My Airport Routine
Airports are stressful places. I consider myself a pretty organized individual, and I still find the time before I get on the plane - and especially the time between connections - to conjure up a level of anxiety I don’t often feel. After several years of travel and many miles later, it’s at least a bit better. Some of the relief is obviously attributed to general experience, but most of the credit goes to developing a tried and trusted routine for moving through the airport. I’ve laid it all out here in a sort of stream-of-consciousness format for any inexperienced flyers that are looking for some tips to help them speed through smoothly. Keep in mind that the majority of this applies to international travel.
Before the Airport
Always try to reserve an aisle seat before you even arrive at the airport. As a socially-awkward individual with a small bladder, I want to be able to get up whenever and as often as I like without disturbing anyone. You can usually select your seats online for long-haul flights; if not, call the airline.
Determine which airport terminals you’re arriving in and departing from. There’s no worse feeling than realizing you need to be on the other side of the airport in 15 minutes or you miss your flight. I avoid surprises like these by trying to get a ticket that has me arriving and departing from the same terminal during connections. It is not always listed at booking but you can find this out by researching the flight itself.
Find a working SIM card and pick up some foreign currency. Especially in countries without much English going on like China, a working smartphone can make your life much easier. I add money to my Chinese SIM before leaving so I can access maps and communicate with my employer. I also pick up some RMB from the local bank due to the highway robbery of airport currency exchanges.
From Check-in to Boarding
Arrive 2 hours early for domestic flights and 3 hours early for international flights. This is pretty standard advice, but some people think flying is like in the movies and you can just show up late and expect everyone to wait for you. Many airlines won’t even let you check in if you show up less than 50 minutes before departure.
Follow all security protocol before you’re even in the line. I take off my watch, empty my pockets, and have my laptop in an accessible place. Any liquids are already in my own ziplock bags. Security is a pain in the ass, but if you’re ready to go before you even get in line, it’s a lot smoother.
Find your gate before doing anything else. You might get lucky and see your gate just beyond security…or you may have to walk a mile or more to get to it. Resist the temptation of the overpriced airport shopping and make it to your gate first. Now you at least have a frame of reference for where you need to be and how long it takes to get there.
Stock up on goodies. After finding the gate, I pop into the nearest decent-looking airport newsagent. Stuff here can be overpriced, but for me it’s kind of ritualistic. I always gotta get a copy of either The Economist or The Atlantic, sometimes both for very long flights. Jerky is something I always get - why specifically for flights, I couldn’t tell you. If I can find it, I also get a green juice. I feel it helps mitigate a little of the destruction that 10+-hour flights wreak on the body.
Separate your “plane stuff” from the rest of your carry-on. As a person of height, I need every inch of legroom I can get to stay comfortable. I put headphones, munchies, magazines, and whatever else I need at hand in a smaller dry bag and keep my backpack in the overhead bin.
Be all set to run to passport control if you need to when you get off the plane. Everything is packed and my passport, landing card, and whatever else I need for immigration is out as I’m leaving the plane. Fill out your landing card on the plane; don’t wait until you’re in line. It’s the same principle as being ready for the security check in advance.
Don’t check a bag if you can help it. This kind of falls into the “Before the Airport” category but is more relevant here. If you are entering another country and have a domestic connection in said country, chances are you will have to collect your bag and recheck it. Combined with passport control, this takes up a lot of time. If you can rock one carry-on bag, do it and save yourself the time and stress.
Find your gate first, again. You may not be so lucky to have arrived in the same terminal as your connecting flight. Find out which terminal you landed in and where you need to be for your next flight. Ask flight attendants before you even get off the plane if you can, if they don’t know your next best bet is finding the nearest departures screen after you go through immigration.
Deplaning and Arrival
Take a deep breath. Unless you have a train to make after your flight, all of the stressful stuff is basically over. You’re exhausted, airplane food is tying you in knots, and you desperately need a shower. Just breath. You made it.
Immigration, if you didn’t already. As long as you have your visa and have a right to be in that country, don’t stress about this. Especially if you don’t have a connecting flight in-country, it’s more of an annoyance to have to wait in line than anything else. You can find out about how long you need to wait at your destination with a little research. If it’s London Heathrow or Guangzhou Baiyun, I highly recommend a toilet trip first.
Begin your adventure. Get the hell out of that human cattle station by any means necessary. Get a train, hire a taxi, ride a bus, or best of all, enlist a good friend to pick you up if you are lucky. Take a shower and wash off the travel grime. Eat your first real meal at your destination. Sleep like the dead. Wake up refreshed, and do what you came there to do: see the world!
Uprooting | A Beginner's Guide to Extended Travel
If you found these tips helpful, then you might enjoy my new travel guide, written for anyone embarking on their first long-term adventure abroad. You don't need to be the host of a travel show or a trust fund kid to have some incredible experiences abroad. After 5 years of travel through 12 different countries - and living in 4 of them - I've tried to encapsulate everything I've learned into this short guide for anyone who wants to hit the road long-term.