Posted by: Heather A. | March 25, 2010

How to Travel Like a Pro

A couple of days ago, I published my Comedy of Errors travel story, and in it I promised a list of tips that the casual traveler might not consider.  This is by no means a comprehensive list…there are plenty of travel sites with plenty of standard tips…but these are ones I’ve found in 5 years of heavy travel that have saved me more times than I can count.

Travel Tip #1: Plan for Delays

In my experience, being “on-time” is the exception, not the rule.  Therefore, PLAN for delays.  If you have to change planes, find out how much time you’ll have between flights BEFORE you book the tickets.  A “legal” connection is one that has at least 30 minutes between arrival and takeoff, and in my opinion, that is a recipe for disaster.  Flights are supposed to board 20-30 minutes prior to departure.  Good luck getting from one end of the airport to the other when your first flight lands as your second flight is boarding!  I try not to book connections with less than an hour in between.

And PLEASE don’t plan major events for the day of travel!  Do you really want to miss cousin Linda’s wedding because you chose to fly in that morning instead of the day before?  I do not fly in the morning of a meeting unless I can afford to miss that meeting completely.

Travel Tip #2: Don’t check your bags

If you want maximum flexibility in managing delays and getting on earlier flights via the standby list, you can’t have checked bags.  On numerous occasions I’ve been able to jump onto a different flight when mine was delayed, simply because I had all my bags with me at the gate.

Please note: This isn’t necessarily an easy tip to accomplish.  If you’re going on a 2 week trip to Europe, or traveling with many small children…yeah, not going to happen.  Whether or not you should try to carry on could be its own article, so leave a comment if you’re interested in that discussion…if there’s enough interest, I’ll write a “To Check or Not to Check” post.

Travel Tip #3: Know the TSA Rules

If you do carry on, it takes a lot of planning, especially when it comes to LIQUIDS.  Be familiar with the TSA rules.  For example, did you know that medicines, baby bottles, and contact lens solutions don’t count?  As long as you declare these items separately, they aren’t counted in the one-quart bag rule.  I found I could carry a lot more onto the plane once I removed those items and bagged them separately.  Go to the TSA website and read the rules!

Travel Tip #4: Check in online

This may be unique to US Air, but when you check in online, you’re guaranteed at least Zone 3 boarding status.  Why does this matter?  The earlier you board, the more likely you are to find room for your carry on bags, and without status, you will probably get stuck with a zone 4, 5, 6 (7, 8, 9!) assignment.  Good luck getting your bags on then.  Check in online, get zone 3, and then be prepared to board as soon as that zone is called.

(Also, if you are checking your bags, you’ll save a few dollars on the baggage fees if you check in and pay them online.)

Travel Tip #5: Have the Reservation Phone Numbers at Hand

I learned a long time ago to have the phone numbers of each airline’s reservation desk stored in my cell phone.  When your flight is delayed or canceled, you are competing with the rest of the passengers for space in line and seats on later flights.  The sooner you can get rebooked, the better off you’ll be.  I’m not telling you to ignore the rebooking line.  I’m saying, stand in line while you’re on your cell phone, and deal with the representative who gets to you first.  To make this work, you’ll also need to have your reservation number or confirmation code: store it in your cell phone or print it out and carry it with you.  If you forget, check your boarding pass.  It’s usually printed there too (often in a tiny font).

Travel Tip #6: Check the boards for earlier flights

If your flight is delayed or canceled, check the flight boards for other options.  Bad weather is the #1 cause of delays, and if your flight is delayed, it could be the flight in front of you was delayed too.  I’ve often bypassed an even longer delay by jumping to a different (also delayed) flight.  Which brings me to my next tip…

Travel Tip #7: Play the Standby Lottery

If your flight is delayed or canceled, try to get on the standby lists, even if they’re full.  Check with your airline, because each has a different policy on this — sometimes they restrict the standby list to passengers with status only.  Assuming you can get on the list, don’t consider it a lost cause just because there may be a number of people ahead of you.  You’d be surprised how many people give up on the lost cause.  See, this is a lottery where you have to be present to win.  I’ve been 15 deep on the standby list, and because I was there and the people ahead of me weren’t, I got on the plane.  There are few things that make me happier than winning the “standby lottery!”  This also works if your flight is just delayed.  If you’re going to be waiting around anyway, you lose nothing trying to get on an earlier flight.  The worst that happens is you get some exercise walking between gates.

Travel Tip #8: Alternate airports

This one works going and coming.  Do you have an alternative airport within 2 hours of your home?  If you live in Atlanta, probably not, but here in North Carolina, I can travel out of Greensboro, Charlotte, or Raleigh.  You can probably guess that gives me a lot of options when I’m trying to find a reasonably priced, and hopefully direct, flight.  However, it has also saved me when I’ve had no way of getting home to Greensboro.  My next question to the airline agent is always, “What about Charlotte or Raleigh?”  I know if I can just get to one of those 3 airports, I can either rent a car and drive home, or have someone pick me up.  Multiple options mean multiple ways to get home, even when the best laid plan falls apart.

Travel Tip #9: Three Essential Items

You’re allowed 2 carry-on items.  Did you realize that?  One of them must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. (Wow, I sound like the flight attendants!)  Here’s why that is important: Because on super-crowded flights, despite your best planning, you will sometimes have to check your larger bag.  In that case, you’re left with your backpack, briefcase, etc., and there are a couple of key items you should have in that bag.

I’m not talking about a change of clothes or your medicine.  Those are standard items that every travel site will tell you to pack.  I’m talking about 3 key things:

a) Cell phone charger – DO NOT put this in your suitcase.  Your cell phone is essential.  Carry your charger with you in the bag certain to make it onto the plane if you do.

b) Small power strip extension cord – You never realize how few power outlets there are in the airport until you need one.  If you have a small power strip, you can usually talk someone into sharing the outlet they’re already using.  It also means you can charge your cell phone and laptop at the same time on one outlet, thus endearing you to your other beleaguered travelers.

c) Snacks – Like it or not, airlines have cut out the free food, and airport snacks are EXPENSIVE.  I always carry a small bag of trail mix in my backpack, and I buy a bottle of water as soon as I’m through security (curse you, liquid restrictions!).  When you’re stuck at the gate because you’re waiting on the results of the standby lottery, or stuck on the tarmac waiting to take off, or stuck circling the airport waiting to land, that bag of trail mix and bottle of water can be a virtual lifesaver.

As I said, these are a few things that have helped me in the time I’ve been a road warrior, and I hope one or two can help you too.  Have your own favorite tip not listed here?  Share it with us in the comments!  As always, thanks for reading. 🙂



  1. Great post again, Miss Heather! All I would add is to make sure you know when you need photo ID to board and when you do not…and keep that ID handy! Being a cross border traveller, I just about always have my passport in my laptop case, yet I am usually stuck behind someone digging through their two pieces of carry on, looking for photo ID 🙂

    • Great point, Cathy! Yes, please have your ID ready to go BEFORE you approach the podium! 🙂

  2. “If there’s enough interest, I’ll write a “To Check or Not to Check” post.”

    There’s enough interest.

  3. Fantastic post Heather and very, very good rules by which to travel… I plan for layovers too by having a trusty laptop loaded with movies and broadband wireless (Verizon) for streaming or surfing 🙂

  4. I’m printing this one out! You rock!

  5. Wyman travels quite often and he does alot of what you suggested! He never checks a bag! I’ll mention the extention cord advise to him though, never thought of that! Ya know I’ll just forward this whole thing to him…you should be a travel agent too :o)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: