Saturday, November 17, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 3: How to Travel (Gonna Fly Now)

This is Part 3 in a series about what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. Having already discussed land travel, it’s time to tackle air travel. There’s much to say about air travel—most of it bad—but take heart: with some advance planning, insider know-how, and a positive attitude you can improve your flight experience.

Air travel sure isn’t what is used to be (in many ways), which makes today’s minimal amenities and uncomfortable seating all the harder on those of us who remember better times. It’s simply not fun to fly commercially, and if you feel otherwise you probably haven’t flown much. The allure of flying is a temporary illness, cured by taking a sufficient number of flights. While you may be excited about the destination you’re heading toward, the flight itself and the airport processing are nothing to get excited about: it’s merely something you have to endure.

Before going further, I want to address the oft-heard complaint that customer service is terrible on air travel. This is not quite right: I’ve met plenty of airline personnel who care very much about providing good customer service; the real issue is the minimal service the airline has decided to offer in these times of rising fuel costs and expensive, heightened security. It’s not usually the airport agent or flight attendant’s fault you are having a bad experience, and they are dealing with rough constraints just as you are.

Booking Your Travel
Booking travel ought to fast and easy, since you can do it all online; in practice, it’s a time-consuming process. This is something you’ll want to do carefully: the initial arrangements are the one part of the travel process where you have some actual control. This will require you to research flight options, rates, schedules, and layovers—perhaps for multiple airports. Although this will take some time, it’s worth it to be thorough because good decisions here will set the stage for a more pleasant travel experience. If you have preferred airlines, that may make it easier to narrow down your choices to the best flight option. Airlines do vary in quality of service.
You certainly want to book your flight sooner rather than later: if you wait till the last minute, the fares will be higher and you risk not finding an available flight, not getting a convenient flight, or not getting a very good seat. On the other hand, you shouldn’t book a flight if you aren’t sure you’ll be making the trip because cancellation fees can be steep.

Your Travel Site
Depending where you work, you may be required to use a specific travel site / travel service to book your flight and related reservations such as rental car and hotel; and there are likely travel policies you need to adhere to. Take note, however, that at times a client may insist you use their service to book travel and adhere to their travel policies. If you aren’t bound to a particular travel service, try a variety of the better-known travel sites until you lock onto one that serves you best.

Be aware that many travel sites are less than forthright about the search results they choose to display and how they are presented. Some travel sites leave out airlines they don’t have financial partnerships with. The order of results may also be skewed to favor the airlines the travel site would prefer you to select. As a personal example, the travel site I am required to use never lists Southwest Airlines in its results if I leave the airline selection default of “all airlines”; however, the site will list Southwest if I specifically select it in my search criteria (compare Figures 1 and 2 below). You’ll need to learn the true character of your travel site, as it’s not always operating in your interests as much as its own.

Figure 1: Travel Site showing results for “All Airlines” but leaving out Southwest
Figure 2: Now showing Southwest in its results when specifically selected

Keep in mind that in addition to the fares displayed, most airlines also charge for each checked bag (see Bags, below).

Making Good Booking Choices
If you fly a particular airline frequently, you’ll want to join its loyalty (frequent flyer) program. Although loyalty programs and their rewards are a mere shadow of what they used to be, fly enough and you’ll rack up enough points to get preferential treatment in early boarding, earn upgrades to your flight class, or cash in miles for a free flight.
Aircraft selection and seat selection are both important matters. If you don’t pay attention to the type of aircraft for the flight you select, you may end up on a very small plane with little overhead space and a very high level of engine noise (such as a turbo prop plane) or a jetliner model that has inhumanly narrow seats (I find the Boeing 757 seats particularly confining). Some airlines configure their planes with reduced legroom so they can cram extra rows into the cabin. As you travel, pay attention to aircraft model and airline and you’ll start to see combinations that are more comfortable than others. Or look up seat dimensions online.

For seat selection, it goes without saying that you want to avoid the dreaded Middle Seat at all costs. Many regular travelers see window and aisle as equivalent, but if you strongly prefer one over the other you can often register your preference with your travel site. If you need unencumbered access to the restroom, I suggest aisle. If you like to hunker down to read or take a nap, I suggest window. If seat choice doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, consider that most flights are very full these days. For longer flights, get the best seat you can. If you’re not happy with your seat assignment, you can appeal to both the ticket agent and the gate agent on the day of your flight who can sometimes work wonders.
Some seats are definitely better than others. In the very first row of a cabin there is no seat back pocket in front of you for storage. Being near the wing may expose you to a lot of engine noise. Exit row seating comes with emergency responsibilities, but if you’re okay with that you’ll have extra legroom. In the very last row your seat may not recline (however, you’ll be in excellent proximity to the restrooms). The further back you are, the longer it will take to get off the plane, and if you need to make a connection with little time to spare you want to be as close to the front as you can get. Today, there are online reviews for everything--even individual airline seats. If your travel site doesn’t provide seat reviews, there are independent sites you can use such as TripAdvisor’s SeatGuru.

Getting Boarding Passes and Paying for Checked Bags in Advance
Although you can simply show up at the airport to check your bags and get your boarding pass, you might arrive only to find a large line of people ahead of you at the ticket counter and a lengthy delay you hadn’t counted on. The smart thing to do is print your boarding pass in advance and pay for any bags you plan to check ahead of time at home. Most airlines allow you to do this within 24 hours of the flight. When you show up at the airport, checking pre-paid bags doesn’t usually take long and you already have your boarding pass. Some airlines allow mobile check-in, where you don’t need to print a boarding pass and can show a boarding pass on your phone instead of a printed slip.

If you do need to get a boarding pass or pay for checked bags while at the airport, use self-service kiosks if available: it’s much faster than waiting in line for a human being to assist you. However, when web sites and kiosks fail to meet your needs and you find yourself in a problem you can’t get out of, don’t hesitate to appeal to the ticket agents.

Bags and the Consultant Code (No-Check Rule)
Air travel may have declined, but airlines are still innovating. Unfortunately, that innovation is usually not in you favor. As I write this, the most recent trick has been to make air fares look more attractive by charging for each checked bag. Not all airlines do this, but the majority do. Beyond the obvious deception about what your “real” airfare is going to be, there’s another consequence to this unfortunate practice: if tends to make people have more carry-on baggage, making the problem of not-enough-overhead-space even worse.
Before making any decisions about checking bags, consider whether you will be meeting up with colleagues on the other end to head over to a client meeting. If you are, you must honor the No-Check Rule of Consultant Air Travel, which states: When there are multiple consultants flying in who will proceed together to a client meeting, Thou Shalt Check No Bags. Got that? Carry-ons only. Failure to follow this rule will immediately cause your colleagues to classify you as a rookie. If you’re skeptical, try it out: check a bag and make everyone else wait on the arrival side an extra 20 minutes or more. You won’t do it a second time. We’re talking mostly about day trips here. Now, if you’re not meeting up with someone feel free to check all the bags you want--but remember, most airlines will charge fees.

If you decide you've made a mistake and your have too much carry-on baggage, ask the gate agent if you can gate check some of your bags. They'll tag your bag and take it from you on the jetway as you are about to board; on the other end, it may be picked up in the some way or sometimes it goes to baggage claim. There's no fee for gate checking. If you find out you're on a tiny plane definitely consider it.  It's not wise to gate check anything valuable or vulnerable like a laptop.

I've found traveling light makes a big difference in ease of flying. I used to carry a monster of a laptop in a large case with everything I might need, and it weighed a ton. It was also causing me a lot of shoulder and neck pain because it was an over-the-shoulder strap bag. Not these days: I go for thin, small, and light every time and my bags are always wheeled. Personally, I like the rolling laptop cases from Kensington and the Samsonite Spinner suitcase (which can pivot in any direction). Think carefully about the size you get and whether you'll be using it primarily as a carry-on or not. If you're going on a long enough trip where you need a garment bag, I recommend the simple but study and reliable Wally Bag.

How I Roll

On the Day of Your Flight
First and foremost, make sure you have everything you need, such as clothing, toiletries, medicines, electronics (phone, computer), pre-printed boarding passes or route maps, identification, and of course your wallet. You’ll also want something to do, which might mean bringing a music or video player (with ear buds), a book, or a tablet. Rookie mistakes include failing to check the weather forecast at your destination; forgetting to bring chargers for your electronics; or simply leaving out something important (I once flew to Las Vegas and discovered while unpacking that I had failed to pack any pants). If like me you need a CPAP device (sleep machine), that’s fine to bring with you.
Get to the airport an hour ahead of your departure time for domestic flights or two hours ahead for international flights. If you anticipate anything that may delay you, such as bad traffic or difficulty finding a parking spot, factor in extra time.

The TSA will screen you and your baggage. They are not the joking types, and using words like “bomb” or “weapon” out loud is extremely unwise. Indeed, it’s best not to say anything at all unless spoken to. Policies change over time, but at the time of this writing computers (but not tablets or phones) and a few other classes of equipment need to go in separate bins; the rest of your electronics can usually stay in your carry-on bag. For your carry-on baggage, liquids are frowned upon except in extremely small quantities and are to be put in a bin in a plastic bag. You’ll have to remove shoes, belts, and coats/jackets and put them in bins; you’ll see experienced travelers undressing while they’re in the security line and move through the whole process very efficiently.

Just as your bags pass through a scanner, so will you—and many airports use body scanning technology such as millimeter wave scanning though there’s a lot of controversy over this. For you, this means stepping into a scanner when told, holding your hands above your head and not moving when told, exiting and waiting when told, and finally being released. You may also have to go through a pat-down. The TSA’s focus tends to change over time, which you can often pick up on from signs posted at airports. After 9/11, nail trimmers and box cutters were a big focus. Last year, I saw a lot of concern about snow globes (believe it or not).  There’s no point in being a sourpuss or complaining about any of this: it won’t change the process and if you make one of the officers grumpy it could slow down your processing. Once you and your bags make it through the scanners, you’ll need to reassemble yourself and make sure you have everything.
If you’ve got some extra time and plan on getting a bite to eat or looking around at airport shops, find your gate first so you know exactly where it is. Also, be sure to occasionally look at the flight status monitors because sudden gate changes can happen.

At the gate, passengers will be boarded in an excruciating process that proves we still have a class system. Long after boarding first class and the many classes of special treatment (platinum, gold, and silver frequent flyers; alliance partner members; members of the military; people needing special assistance; families with small children) the remainder of you will finally get to board. That’ll be done by boarding zones (listed on your boarding pass) or by seat row. Eventually, you’ll get on the plane and will need to be zealously searching out overhead space for your carry-ons. As you patiently wait to get to your seat, peek down the aisle ahead of you to see if there’s overhead space near your seat; if there isn’t, look for some open space elsewhere. If you end up having to put your bag under the seat in front of you, that'll limit your already-restricted legroom even further.
Stuck at the Airport
You may find yourself waiting on occasion at airports for long periods of time. Airports vary. Some are like shopping malls, so filled with options and places to explore you almost don't mind the wait. Others are small, bare, and devoid of anything interesting or appetizing.

Lots of people like to use their electronics. Increasingly, airports are making arrays of outlets and even work areas available for this purpose. If that’s not the case at your airport, there is an art to hunting down available outlets. There have to be occasional outlets for things like custodial vacuuming, so skilled travelers get good at seeking them out when they survey an airport waiting area. if you've ever seen a traveler slowly canvassing the waiting area, eyes downcast toward floors and pillars, they're probably on the hunt for an outlet.

The quality and options for food at airports really varies. I’ve had some excellent meals at airports at times, but more often than not I have to settle for something that isn’t very exciting or fresh that costs a great deal more than it should. My opinion is that airport food is slowly but surely getting better overall, while on-the-plane food is going the opposite way and getting worse.
There is a refuge available in some larger airports, the airport lounge. These sanctuaries, which are airline-specific, provide comfortable furniture, television, reading, coffee and other beverages, and a secure environment where you can relax or even take a nap without feeling vulnerable. Many of them also have work areas. Airport lounges aren’t cheap—they’re hundreds of dollars a year—but if you find yourself flying a great deal it may be worth it to get a membership. One nice development is that many airport lounges now offer one-day use for a relatively small fee. This allows you to take advantage of them in times of dire need without having to shell out for an annual membership.

Airport Lounges: A Safe Haven

On the Plane
Listening to the safety speech before a flight gets very tedious if you fly a lot. My own pet peeve is being told each and every time how to use a seat belt—as if there was any man, woman, or child on board who didn’t already know that. Eventually you fall into the practice of sitting through these things with stoic patience and an attentive look on your face while you’re thinking about something else entirely (some of you may have already acquired this skill earlier in life from school or church).

You’ll have to turn off your electronics during take-off and landing. The need for this rule is controversial, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s justified or not: you have to follow the rules. If you’re going to use your phone or tablet or computer during the flight (to read, watch a video, play a game, or do some work) make sure it’s in Airplane Mode. Some planes have wifi-for-pay available, so if you need to be online while in the air that’s sometime possible.
You can count on a soft drink and sometimes a snack (peanuts or trail mix) when you fly but there won’t necessarily be anything more than that available. Airlines once provided meals on flights; today some airlines will offer food for pay on a flight but the selection is usually meager. Many travelers prefer to buy a meal in advance in the airport and carry it on board.

Flying may give you time to do things you often can't find enough time for normally, such as reading or doing some serious thinking. Though many travelers don't utter a word to the person sitting next to them, if you're the talkative type you may find striking up a conversation with your neighbor to be a good way to pass the time.

On a good day, you have an empty seat next to you, quiet in the cabin, and (for an evening flight) the lights dimmed. On a bad day, an enormous person is sitting next to you who is overflowing their seat and in bodily contact with you, one or more babies are screaming at the top of their lungs, and the plane is lurching violently from turbulence. Pray for the former, put up with the latter. Bringing a media player with ear buds can help combat the noisy situations.
The pressurized cabin in a plane can sometimes lead to ear pain, most commonly starting when the plane is descending toward its destination. It's caused by a pressure change blocking the Eustachian tubes in ears and it is not pleasant. It can go away quickly once you land, but on occasion I've had it last as long as 30 minutes. There are some things you can try to make it go away sooner, but I haven't found any of them really effective: you just have to wait it out.
Once your plane lands, you can get out your phone and use it while the plane is making its way to the gate for disembarking.

Baggage Claim
Once off the plane, and after using the restroom, you’ll want to head directly to baggage claim. Some baggage claim areas have monitors showing arriving flights and which bag claim. Other times there are signs above each claim indicating which flight’s bags are being unloaded. This displayed information is one of the sloppier areas of airport operations, so the information may not be displayed or if it is may not be right—if you’re not seeing your bags arrive where you expect them to, look around you in the claim area.
Many bags do look alike, so confirm the bags you take off the conveyer are actually yours. Either look for something distinctive about your bags or check the affixed airline sticker which usually will list the passenger last name.
Good Travel Days vs. Bad Travel Days
Any given time you fly, you may find that nothing goes wrong, one thing goes wrong, or multiple things go wrong. Your flight might be mostly empty or it might be packed to overflowing. Likewise, the attitude of the airline personal, fellow passengers, and yourself can vary. When the stars align where nothing goes wrong and most everyone has a positive attitude, your flight can be a fairly decent experience. When there are multiple failures and everyone’s in a lousy mood, that’s when flying is at its worst. The only thing you can control here is your own attitude, and if you keep it positive and graceful even in the face of adversity you’ll not only feel better yourself but it will rub off on others.
Well, there you have it: one man's brain dump after 25 years of business air travel. Air travel is challenging at times and boring at best, and everyone from your travel service to your airline to your airport food court is trying to manipulate you! But you can manipulate too, if you get to know how the system works and what the insider tips are. The informed and prepared traveling consultant is a happier consultant.

Next: Part 4: Written Communication Skills

1 comment:

Michael Collins said...

I second the suggestion to join frequent flyer programs. I typically fly Southwest and earned A-list status back in 2011. There are two primary benefits once you get this status. First, I get to go through the faster line for check-in or security. This is great on Monday mornings or Friday nights when there is a lot of commuter travel. Second, on Southwest, I get preferential boarding to other travelers. This means more overhead bin space when you board and better seat selection.

If flying Southwest, a trick to earning A-list status if you do not have it is to fly business select if you can. The cost of a business select ticket is typically only $20 more per flight, but you'll earn 4-5 times the number of points that you will with a full-fare ticket. Even though most companies will not reimburse for that, the out-of-pocket costs are worth getting your A-List status.

If flying across the country, especially overnight, a good neck pillow is extremely valuable.