guess, and what else are you going to do other than check-in once you arrive at the airport anyway? I guess what I’m getting at here is to drop off your suitcase before you go for a coffee or whatever. This also means that you’ve got as much time as possible to sort out any potential (unforeseen) problems that may arise – when the first leg of my London City-Frankfurt-Tokyo flight was cancelled due to fog over central London, I was there and in the system early enough for them to be able to put me in a cab across London for an alternative connecting flight at Heathrow;

5. Head through security pronto. Security is one of the most stressful and intimidating parts of the modern flying experience, so get it out of the way quickly (once you’ve done everything you need to do like saying goodbye to friends and family, going to the loo etc). Having said that, get yourself prepared beforehand to make sure you head through efficiently and without the feeling of pressure from those around you. Liquids in the wee plastic bag. Shoes ready to slip off. Belt off, Coins out of pockets. Laptop out of case. Step aside before joining the queue to get yourself ready if you feel it helps – other travelers will thank you for it. Who knows, you might even meet someone with a sense of humour…

Long corridors are a right royal pain

6. Figure out where your gate is. If all’s gone to plan, you’ll now be through security in the departure area of the terminal with loads and loads of time to spare before your flight. Nearly time for a well-earned decaf latte (real coffee makes me jittery when I fly). Last thing to do before you kick back for a bit is check which gate your flight’s departing from, and where said gate is (at some places you have to take a wee train or have a 15 minute stroll to get there). If you’re through really early, chances are the gate won’t have been assigned yet, in which case look for the time the gate will be announced (typically 1 hour before departure time);

7. Leave loads of time to make a connecting flight. If you’re traveling a long way and time is not of the essence, you may wish to leave a large gap between connecting flights should you have a choice. This gives a nice margin for error should your previous flight be delayed, and also means you don’t need to race through the terminal to get the next flight – which, inevitably, will be as far away from where you arrived as possible (trust me, I once ran flat-out through Frankfurt for 20 minutes without a break). Three hours is a nice time to aim for for a lay-over, even four – that may seem excessive, but the relaxed traveler can always enjoy a good book or two, which brings me on to…

8. Get yourself nicely sorted at the start of the flight. Once you’re on the plane and seated down, take a bit of time to get all the things you’re likely to need to keep yourself entertained. Books, DS’s and iPods can all slot in the seat pocket in front – as, for that matter, can the kinds of documents you might need to fill out landing cards such as passports. Oh, and a pen. Just remember to take it with you when you leave;

9. Encourage those waiting for you to track your flight. One obviously can’t use a phone on a jet, and you might not always have time to make a call in the terminal. If you’ve got someone waiting for you at the other end, take the worry about keeping them informed by encouraging them to follow your flight online. Lots of airlines will now show a map of where the flight is, as well as estimated arrival times, and there are other flight tracking websites too. Japan Airlines even offer an email service, whereby they will send an email to the person waiting for you when your flight departs, and another if it’s delayed for any reason with updates on estimated arrival times.

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