Chris Blattman

What to bring to the sky

Two years ago I was launching several new projects in Africa, flying close to 100,000 miles a year–easily destroying more ozone than poverty was being relieved (or knowledge generated).

Then two babies struck and I mostly grounded myself. Two years later, I’m starting to travel more. I thought I’d return to and revise a 2011 post on “what to bring to the sky”–my guide to travel gear for those, like me, bound on overseas flights of 8 to 36 hours.

If you’re a business class traveller, I’m not sure these all these apply. One thing does: I believe non-profit organizations–most of all the World Bankers–ought to stop buying business class tickets. More on that tirade, some World Banker responses, and my rejoinders here.

In the meantime, for my fellow coach travelers, here are my updated thoughts. The 12 things you need to bring to the sky.

  1. A great travel agent. I have come to appreciate mine more and more over the years. If you are flying NYC-London, you are probably fine buying online. If you fly multi-city tours, especially to unusual places (NYC-Liberia-Ethiopia-Vietnam-NYC is never easy to book) you need help. Even for simpler itineraries, you often get better fare classes for the same money through a good agent. Mine (Robert Ferruzzi) is here. Email him here. I cannot recommend him enough. Please let him know I sent you, and we will both get extra love.
  2. Eye mask and earplugs. Most masks are surprisingly inadequate, but I like this one. I have also been using an inflatable neck pillow more often, one that packs very small.
  3. Folding travel toothbrush and travel toothpaste. Self explanatory.
  4. Drugs. For any developing country revenge that could hit you on your 20-hour flight home. I carry ibuprofen plus a few pills for malaria, nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, and flu. I also carry a malaria quick test kit. Plus our all-purpose pal: Cipro. (Trust me: You do not want to find yourself in a Heathrow pharmacy during a layover trying to convince the pharmacist to give you antibiotics or anti-malarials without a prescription.)
  5. More drugs, specifically sleeping pills. The humanitarian worker’s (secret) best friend. There is simply no better way to arrive rested and adjust to the new time zone.
  6. Travel-sized moisturizer. Because the airlines seem to have made the planes even drier (who would have thought it was possible?), probably because carrying the extra water is expensive. After two 12 hour flights in a row, I otherwise emerge flaky.
  7. Tight-fitting headphones and plug-in doohickey. I like the regular earbuds with the rubbery earplug (example). This keeps out noise, especially when combined with a free “rainmaker” app for your smartphone. Nothing works better to cancel out the loud talker behind you. I don’t go in for noise-canceling earphones, because they are too bulky to sleep with or carry. Oh, and by “doohickey”, I mean the attachment that gives your personal earphones two prongs instead of one, so you can enjoy the airline movies with better sound.
  8. Energy bars. In case you sleep through a meal, find one particularly inedible, or are accustomed to eating more than three square inches of cold lasagna. (My other practice: request the vegetarian meal so that I get it right away, and can fall asleep immediately, rather than waiting 2 hours for the cart to pull by. And yes I know that if everyone did this we would be in a bad equilibrium. Allow me some vices.)
  9. A little zippered pouch. To carry items 2 to 8. In my experience, the easiest way to get this is deplaning from an overseas flight: Nab one from a first class seat on your way from cattle class to the exit.
  10. Empty plastic water bottle. I prefer a wide-mouthed collapsible one, for space reasons plus easy refilling. Because you never get enough water to drink. It can go through security empty and is easily refilled by water fountains and stewards.
  11. Silk blanket. I was skeptical, but my mother in law bought a inexpensive silk sleeping bag in an market in Asia (you can buy on eBay) packs down to the size of nothing. It is fantastic. Especially valuable because I try to get exit row and bulkhead seats, and cold air really seeps in from the door seams.
  12. An e-book and a magazine. You need the latter for take-off and landing, until the day when common sense prevails and they decide that my Kindle being on will not crash the plane.

Everything above, including my computer, fits in a modest-size backpack. I hope this brings you some measure of joy.

17 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing the tips! I have never had a long flight outside the US, these tips will be very helpful foe me in the future.

  2. Depending on his ability to scale up, I suspect that having people use your (and my!) travel agent may actually result in less love all round, whether they tell him you sent them or not.

  3. What kind of technology do you take with you on fieldwork? I’m off to a very poor African state this fall for fieldwork (interviews, some observation, and document collection) and am debating about whether I should take a laptop with me, and if so, what the best solution is: mini laptop? IPAD and keyboard? Regular laptop? No laptop and write out interviews by hand, and use internet cafes when necessary? I’m leaning towards the last solution, but if I do take a computer, I’d like to go as light and small as possible.

  4. Depending on his ability to scale up, I suspect that having people use your (and my!) travel agent may actually result in less love all round, whether they tell him you sent them or not.

  5. .. and how do we feel about checking in luggage? does it arrive after 1h or 1h30 lay-overs? are some airports more reliable than others? i still cannot bring myself to trust them and try to squeeze everything into a handluggage-sized bag, at the expense of bringing necessary (and changeable) clothing, and never mind the annoying business with the liquid ban..

  6. I love it. That is indeed the benchmark.

    Probably the relevant comparison is not my salary (which the university pays, and the counterfactual is not more development but rather more arcane work). It’s the cost of the research–which happens to be higher than my salary.

    The answer depends on whether the research serves a public good, and makes future aid more effective. This is not true if just one of three things is true: (a) my research sucks, (b) I don’t publicize my results, or (c) I do a and b but no one in the aid community reads.

    Most researchers do a terrible job at (b), and are not rewarded for it. We all try to do (a), and it’s a mixed bag. We can’t control (c), and that what worries me.

  7. Dear Chris,

    are you sure you really add more value, compared to the scenario of just distributing your wage in Liberia? I’m aware that it’s not a fair comparison, but maybe something people in development should think about.
    Cheers, Lukas

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