Strategies for coping with international air travel

Air travel is something that happens to me infrequently enough to not be ‘second nature’ or ever become truly familiar. I currently travel overseas every other February, with the gap of two years being enough that I forget some of the procedure and most of the details.

I’m prone to being late to everything and to getting extremely upset if I miss travel connections even within my own country, and that’s without the non-refundable expense and vastly increased administration requirements (visas, insurance, multiple connecting forms of transport etc). As such, I’ve come up with a great deal of strategies to compensate for my usual travel challenges, which generally involve an excessive degree of pre-planning and contingency planning. It seemed useful to share these strategies with others.

I originally wrote this post in one sitting of several hyperfocused hours in response to this excellent post by Alyssa at Yes, That Too. I’ve long meant to develop all of my blog-post-length comments on other people’s blogs into posts here, but never got around to it. Right now I’m in the ‘obsessively checking everything’ stage of preparing to fly to Los Angeles for a Doctor Who convention in a week’s time, so proof reading this post became a productive use of my time, and reassures me that I really have thought of everything.

Booking flights and transport

If you have access requirements for seating, such as needing a window seat to avoid airsickness (as I do) or an aisle seat to not feel trapped, or a seat with a space next to you if being accidentally touched by others is uncomfortable, you can increase the likelihood of meeting these by travelling at an off peak time, such as in the middle of the night on a week day. These flights are often cheaper.

I find the flight relatively comfortable but the time in the airports very stressful so I tend to try to save on flights by booking at ‘inconvenient’ times when the airport is likely to be less busy and put the savings here into avoiding having to change flights mid-journey (something that I find extremely stressful).

I also aim to spend extra to have flexible ‘open’ train tickets for airport travel so that’s one less thing to stress about on the way there and home (I’ve melted down or had panic attacks around missing exact train times enough times to know it’s worth the expense) – unfortunately this time it was something like three times more expensive to do that so I haven’t. This is especially useful when travelling home at the end of your journey as arrival time and time to get through customs can vary hugely. However I’ve been told by the ticket office assistant that if I get a letter from the airline saying that my flight was delayed, I can use this at the station ticket office to get my advance ticket changed to a later time.

Be sure to account for the travel to and from the airport when choosing the time of day for your flight. If public transport doesn’t run at certain times of the day or night, and you’re travelling from a long way away (as I am), you may have to limit yourself to afternoon or evening flights. Another option is to book a hotel relatively near the airport for the night before your flight. Be wary of how early you might need to travel as this can put you into expensive ‘peak time’ commuter rate tickets on a week day.

Since publishing this article a friend has reminded me that coaches (long distance busses) run directly to Heathrow airport terminals without the need to change coach or cross London. I usually discount the existence of coaches because I’ve been known to get extremely motion sick on them, I find them uncomfortable and the journey times tend to be longer, but I’ve verified that I could have got a direct open return coach ticket the Heathrow for slightly less than I paid for my train journey with set travel times there and back. This might have been the lower stress option (you do seem to have to use the telephone to get yourself onto the coach home though).

If possible plan to give yourself extra time for check in, customs and check out when planning travel to and from the airport. For international travel, the recommendation is usually arriving at the airport with 3 hours to spare. Allow more time if there are several connections in your domestic journey.

Work out the transport option you’re likely to take when you arrive (such as a taxi, hire car or shuttle bus to the hotel), note down all the details. Book in advance if possible. Use something like Google Maps to take a visual tour of the route to and from each airport and wherever you’re staying so it’s somewhat familiar when you travel.

Passport, visas and travel insurance

Don’t book your flights unless you have a passport valid for the travel dates, or you are certain you have time to apply for and receive one (going to the passport office in person can help with this, as can paying an extra fee). I also take a colour copy of my passport ID page with me, should my passport itself get lost, and keep this away from my passport.

After booking your flight, you’ll also need to ensure you have the required visa or visa waiver. If you’re travelling between European Union countries (or other such countries with open travel agreements, this may not be necessary but do check). When travelling to America you can pay for the required ESTA visa waiver online.

Make sure that you have travel insurance. This may come as a free perk, for example with your bank account, or cheaply as an additional option when booking your flight. Be very certain if you’re travelling to the USA that this is explicitly covered, as this is often excluded or comes at higher charge.

If you have any pre-existing medical conditions that you’ve been treated for in the last two years or have had recent surgery or medical treatment, the terms and conditions of basic travel insurance probably don’t cover you. Do not travel to America without being certain you are actually covered for medical emergencies. Not having valid medical cover in the USA could cost you several times the cost of your flight.

In my case I have asthma, which is enough to triple the price of travel insurance. I used a travel insurance company specifically aimed at travellers with pre-existing medical conditions. Signing up for this required me to list all my medical conditions that are currently undergoing some form of treatment, with Asperger Syndrome (and Autism Spectrum Disorder) being on the list of recognised conditions (I am still being seen by my local adult autism service, albeit only every 6 months now, so it met the criteria). When I disclosed Asperger’s I was additional asked several questions about anxiety. If you experience either of these and haven’t disclosed them to the insurance company, your travel insurance may not be valid.

Travel money

Be sure to buy travel money in advance, don’t use the exchange kiosks at the airport, this will have a poor rate and likely charge commission. I was able to order travel money delivered to my door (or nearest branch) next day through my bank’s online banking system.

I used to also buy a number of travellers cheques to convert into cash as I ran out during my trip. Some hotels will convert travellers cheques to cash without charging and with just your passport as ID, but this is becoming increasingly rare and cashing travellers cheques can be very difficult.

Be very wary of your home credit cards and especially debit cards as these may charge a lot for overseas use, including foreign currency fees for every transaction, additional fees for ATM use, poor exchange rates and even outright blocks on overseas use. Be sure to research this in advance.

Inform your bank if you’re likely to use your card overseas as they may suspect this is due to identity theft and stop the card. Have a back up payment option as in my experience even informing the bank may not stop their automated system from stopping your card when used overseas. Make sure you have the phone number to call if your card is blocked, lost or stolen when overseas.

I researched and found my savings account could come with a credit card with no fees for overseas use. I also ordered a pre-paid dollar currency card with extremely good exchange rates (that can be topped up online, by an app or by SMS) and topped this up to use instead of travellers cheques (and as backup to the credit card). As this has a better rate, I intend to use it to pay the hotel at the end of my stay – be aware though, you must authorise with a different non-pre-pay credit card. Having a check in authorisation on a pre-paid card will put a huge pending charge on the card that will put you over your limit and take weeks to clear. If in doubt, check with the hotel that you can pay with a different card than the one you authorised with.

Pre-paid cards often have relatively large minimum top up amounts and may have a delay in reporting transactions on the card balance monitoring app/site. As such you should be cautious about accidentally going over your balance by a small amount and having to put another big top up on to pay this off. My strategy is to use the card only for extracting cash from ATMs when needed, and to top up the day before checking out to reach the full hotel bill amount, so there’s no worries over using what’s left on the card. I think this approach will make it easier to keep track of whether the balance is up to date without straining my limited executive function and mental arithmetic skills, and also work around potential delays in the card balance app being up to date.

Be sure to research the expectations of how tipping works in the country you’re visiting and ensure you carry cash so you can tip when needed.

Preparation and contingency planning

Work out contingency plans for things that might go wrong, including who to contact in an emergency. And make sure that this person knows all about your journey in advance so they’re not surprised should they be called upon.

If going abroad, work out roaming charges for your mobile phone including SMS/text charges so you at least have the ability to contact someone in an emergency. However turn off excessively expensive data roaming in advance (and turn off mobile data entirely as soon as you’re on the plane there). It’s usually cheaper to get a local pay as you go SIM card when you arrive, or get one shipped to you in advance of departure, or to use WiFi especially if you’ll mostly be in a location where WiFi is free. I tend to use WiFi at the event for most things, with SMS on my UK mobile phone for updating Twitter and receiving mentions and direct messages while I’m away from WiFi reception (whether SMS integration is available depends on your mobile phone network. Twitter SMS notifications can be set to only come in certain hours of the day, you may need to change these settings when overseas).

If you’re visibly transgender or gender nonconforming (as I am), it might make sense to have a letter with you explaining this. I have also had success getting gender markers removed from boarding passes (very useful as I tend to be read as a different gender depending on if I’m calm or anxious).

It may be possible to get a plan of the airport terminals you’ll be in and mark where the airline check in and airport security likely are. If you need an accessible or gender neutral toilet, you may be able to work out where these are in advance.

Luggage

If, like me, you’re too uncoordinated for wheeled luggage and/or have hypotonic arm muscles or other impairments that make pulling or carrying anything for any distance difficult, get luggage that’s a knapsack that converts into a suitcase and a smaller backpack. Do up all the straps tight – this helps. It may be the case that wearing the smaller backpack on your front (like a backpack but facing forwards) rather than zipped onto the back may be more stable and comfortable, or may be a good way to make things more comfortable after you’ve got too tired of everything on your back. Find a trolley for your luggage as soon as you arrive at the airport, or ask a member of staff for assistance.

I use the smaller backpack as carry on luggage for the flight and the knapsack with all the straps zipped away as my checked luggage. I put items that I want to transfer from my knapsack into my carry on backpack into an easily identified plastic bag so I can access them easily once the baggage separation and conversion is complete (doing this frees up more space in the backpack).

I also have a smaller over the shoulder camera bag that I use as my gender neutral handbag (purse to Americans) containing my wallet (cards, coins, train tickets etc), ID and various essentials like lip-balm, earplugs, a mirror and a pen. This doesn’t get counted towards carry on limits.

If you use your small personal bag or your carry on luggage for every day use, be sure to take everything out before you pack, and make sure you’re not carrying anything that isn’t allowed through airport security – including scissors, blades, and liquids and gels bigger than a hand sanitiser bottle. Put anything prohibited from carry on luggage that you’ll actually need into your checked luggage instead. Leave things you won’t use at home. I generally take the run up to an overseas trip as my cue to clear out the huge amount of junk that tends to accumulate in all of my bags.

Packing

Take at least a week’s supply of all your medications (and a copy of your prescriptions, or a doctor’s note) with you in your carry on luggage, and pack several spares in your checked luggage.

Take a light change of clothes and travel toiletries with you in your carry on luggage in case your luggage is sent to the wrong airport or delays mean you have an extended wait without your luggage.

In your checked luggage, be sure to pack clothing appropriate for the weather where you’ll be staying. If it’s going to be sunny then pack sunscreen, sunglasses (if you’re me you carry these all year around anyway) and swimming gear. If it’ll be cold then back coats, gloves, scarf and if necessary a thermal layer. If you have unusual dietary requirements, your hotel may be able to give you a room with a fridge on request. You might want to pack a travel plate, bowl and cutlery if that’s the case. Bring your own toiletries as much as is practical – I’ve had bad experiences with things like hand sanitiser bought in the US that absolutely stank of perfume in a way that no British brand ever would.

A tip for emergency medical supplies – pack electrolyte powder sachets in case you get food poisoning or something similar and need to replenish lost water and body salts. These make me feel so much better after I’ve been ill, which is especially important if it happens while you’re on your own in a hotel room.

Make a list of everything you need to pack. If you use an app for your lists, you can then save this and use it again the next time you travel.

Take an itinerary with you and a ‘cheat sheet’ with all your emergency contact numbers on it including lost or stolen card numbers and the claims line for your travel insurance. I also document where I’m staying, all the booking reference numbers, local transport details and the charges for my various credit cards and overseas usage of my mobile phone on here. Put copies in your checked luggage, in your hand luggage and on your person. Make sure someone you trust at home and, if possible, someone you trust at your destination also has a copy of your itinerary.

You should put luggage labels giving your name, your flight and your destination (hotel) address on your checked bags. I also put copies of these inside my checked bag and my carry on bags, in case the external tag gets ripped off and any of the bags get separated from me.

Useful technology

I have a USB charging battery that works with my phone and camera and will recharge them several times over (it has roughly the same size and dimensions as the phone). This is extremely useful for keeping devices charged during a long flight. Be sure that this is charged up and that all the required charging cables are in your hand luggage.

I also have noise cancelling headphones that make noisy situations, including those with regular background noise far more manageable with my sensory issues (I have a separate diagnosis of sensory modulation disorder). Buy additional batteries and ensure that they’re all charged. Take the cable and/or adapters needed to plug these headphones into the airline entertainment system.

I’ve bought a travel adapter that coverts power sockets to two USB ports, a UK plug to foreign plug adapter kit and now a spare battery and travel charger for my camera. Be sure to pack everything you need to keep your devices charged while you’re away.

Bring some form of entertainment that doesn’t require an Internet connection with you for both the waiting time at the airport and the flight itself (in case the in flight entertainment system doesn’t work). Ideally also bring something that won’t require any power at all, in case you’re stranded for long enough that your phone and USB battery have lost charge by the time you’re on the plane (although you can usually sneakily find a power outlet in a restaurant in the airport departure lounge, or if you have access to an airline lounge, power may be provided).

Checking in online

Checking in online can often be done 24 hours in advance of flight time (check your airline’s website) and allows you a much greater chance of booking a seat that meets your access requirements, and less immediate stressful socialising to do once arriving at the airport. I usually need 15 to 20 minutes to calm down enough to be coherent once I’ve arrived, which isn’t a problem when I’ve already checked in from home. Some airlines allow you to book the seat a week or more in advance of the check in window. Setting an alarm to remind you of this is likely to be helpful. Once you’ve done this then your seat is confirmed, your boarding pass is printed (make sure you have access to a working printer first!) and all you have to do on arrival is hand over your checked luggage and go through security.

If you have dietary requirements, you may need to book your airline meal in advance. In my experience, doing so means that you’ll get your meal before everyone else, which may be a better sensory experience (or less awkward if you’re an uncoordinated eater and sitting next to someone else).

You may also be able to look at the airline entertainment options in advance so you don’t have to make decisions while stressed, however don’t rely on the entertainment system working reliably and do bring a back up or three.

At the airport

Once at the airport, even if it’s not yet time to go to check in, to security, customs or to your gate, work out where these are and the route that you’ll have to take when it is time. If your prospective memory is as poor as mine, set alarms to remind you to check notices and make a to-do list of steps you’re meant to go through. Try to stay in sight of displays/notices/boards that you need to check, and especially set reminders if you have to move away from them.

When checking bags, explain your access needs around seating and double check that your dietary requirements have been recorded. If you’re disclosing a non-apparent disability, it may help to bring documentation to support this (I have no direct experience of this as I haven’t chosen to disclose a label, rather asked ‘I have trouble with X, is it possible to Y?’ type questions and got all the help I needed).  If there’s anything you’re unsure of and couldn’t find out from the website, ask it now. It might be helpful to make notes (perhaps on a mobile phone) and/or summarise what you think you need to do next to allow the check in assistant to confirm that your understanding is correct before you leave the desk (this is my standard strategy when dealing with spoken instructions – it helps pick up receptive language problems and also slows things down to help with processing speed and makes me think about the instructions in a different way, so I’m more likely to take them in and remember them – you also end up with notes).

You may find that it’s possible to be among the first or last people to board the plane if you would find this less stressful. There’s no harm in asking even if they say this isn’t possible – if this is really important then this would be a good reason to disclose your disability/label/diagnosis so the Equality Act’s ‘reasonably adjustments’ will apply).

It may be the case that you won’t be able to have some of your access needs met so prepare yourself for this eventuality. I have personally found that if access arrangements are agreed and then don’t happen, this is worse than if I had no expectations for help, so I tend to be somewhat conservative in choosing when to ask for formal disability accommodations.

Before going through security, finish any drinks you’re carrying as any liquids over a small travel size will be thrown away by security (better to do this yourself before going in). While you can’t take a drink through security, you can take an empty bottle to refill on the plane so rather than throw out your drinks bottle, finish it up and put the empty in your bag. Anything containing liquids and gels has to be put in a 20cm/8″ square clear bag (that should be provided) and carried in your hand, do this as early as you can, if possible put all your liquid and gels into one of these as part of your packing to be certain that they all fit and prepare for security in advance. Be prepared to put all your belongings on to the security scanner and also to take off your shoes and belt. Wear trousers that will stay up without a belt. Keys, coins and smartphones have to go on to the scanner belt too (you could put smaller items into your bag before going in to make this easier). You should be provided with trays to put your items in. As Alyssa’s blog post suggested, take spare socks in your carry on luggage if having walked on the airport floor in socks will cause problems.

I personally found some of the instructions from security personnel unclear (not understanding instructions is a common problem for me), but I tried hard to come across as compliant. I tended to ask questions that mirrored their instructions like ‘I should put it in here and then put that on there?’ or ‘Am I doing this right?’. See more in the ‘Social strategies’ section at the end.

There will likely be a long period after checking your bags and going through security when you won’t be able to go to your gate yet and will have to entertain yourself in the duty free lounge or restaurants. Be sure to set regular alarms to check for a gate number or boarding being open if you’re sitting away from displays (for example in a restaurant, airline lounge for an airline you’re not travelling with, or an out of the way location where you could recharge your mobile phone). Set an alarm 30 minutes before your flight is due to depart to ensure that you don’t miss boarding (I have come perilously close to doing this before, despite all my other planning – my executive function, working and prospective memories, and perception of time are poor).

Befriending someone else taking the same journey with you can be helpful should something go wrong. I realise that this isn’t an easy thing to do and is usually something I only manage on the flight home after a large event. Having another person with you can also be a source of stress if they don’t respect the way you need to do things to feel secure.

You might discover that your bank account, credit card, breakdown cover, travel insurance or similar service actually gives you free access to an airline’s private waiting lounge at the airport. If this is the case then I very strongly recommend taking advantage of this perk as they’ll provide quiet comfortable space with free food and WiFi until your flight is ready. Sitting close to these lounges may allow you to access the free WiFi without having access to the lounge.

On the plane

Tell the flight crew if you have any seating or other access requirements. It may be helpful to have a letter explaining these requirements in case you’re too stressed or anxious to explain. If you’re prone to air sickness ask for sick bags and tissues in advance of takeoff and landing, especially if you haven’t been able to get a window seat.

If you’ve been able to book a flight at an off peak time and not all the seats are filled, you may be able to move to a different seat once the plane has taken off. In my experience you’ll be asked to sit in your reserved seat for takeoff but may be allowed to take to any seat you like once the seatbelt lights are off, as long as you ask permission and then tell the flight attendants where you changed to.

I’ve been on empty enough flights that I was allowed to take an entire empty row of seats and lie down horizontally across them.

Your feet are likely to swell up on the plane which is uncomfortable if you have shoes or socks on. I’d recommend taking off your shoes and bringing a pair of loose socks to change into once you’ve taken off and settled into your seat.

A neck support pillow can help you sleep in your chair. This may otherwise be difficult, especially if you’re not used to sleeping on your back.

Work out which of the toilets are least frequently used should you need one in an emergency. Some planes have water fountains and cups in the middle of the economy section, if you bring an empty bottle on board you can also refill it here.

Schedule breaks to get up and walk around, this can help with cramp and avoiding deep vein thrombosis (if you’re in a high risk group take support stocking with you and also wear these), and also stop you from feeling too squirmy, uncomfortable and restless in your seat. Walking around on tip toes and doing stretches out of your seat seem to be acceptable full body stimming (proprioceptive feedback) for a plane – they’re recommended for avoiding DVT. Putting your carry on luggage on your lap could give some of the effects of a weighted blanked too. I’ve also found hugging my bag to be calming when I’m stressed.

Social strategies

How other people treat you varies hugely depending on how you’re perceived.

I’m an autistic, white British, employed, younger-looking-than-I-am, usually articulate, androgynous but ‘blending in’ trans* person with no visibly apparent disabilities, generally taken to be a middle class student (even though I’m a 34 year old IT professional) who is likeable if ‘neurotic’ under stress.

I tend to attempt to be non-confrontational, friendly and slightly apologetic when I talk to people who are just doing their jobs, and I’m even more cautious when they’re in positions of power over me. I try to smile at people, do positive small talk and make light hearted comments whenever someone’s being nice to me (although around airport security I just do what I’m told and only ask questions when I don’t understand). I can’t usually predict how strangers will gender (or age) me, especially based on first impressions, so I have several strategies around avoiding problems with this.

I’m more likely to respond to aggressive or dismissive reactions or unpleasant treatment with crying rather than aggression. People’s negative reactions to me are generally finding me slightly ridiculous, annoying or neurotic, or being upset for some reason, or simply ‘over compensating’ once discovering how old I am (or, at airports, unfortunately on seeing the gender marker I’m forced to have on my passport).

If you have a history of people responding to your attempts to be friendly and compliant with suspicion or aggression, you might need different social strategies to me.

Given all the above disclaimers, I’ve found that it’s best to find someone who works for the airline or who looks friendly when I’m lost of have a problem. This usually results in friendly attempts to help, even when they ultimately can’t do anything constructive. I’ve had very few negative experiences from doing this, but I try to prepare myself for getting them.

I’ve only had one unpleasant, upsetting airport security experience with body scanners and the operators disagreeing over my gender when travelling (leaving LAX), I was lucky to have someone I’d met at the convention I was coming from with me at this point or I would’ve struggled to calm myself down afterwards. I’ve otherwise not had problems and actually weirdly found the tight lower leg and arm pat downs oddly pleasant.

I’m more likely to get upset during local public transport journeys than for international air travel, as I over prepare to the extreme for weeks or months in advance for the latter.

Summary

Prepare for everything, give yourself lots of time. Write to-do lists of everything you need and set reminder alarms for all critical steps during travel such as online registration, leaving for travel, checking for boarding being open etc. Document everything you might need, including card and passport numbers and your full itinerary, addresses and details of any connecting transport, and carry copies of these in all your bags. Ask for help when needed, but whenever possible talk to representatives of your airline or the airport rather than airport security. Pack your hand luggage as if you might be without your checked bag(s) for several days. Especially include any medications you might need.

Author: Quarries and Corridors

Nat from Nottingham. A 30-something Doctor Who and media sci-fi and fantasy fan, digital artist, filker, former podcaster and current IT professional. Editor of Practical Androgyny and Bridging The Rift.

3 thoughts on “Strategies for coping with international air travel”

  1. I have a few tips for travel, practical ones more than anything:

    if you’re in an airport for any extended period of time and you want to sit somewhere quiet, go to the toilet. Most airports have spotless spacious toilet cubicles and so long as there are more than five, you can easily sit in there for half an hour unnoticed.

    Even if you need a window seat, try to get up and have a walk up the plane every couple of hours, it helps reduce the foot swelling. Also if you didn’t get a window seat but want to look out, bigger jets have windows in standing areas on the exits you can peer through.

    Regarding getting your own seat, often if you didn’t get the seat you want from the booking process, explain why you need it to a member of staff. If they know you need to make frequent trips to the toilet because you have IBS or if lack of a window will make you hurl, it’s in their best interests help you not puke and poop everywhere in their sealed metal tube with recycled air.

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  2. Also that bottle idea is smart, I always buy a bottle of water airside but that’s because I travel with work and can expense it.

    One last pointer (based on a mistake I made myself):

    I used to always buy a bottle of really nice shampoo and conditioner after security, so I could keep them in my hand luggage. Then I took a trip to trondheim, which connected at Oslo. In Oslo we had to go through security a second time and they took the bottles from me. No showers in Norway that week.

    I’ve since learned a little trick, if you get a half full squeezy bottle of shampoo or showergel or anything that’s too big for hand luggage, open the bottle, squeeze as much of the air out as possible then close the lid. This traps a vacuum inside and makes it far less likely to burst in the luggage hold. Still double bag it in supermarket carrier bags just incase but it should be very safe.

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  3. Additional pointers:

    Often if there are multiple security queues to get airside, you won’t be able to see them all and the ones which are too far away to see tend to have less people in them, because no one goes where they can’t see. Walk past the full queues and you might be pleasantly surprised.

    The majority of luggage is black brown or blue, often with yellow or white trim. If your luggage falls into this category, pick your two favourite colours and buy some ribbon in those colours. Tie a piece of each colour securely around the handle and you’ll be able to spot it on a luggage carousel a mile off. The reason for using two colours is that it minimises the chances that two people will have the same combination. Also lots of colours in one place like that draws the eye.

    Don’t bother with locks on luggage, particularly if you’re going to America. If security staff want to see what’s in your case, they’ll break them off, and the presence of locks is likely to make the staff even more suspicious.

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