Spend less time getting there and more time there.
Over the past half-decade, I’ve logged hundreds of trips to various places throughout the country and internationally. Averaging over 60 trips per year for 5 years, that’s at least 300 distinct flights. For each trip, take the recommended 90 minutes to arrive prior to the flight and multiply that by 300 and thats got 27000 minutes or 450 hours or 18.75 days of _recommended_ waiting to do. These numbers are also very conservative. They don’t even take into account airport delays or sitting on the tarmac. You really don’t have much control over sitting on the tarmac, but you can be productive. Therefore, let’s tackle what we have some measure of control over and specifically the time that kills our productivity. Remember, when it comes down to it, if you’re standing in a line, you’re probably wasting valuable time.
These tips are my personal collection of what I like to call “Extreme Air Travel”. Note that some of these tips may make a timid individual uncomfortable or come across as anti-social and some of these do present a measure of risk to the traveler, but I assure you that these have all paid off at one point or another.
Starting off, there are some very obvious points to get out of the way.
- Travel light – roll-aboard suitcase, briefcase and a coat are the maximum you should ever carry by yourself.
- Wear shoes in which if it is necessary to run, you can do it. However, a brisk pace may be all you ever need.
- Do not check a bag unless absolutely necessary – this introduces too many variables. Speed of bag check agents, number of bag check agents, number of open kiosks (assuming kiosks are working!). Additionally, the “bag drop-off” areas are not necessarily quicker than a traditional check-in. Their lines can be worse than check-in. I have been burned there before.
Keep in mind, every second counts. Think of every second you saved as time in the bank which can be used more productively.
Now, lets get into the good stuff.
Arriving 30 minutes prior to boarding can be more than enough time.
- Know the average wait times at the airport. Do a little digging at tsa.gov and you will find a very nice matrix of airport wait times depending on the time and day. Intelligence is key for extreme air travel.
- Does the airport use a shuttle? Take this into consideration. Is it a huge airport you’re flying into? Keep this in mind and plan accordingly. Dallas-Fort Worth is large and may require a few more minutes than most. Most terminals in Washington Dulles will force you to use the slow-moving people movers, though these are being phased out.
- Since you’re rocking the carry-on, this means all liquids must be in a 3oz or less container. However, you must realize the screeners are human and humans do occasionally make mistakes. A 4.6oz plastic tube of toothpaste may make it through the x-ray machines without complaint every single time. Whether or not this is truly a security violation is debatable. You’re a business traveler and are probably do not possess the malicious intent the screeners are trying to detect anyway.
- Always print your boarding pass. Sometimes the lines to the kiosks are out of control depending on the airport and the time you arrive.
You can never wait a significant amount of time in a security line, ever. Here are some things to do to avoid the sometimes inevitable line.
- Apply for the http://www.flyclear.com program and use the clear-lines. A pay service with fairly decent airport coverage.
- Know the location of airport “expert lanes”. Many major airports have these and they are often empty! The lanes are designed primarily for business and seasoned travelers without children. Check the airport website for information on these.
- Know the location of “hidden” checkpoints. Checkpoints off the beaten path are often empty – most infrequent fliers follow the crowd and create a bigger crowd.
- Obtain airline status and use the Premium/Elite security lines. You should be flying one airline program unless absolutely necessary. Remember, 5 years of frequent flying can easily equal over 18 days of waiting in line. Is that a good use of your time? Your call. Pay a little more if necessary and stick with one airline alliance program. You will rack up elite status quickly and enjoy extremely short security lines at many airports.
- Are you in the military? If so, some airports will let you in the premium security lines. ATL is one good example and you definitely want to be in the premium line there.
- Another option is to pay for first or business class – that will work for the premium lines at nearly all airports. However, it’s obviously costly and as mentioned above, there are cheaper ways to get into these lines.
Note that a premium/elite line may not exist at smaller regional airports. The types of airports I’m talking about are those that utilize the same agent for check-in, gate management and directing the plane on the tarmac – no joke. Fly United at GRB and you’ll see what I mean!
Managing delays effectively
Remember, you want to spend the least amount of time as possible at the airport. Delay management is key, particularly when weather is in play. Ground stops can be a frustrating experience, but why be frustrated at the airport?
- Check flight tracking websites for delays – http://www.flytecomm.com/ or directly with the airline. Remember that delays are not always estimated accurately. With a little bit of information, you can make an informed decision on your game-plan.
- Sign up for delay alert services with your airline. Email on a smartphone is often times sufficient, but an SMS message may be quicker. Some airlines also offer an option to call you. All for free! The more intel, the better.
If the flight is delayed, find out what the cause of the delay is.
- Call the airline and speak to an agent.
- Find out if the delay is because the plane is not there yet. If the plane is not there yet, ask the agent where the flight is coming from and obtain that flight number. Now you can track the incoming plane and plan accordingly. This is one of my favorites, particularly when departing on the first leg of the trip.
Here are ways of dealing with connection issues, from least risky to riskiest. There are often no security checkpoints to negotiate when connecting, but there sure is a good 5 plus minutes of time that can be lost while waiting for other passengers to deplane.
- If you’ve got a tight connection or the first leg is delayed, ask the gate agent nicely if you can move to the front of the plane and in an aisle seat.
- If it’s a packed plane and you weren’t able to obtain a seat in the front of the plane, now is not the time to be passive. For those of you who are timid, be politely assertive and ask other passengers to let you by.
The Vacation Saver
I hesitated to post this tip because of the risk and potential legality of the maneuver, but I’m not a lawyer and everyone’s individual risk appetite differs. This is an absolutely last resort move that requires timing and quite a bit of luck to execute properly. I call this the “vacation saver”.
Image this scenario. Your travel itinerary is Washington DC to San Francisco (with a one hour layover) to Honolulu. The plane leaving Washington DC is delayed 45 minutes and the captain is unable to make up any time in the air. You know that the doors from your San Francisco to Honolulu flight will close 10 minutes prior to departure and that plane is on time. That gives you exactly 5 minutes to make the connection. Crucial time, especially if the plane is a large 767 and you’re sitting in the exit row in economy (that’s about 2/3rds towards the back of the plane). Lots of plane in front of you, lots of passengers to get past. Oh, and since this is a two-week vacation, you checked your bag (yes, that ignores the no-check rule, but hey, it’s hard to fit two weeks of Hawaiian shirts in a carry-on).
When a plane is rolling up to the jetway, there is often a very short lag time between when the plane stops completely and the captain turns off the fasten seatbelt sign, notifying passengers it is safe to get up and remove ones belongings from the overhead bins. The very short window of a few seconds is enough time to get to the front of a plane before the passengers stand. With your connecting boarding pass in hand, a brisk walk to the front of the plane during this window will save you valuable minutes, and potentially a night of enjoyment in the fine SF airport if you missed the connection to paradise.
How does the story end? After execution of the Vacation Saver, we were standing at the front of the plane and were greeted by the SF ground staff. They asked folks in first class if anyone was going to Honolulu – since we were now standing up front with the first class folks, we heard this and understood the urgency. The greeting agent said “It’s gate 82, you better run, they’re not holding the plane”. If we hadn’t pulled the Vacation Saver, we may have been spending that night in SF and not in Hawaii. Be warned, the Vacation Saver tool is labeled “Use only in case of emergency”, but alas, it is indeed a tool in the extreme air travel toolkit.
Rental Car Woes
- Ask yourself if you really need to fill up before returning. Once again, intelligence is your friend. Know the cost for the rental company to fill up the rental car if you return it with an empty or partially empty tank. Knowing this will allow you to make an informed decision if you are in a rush and really need to fill it up. If they’re gouging you, maybe taking the time to fill it up is worth potentially missing a flight, or spending a few extra minutes at a gas station. Risk vs. reward, make the call, and make it informed.
- Is your flight the last of the day and you’re in a rush? Seems like a pretty easy decision to me. Leave slightly earlier… or don’t fill it up.
- Rental car shuttle delays can be a pain, particularly in less busy times during off-hours. If the shuttle to return to the airport is running on a 15 minute schedule and there are a few workers hanging around not doing anything, start a conversation with a worker. It may turn out they are willing to take a car off the premises and drop you off at the terminal.
The most important and required aspect of Extreme Air Travel is the initial intelligence of not only the airport layout and procedures, but your individual flights and a large helping of common courtesy. Being courteous to airport and airline employees, TSA screeners and fellow passengers goes a long way to your success. With these three attributes and a generous helping of luck, your individual air travel experiences and particularly the time saved as a result will result in greater productivity and many hours saved in the long run.