The perfect flight. Sometimes it's a concept that feels so nebulous as to be unattainable. How do you ensure perfection in the skies when so much relies on luck?
How do you ensure, for example, that your flight departs on time? How do you guarantee a smooth, turbulence-free journey? Or a hassle-free experience in two airports? Or the appearance of your luggage on that carousel? Of course, you can't.
You need to consider that the practicalities of perfection will be different for every passenger. It's a wildly subjective concept. Some people want to sleep; some want to chat; some want to watch endless films; some want to gaze out the window and dream.
So let's begin this quest for the perfect flight by admitting that, really, it doesn't exist. It can't exist. The search for the ultimate experience will always remain that way, a search. A mission.
But there's hope. There are plenty of steps that can be taken to ensure your flight is the smoothest and most enjoyable possible. There are small precautions that can be put in place throughout the experience – from planning stages to the taxi ride to your hotel – that will serve to make air travel as pleasurable as it can possibly be.
The rest is down to luck.
The perfect flight begins in the notional stages, when your trip is still mere fantasy. Where are you going to go? And how will you get there? Decision making here is crucial.
If you're flying long-haul, look for a flight that will have you arrive at your destination in the morning, rather than at night. Consider a stopover if you hate long flights and if so whether the airport you'll be calling through is well connected to its city with good accommodation options.
Look at reviews of various airlines – decide whether you can hack it with a budget carrier or if you require the comfort of a full-service flight. Check all the different carriers and the routes they take, and decide which best suits your purpose. Then look at dates: is the plane likely to be less crowded at certain times of year? Or particular days of the week?
Once decisions have been made, it's time to lock in your flight. And the perfect flight deserves the perfect price. There's no magic trick here – it's all about research. Start with aggregator websites such as Skyscanner and Expedia. Get an idea of the best price, and then talk to a travel agent to see if he or she can beat it. Also, check airline websites to see if there are any discounts for booking direct.
Next, get on seatguru.com and find out which is the best seat on your aircraft, and secure it on booking. A trick some people use on flights that are unlikely to be full is to book an aisle seat in the middle section towards the back of the plane, in the knowledge that the seats next to you will be the last to be filled. That way you stand a chance of having a spare one or two next door. Finally, check the baggage allowance and ensure you have enough for everything you plan to take.
The trick here is to try to replicate the business class experience of travel. So, make sure you have entertainment. If you're flying budget, that means a tablet or laptop loaded with movies and TV shows and maybe a few games, plus a Kindle loaded with books. If you're flying full-service, simply make sure you have high-quality headphones with an adaptor for the two-pronged jacks used on planes. Also, bring chargers for any electrical gadgets – most planes have USB ports, and sometimes full electrical sockets.
For long-haul travel, take comfortable baggy pants and a top to use as pyjamas and then create your own amenity kit: earplugs and an eye-mask to make sleep more likely and a neck pillow if you think it will increase your comfort. Pack moisturiser, maybe some hand cream and a facial "mist" for hydration.
Here you need to strike a balance between arriving at the airport with plenty of time to check in and clear security, and not leaving yourself hours at the terminal wasting time (and spending money). This will depend on the airport you're departing from. If you're flying out of an Australian hub, two hours before an international flight is plenty, particularly if you've checked in online, and an hour before domestic is fine (you'll only need 45 minutes if you have no luggage to check in).
Meanwhile, if you're flying out of, say, Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, it's worth giving yourself an extra hour or so. Always ensure you know how you're going to get to the airport, and how long it's likely to take. Is there public transport available? What time does it leave? Are taxis an option? How much do they cost? Is there likely to be traffic? This is all stuff you'll want to know in advance, rather than stressing about it on the day you leave.
It seems reasonable to assume that checking in online before your flight will ensure a faster process at the airport, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes you'll find yourself in a long bag-drop queue serviced by only one or two attendants, while those checking in at the airport sail by using multiple booths.
Our tip? Check in online before heading to the airport, and when you arrive, assess both queues, check how many attendants are dedicated to each one, and decide which will move the fastest. You can take either.
Easing your passage through passport control and security is all about being prepared and playing by the rules. Have any necessary paperwork filled out. Have your passport handy. Have your toiletries in a clear plastic bag. Have your laptop ready to pull out. Put your wallet and phone into your hand luggage bag before you get to the scanner. It saves time once you're there because you don't have to dig around in your pockets. Don't pack anything that could get confiscated. Be polite and patient.
There's no way to avoid hanging around in the airport waiting for your flight, so you might as well make the best of it. If you're in an airport such as Singapore Changi or Tokyo Haneda, the world is your oyster: spend time at the butterfly garden in Changi; eat at a high-end restaurant in Haneda.
Of course, you're probably not at Changi or Haneda, so you need an alternative plan. If you're stuck on a stopover for more than three hours, it's worth looking into pay-per-entry lounge access. For any shorter amount of time, it's all about making use of whatever facilities your airport happens to have.
Use the free Wi-Fi to send any necessary emails. Have a glass of, admittedly overpriced, champagne to toast your experience. Stride the halls and get in some last-minute exercise. Make the most of any free food- or wine-tasting offerings. Or just grab a chair and read a book ... and get to your boarding gate in plenty of time.
THE FLIGHT (FULL SERVICE)
You've already got the perfect seat booked. You've got your homemade amenity kit. You've got your entertainment in your pocket or on the seatback in front of you. You have, in other words, all the makings for the perfect flight.
On a full-service carrier, all you have to do is put your plan into action. Get changed into your loose-fitting "pyjamas". Get comfortable with your pillow. Order a drink when the cart comes around, and grab some water while you're there. Put on a movie or a TV series. Eat the food when it's offered. Use sleeping pills, if that's your thing, or go natural and try to get some sleep with your eye-mask on and your ear-plugs in. Do your anti-DVT exercises. Get up and wander around every now and then. Stay hydrated. Hope for a smooth flight. Get changed back into your normal clothes before landing, and you're all set.
THE FLIGHT (BUDGET)
It's a little different, of course, on a budget airline. It's not as comfortable, obviously. There's no drinks cart regularly coming around. You don't have entertainment taken care of. The perfect flight requires a little more effort. Part of that is ensuring you bring all of the comforts of a full-service airline with you. You'll have your own entertainment, in the form of an iPad or Kindle or laptop. You'll have packed good food to enjoy on the flight, or you'll know there's good food to be purchased on board (AirAsia, for example, serves surprisingly tasty meals).
You'll take water on board – provided you're not flying back to Australia, in which case you may have it taken off you as the Australian government often enforces an extra level of security, with another bag search at the gate – and you'll have money to purchase an extra drink or two. All of the other amenities are in your kit, from the eye-mask to the loose-fitting clothing, and will come in handy in the same way as on the full-service carrier.
Be ready for passport control, which means having all the necessary forms filled out and your passport ready to go. Keep a low profile while you're going through: smile and do as you're told, and just concentrate on making it to the other side. Once you're at the baggage carousel, all you can do is hope that your well-labelled luggage appears.
A hassle-free and inexpensive experience here relies on good research. Know your options for getting to your final destination before you land. Is there public transport? Is it easy to use and relatively fast? In plenty of Asian hubs trains will be your best bet. In other airports you'll need to take a taxi, though one of the official ones, rather than from someone touting for business in the arrivals hall. In other countries it will be far easier to arrange a transfer in advance, removing the hassle of negotiating a price when you're battling jet-lag and general post-flight fatigue. The secret: know what you're going to do before you arrive.
There's no foolproof strategy for beating jet-lag. There are, however, steps you can take to lessen the effects. To begin with, get a good night's sleep before you fly. On board, drink plenty of water, and go easy on the alcohol. Also, attempt to time your sleep with your destination. Try to arrive there in the morning, so you can let the sunshine begin to adjust your body clock. Power through the day and avoid having a nap. Try to plan something fun to take your mind off the drowsiness.
AIRLINE ETIQUETTE FOR THE MODERN TRAVELLER
GO EASY ON HAND-LUGGAGE
Modern-day air travel has changed the game with plenty of carriers charging extra to check a bag. That means loads of people are trying to get away with dragging far too much on board in their hand-luggage, filling up the overhead bins and forcing others to store things at their feet. Just play by the rules.
DON'T QUEUE TOO EARLY
It's crazy when you see a queue forming at the boarding gate with 15 minutes or even half an hour before it opens. The more people who queue, the more others are forced to join it to make sure they'll have space in the overhead lockers once on board. It means everyone spends far longer standing in a line than they need to.
RECLINING IS FOR LONG-HAUL
The issue of seat reclining is pretty simple: unless you have a medical issue, don't recline on short domestic flights. On long-haul journeys, keep your seat upright during meal times, take-off and landing. The rest of the time, you have the right to recline whenever you want.
CONTROL YOUR KIDS
Travelling with children is hard: they inevitably go stir-crazy in the air. But still, as a parent you have to try to deal with it. Make an attempt to keep your kids under control – tell them to stop kicking the seat in front of them, for example – and your fellow passengers will love you for it.
DON'T LISTEN TO ANYTHING WITHOUT HEADPHONES
No one else wants to hear your podcast or your video game or your terrible music choices. Seriously – no one.
DON'T PULL THE BACK OF A PERSON'S SEATS
When you're getting in and out of your seat, yes, it's squeezy but it's really annoying to use the seat in front of you for balance. There's someone sitting in that chair. They get yanked violently backwards when you do that. Use your own seat for balance.
DON'T HOG ARM RESTS
The person in the middle seat has first dibs on the armrests. They're stuck in the worst spot – at least give them that pleasure.
DON'T STAND UP TOO EARLY
You can tell a lot about a country by how quickly everyone lunges for the overhead lockers once the plane touches down. In some parts of the world people will be pulling down sacks of goods before the wheels have even hit the tarmac. You're not going to get off the plane any sooner, though. Relax.
DON'T PUSH TO GET OFF
Clearly these are the people who honk their horns in traffic jams. We get that you're frustrated and everyone wants to go. There's also a reason the queue hasn't shuffled forward yet. So just hang out back there patiently and stop pushing people in the back.
STAND BACK FROM THE CAROUSEL
If everyone could just stand back a few paces from the baggage carousel, rather than banging their shins and trolleys right up against it, collecting luggage would be a far more pleasant experience.
FIVE PAINFUL PASSENGER TRAITS (AND HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM)
THE SEAT RECLINER
The second the light goes off, bam, the seat in front of you comes flying back. You've got a recliner in front of you. It might be annoying but there's little you can do. Aircraft seats are designed to recline and people are allowed to use that feature as they see fit. All you can do is ask them to push forward during meal times. And recline your own seat to compensate.
Some people love a chat on a plane and as long as you have two passengers next to each other who feel the same way, there's nothing wrong with it. If, however, your perfect flight involves cocoon-like isolation, you might not be happy sitting next to a talker. The solution? Turn on your seatback entertainment. Put on your headphones. Close your eyes. Peace awaits.
All right big guy, this isn't a buck's party. It's an international flight. If you're sitting next to someone who's pounding the beers it can be a little intimidating. Like, how drunk is he planning on getting? Best bet here is to have a quiet word with the cabin crew. Mention how much your neighbour is drinking – they're probably already aware of it. You can also ask to switch seats, if possible.
THE NERVOUS FLYER
You can't blame someone for being afraid of flying – this is an inherently unnatural thing to be doing. What you can do is try to keep them calm and happy. You can do that by chatting, by taking their mind off things during any turbulence, by asking about them, about their family, about anything, really, other than the fact the plane is rocking around 30,000 feet above the Earth.
This is likely to be a small child, given most adults are well enough versed to know this is seriously annoying. You can't really blame the kid – he or she doesn't know any better. You can either sit there and stew, and occasionally whip your head around in annoyance, or you can turn around and politely ask the child not to kick your seat. Child and parent will get the idea.
This article by Ben Groundwater originally appeared here: http://www.traveller.com.au/perfect-flight-cover-tips-for-making-your-flight-the-best-experience-possible-h1gk28