Ten Tips For Surviving Airports

It’s a truism that flying has become a chore rather than a pleasure, but there are ways to minimise the stress of dealing with airports and making your flight as routine and painless as possible

I do a lot of travelling by plane around South East Asia, where airports vary enormously in their age and efficiency for dealing with passengers. I don’t actually find flying economy class to be the problem with air travel in general. Most of the problems with flying that cause stress seem to arise in the airport itself. Here then are some tips on what I’ve found helps me get through the maze of obstacles airports seem to put in front of passengers with the minimum of fuss so I can spend more time thinking about where I’m going rather than worrying about how to get there.

1) Keep your passport, tickets and visa requirements together
Ensure your passport has at least six months validity and lots of blank pages. Print out your tickets if they are etickets or bring the paper originals that you’ve been issued. Wearing clothes that let you easily access your passport and tickets helps reduce stress significantly. Trousers with a zipped or buttoned side pocket are ideal for documents, avoiding you secreting them in your hand luggage or back pocket. Keep your documents in the same place all the time and you’ll always know where they are. Ensure at least two weeks before you leave that you have checked the visa requirements for any foreign countries you are entering. Most countries allow European and USA citizens visas on arrival as tourists, but some nations – e.g.Vietnam – still require a visa to be acquired ahead of time by all tourists irrespective of their origin, and you cannot get one when you arrive in the country.

2) Turn up at the airport 3 hours before your flight
I’ve found that flying is so much less hassle when you arrive with lots of time to spare. Usually it means the check in queue is quite light, so you can ditch your bags and pass through Passport Control fairly quickly, as opposed to arriving two hours before your flight and getting lost in a check in scrum. I find it is much more pleasant to invest the extra time and be able to spend a couple of hours in a cafe and browsing in a newsagent once I’ve gone through Passport Control than standing in a queue for an hour.

3) Pack your stuff properly
Before you even leave home, be aware of what your airline will let you bring onto the plane. Baggage limits are being strictly enforced these days, with typically 20 kg for checked luggage and 8 kg for hand luggage on budget carriers in Asia. (The more expensive, traditional airlines usually allow up to 30 kg checked luggage). If you really need to be bring more stuff, be mentally prepared to pay the excess to avoid it being hassle, and know how much that excess will cost you.

If you have sports gear, (I often fly with 30 kg of scuba diving gear which frequently causes problems), try and find out what the airline’s policy is and if they have a waiver. The holy grail would be getting that policy in writing from head office. Failing that, be extremely polite and smiley with the check-in staff. Avoid getting aggressive or stroppy – it’s not going to help and you will just make a fool of yourself. (I know, I’ve done it). If you politely point out your gear is sports gear with a smile, then they might just let you through. I’ve found that there is rarely a consistent policy with airlines – it really does seem to be up to the discretion of the staff on the day.

With the current tight security restrictions, be fully aware of what you are allowed in your hand luggage to take on the plane. Recently I was surprised in the Philippines to find one particular domestic carrier (Air Philippines) doesn’t allow computer power cables and the like to be included in carry on luggage. I had to move quickly to stuff all my camera and laptop cables in my checked baggage. The liquids rule still seems to be enforced in many places, and you should avoid taking any liquids at all in your hand luggage to avoid hassle at the security checkpoints. Vital liquids like contact lens liquid should be decanted into a clear tube. This sort of thing is frankly a total pain but it’s better than arriving at the airport and being made to throw away your expensive contact solution, because they will not make an exception for you.

4) At Passport Control, ensure your departure card has been filled in
Only applicable if you are leaving one country for another – you will often find that there was an arrival card issued on entry to a country that usually needs your departure information also written on it before you can exit through the Passport Control. Fill this in before you get to the Passport Control desk, otherwise you might be sent to the back of the line again or be left at the desk hurriedly scribbling info onto the departure card.

5) Be prepared for security checkpoints before you get to them
The biggest bottleneck in the whole flying process tends to be the security checkpoint, where you walk through a metal detector and put your bag through the xray check. People always seem to be singularly unprepared for this procedure and wind up walking through the scanner four or five times until they realise their belt is setting it off.

Before you get to the security checkpoint, put all of your coins, your keys, your watch, your mobile phone, your PDA, your belt if you have one, any jewellery and anything else that is likely to set off the scanner into a pocket of your hand luggage. Bag goes on the xray conveyor, you go through the scanner, no alarm goes off and your on your way in 5 seconds.

6) Once in the Departure area, find your boarding gate
I know this one sounds insultingly obvious, but there is a reason for it. Once you’ve made it through Passport Control and the Security Checkpoint, you can heave a sigh of relief. You’ve got through the major hassle – now you just have to locate your boarding gate and keep track of its boarding time. However, be aware that the boarding gate could be up to a mile from where you enter the departure area, so it’s best to start moving towards it as soon as you can. Don’t head direct to your boarding gate otherwise you’ll be marooned in a probably very dull waiting room with few amenities – instead, locate the entrance to your boarding gate and then go find a nearby cafe in which to loiter or shops to browse. Having a good book when you are in airports is a major way of improving your experience of them.

7) Keep a pen and paper on you at all times
Any international flight will probably involve filling in departure or arrival forms. These will typically be issued to you on the plane on your way into a country. If you have a pen on you (in your trouser side pocket), it makes it easy to fill in the forms and get them out the way, rather than wrestling with your hand luggage in the cabin or having to ask around to borrow a pen off someone else. It’s a good habit to keep pen and paper with you all the time when travelling – essential for getting locals to write down taxi instructions and the like in the native language. (I’d never have survived Beijing without this technique).

8) Make it easy to get your cabin essentials out of your hand luggage
When you come onto the plane to find your seat, there’s always a mess of people fooling around with their hand luggage above the seats, trying to find items and blocking the gangway for everyone else. You can avoid this yourself by storing whatever you need for the flight itself – I usually have a book, a pen and a small notebook – in a small plastic bag, like the ones you get from booksellers. Just before you step onto the plane, you can pull this plastic bag out of your hand luggage, and then swiftly deposit your luggage above you and deftly slide into your seat clutching your goodies to keep you entertained on the trip without blocking anyone else or having the stress of hunting through your luggage to find the items you need.

9) Keep your ticket when you leave the plane
Leaving your ticket stub on the plane when you get off it may not seem a big deal, but it ‘s worth keeping as proof of ID that you were on the plane until you have exited the airport. I’ve been asked several times in Asian airports to show my ticket stub by officials as I exited, for what reason I’m not quite sure.

10) Know your transport options at the other end
Perhaps the most stressful part of any journey is arriving in a strange city and needing to get to your hotel. Having read up previously in your guidebook and online about where to find taxis and buses, what you should expect to pay and how long it will take, will let you get orientated much quicker than if you emerge blinking into the Arrivals hall with no real idea of what you’re doing.

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