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Optimizing travel

by Michael Nielsen on January 16, 2005

Update: See the improved version 2.0 of this post here.

Most researchers travel a lot, and Iím no exception. Recently, Iíve 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 thought Iíd post them 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!

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), my passport, travel adaptors so I can plug in my laptop elsewhere, remote mouse for presentations, the checklists mentioned below, and any other specialized equipment Ė itís 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 youíve 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. Itís usually not possible, 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 second) from where you make travel bookings. My preferred seats are forward in the plane, on the right hand side (get off faster), window seat (people donít climb over you when youíre asleep), exit row or bulkhead. Having exit row or bulkhead seats is particularly important, as most aeroplane seats are sufficiently small that itís very difficult to use a laptop onboard unless youíre in an exit or bulkhead (or business). The exception seems to be American Airlines, who have extra legroom. 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. Hereís 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?
  • Do the hotel rooms have a restaurant on premises?
  • 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 Iím 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. Itís best to get it out of the way, so I can relax. I havenít 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 theyíd 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, a generous supply of clothing (I usually find I need more changes than I think Ė something always gets spilled, or ripped, or whatever), toiletries.

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

Departing at the airport

Buy some water. Youíre rarely served enough onboard.

Buy some healthy snacks to eat onboard.

Get some foreign currency. Itís tempting not too Ė you can usually get by without it Ė but itís usually useful to have at least a couple of hundred dollars for emergencies.


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.

From → General

  1. Great list, thanks! Here are my two tips:

    I like to carry a few Zip-Lock bags with me when I travel. They hold my dirty t-shirts, wet socks, ethernet cords, PCMCIA cards, mice and assorted snacks alike.

    For trips abroad to Asia, where you’re not always guaranteed a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom, I have found Cottonelle Fresh Folded wipes to be like mana from Heaven. They come in a fantastic resealable pouch, which is most important. Find them in the Baby section at any grocery store.

  2. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Thanks for the additions, Nick. I ought to add ziplocks to my list. Indeed, I need to add three or four (large) plastic bags to my list as well — very useful for dirty laundry, or other items which need to be isolated.

  3. Wim permalink

    I’ve found that the best travel toiletries are free:
    when I’m staying in a hotel that provides shampoo
    and so on, I take those mini bottles home for my
    next trip to a more basic hotel that assumes that
    I have my own stuff. Somehow, people don’t seem to
    sell this in stores.

  4. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Nice one, Wim. I don’t do that at present, but I certainly should (and add it to my list).

  5. aram permalink

    i’m not a fan of noise-cancelling headphones, but there are in-ear headphones (or earphones?) from places like that block noise passively (like earplugs) out much more effectively than the bose headphones. so much so in fact that it’s dangerous to walk outside while wearing them because you can’t hear even cars honking at you.

    i left my pair on my last flight to australia, but will get more before my next big trip.

  6. Hey, great comments. Here are some of the things that I usually do:
    -I am checking in, always carry a set of underwear/socks/tshirt on your carry on (in case your lugagge gets lost)
    -First thing to do before getting into your seat: get all the magazines of the seat pocket and store them on the upper compartment. Sometimes I leave the airline’s mag on, but most of the time the free shop catalog and security thing simply take too much precious pocket space.
    -If it is a long flight, take a pair of slippers + a big plastic bag. Store your shoes on the plastic bag on the upper compartment.
    -When packing, think ahead of all the stuff that I will carry on the seat pocket (ipod, computer, book, etc) and store it on my backpack’s pocket. This way, I can quickly transfer all the stuff before storing my backpack on the upper compartment.
    -Make sure that your computer is turned off and not “sleeping”. If it is a long flight, chances are that you’ll use the computer many hours after you set it to sleep and your battery may have drained quite a bit.

    Now that I wrote those things I feel like a freak, but the truth is that every detail counts when you are embarking on an exhausting trip (and I do take way too many of those).

  7. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Thanks for the comments, Aram and Gonzalo. I’m going to need to post a revised version of this post, as I’m getting lots of good additional tips.

    As Gonzalo says, it’s the accumulation of little things that make a big difference, especially on really long haul flights. Over the past six months I’ve suffered quite a bit less than jetlag than I used to, and I think it’s partially because of a conscious decision to start accumulating little habits along these lines. (I had a really bad trip jetlag-wise last August that kind of put me over the edge on this issue.)

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