Having sat in an airplane seat for 50,000+ miles per year for the past 4 years straight, I’m going to head out on a limb and call myself a frequent flyer. I’m sorry that I’m not sorry to confess that airline miles matter to me, and damn does it feel good when the upgrade gods cast their blessing upon you. Like it was yesterday, I still remember the amazement that they offered you snacks MORE THAN ONCE and the alcohol was gratis the first time I ever ended up in a big chair. I felt too guilty to take advantage.
Over the years, I’ve tried more than a few hacks to make traveling as stress-free as possible. I haven’t always met success, so here’s a post that I’ve been meaning to put together for a very long time, a practical guide for an every girl just like me to take to the friendly skies without losing her mind. It’s not as bad as the media portrays it… most of the time.
For you Amazon Prime addicts like me, I’m including links to my preferred items (or reasonably priced) alternatives where I can. If you like to get your hands on things before buying, TJ Maxx and Marshall’s tend to be gold mines of travel pouches, discounted luggage and the like.
What I Always Have With Me
- Water – Those flight attendants can’t come with the beverage cart soon enough. Also, you never know when you may get an itch in your throat. Delays recently caused me to almost miss a connection, so I had no time to run and buy a bottled water before boarding my next flight. I then ended up in a coughing spell soon after boarding and had no water to quell it. The man next to me was not amused. At least I had cough drops.
- Burt’s Bees Ultra Conditioning Lip Balm – For the same reason as #1, the cabin air is so incredibly dry. FYI, my other favorite lip balm, EOS now comes in stick form. Game changer.
- Unscented Hand Lotion – Between dry cabin air and super aggressive industrial hand soap in the airport restrooms, a travel size lotion is a must. Even if I put all my makeup & other toiletries in my checked bag, the lotion is always in my backpack. (Side note, if you’re going to use the hotel lotion… SMELL IT FIRST. I once failed to do that before, and ended up with very awkward-smelling hands for hours afterward.)
- Vinyasa Scarf – It gets cold up in the sky! Wear it around your neck in the airport, unravel it into a shawl or blanket once you’re on board.
- Baseball Cap – To hide. From everyone. I can’t nap on the plane without one.
- Paperback Book – You never know when your phone or tablet battery is going to die, or if the in-seat charging plug will be broken. I once banked on the seat charger to work on a 4-hour flight from Atlanta to San Diego. It did not. I was unhappy and my iPad was a brick. Nobody wins.
- An obnoxiously colored iPhone/iPad Charging Cable – Inevitably, you’re going to want to charge your digital toys. It will be a very sad moment to realize you left it on the plane/at the hotel/in the rental car. It’s much more difficult to forget when it’s lime green or hot pink and 10 feet long.
- Molded Earbuds – I know the noise-cancelling over the ear headphones are the trend right now, but how are you supposed to lean against the wall for a snooze with the headband in the way? I have a custom pair from my years working on NASCAR, which do a solid job of keeping the noise down.
Leave These Behind
- Excess Toiletries – If I’m going somewhere that I know will have a CVS, Target or Walgreens within 5 minutes, then I don’t worry as much if my small travel-size items run out. If my toothpaste is almost gone, I’ll save space and restock once I get there.
- Neck Pillow – I don’t find them comfortable, and they take up so much space. As a smaller option, try one of the smaller cylindrical pillows that can double as neck or lumbar support.
- My Bedroom Pillow – I’ve seen more rookies than anyone should trying to bring their pillow from home, mainly of middle school and high school age. If there’s hardly enough room for you to sit without your knees hitting the seat in front of you, it should be quite obvious that there isn’t any room for home furnishings either.
- Fast Food – Please do all of your seatmates a favor and eat before getting on the plane. Innocent things like protein bars? Bananas? Chips & Cookies? Go ahead. Anything fresh from McDonald’s or Chick-Fil-A? Please no. The smell lingers.
If you travel often, stock up on duplicates of your beauty staples. When scrambling out of the house in the morning at 3:30a, do you really want to realize 2000mi away that you forgot your toothbrush? I keep a separate toiletry bag packed and ready to go at all times. What’s inside?
- Small Shampoo & Conditioner
- Eye Makeup Remover
- Cotton Balls & Q-Tips
- Face Wash
- Dry Shampoo
- Toothbrush & Toothpaste
- BB Cream
- Face Wipes
- Hand Sanitizer
- Dental Floss
Packing cubes & small lululemon totes are supremely helpful. They keep all of your socks & skivvies together, and help protect your clothes from the inevitable dirt on the bottom of your shoes.
What I Use: Eagle Creek Pack It Cubes and… I don’t think I need to advise on where to get a few red totes 😉
I’m not talking about the war between folders and rollers. Some of the best $10 I’ve ever spent is a flat zipper pouch, meant to be an iPad case. Prior to boarding, I make sure it’s stuffed with headphones, my boarding pass, my Amex (if I want to purchase any snacks/drinks on board), lip balm and my iPad.
Why the flat pouch? It fits perfectly into the seat back pocket in front of you, and you can grab all the essentials from your larger bag in one fell swoop before stashing it in the overhead bin.
Options Under $20: Natamo Envelope Tablet Sleeve // AmazonBasics Felt Laptop Sleeve
Odds & Ends
Pop-Up Hamper – One of the oddest, but most useful purchases I’ve ever made is a pop-up hamper. After going on a 3-week long business trip a few years back, it was real PIA to deal with THAT MANY dirty clothes and nowhere to put them but a pile in the corner. With a hamper, you can keep all the dirty items together and out of the way until it’s time to throw it all back on top before heading home.
Mine cost about $9 at Bed, Bath & Beyond and lives exclusively in the side pocket of my large suitcase that I use for long trips (must be gone for a minimum 5 days).
Options Under $10: CosCool Collapsible Pop-Up Hamper // Pro-Mart Mesh Pop-Up Hamper
Luggage Scale – It sounds gimmicky, but I found a small handlheld luggage scale at TJ Maxx made by the Sharper Image. You turn it on and hang your suitcase from a hook, and it will tell you in lbs or kilos where you’re clocking in. While many people just walk it over to the bathroom scale at home, that option doesn’t exist when you’re on the road and are wondering if all that sh*t you bought on vacation will push you over the edge. It also lives in the side pocket with my hamper.
Options Under $10: Dr. Meter Luggage Scale // Luxebell Digital Luggage Scale
Carabiner – It doesn’t necessarily need to be climbing grade. I love to be able to clip my trusty ball cap to my backpack when I’m not in the mood to wear it, saving it from a squished fate inside my bag.
Trials & Errors
Miniature Hair Tools – I once bought a miniature flatiron for about $10, thinking it would save space. It took more than twice as long as my full-size flatiron to do my entire head, because the plates were 1/4 the size. Needless to say, I don’t use that one anymore. Grab a heat-resistant case and bring the full-sized hot tools.
Air Pressure – The change in pressure between the ground and 35,000ft can play tricks on you and your liquids & creams. If anything was sealed airtight and it’s opened in the air, it may explode. Before you pack any lotions or creams in a tube, try to squeeze out a bit of that excess air. Also, be gentle when unscrewing the top of your water. I’ve splashed all over myself more times than I can count.
Wallet/Crossbody Hybrid – I thought that getting one of those Vera Bradley wallets with enough space for a cell phone and a lip balm that featured a detachable crossbody strap would help eliminate the need to jam my normal sized purse into my backpack. All was well and good until I had nowhere to stash my giant rental car keys. A for effort, D- for execution.
Other Random Advice
Take the earliest flight you can. If you get delayed, you still have time to get to your destination that day. The last time I took a 2pm instead of a 6am because I didn’t feel like waking up early that day, I meant to go to Oregon but only got as far as Utah. Oops. The time before that, I took a 5pm from Kansas City, meant to go to CT, ended up in Minneapolis. Both times I’ve gotten stranded overnight due to delays in the past few years, I banked on the last flights of the day to be on time. They weren’t.
Do not get in the coffee line at 4:48am. So many groggy folks with pillows in hand waiting in line at Dunkin Donuts in advance of a 6am flight. Caffeine wakes you up.
Excuse me, Sir? It appears you’re looking to sleep on the plane. You are shooting yourself in the foot. Sleep first coffee when you get there. I know it’s hard (trust me, I love my coffee), but tough it out. Conking out on the plane will be that much easier.
Keep your layover in mind when selecting seats. Short connection, but the only window seat left is toward the back of the plane? Think of how long it takes everyone to get on the plane. It will take just as long for people to get off. If your layover is tight, think about giving up your preferred seat type if it means getting a few rows closer to the front. Moving even 3 rows means getting off the plane 12-15 people faster.
Consider the sun. The sunny side of the plane is often much toastier than the shady side. The shady window in January could lead to frozen toes and keeping your gloves on in flight. I know this from experience. Judge which direction you’re headed in and the time of day you’ll be flying, and plan accordingly.
Keep the aircraft in mind when selecting a suitcase. If you’re going to bring a rolly bag on a CRJ (small regional jet), 9 out of 10x it will be gate checked. If you don’t have time to wait in the jetway to get your bag back before running to the next plane, it’s best to bring a smaller bag, or check it outright.
Screenshot your mobile boarding pass. Or, ask for an extra printout if you’re already in line checking a bag. While app stability has greatly increased over the years, there’s nothing like your phone falling asleep *just* as you’re about to board, and then you have to wait for the app to refresh while you’ve got 100+ antsy folks behind you.
Look down before you stash your bag up. A standard rolling suitcase will NOT fit into the bin above the rows with 2 seats. It looks like it will, but it won’t. I see other travelers fight this battle on every single flight I take. A rolly bag will, however, nicely fit above the side with 3 seats. Your bag doesn’t always need to be directly above you. Save time by figuring out which side you’ll have to stash your bag on before getting to your row.
As I sit here readying to pack yet another suitcase, that hand scale is about to come seriously in handy. I’ll stop here, as you probably don’t want to hear such details like my favorite places to eat in certain airports. I’m just going to leave this one last piece of advice here…
Just sign up for TSA Pre already. Actually, don’t. It will make my line longer. 🙂
Love this post! I enjoyed reading it. Never thought about the sun before. I will next time though!! I’m always confused by the people at the coffee line early in the morning. Personally, I’d rather fly sleepy even if I don’t plan to actually sleep. I’m less anxious when I’m sleepy, lol! But maybe they need to be on their game when they land? I dunno. Movie, magazines and half awake, that’s how I roll.
I was for sure expecting someone to come at me and challenge my coffee comments, so I’m happy to find out there’s someone out there who agrees with me! 🙂
I spent nearly 10 years travelling for work “road warrior” for sure. Still do a lot of travelling long distance. My must have for flights over 4 hours is my folding step stool. I think you are tall enough to have your feet touch the ground full on but for me at 5’4″ my toes touch but not full on. So I bought a small folding step stool at Marshalls for $7 – it’s sturdy plastic and slips into my rolly bag outer zip. On a long haul flight to Asia it makes all the difference sleeping. I’m also a fan of my REI stuff bag. I use it to put my jacket/sweater whatever in it and use it as a pillow on the plane – when I get off the plan I can put it back on. My pouch it flat like yours but is a purse bag with strap – I bought it in Asia -it’s bright colored and made from old mosquito netting and cotton so it’s super light and durable plus it goes in that back pocket which is key. I like the hamper idea – I’ve got a 4 week Asia sojourn and think i’ll pick one up. Thanks.
Useful list, thanks for sharing! I should have read it earlier, I would make my package better last year when I had a lot of trips,
Personally, I find neck pillow is a big help with the long haul flight, maybe because I have a neck problem, I tried a lot different neck pillows, my experience is NEVER using inflatable neck pillows, they can’t offer necessary support to your neck. I found this neck pillow here: https://bestpillowforsleeping.com/best-selling-travel-pillow-j-pillow-review/ this is what I’m using, it’s very comfortable on the flight/bus.
@Sarah Gordon I’m the similar size as you are, I just saw an amazing thing named “fly legs up”, it can let you rest your legs on the back of your front chair on the plane, it makes you more comfortable, particularly, you are in the middle seat. I think I will give it a shot.