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The Academic Traveler

The Academic Traveler

December 21, 2009

For better or for worse, academic work, at least on occasion, involves some travel across longer distances -- whether for conferences, job talks or invited seminar presentations. Visiting different places and seeing colleagues can be fun, but travel can also come with headaches. Are these inevitable? Not always. Thanks to the many dozens of flights I have taken over the past couple of years, I have developed some strategies to maximize travel efficiency and minimize frustrations.

My suggestions here are most applicable to air travel on your own, but some certainly apply to other types of arrangements as well. The underlying goal of the approach described here is to reduce inconveniences whether at the point of passing through security during check-in at the airport or while sitting on the tarmac on a delayed flight. The idea is to have certain items with you at all times either because you cannot afford to lose them or because they can help soothe various situations you may encounter.

Some items should never leave your possession, i.e., should never be checked under any circumstances. These include: your cell phone and its charger, your laptop, a corresponding power cord, house keys, cash, credit cards and ID cards. The electronics should be fully charged before leaving for a trip since it is hard to know when outlets will be available en route. I tend to put all chargers in the same part of my bag every time I travel so that I know where to glance quickly to make sure I have them. In fact, I have started to pack them all in one big plastic bag for easy access and removal. Finally, especially if you are going on a high-stakes trip such as a job talk, I highly recommend putting a set of interview-appropriate clothing in the carry-on bag.

In addition to the above-listed gadgets and essentials, I have two small plastic bags filled with helpful items that I take along on all trips. I separate these into items of liquid versus non-liquid form so that the former items are easily accessible together to be put on the conveyor belt at airport security. One of these bags includes hand sanitizer, hand lotion, crazy glue and antibiotic ointment. The other includes some pain reliever, lip balm, gum, bandages, dental floss, vitamins, hand wipes, tissues and an eye cover. Additional items I place elsewhere in my bag are a pen, a pencil, some paper (in case the inspiration to write strikes), a thumb drive (in case there is no other way to access materials on my laptop or someone else’s laptop) and some business cards.

I own small versions of all my essential toiletries so that they can all come on board in the carry-on luggage (the limit is a 3 oz container; even if a 5 oz container is less than half full, it will not be allowed through security). I place all these items in the required small plastic bag and place it on top of all items in my bag for easy access at security. An extra couple of small plastic bags can come in handy on a trip if the one you are using breaks or you find yourself with additional liquid items upon your return trip (what can I say, some hotels now have some really nice lotions that would be a pity to leave behind). Additionally, I have gotten some very grateful looks from people around me in the security line when handing them a baggie after security personnel instructed them to dispose of their favorite hard-to-obtain liquid product unless they could put it in the appropriately-sized bag.

Before leaving for a trip, I also prepare some hard-copy materials related to my travel such as the flight information and hotel reservations, when applicable. If there is additional logistical information (e.g., name of car company picking me up, phone number of contact person at the host institution), I print out a copy of that as well. This all may sound quaint in our digital age, but I prefer not to risk being without this information in case my gadget runs out of battery or cannot get reception at my destination. I may even print out a map of the area where I will be staying so I can take a look at it during the trip and familiarize myself with my surroundings for the next few days.

Depending on the airline and one’s frequent flier status, it may be possible to choose a specific seat on the plane when booking the flight. When you are buying your ticket, it is worth checking seatguru.com for the layout of the aircraft to help get a sense of which may be particularly convenient or inconvenient places on the aircraft. Alternatively, it may be possible to switch seats during check-in. If you prefer to sleep, getting a window seat is best so you can lean on the side of the plane. Keep in mind, however, that it can get rather cold in such a spot and blankets are less and less common on flights. Alternatively, if you prefer easy access to the restroom, picking an aisle seat may be best. I always try to avoid the first seat of a cabin, because these often lack a seat in front of them, making it impossible to stow one’s luggage and thereby restricting easy access to items such as snacks or one’s reading material.

I try hard never to board a flight without some food (some sweet as well as some savory snacks, not knowing what I will be craving). Even if snacks are available on-flight, there is no telling when – if ever – these may come around. It is hard to anticipate when a flight may be delayed leaving the gate or will have to fly in a holding pattern. At such times, flight attendants cannot serve drinks or food and so you are on your own. It is bad enough to have to be sitting there without an end in sight; it is much worse doing so on an empty stomach. I also try to have something to drink with me, although with the rules about no liquids through security and the ridiculous fees for merchandise at airports, this is not always easy. One way to get around this is to bring an empty water bottle and fill it up at a water fountain. If for some reason I end up not having time to get a drink and I am really thirsty as I board the plane, I walk to the back and ask for a glass of water from the flight attendant there. Unless the flight is super busy, such a request is generally granted. Key is being polite about the request.

What to do when the flight takes off? For me, one hard-copy reading will usually get me through the take-off and landing process, but I often bring 2-3 materials with me, because I cannot predict what I will find most inspiring at the moment. A few minutes into the flight, electronics can be turned on, and then I often work on documents on my laptop. I usually quit all applications I am not using, as having those running drains the battery quicker. If I board a flight with a fully charged machine and only have 1-2 applications open, my laptop’s battery usually lasts through most of the trip.

When traveling for a job interview, I recommend printing out information about the faculty in the host department. The flight can be a good time to go through this material (although ideally this would not be the first time a candidate reads this content). I also recommend taking these sheets on campus on the day of the interview. A glance at these sheets during bathroom breaks between one-on-one meetings with faculty can be very helpful in reminding oneself of topics well suited for discussion with the next person on one’s schedule.

I used to be notoriously bad about keeping track of receipts for reimbursement until one day I realized just how much money I was loaning out to various institutions. I have made a very conscious effort to organize travel-related paperwork in a way that facilitates handing or mailing them in quickly upon my return. I now carry around a plastic envelope – again, residing in the exact same place in my bag on all trips – into which I place all receipts immediately as I receive them. When possible, I make a note on them right away describing the item (e.g., “Fri lunch”). During my return flight, I go through the receipts, organize them and fill out the reimbursement spreadsheet on my laptop. This way I am ready to submit material as soon as I am back home.

My approach may seem a bit too rigid to some, but with the amount of traveling I do, it has served me very well. This fall, I was on 12 flights in the span of less than two months, in addition to some travel by train and car. The system I describe above helps me focus on the people and the places during these travels rather than worrying about the logistics of the journey.

 

 

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