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Optimizing travel 2.0

by Michael Nielsen on February 12, 2005

Improved version of an earlier post, which received lots of excellent feedback. Thanks in particular to commenters Wim van Dam, Gonzalo Frasca, Nick Gray, Aram Harrow, and blogger Susan Mernit for their thoughts, which have helped inspire the present update.

Optimizing travel 2.0

Most researchers travel a lot, and I�m no exception. Recently, I�ve been collecting tips to optimize my travel. Nothing incredibly insightful, but the gradual accumulation of small but consistently applied habits has made a big difference to my travel.

I�ve collected the tips here as a way of forcing myself to systematize them, in the hope of providing something useful to other people, and in the hope of hearing some other tips in comments!

Many of the tips are obvious. Frankly, some probably appear pedantic or obsessive, but I�m of the opinion that every little thing you can do to improve travel is worth doing. I should also admit that I don�t (yet) do all of these things consistently, but I�m getting pretty close; since I started on this, I�ve greatly reduced the effects of jetlag, and am generally a happier traveler.

Your mileage may, of course, vary.

The original motivation that got me to think systematically about this was a particularly bad trip I had in August of 2004. On that trip I was jetlagged for an entire weeklong conference, which I may as well not have attended, since I spent most of the conference time sleeping in my hotel room. This was a particular pity, as the relatively few talks I did manage to attend were unusually good.

At home

Buy at least one large or extra battery to enable longer laptop use on the plane.

Buy a collection of travel adaptors which will enable you to plug in anywhere.

Put together a travel drawer at home. This contains foreign money collected on earlier trips (one envelope per currency), passport, travel adaptors so I can plug in my laptop elsewhere, phone line, ethernet cable, remote mouse for presentations, the checklists mentioned below, and any other specialized equipment � it�s handy to buy miniature versions of various things (toothpaste, laptop adaptor, and so on), in order to minimize luggage.

Try out some different types of earplugs, and when you�ve found some you like, buy a large supply of high quality earplugs. I find these extremely helpful for sleeping on planes. (Some people like noise-cancelling headphones. I find them okay, but prefer earplugs.)

Join the Qantas club or equivalent. This provides access to Qantas and partner lounges all over the world. Most significantly, this means access to showers and good quality chairs while connecting, as well as faster checkin. It�s usually not available, but some lounges will have a massage service, which I find helps significantly with recovery at the end of the flight.

Booking flights

Construct a list of standard routes and flight times that work best for you, and request those. To be effective, you need to either memorize the list, or file it in a location very easily accessible (< 30 seconds) from where you or your assistant make travel bookings. Have a list of preferred carriers you specifically request. Mine are Qantas, American, and British Airways. I fly Qantas mostly, and American and BA give me frequent flyer points on Qantas, which helps me upgrade to business class. Another advantage is that most carriers (Qantas included) have different classes of frequent flyer (bronze, silver, gold and platinum, in Qantas� case), and all sorts of nice effects start to kick in as you move up the classes. My preferred seats are forward in the plane, on the right hand side (get off faster), window seat (people don�t climb over you when you�re asleep), exit row or bulkhead. Having exit row or bulkhead seats is particularly important, as most aeroplane seats are sufficiently small that it�s very difficult to use a laptop onboard unless you�re in an exit or bulkhead (or business). The exception seems to be American Airlines, who have extra legroom, which is another reason I prefer them. (Unfortunately, their checkin service in LA is appalling, which counts heavily against them.) Frequent flyers can set up seating preferences which are then applied automatically to every trip.

Preparing for the trip

Create a checklist for choosing a hotel, and make sure it is easily available (< 30 seconds) from wherever you (or your assistant) expects to be making bookings from. Here�s mine:

  • Is the hotel near the conference venue?
  • Is there a supermarket nearby, so one can purchase good food to eat during the day?
  • Are there kitchen facilities in the hotel rooms?
  • Do the hotel rooms have high quality internet access, preferably free wireless?
  • Do the hotel rooms have a restaurant on premises? Does it do breakfast?
  • Do the hotel rooms have a laundry service?
  • Do the hotel rooms have heating and cooling?

    For beating jetlag, I find one of the most important things is to be relaxed. A corollary is that if I�m to speak publicly on a trip, I prefer to speak as early as possible. No matter how well prepared I am, I find anticipation of a public talk creates a little nervous tension. It�s best to get it out of the way, so I can relax. I haven�t done it yet, but in future when speaking at a conference where I expect a lot of jetlag, I plan to ask the organizers if they�d mind scheduling my talk for early on.


    Have a checklist. For me this is: passport, tickets, do a ticket check (am I going at the right time?), laptop, pda, keys, remote mouse, phone line, ethernet cable, a generous supply of clothing (I usually find I need more changes than I think � something always gets spilled, or ripped, or whatever), toiletries, mini-umbrella, 4 zip-lock bags, and 4 large plastic bags for dirty laundry and miscellaneous use.

    It�s useful to have an appendix to your checklist where you note additional items that may be required when traveling to specific countries or parts of the world.

    Make sure you can carry all luggage onboard, especially on long flights. It makes it less likely that you�ll miss connections, you won�t lose your luggage, and you�re not carrying huge quantities of stuff around. Most importantly, you�re likely to save about half an hour per connection in waiting time. That doesn�t sound like a lot, but when you�re traveling for 20 or 30 hours, every bit counts.

    If you can�t carry all your luggage onboard, for long flights or flights with multiple connections, make sure you carry at least one change of clothes and some toiletries onboard. That way you can shower and change en route, and even if your luggage gets lost, you�ll be in a much better position at the end of your flight.

    In addition to your one piece of carry-on baggage, most airlines will let you carry on a computer bag of some sort, provided you�re not carrying a handbag; stuff it in your other baggage if you are. Take advantage of this, as it can help substantially in meeting the goal of carrying onboard all your luggage.

    A computer bag also provides an excellent place to store a set of items you�d like easy access to on the plane. They can be stuffed into the seatback in front of you, or, if you�re at a bulkhead, you can put your entire computer bag on the ground beside your feet.

    Departing at the airport

    Buy some water. You�re rarely served enough onboard.

    Buy some healthy snacks to eat onboard.

    Get some foreign currency. It�s tempting not to, as you can usually get by without it, but it�s usually useful to have at least a couple of hundred dollars for emergencies.

    En route

    When you get on the plane, get rid of all the material out of the seat pockets in front of you, unless you plan to use it. Shove it in the overhead bin, instead. This is particularly useful if, like me, you have long legs, but even for the shorter-limbed, it�s nice to have that space available to store your own stuff.

    If I�m traveling internationally, I try to get a seat forward on the plane, and I make sure I get quickly to immigration, so at most a few people are ahead of me. With no luggage, I can then go immediately through customs. This sounds like a small thing, but it can save half an hour or more of carrying stuff around, waiting in lines and so on. Your posture (and, in my case, my back) and your temper can fray quite a bit during that time, so it�s well worth the little bit of extra effort.


    Take walks in the morning sun to reset your body clock, and relax.

    Treat yourself well. As tempting as it is to go out late and party, or drink lots, you just make yourself sick, and increase the effects of jetlag. All things in moderation and all that.

    If you�re staying at a hotel that provides complimentary toiletries, collect up any usefull-looking unused items and take them home with you, to store in your travel drawer for use on future trips. After all, the complimentary toiletries come in sizes that are much more convenient for travel than the usual sizes sold in stores.

From → General

  1. Very useful tips, though I don’t travel too much.

    BTW, I am a blogger and researcher in field of laser physics and engineering. Nice to see a physicist blogging…

  2. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Hi Yan Feng — Interesting blog! I’ve added a link to my blogroll.


  3. Thanks for the advice! Here are airport tips that may come in handy at times: and

    P.S. Your first link is broken. (I’d update the original post to link to the 2.0 version, too.)

  4. Hi Seb – Thanks for the tips (which I’ve followed), and the interesting links.

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