This is my checklist on how to ensure that I'm prepared to have the best flight possible.
Huge disclaimer: This is most likely... scratch that... THIS IS more than you need to pack. I am an over-packer. It's my sin to bear.
Mama recently gave me a suggestion that I've been meaning to try that I'm sure I won't regret: pack a face mask and wear it halfway into your flight. It will hydrate and moisturise your skin, and make you feel more relaxed and cool during your flight. Can't wait to try it out!
I'm a little crazy and like to plan my trips a year in advance because I'll know how I'm tracking in terms of my travel goals. This also helps me keep an early eye out for cheap flights if I know where I want to be when.
Is it off your Bucket LisT?
Hopefully you have a bucket list of places you want to visit sometime in your life. Look to that list as a starting point for possible options. Depending on what you have on your list, and how much time you have, you might be able to do 3 weeks hitting 5 cities (ie European cities) or spend a whole week in just one city (ie NYC).
Don't be so concerned about checking all of these places off, but put patient and strategic of which you want to check off first, and when. It's not about how many you can visit and check off, but about experiencing different places, opening yourself up to new cultures, and enjoying great food.
have good company
I ask myself out of these places, where is good for what occasion. I'll just real life examples for myself:
Depending on the location and the specific people you go with, your trip is bound to be different! You don't need to be that specific and picky with every single location, but I think it's good to be mindful of who'd you want to share experiences with based on the different locations. Easy example: going to Vegas with your crew vs. going to Vegas with your family...
Another thing to consider is if you are traveling with family or children, does the destination have family-friendly activities and accommodations?
If you're traveling, make sure it's safe! Check the Travel Advisory website to check the safety level of your destination. I also enroll myself in STEP: Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which will basically alert you of emergencies happening around you. See my blog about traveling smart for additional tips! Otherwise, here is a list of the best countries for solo travelers!
Timing is everything
Once I've decided where I want to go, I look at my calendar to see when the best time to go is.
What time of the year does it make sense to visit this place? AKA What time of the year is the best weather? I generally save my #1 draft pick for October since you can make a safe bet anywhere will have amazing weather in October, and it's generally cheaper since it's off peak.
I'd also consider peak events and seasons of your destination: you probably don't want to go to Miami in April when every college student will be there for Spring Break, or Austin in March when everyone will be there for SxSW. Or maybe you do, who I am to assume?
I try to avoid peak seasons and cities when I know there will be an increase in population density. They also tend to be more expensive in flights and accommodations, and airports tend to be more crowded that usual.
I've finally decided...
So once you have an idea of the place(s) you want to go at a certain time of the year, go ahead and look up flights to get a gist of how much it would cost. Then, track your flights and subscribe to alerts for any fare drops so you can sense fare patterns and trends to help you purchase flights at the best time.
How to find the cheapest flights, is a separate post... to come soon.
Taking a red eye or international flight is always really difficult on the body, especially if you're flying on that poor man's budget on basic economy. You want to make sure your body is well rested during the flight so you're not paying for it when you're traveling. I've heard of too many horror stories of my friends not having good flights and jet lag ruining their trips, or other friends who didn't take care of themselves on a 11 hour flight that got them sick for days.
Here are my tricks when it comes to mastering these flights:
Do what makes sense for you! Maybe you're not so sensitive to your surroundings and just need a good pair of headphones and good music. Whatever those things are, figure out what makes you comfortable to that your body is well-rested, and ultimately that you make the most out of your travels!
You get to your destination and you arrive at the baggage carousel but you can't find your bags. After some time waiting after you've convinced yourself it's probably at the bottom of the pile, you see a rep from that airline slowly approach you with news you can read on her face: your bags didn't make it.
What now? They probably gave you a website with a case number and a number you can call which is basically a support number where you're put on hold for ten minutes before talking with an actual person. So now you wait. You wait for your bags to be delivered, or an update on your case.
The exact thing happened to my family and me on our way to Paris. Our first flight was from LAX to JFK where we were supposed to have a layover a little over two hours. That flight was delayed (that's another story for next time), so by the time we made it to JFK, we had fifteen minutes to get off the plane, take the shuttle to another terminal, go through TSA check and run to our gate. Fortunately, my family made it to the gate, but as you can probably guess, our bags did not.
An Air France rep met us at baggage to us know that our bags didn't make the connection, but that it was already on its way to Paris to the other main airport, where they'd deliver our bags to the doorsteps of our Airbnb. We were disappointed but not too upset because they offered to deliver it to us. They gave us an ETA, a case number along with a link, and a phone number.
We went to our Airbnb and waited all day for our bags. We originally had plans to tour the city since our time in Paris was already limited, but ended up scrapping it to make sure we were home when the delivery guys came. We expected them to come around 2PM, 3 at the latest. Fun fact: They never came. I bought international credit on Skype to give the airline a call. Every time we called , they gave us the same answer: keep checking the website for updates. I did, and found nothing.
The next day, we headed over to Versailles Palace since we bought tickets beforehand. We at least got to enjoy the Palace for a few hours, and headed back to the city where we visited the Arc di Triomphe. We enjoyed the sights for a minute, and then spent over 3 hours shopping on Champs Elysees because we still haven't gotten an update on our bags and were starting to assume the worst. The next morning we were headed to London so if we didn't get our bags by that day, we weren't sure when we'd ever get them. Post-shopping, my brother and I took turns getting our calls dropped by Air France. They're really really terrible at answering their phones... When we finally got a hold of someone, they admitted they weren't sure where our bags even were, which was reassuring. We had to prepare for the worst and bought clothes to get us by through the trip, and a new suitcase for all this new luggage we just bought.
Towards the end of the night, my mom looked at us and said in Korean something along the lines of "it's time to take matters into our own hands." She sent my dad and brother to CDG airport where they claimed our bags would be. My dad and brother were rerouted to several people until reaching the correct person where they had been denied access because that department was about to close and asked that they return the next morning. Obviously, I can only share what my brother shared with me since I wasn't there myself, but this guy was had absolutely no sympathy and was rude AF. After some time of arguing with this man, his supervisor finally came and spoke with them. After some more time of arguing and trying to convince them, she gave my dad access to the Air France luggage storage room, where all unclaimed bags go with a very limited amount of time to find all of our bags. Since everyone had packed their own bags, my dad wasn't sure which bags belonged to us... But, my dad being my dad, was finally able to find every one of them. They took an Uber back to our Airbnb with 4 suitcases in hand.
My dad described the luggage storage room being this crazy huge room filled with bags, and I thought of all other people who had their luggage delayed and never got a chance to actually go inside that room to find it. Due to airplane policy, I'm sure a lot of these people's bags were just marked as "lost" after 21 days when they could have gone and found it themselves. The system they use to track baggage is tragically faulted and hugely lacking. The people working with this system appear incompetent because of the lack of information they're even given. There is too much room for error and miscommunication that nothing gets done. I think often of what would have happened if my dad and brother never went to the airport themselves. Air France would still claim they don't know where our bags are, and probably wait to mark it as "lost" and just pay us the minimal fee to compensate for it, while we would have to compensate in other ways.
Since, we've filed a claim to Air France asking them to reimburse us for all of the clothes and toiletries costs, which we're still waiting on. Lucky for us, we bought our plane tickets and the new clothes with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, which I'll be filing a claim for if Air France does not reimburse everything, so I'm confident that everything will be covered. However, no money could cove the cost of our time in Paris. We didn't get to sightsee because we were busy waiting for the delivery guys, or out shopping for new clothes; and we were stressed for those two days wondering if we'd ever see our bags again. They won't be able to reimburse us for that time. It's a crappy situation and not exactly how you want to spend your trip.
If there's anything I would have done differently: It would have been to subscribe to an international France number from Skype so I could have given it to Air France to call me when they arrived. Sure, they would never have called, but at least I could have spent the day touring the city until they called, and for me to call them periodically so I could at least enjoy some time there rather than worrying theh entire time.
Once I got back from Europe and told this story to my friends and colleagues, I heard too many stories of how the airline lost their bags or didn't track it correctly, leading to a ton of problems. Again, I was lucky enough to have my Chase credit card willing to cover whatever the airline didn't. But I would HATE for this to happen to any of you! Do yourself a favor and make sure you take protective precautions in case something like this happens to you!
Some flights may make you take a layover in another city before you get to your destination. Direct flights are probably ideal but I know they can also be more expensive. On the bright side, it can be nice to have a meal and stretch break in the middle of a long flight, and gives you an opportunity to explore the airport or city (if you have more time).
General rule of thumb: anything under 6 hours, you want to fly direct.
If you do have to take a layover, consider the transfer time. I say give yourself at least one hour of wait time in case your first flight is delayed, you need to get something figured out, you need to buy some water and food, etc. Things come up and because boarding happens generally thirty minutes prior to takeoff, better safe than sorry. I would actually go and say an hour and a half is good. I try to find layovers around 2 hours which gives me plenty of time to use the restroom, grab a quick bite, freshen up, walk around the airport, and find my transfer gate if it's at a different gate, which brings me to my next point.
If your layover is longer than 3.5 hours, consider going outside and exploring if the city centre isn't too far from the airport, especially if your luggage will meet you at the final destination! Do consider the time it'll take you to come back and get back in the security line though.
Depending on the flight, your transfer flight might be on the same plane and same gate, or different plane in a different gate. Be attentive to what your flight details read, and what your flight attendants say during landing. If it's a huge airport, it might even be in another terminal so always allow yourself extra time should things come up and you're not scrambling last minute to find your next flight.
If you can help it, avoid flights with more than 1 layover. You're going to be exhausted and that may cost you some of your trip. Remember: we want to maximise your time and enjoyment on your travels!
My piece of advice: DON'T DO IT.
Call me high maintenance, but I can't sleep comfortably at all on overnight layovers. It's cold, the chairs are stiff, you're constantly worried if someone might steal your stuff, some airports don't allow you to sleep so you have security waking you up every couple of hours, and people coming in and out of the gates. You barely get enough sleep by the time you need to line up for your flight and if you're anything like me, you end up grouchy and groggy, and you only see the negative in things until you recoup some of that sleep. It's just an overall highly undesired experience, which will likely affect your first day traveling.
If you have an overnight layover, this site will give you the 411 on WiFi, where you can sleep, and other good tips on specific airports..
If you MUST do an overnight layover, I really recommend reserving a room at a hotel with free shuttles that will take you to the hotel in case taxi service is out (if you arrive really late). At least you'll get some sleep in a private, semi-comfortable bed. If not, this page has good tips on sleeping at the airport overnight.
My logic: Most likely, the cost of a hotel will be around the much you'd be saving if you don't take the overnight layover, so just get tickets with a short transfer and be happy. (:
What are the benefits?
where do i sign up?!
You can register here.
*Pro-tip If you're going to apply to TSA Pre-check, might as well apply to the Global Entry program(cut the international entry line), which also gives you pre-check as a benefit. It's $100 for 5 years vs. $84 for 5 years for Pre-check only.
Learn more about the Global Entry program here.
Whether you apply for TSA Pre-check or Global Entry, you'll need to go through the approval process, which includes a background check to be pre-approved, then setting up an appointment at one of the centres (usually an airport) and should be approved or denied on the spot. Once approved, you'll get your KTN (known traveler number) on the spot, and your identification card mailed in a few weeks.
Keep reading if you want it FOR FREE...
yup, i said free.
Some credit cards reimburse you the $100 application fee for Global Entry. Find the list of credit cards here. I personally have the Chase Sapphire Reserve (and it's great).
Obviously I'm not saying open up a credit card just to get this, but if you're thinking of getting a card, or have one of those cards and haven't used this benefit yet, something to consider. I'd go through Nerdwallet, CreditCards.com, or thePointsGuy to learn more about different offerings.
i've been approved, now what?
Once you've been approved, make sure all of your airlines/agencies have your KTN on your profiles to have them automatically applied to future flights. For existing flights, you'll need to find a way to apply the numbers manually (either online or over the phone).
Your ticket should have a sign notifying you that you can go through the TSA pre-check line; otherwise, you can check on this website to see if that airlines at the airport will have a separate line: https://www.tsa.gov/precheck/map . Quick note: TSA Pre-check is a US program so it's only available in the States.
Don't go to the airport thinking every airline will have this. I went to a local airport of mine later than usual thinking I still had plenty of time because of TSA pre. Turns out that the terminal for my airline did not have a line so I barely made it! Better safe than sorry- check the map before you leave.