The days of flying the glamorous skies seem to be gone forever. The seats are smaller, the leg room is more cramped and the airlines are charging extra for everything from luggage to snacks. But that doesn't necessarily mean we have to resign ourselves to merely enduring air travel. In fact, there are plenty of ways to improve the experience of travel, despite federal safety regulations and snoring seatmates.
In this article, we'll run down 10 tips for having a good flight. Remember, the primary goal of each of the items on this list is to benefit you, the traveler, but these tips will also make the whole in-flight experience a lot more comfortable and a bit less crazy-making. There are even a few easy ways to keep yourself healthy, rested and entertained during your flight, which always makes for happier travel.
So now, let's dive right in and begin with tip number 10.
Bring a Sleep Kit
Sleep kits can be purchased in most airport gift shops these days, or you can build one at home to keep with your luggage. The basics for a sleep kit include a U-shaped travel pillow and an eye mask to block out sunbeams bouncing off the clouds below.
You'll also want to block out as much sound as you can, and earplugs can definitely help with this. If you've got the extra cash, noise-cancelling headphones can make a world of difference, too. They can negate outside noise (crying babies and aircraft engine sounds included) whether you're playing music through them or not.
A small blanket or large shawl is the final item you might want to stash with your sleep kit. It's nearly impossible to grab some sleep when you're shivering. Airlines used to give out blankets regularly, but these days, it's often another item they can charge you extra for. So if you've got a red-eye flight or perhaps you're crossing a few time zones, it's best to bring your own sleep kit -- but keep it light.
Speaking of keeping it light, take a look at the next tip.
Keep Your Carry-on Small and Light
Most airlines these days are charging passengers for checked luggage, regardless of weight. This means everyone is now trying to cram clothes and gear for a two-week vacation into a carry-on and a purse or a small backpack, both of which are usually heavier than the person carrying them. Don't be fooled -- flight attendants are onto passengers who try to bring too much stuff into the cabin, and they'll make you check it, even as you try to board.
Simply stick to the guidelines and you'll be golden. A small carry-on suitcase that's light enough for you -- yes, you -- to lift up into the overhead bin is fine. One additional bag, like a purse or a laptop bag (but not both), is also allowed. It should fit under the seat in front of you and leave enough room for your feet.
Not only do these rules follow the official guidelines, but it will make you far comfier on your flight if you don't have a huge bag crammed in at your feet, a shopping bag tucked in by your hip, and a sore shoulder from lifting your overstuffed carry-on into the overhead bin.
There is, however, a sly way to get around that checked-baggage fee. Read on to find out how.
Check Your Carry-on at the Gate
This one only works if your bag is already the approved carry-on size. If you reach the gate with your luggage plus one bag and the flight is very full, the attendants will often ask for volunteers to check baggage to free up space in the overhead bins.
Take this opportunity! They'll tag your bag, give you a receipt and your bag will be checked through to your destination, even if you have to change planes in the middle of your trip. You'll have just your purse or laptop bag with you in the cabin, which has everything you need anyway, like headphones and a book or a sleep kit.
You've probably noticed that space is at a premium in airplanes these days. We'll talk about how to get your gear into that space next.
Check Recent Regulations Before you Leave
Airline regulations change all the time in this post-Sept. 11 world. One day, your bottle of travel shampoo is fine; the next, it's confiscated for being over the size limit for carry-on liquids. Laptops used to be fine in the seatback pocket, too, but no more. The rules have changed, and now they need to be stowed under the seat or in the overhead bin when not in use, just like everything else you carry-on with you.
Save yourself the headache of learning the rules too late by checking the web site of the Transportation Security Administration and the Web site of the airline you'll be using to travel. The most up-to-date regulations will be there. Make sure to share them with your travel companions, too. It'll help keep hassles to a minimum.
Speaking of laptops, check out the next tip for a new way to spend your in-air time.
Pay for In-flight WiFi
Business travelers and the constantly connected will be thrilled to learn that many carriers now offer in-flight wireless internet -- for a fee, of course. But for those whose time is money, it's worth it to stay productive and in the loop while in the air.
The price isn't prohibitively steep, especially if you can expense it. Gogo Inflight Internet, to use one example of the service, charges about $12 for one flight's worth of internet service. A monthly pass for frequent travelers runs about $30. The connection isn't annoyingly slow, and the ability to tweet from 30,000 feet (9.1 kilometers) above is priceless.
Now that your mind is occupied, let's talk about how to keep your body healthy while you fly.
The air in the cabin isn't humidified, which leads to that all-too-familiar parched feeling. Lips chap, nasal passages dry out, skin feels papery and the likelihood of blood clots can even increase. Sounds great, right?
But the good news is that all these things can be mitigated by staying hydrated -- simply drinking water. Start early, drinking as much water in the airport gate area as you can hold comfortably for about an hour. That's about how long it typically takes for the seatbelt light to be switched off, allowing you to visit the restroom. Then keep drinking water, about 8 ounces (0.2 liters) every hour or two, while you're in the air. Don't try to substitute coffee, soda or a tiny bottle of booze for water either. Caffeine and alcohol will dehydrate you -- the opposite of what you're trying to achieve.
If you're concerned about the waste of plastic water bottles or the price of buying water in the airport, bring a reusable bottle from home. You can't bring it through the security line full of water (or anything other liquid, for that matter), but you can fill it up at a drinking fountain or a bathroom faucet once you're at your gate.
While you're in the bathroom filling the bottle, don't forget to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds to rid yourself of bacteria and viruses. Keep reading for another germ-free tip.
Bring Hand Sanitizer
It's easy enough to be a vigilant hand-washer while you're still on the ground, where soap and water are pretty easy to come by. The airplane bathroom has both, too, so make good use of them.
But sometimes, you're sitting in the window seat with a sandwich on your tray and a rumbling stomach. Wait! Don't pick up that sandwich! Not yet, anyway. First squirt a little alcohol-based hand sanitizer into your palm and rub it around. Airplanes have lots of surfaces that everyone touches, like arm rests, tray tables, overhead bin handles, in-flight magazines, light switches -- the list goes on and on. A simple preventative measure, like using hand sanitizer, can help keep at least some of everyone else's germs out of your system.
Staying healthy while you're traveling involves more than killing germs, however. Read the next page to find out what else you can do.
Bring Healthy Snacks
Save yourself some cash, probably some heartburn and even some time on the treadmill by packing your own healthy snacks rather than relying on airport and airline food.
Simple, cheap snacks can keep you healthy and prevent your blood sugar from dipping too low during a long flight. Crunchy snacks like carrot sticks, celery sticks and whole-wheat crackers are satisfying and require a minimum of fuss to eat in your seat. Granola, nuts and dried fruit are also great choices, but they often have more calories than you might think, so check the labels and serving sizes when you pack these items.
Sandwiches can be good to bring along, too, but make sure to use ingredients that will last the entire journey. Mayonnaise eaten at the end of a cross-country flight is never a good idea. Just be sure that whatever you bring is easy to eat, doesn't require refrigeration and doesn't need utensils.
Parents are masters of the bring-along snack. The next tip is for them (since they probably already knew about the healthy snacks).
Bring a Portable DVD Player
Savvy parents know that kids get bored in the air, even if the flight isn't a terribly long one. Portable DVD players can be found online and at big-box electronics stores for as little as $100, and they're definitely worth the price. You know that SpongeBob SquarePants DVD your kid wants to watch over and over -- and over? Well, an airplane is the perfect place to let him or her indulge. Just remember to bring headphones for your little travel companion to keep fellow passengers (and you, too) from having to hear that theme song for the 15th time.
Keeping kids entertained and happy makes the flight better for everyone. The last tip has the same effect, no matter what your age.
Get in Your Seat and Power Down
When you board the aircraft, find your seat, place your carry-on in the overhead bin (if you didn't check it at the gate for free) and sit down. Then turn off your cell phone, iPod, portable DVD player, or whatever electronic device you have with you and wait patiently for the announcement from the captain or the flight crew that it's safe to switch your approved electronic devices back on once again. That announcement is usually made just a few minutes after the plane is in the air.
No airplane can take off while people are standing or talking on the phone. And no flight attendant is going to look very kindly upon you when he's had to ask you for the fifth time to turn off your phone. And while it's very considerate of you to offer to switch seats with one half of a couple who are sitting apart, wait until the flight is in the air and the seatbelt sign is off to play musical chairs.
Tensions can run high for passengers and flight crew alike, thanks to new regulations and the number of people packed into the cabin eager to get moving. Do your part to get the plane off the ground and it'll be a better flight for everyone on board.
For more information about airplanes and several other ways you can have a good flight, follow the links on the next page.
HowStufffWorks talks to the experts to find out how to pack a suitcase better, how to fit more clothes in and which items to take and leave.
- Cohen, Elizabeth. "Five ways to avoid germs while traveling." CNN. (April 19, 2010) http://blog.targethealth.com/?p=2562
- DeLeo, Jennifer. "How to Get In-Flight Wi-Fi," PCMag.com. April 27, 2009. (April 19, 2010) http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2345928,00.asp
- Gogo Inflight Internet. (April 19, 2010) http://www.gogoinflight.com
- Hewitt, Ed, and Sarah Schlichter. "Sleeping on Planes." IndependentTraveler.com. (April 19, 2010) http://www.independenttraveler.com/resources/article.cfm?AID=270&category=13
- Hicks, Dr. Rob. "In-flight health." BBC.com. August 2007. (April 19, 2010) http://www.bbc.co.uk/health/treatments/travel/before_flighthealth.shtml
- Rising Up Aviation. "Federal Aviation Regulations." (April 19, 2010) http://www.risingup.com/fars/info/91-index.shtml
- Steves, Rick. "Packing Light and Right." Rick Steve's Europe, 2009. (April 19, 2010) http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlight.htm
- Transportation Security Administration. "3-1-1 for Carry-Ons." (April 19, 2010) http://www.tsa.gov/311/index.shtm