Before getting on an airplane, I always re-tie my shoelaces.
During a layover, I must sit at an airport cafe for at least ten minutes, but only in a chair that faces away from the counter where I placed my order.
And I always look at the details page of my passport a dozen times or more right before I begin to travel.
I’d like to say there’s a good reason for me doing all of the above. But, in reality, those first two are just examples of my inexplicable travel habits. The last one? Well, I do that simply to make sure nobody has stolen my passport and replaced it with an exact replica, in terms of outside appearance and the stamps inside, but that now has somebody else’s name and photo on the main page.
So far so good…if you can believe that.
The point is that travel involves so much more than just waking up and heading to your next destination. It’s a process, one that involves routines, bizarre beliefs and on occasion, those odd travel habits, of which I’m sure we all have our own. Or so I hope.
The more I travel myself, the more I notice my own process and perhaps by sharing what I go through whenever I travel from one country to another, it will be useful in some way…or else it will just make me sound a little wacky.
Deciding to Go Somewhere
Depending on where I am, and where I decide to go next, the process of moving on might be as easy as booking a train ticket, heading to a bus station or simply walking across a border. However, in many cases, of course, it involves booking a flight. And in those situations, this is what I do:
- Visas – Research the visa rules for the destination I’m about to visit, using the US State Department’s travel page or sometimes the Visa requirements for United States citizens wikipedia page
- Flight Search – One after the other I pull up my favorite flight search engines and, when possible, I enter a variety of origin and destination airports and various sets of flexible dates until I find a suitable fare (the flight search engines I use are google.com/flights, jetradar.com, kayak.com, skyscanner.com and cheapoair.com).
- Book a Flight – I’m usually a little hesitant to book my flight right away, so I generally continue checking the above websites for a few days to see if there are any changes. Who am I kidding? I book flights almost always a few days before I actually fly out. Somehow, despite this, I usually find a pretty good fare, in terms of price, duration, route and preferred airlines. Based on experience, if you search long and hard enough, you’ll almost always find a suitable fare. Eventually, I book it.
- Frequent Flyer Details – Since I can be quite forgetful at times, I always make sure that I enter my frequent flyer details when booking my ticket or immediately after. If I don’t do it right away, it’s almost a guarantee I won’t remember to do it at all.
- Aisle Seat – Sitting in a window or middle seat is about the same as sitting on the airplane toilet or just right on top of the wing to me – uncomfortable. Being able to stretch my legs in the aisle and to get up whenever I need to without anything in my way, is something I cherish immensely, especially on long-haul flights. And I’ll always try to get a seat as close to the front of the plane as I can, simply because upon arrival this allows me to get to immigration before most of the other passengers.
- Dancing and High-fiving – Upon booking a flight, I dance a sweet dance of celebration and I’ll high-five anyone around me. Of course, some might call my dance more of a wiggle and often times I end up just high-fiving myself. So it goes.
This one is easy. There’s really only three quick steps involved.
- Passport – Make sure I have my passport.
- Pack – Pack my stuff about 2 hours before I need to go the airport.
- Passport – Make sure I still have my passport and that the details on the details page are still my own. Sometimes this requires between 15 – 20 checks to be certain it’s still me. (Why my university psychologist told me, way back when, that my OCD had been solved is beyond me.)
When the time comes to actually head to the airport, I quickly fall into what has become my very standard routine…
- WiFi. Check. – Given the importance of internet for my work, I double-check to make sure I have my Telecomsquare mobile wifi device and charger in my carry-on bag. I might even triple and quadruple check this one.
- Give Me Water – I down a glass of water before heading out the door of wherever I’m staying.
- Precise Timing – Generally, I aim to get to the airport 2 hours before my flight departure time.
- Good Karma – If I take a taxi or shuttle bus to the airport, I will always give the driver a larger-than-normal tip (assuming nothing sketchy took place). My thinking is that by doing so, my last action in that particular country is a positive one, so surely that will send some good karma my way, perhaps for my upcoming flight, my adventures in the next destination or if I ever return to the same place again. It’s still a working theory though.
- Flight Check-In – Normally, I just check in. However, my goal here is always to make the airport check-in staff smile. They rarely do. If I try to say something funny, the chance of them smiling is even lower.
- Airport Security – Now I’m no George Clooney in the film Up in the Air where he buzzes through security as if he was a robot built specifically for going through airport security lines at an incredibly fast speed, but I’m no first time flyer either. I can pull off my belt while taking out my laptop at the same time, empty my pockets in less than 2.3 seconds and I never forget anything that causes the metal detecting machine to beep. Sure, I might hit the guy in front of me in the back with my belt as I try to whip it out (doesn’t sound good, I know) and I never put my liquids in a plastic bag but so far, nobody’s punched me in the face or ever cared that my liquid items were all over the place.
- Immigration – Try making the immigration officers smile. I try, every time, but they obviously went to the same school as the airline check-in staff. When I’m called up, I’ll usually smile, then I’ll remove my smile when they look at me with such a serious face. Then, as the officer struggles to have my passport read by the scanner, I explain that, well, my heavily-used passport has a difficult time being read by the scanner at every airport, so it’s nothing personal.
Usually, I’ll also memorize the page where my entry stamp was placed when I first arrived because, now that my passport has had 60 pages in it for a while, this saves everyone a lot of time. Finally, on a more serious note, if the officer asks me any questions, I’ve learned to keep my answers short and to only answer exactly what they asked. Going into long explanations or providing details they never asked for often leads to more questions, suspicion and even less smiling if you can believe it.
- Departure Lounge Routine – Upon entering the departure area, I first find a seat near a window that offers a view of the runway. That’s where I spend about 20 minutes just staring off into space, watching planes take off and letting the thoughts flow, thoughts about my time in the country I’m leaving, thoughts about my next destination, thoughts about the effectiveness of voodoo and whatever else pops into my head. After that meditative session comes to an end, I head to the bathroom to wash my hands and then over to my actual gate, trying to show up just a few minutes before boarding time.
Once boarding begins, I like to remain seated at the gate as I’m one of those people that waits until most of the passengers get on the plane before boarding myself. I see no point in standing in line when we already have assigned seats and the plane isn’t going to leave until we’ve all boarded, unless I fall asleep in the gate area like that one time in Oslo. (Thank you to the gate agent who woke me up at the very last minute!) I’ve never really understood why airplanes make people so nutty…that mad rush to get on the plane, as if only the first 10 ticket holders will actually be allowed to fly, would make for a good study in human behavior.
- Re-tie My Shoelaces – I just do it.
On my trip a few days ago, my flights were from Bucharest to Dubai and then Dubai to Delhi. I flew with Fly Dubai airlines. And for me, it was a pretty standard flight in terms of what I did while on board…except for the bathroom incident.
- Sleep – On most flights, I sleep plenty. I have a ‘no work’ policy while in the air so it’s either sleep, read or watching movies. Normally, I do a combination of them all, but sleep seems to take up the most time.
- Movies – Comedies. Even bad comedies. I have trouble watching any other kind of movie while on a flight. I’d watch Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 over The Shawshank Redemption every single time.
- Bathroom Time – I drink a lot of water while flying and so, I must use the toilet on board. I’m also quite particular about not having food in my teeth, so I like to check after every time I eat as well. Usually, the bathroom experience is quite uneventful, apart from when I find a huge piece of spinach covering my front tooth. On occasion, though, such as during my last flight from Dubai to Delhi, I enter the airplane bathroom only to find an absolute disgusting mess – the toilet, toilet seat and some of the floor is completely covered in piss. I naturally wonder if it was the woman who just left the bathroom, but I’ll never know. And now the person after me (there’s always someone waiting right outside the door when this happens) will probably assume it was me who peed as if I had a sprinkler system attached to my crotch. Again, so it goes.
- Seatbelt Ritual – My seatbelt stays on during the flight but for some reason, as soon as the plane touches the ground, I take it off. Yes, while still on the runway zooming along at several hundred miles per hour. It’s a ritual I started about 10 years ago as I have this strong belief that doing this brings me good luck. I know it doesn’t make any sense, and if I do end up on a plane that has a real nasty landing, good luck is probably the farthest thing from what I’ll experience. I am aware of this. But it’s a difficult travel habit to break.
Layover Between Flights
I don’t mind layovers, as long as they’re not longer than about 5 hours. On my trip last week, my layover in Dubai was a perfect 2 hours, giving me the right amount of time to complete my layover routine.
- Wander the Airport – After sitting for so long, I need to walk and I’ll walk for around 20 minutes, all over the departure area. But if there’s any duty-free shops, I avoid them at all cost as I believe that entering one, unlike taking off my seatbelt while in the middle of landing, will bring me bad luck. (Until I started writing all this stuff down and reading it over a few times, I really thought my habits and beliefs were just the wisdom of an experienced traveler. Silly me.)
- Cafe Break – I find a cafe. Usually, I’ll order a cappuccino or some juice if they have it. Then I’ll find a seat facing away from the counter where I placed my order and I’ll drink my drink, sitting there for at least 10 minutes. If I’m running late to catch a flight, I still make sure I sit there for 10 minutes unless they’re calling out my name over the speaker system, telling me that if I don’t show up immediately, I’m not going to Bali after all.
- People Watching and a Game – After my coffee or juice, if it’s not time to board the flight, I’ll brush my teeth and then have a seat at the gate, where I just observe the people all around me, enjoying some good old fashioned people watching. I love trying to guess where everyone is flying to and I must say, I once considered myself quite skilled at doing so. That was until I realized that people are usually going to the destination listed on the screen at the gate where they are sitting. Go figure.
Arrival at My Destination
Finally, I’ve landed at my destination. My seatbelt is off right away of course and then I try to figure out if we’re heading to an actual gate or if our plane will park in the middle of no man’s land and we’ll have to take buses to the terminal. If we take buses, then my entire plan of sitting near the front of the plane backfires because, for some reason, I always end up being one of the last people off the bus.
Here’s what happens next…
- Arrival Airport Routine – As I head through the airport towards the immigration inspection, I always avoid using the people movers or escalators. I just walk and use the stairs, although, since my goal is to arrive at immigration before the majority of people, I have to walk a lot faster than I would like. But, the reason why I avoid the people movers and escalators is, as you might have guessed, a very sound one. If I use the movers and escalators, I’ll become lazy for the rest of my life and I don’t want to become lazy. Yes, these two things are the key to avoiding laziness, no matter what else you do.
- Immigration (Round 2) – Back at immigration and this time, it doesn’t matter to me if the officer smiles. Normally, I walk as far down as I can, to the last line of immigration, based on the idea that the other passengers are lazy (yup, they took the people movers!) and they will just enter the first line or two and avoid having to walk more than that. Not every immigration has several lines of course, but if they do, you can find me all the way at the end. Usually, this is faster. And when it’s not, well, at least I wasn’t lazy.
Then, I just hand over my passport and wait there until it’s given back to me. I do check the stamp in my passport and the date on that stamp right away though, because on one occasion in India, the immigration officer stamped me into the country on September 24th, 2010, which would have been fine. The problem was that I had actually entered the country on May 5th, 2011.
- Luggage and Customs Inspection – I’ve had good luck with this. In all my travels, never has my luggage been lost. My backpack did arrive on the carousel in Rome once all cut up, the work of Austrian airport police who had sliced it open in several places with a knife looking for drugs apparently. But apart from that, I normally just wait a few minutes and out comes my luggage. With the customs inspection, I just look straight ahead, put on my most confident face as if I know exactly what I’m doing and have been to this destination dozens of times before and, apart from one time in Sofia, Bulgaria, I’ve never been stopped at customs in any destination outside of the US.
- The First Twenty Minutes – Once I enter the arrivals hall, here’s how I spend my first twenty minutes in this new country. It basically involves taking it very slowly by first sitting at a cafe in order to get my bearings and avoid making any major travel mistakes such as getting ripped off. It works every single time.
- Into the City I Go – Rested, with sound mind and a better understanding of where I’m going and how to get there, I gather my belongings, go to an ATM to take out some local currency and head to the taxi stand, shuttle counter, airport train or metro station or whatever it is that will take me into the city, just like any normal, sane traveler.
And so my adventures in a new destination begin…and with it, an entirely different set of routines, beliefs and inexplicable travel habits.
I won’t even try to explain why I feel the need to stand, while shifting my whole body weight from one leg to the other every few minutes, for the entire journey to my hostel, hotel or guesthouse, even if there are plenty of empty seats on the bus, train or metro. All I’ll say is that it has to do with a tai chi class I once took 18 years ago.
The rest can most certainly wait until another post.
Any interesting routines or habits – strange or not – when you travel? Any odd beliefs or superstitions you care to share?