Travel Tips From An Accidental Frequent Flyer

From what I hear**, I travel a lot.

I took this photo a week ago at Narita. Because I am a tourist and I have never been to Narita before. /sarcasm

I took this photo a week ago at Narita. Because I am a tourist and I have never been to Narita before. /sarcasm

**That's right -- "from what I hear." My friends are always teasing me about my jet-set life, probably because I have a habit of showing up last-minute at events that are nowhere near my primary place of residence (in the past three years, my high school has had six all-year reunions in different cities around the United States. I've gone to five of them).

But I don't actually travel all that much. I leave the country a couple of times a year, and only for a couple weeks at a time. Considering I know plenty of business people who hop on an international flight every two or three weeks, I'd say my travel is fairly light. But I suppose it seems like I travel more than I actually do, because I almost never travel for work (so it also seems like I'm perpetually on vacation), and I, more often than not, travel on a whim.

Booking a last-minute, Wednesday afternoon flight to Tokyo certainly does have a bit of a jet-setter air to it.

On my most recent trip -- Seoul, South Korea -- I was thinking about the various travel "hacks" I use as an "accidental" frequent flier. Actually, I was trying to explain to Ron why we should not, under any circumstances, attempt to get seats together on our flight, because we'd have to give up our seats in United Airlines' Economy Plus section (which we had been seated in, by chance-slash-Sarah-travel-hack, for free).

I hesitate to call these actual hacks, since these tips won't exactly get you a $5 round-the-world flight, or teach you how to carry all of your belongings on your back or pack only two outfits for a 30-day trip. I'm not a backpacker, and I don't wear vests with 86 hidden pockets or shirts that dry in three seconds. I, personally, have no interest in that type of travel lifestyle at this moment -- I don't see any good reason why you can't travel around the world and be comfortably fashionable at the same time. But if you would like real "travel hack" tips, try Google...there are plenty of articles out there.

With that disclaimer, here are some of the little hacks that make my traveling life easier:

Choose your seats wisely

Airlines charge for everything these days -- everything! Seat-picking charges depend on the airline, but don't be surprised if you get charged for exit rows or even aisle/window seats vs. middle seats. Some airlines, such as United, now have "premium" seats, which include exit rows and seats with a few inches of extra leg room, and which cost extra. I do not approve of this practice. But that is beside the point.

The bottom line is this: When you first book your flight, you need to have a seat-picking strategy. I'm not talking about checking up some website like SeatGuru (although you can also do that, if you really want to), I'm talking about PICKING LIKE A CHAMP.

Here's what I do if...

...the flight is mostly empty: Pick an aisle seat in an empty row near the back of the plane. Not only are aisle seats awesome, people are more likely to pick window/middle seats (hah! Like anyone picks middle seats) in rows that are not aisle-seat-occupied, so there's a higher chance your aisle will remain empty. Pick something near the back because when airlines auto-fill seats, they start filling from the front.

...the flight is mostly full: Try to grab an aisle seat or a window seat -- these are better bargaining chips than middle seats. You may be able to convince someone sitting in a exit-row middle seat to switch with you. Pick something near the exit row or near the most empty seats you see -- higher chance of you being able to mooch seats off of no-shows.

...the flight is mostly full, BUT the airline has "premium economy" seats that are empty: DO NOT CHOOSE A SEAT. I REPEAT: DO NOT CHOOSE A SEAT. If the flight is mostly full but premium economy seats are mostly empty, there is a HIGH chance that you will be able to score an accidental premium economy seat when the airline starts auto-filling seats. IF YOU SEE THIS HAPPEN (like when you check in online), DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CHANGE YOUR SEAT, because you will not be able to get that premium economy seat back without being charged.

...I am traveling with another person: Go for aisle/window with an empty middle seat near the back. Again, people are less likely to pick a trapped middle seat, and if you're near the back then you probably won't get auto-filled. If you can't do aisle/window, go for aisle/aisle near each other or aisle/different window. Basically everyone will give up a middle seat for an aisle seat. Basically nobody will give up an aisle seat for a middle seat. 

...I don't get the seat I want: Ask at the check-in desk. Contrary to travel-hacker belief, check-in agents can't just upgrade you to super-sexy-business-first-class, unless you have something going for you (like muchos frequent flier miles and you're willing to pay), especially these days. But they can totally switch you to an empty exit row that's empty because nobody wanted to pay an extra $100 for it. Another strategy: Sit in the exit row seat until someone comes along and says "DUDE, that's my seat." Then you can be like, "Oh, sorry. I totally suck at understanding airline seating labels." I've done this about 50 times, and it's worked (nobody's come along and asked for their seat back) over 50% of the time.

Get through airport security like a boss

It takes me approximately one minute to get through airport security. It takes Ron half an hour. Here's what I do:

- Don't take your liquids/gels out: Unnecessary. If your liquids/gels are all in containers under 3 oz., they do not need to be in a bag and you do not need to take them out. Since the TSA started this rule, I've been on a couple hundred flights where I've had liquids in my carry-on. I've never taken them out. I've gotten stopped once, but that's because I had an 8 oz. Victoria's Secret lotion in my bag. And this was on the way back, so I'd actually managed to get that giant lotion through security once already.

- Know the rules of the scanning devices: You don't have to take off metal objects (jewelry, belts, etc.) if you go through the full-body scanner. Don't do more than you have to!

- Tell people your flight is leaving in five minutes: IF YOU ARE LATE, and I often am, MAKE IT VERY CLEAR YOU ARE LATE. But be nice about it. Because some TSA agents are jerks who will be like, "Well, you should've thought of that, HUH." For the most part, people will let you skip the line if you are polite and sad about being late.

- If you took off a bunch of jewelry/etc. to go through security, do not hold up the line by putting it all back on the second you step through the metal detector: Mostly because I will hate you, but also because it slows you down. You can put your jewelry on on the plane!

- Fun fact -- you usually get one carry-on and one "personal item," but most airlines will overlook an extra item if it's a coat or plastic bag full of stuff. But if it's a plastic bag full of stuff, PUT IT IN A BIN!!! Trust me on this me.

Plane food vs. ground food

I don't really have a problem with planes. But I do have a problem with plane food. The solution? Bring ground food!

There's just something very comforting about eating ground food on a plane. My favorite snack-hack: Instant noodles. Remember, I spent most of my life flying from Tokyo, where the instant noodle selection is significantly better, but you can still find some decent "just add hot water" food in the States. The flight kitchen always has hot water (for coffee/tea) available.

Customs like a champ

I kind of like going through customs, because I like talking to people. Even though talking to a customs agent is sort of like joking with a police officer -- SUPER. AWKWARD.

- Choose the right line: Look for families. Families get to go through customs together, and one five-person-family-customs-visit is not as long as five single people customs visits. Lines with families are the fastest lines.

- Don't cough or sneeze: DON'T DO IT. JUST HOLD IT IN OR SOMETHING. They will absolutely give you the side-eye and ask you if you're bringing smallpox into their country.

- Don't look like a sketchball: Or if you do, be extra well-spoken and look them directly in the eye when you talk. I don't look like a sketchball, but my husband, who has four-foot-long braids and a do-rag, totally looks like he could be a Colombian drug lord or something. And I know that they're probably not supposed to racially profile people, but they totally do. So if you think that you look sketchy, or that other people might think you look your best to seem not sketchy. You'll still probably get held up, though. Especially if you are coming from Colombia.