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Up in the (international) air - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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Up in the (international) air

STEP THREE: Shoes go in first. Ms. Pools packs them along the edges of the bag, then begins putting in jeans and pants to form the bottom layer of clothing.

The New York Times gives us a slide show on how to pack a carry on bag efficiently. I concur.

In the first five minutes of Up In the Air, George Clooney, veteran traveller, sails through airport security with grace and speed. Jeannie and I watched with a certain amount of grim familiarity. At one point I remember thinking: “Rookie move, Clooney.” How sad.

My specialty is international travel, where Clooney offer little help. I am routinely out of the airport so fast that veteran taxi drivers in several countries have openly marveled. Here are some global travel tips for your arival:

  1. Carry on bags only. I can do a 3-week, 3-country, 3-climate Africa trip with a single small suitcase and my little backpack.
  2. Bulkhead seat. Ask for it when you book, or when you check in. Not only do you get some extra leg room, but you’re usually in front of the door so you can…
  3. Speed walk. To the immigration desk, ahead of the crowd. Otherwise you can kiss an hour goodbye. Fill out your entry card on the plane.
  4. The dreaded bus. Some places drive you to the terminal, rather than have you walk the 100 meters. Argh. This may frustrate tactic 3. Stay near the door, and never, ever take a chair.
  5. Choose your line well. If you aren’t fast enough, take the “non-citizens” line closest to the “residents” or “diplomats” line. They empty first, and start calling people from your line next.

Here’s a random assortment of other travel tips.

  1. Plastic buckle belt. For going through security without your pants falling down. Slip-on shoes too.
  2. Priority Pass. Buy a membership, for access to Business Class lounges with a coach class ticket.
  3. Stopovers. No more than one or you’re sure to miss a connection somewhere.
  4. Miles. Pick one carrier in each alliance and build miles on just one. You can do that. You’ll never get a free trip, of course; they’re too smart and stingy for that (unless you’re the type who books vacations a year in advance). But if you get enough miles you start getting upgrade privileges and–best of all–access to first class check-in with a coach ticket, and first boarding.
  5. Valium. It’s unfashionable, but it works. You cannot afford jet lag when you have 35-hour flights to get somewhere for two weeks of field work. My doctor cheerfully recommended Valium when the new fangled stuff didn’t work, and I’ve never looked back. I use one on the plane, and one the first two nights in the new time zone to force myself onto schedule. It’s magical. I have eliminated jet lag from my life, and hit the African ground at a swift jog, if not running.
  6. Other meds. If on a return flight from Africa, I carry my malaria, anti-nausea, and anti-diarrheal meds. I forgot to do this once. Once. Never again. Enough said.
  7. Leave clothes. Keep working in the same countries? I now have a mini-wardrobe in Uganda, Liberia and (soon) Ethiopia. One day soon I may not even need my carry on suitcase.

What are your tips?

19 Responses

  1. When filling out customs forms only use blue or black ink (not the funky red pens I use to write in my travel journal) as the customs officer (particularly in Bermuda) will tell you they do not accept any other colored ink.

  2. Great packing but why so man and so many similar clothes ? My “bulk” in my suitcase relates to hobbies and necessary survivial/pleasure stuff, none of which I saw here : where would ou put my knitting?my tupperware container of Luna bars so I don’t have to accept “iffy” meals, tea bags, hot water heater, embroidery ,headlight torch for sewing in the dark, couple of novels , camera, re-charger, empty waterbottle and empty hot thermos (for tea) hiking boots, roll-up keyboard and rollerball mouse to prevent carpal tunel, and laundry detergent , washing line, small pillow etc. – take out half those “same /same” clothes (why mre than 2 t shirts and 2 pairs socks if you have detergent) but put in more of the useful stuff , also instead of valium try a workout band, workout clothes, swimsuit, running shoes etc – also I didnt see any important hair stuff in the bag 9where are the small portable dual voltage carmen rolles or straightening or curling iron for making it okay to meetings…also, always travel with plastic knife and fork and spoon, again for options.

  3. My wife and I did 24 days in 7 cities in Europe and managed with a carry-on each. 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of jeans, and about 7 t-shirts each for our main clothes. When we stopped in a city for more than a couple of days, we just did laundry in the bath tub and hung the clothes to dry.

    For you women who truly travel a lot, you might think about getting cosmetic tattoos to replace blush, eyeliner, lipstick, etc. For many women this would significantly reduce the makeup load they have to take with them. Also, short hair = good for travel.

  4. Geoffrey: a 3 climate, 3 week trip can be done in even less! I’ve done trips of that magnitude with a 23 liter pack (about the size of a schoolkid’s backpack) which weighed 10 pounds. You want 3 days worth of clothes (you can get laundry done anywhere, so why lug around so many changes of clothes?), a small toiletries kit (buy one of the first class amenity kits on ebay – Singapore and Swiss are great – and you’ll get a perfect sized toiletry bag), a netbook, a couple books/an ebook reader, a miniumbrella and mini flashlight, a camera., some pens, a moleskine and a passport – what more do you need?

    As for miles, I agree with the previous poster – you can definitely get free flights if you know how to work the system. I am not a road warrior by any stretch and yet I earn ~ 300,000 miles a year, and rarely pay for a flight. There are many websites that discuss how to do this.

  5. I’m sorry, but you can’t give us “I can do a 3-week, 3-country, 3-climate Africa trip with a single small suitcase and my little backpack.” and not give more details! Can you give some sense of your standard list of contents? Most importantly, on the clothing – is the secret compact material, frequent washes, or what? Also, does the list change if you know you’ll need to wear something formalish at some point? Second most important, reading material – all Kindle all the time?

    I’m a chronic overpacker, so any tips here would be great.

  6. 8. Compression socks and feet exercises. given #5 means you will be sleeping a lot in a very cramped space, do not underestimate the royal bummer that is deep vein thrombosis. Wiggle and stand up frequently, and wear your socks!
    9. Earplugs, also given #5.
    10. Audiobooks and podcasts. For when you are feeling too crappy to read but not crappy enough to watch the movies.
    11. Souvenirs. This could be specific to where I live, but all travelers, especially coming from rich countries, should never not bring a trinket, no matter how small. This can cramp your carry-on style, but such an afront can also affect your work.
    12. Airport hotels. It really is ok to pay by the hour, and it can really be worth that uninterrupted beauty rest, and not having to leave the terminal. I know these are scarce in Africa.

    On miles, as someon who has purchased six (!) USA-Asia roundtrip flights using miles, I am proof it can be done. The art of non-conformity blog has a lot of tips for accumulating miles.

  7. – On STEP THREE: I always first fill my shoes with socks & underwear (use every gap).
    – Bring a pen with you in the plane, to fill out the immigration forms. Ask in the plane for an immigration form (if it’s not offered), to avoid loosing time at customs.
    – If you need to check in luggage, bring at least a small backpack carry-on with essential items such as underwear, t-shirts, toothbrush, etc., in case your luggage disappears (for example in the black hole of Charles de Gaulle airport).
    – Buy a netbook; it’s so much lighter & smaller as a laptop and perfectly suitable to write your reports & browse the web. With the current line with 320Gb harddisks, you don’t even need the external harddisk with your archives anymore.

  8. Ear plugs – you never know where or when you’ll get a chance to sleep and you don’t want that ruined by someone snoring next to you

  9. Sometimes, depending on the country (poorer is better), you can actually USE the consular/crew passport control lines. This used to work like a charm back around 2005 when I used to go to Romania a lot. Granted, I was younger (<18), so maybe it's not as easy to get away with when you're older.

  10. Packing folders:
    With these things you can fold shirts like you work at the Gap and they never wrinkle. Plus you can cram a ton of them into a very small space.

    Personally I dislike the bulkhead: I like seatback storage for books etc. And they tend to have crying babies. But definitely, book a seat as far forward as you can. (This can be another plus for elite status e.g., on United where you get more legroom too.)

  11. Well, your list is definitely a MALE travel list…
    A girl just can not travel under the same measures…

  12. buy water after security for long flights. they’ve stopped handing out bottled water in most european and all american airlines – dehydration exacerbates jetlag

  13. “I can do a 3-week, 3-country, 3-climate Africa trip with a single small suitcase and my little backpack.” Fantastic! Now my question is how many litres/gallons is your carry on suitcase!? 30? 45? I will be doing the three week, multi-country, three climate Africa trip in June and dream of just using two bags for carry on instead of struggling to accomplish this feat the day I’m leaving, then getting frustrated that I can’t make it work, and then repacking using a non-carry bag a few hours before having to be at the airport.

    I would also add that there is great value in buying an entry visa before arriving to speed up the exit from the airport. This limits the need to stand in very long, slow lines. Probably obvious but great if it can be done.

  14. Reward programs vastly differ among airlines in terms of how many miles you need to rack up to make a free trip. Codeshare with American Airlines is the best; the cost in miles for an international flight is nearly on par with what Delta requires for a domestic flight. And I’ve rarely had difficulty booking even relatively last minute one-way domestic flights on American Airlines for 12,500 miles; was able to take my family of four at least one way from Chicago to Reno in April for a total of 60,000 miles. Would have cost 160,000 on Delta.

  15. “Speed walk. To the immigration desk, ahead of the crowd. Otherwise you can kiss an hour goodbye. Fill out your entry card on the plane.”

    This is probably the best advice in my opinion. When you disembark, 200-400 people walk to the same six immigration lines. You would be well advised run, or at least speed-walk. It will save you an hour at least.

    My Advice:

    Buy A Kindle. Amazon’s WhisperNet is available in far more places than you think and provides you with free, unlimited internet access.

  16. I like these tips, and I also saw the NYT post, whcih I thought was pretty good.
    though I can say that as a single woman (and slightly vain, I should add) I could never manage No13-week, 3-country, 3-climate Africa trip with a single small suitcase and my little backpack. Bear in mind also that if you are checking in at a US airport, the carry ons allowed are slighly bigger than in EU and if you are checking in at a UK airport you are litterally allowed only one carry-on bag and even a purse in considered an extra bag.
    Plus no liquids thing is a nightmare for my cosmetics needs.

    I don’t know what kind of Miles card you have, but with 35000 miles on Lufthansa’s miles and more (Star alliance) you can get a free flight to North and Central Africa (which according to their idea of Africa includes Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea among others). And 35000 miles is not all that much. And for 15000 you get a free flight within Europe. Upgrades in my experience are much more difficult, since you need to have a Y economy ticket which is more expensive than the cheapest business class one.

    Immigration desks in Africa are the ones that really freak me out. I once stood an hour in line in at Bole Airport. Ouagadougou is equally bad.

    And I should repeat this, you are a man and you don’t seem to be concerned with fashion. The only thing I keep in my pied à terre in Burkina Faso apart from the kitchen stuff are towels, sheets, flipflops and a nightgown. But then, I ‘m so vain (and they way I am going on here, it’s like I think this post is about me :-)

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