Being an academic allows me to travel to conferences and other events every ones in a while. After some time, I became aware of strategies and items that make trips more bearable and I hope that my insights help you on your own journeys. Please send me an email if you have comments or tips.
You should take these items with you in your hand language. Try to keep limit yourself to as few items as possible so that you can store the bag directly under your seat.
Maps – Most destinations, such as airports, conference centers, hotels and universities have their maps online. Alternatively you can use Google Maps to gain an overview on where to go. With these maps you can find your way much easier compared to relying on signs or the advise of people on the way. It is, for example, a challenge to find the train station at the Stansted airport. The signs are misleading and the personal send me off in all kind of directions. Also, it is utmost useful to have maps of the subway or bus system. They are even available for your iPod.
Schedules – The schedules of trains, trams and busses are available on the web. It saves much time to already know when they leave and you have the chance to catch an earlier train or bus. Make sure that you also know on what platform or terminal you need to be (see maps).
Passport – Needless to say that you need to have your passport that is valid for at least another six months. Check several weeks before your departure so that you can get a new one in time if necessary.
Visa – Yes, we still need them – sometimes. Take into account that certain embassies require many documents and plenty of time to grant you a visa. Webguides for the European countries are available.
Tickets – This might be obvious, but check if you have an electronic ticket or if you need to pick it up somewhere. The travel agencies are not always explicit on this issue.
Ticket and Passport holder – You will have to show your ticket, boarding pass and passport several times during your walk to the plane. This holder keeps them neatly together and you can even keep you frequent flyer card in it. You should keep the boarding passes anyway so that you can claim mileage in case your airline “forgot” to credit them on your frequent flyer account.
Wallet – A wallet with multiple sections for coins and bills help you to keep your currencies separated.
Cash – In some countries cash is still the preferred payment method and hence not many cash dispensers are available. These few might then only accept domestic cards. You should have enough cash with you to survive the first couple of days before you located an ATM that accepts your cards. My local bank usually has to order foreign currencies, which takes several days, but at most airports you can exchange larger amounts. Make sure that you get small bills, since big bills are not always accepted. Taxi drivers, for example, often refuse large bills.
Book – During landing and take off you are not allowed to use any electronic devices. A good old book is the only way to keep you entertained during these periods. I prefer an easy read over Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”.
Laptop – Besides presenting your slides, your laptop is the ideal companion to survive boring flights and presentations, in particular if you have wireless internet access. I am writing this paragraph while sitting in a presentation of a Korean student that barely speaks English. See my point? It also makes you look busy sitting in the corridors hacking on your keyboard, while you are actually waiting for some friends to show up.
Airplaine power adapter – Even in economy class some airlines now provide power in the seats following the EmPower standard. You will need an adapter to be able to charge your laptop, iPod or PDA.
iPod – Music makes the whole trip more pleasurable and listening to your iPod it also prevents your seat neighbor to start a conversation with you.
Headphone – Airplanes are noisy environments and several noise shielding and canceling headphone are available by now. You no longer need to blast over the noise; you can listen to even softly playing music.
Adapter for headphone – Several airplanes have special sockets for headphones. They have two 3.5 mm sockets and when you plug your headphone into one, you will only receive the right or the left channel. The headphones provide by the airline have these special plug, but their audio quality suck. To be able to listen to movies with your own noise-canceling headphone you need an adapter. This adapter is not easy to find but can be ordered in online stores or bought in bid electronic stores at airports.
Aspirin – The airplane’s noise, the dry air and the general stress often cause me a headache. An aspirin makes the trip more bearable.
Sleeping pills – With sleeping pills you can get a good sleep in the airplane and you can ease the effect of the jetlag. Being awake at three in the morning is boring and it also ruins your next day. The freely available pills are useless. You need to have prescribed pills from your doctor, but make sure that the pills are not too strong. If you would take a strong pill in the airplane you might still look doped when approaching the immigration officers. This may cause certain “delays”.
Earplugs – To be able to sleep in the airplane you should use noise-reducing earplugs. Most of them work so good that you need to take them out to be able to order your drinks from the flight attendant. Some people even use masks, but I just close my eyes.
Toothbrush and paste – During a long flight with several meals it just feels good to brush your teeth and freshen up. Toothbrushes and pastes are available in small sizes, so that they only take little space in your luggage. Alternatively you can use a mint, such as Fisherman’s Friend.
Pens – Often you need to fill in immigration forms or customs forms before landing. Take two pens with you since one always breaks. If not, your neighbor will probably need one. Plastic pens are less problematic with metal detectors and other security checks.
Watch – An essential tool, preferably made from plastic so that it does not trigger the metal detectors. It is also nice if your watch has two time zones, so that you can easily estimate what a good time to call your friends at home would be.
Mobile phone – A general commodity, however, Europe, America and in particular Japan have incompatible networks. Only recently mobile phones have become available that work around the globe in all networks. Global providers, such as Vodaphone, even offer global roaming schemes. While it is certainly expensive to make international calls, it is sometimes necessary. Just make sure you switch it off in the airplane.
Comfortable clothes – It does not take a genius to be uncomfortable. Traveling is not about winning a beauty competition. Relax. Use comfortable clothes with no metal so that you do not trigger the metal detectors. Also, a sweater with a zipper is ideal to adapt to the local climates. Air-conditioned airports, steaming buses and planes at 10.000 meter altitude require different clothing.
Frequent flyer cards – Join the frequent flyer programs and you get a flight for free. Someday.
Water bottle – Airplanes have very dry air since there is not much water left in the atmosphere at 10.000 m altitude. It is essential to drink plenty of water and you do not want to wait until the flight attendant comes around. This way, you can also take your aspirin whenever it becomes necessary.
Power plug adapter – Different countries use different plugs and voltages. While cheap plug adaptors are available at every airport, it remains a bit more difficult to change the voltage. However, most laptops and mobile devices accept 220V and 110V, so take a close look the their specification.
Network cable – Many hotels and conferences offer internet access, but not all use wireless connections and not all offer the otherwise necessarily Ethernet cable. Take a short cable with you, just in case.
Swimsuit and goggles – Some hotels and universities have sport facilities and it is rather relaxing to have a good swim or any other exercise you may prefer.
Alarm clock – Your mobile phone or watch might already feature an alarm clock. If not, take one with you. Not every hotel has an alarm clock and not all wake up call services are reliable. You really do not want to miss your flight.
Chargers – All your mobile electric devices need to be charged. Make sure that you take the chargers!
Apple display adapter – This may not apply to PC laptops, but Apple uses adapters to connect to the VGA ports of projectors. Newer Mac Laptops feature DVI outputs, but most projectors still only accept analog VGA input. I forgot my adapter several times and had great trouble to bring my presentation to the projector. iBook G4 to VGA or 12″ PowerBook G4 mini DVI to VGA
Business cards – Utmost important, in particular when attending conferences in Asia.
Digital camera – Not just to gather evidence of your drunken colleagues that you can use later to blackmail them to accept your submissions, but also to take pictures of the sometimes beautiful conference sites.
USB stick – A true life savor to quickly exchange files across computers with different operating systems. In particular if you forgot to bring your Apple display adaptor and need to resort to a PC to show your slides.
Card reader – You may also want to have the digital pictures your colleagues took of you.
Travel guides – Knowing what to see where is the start of your sight seeing trips. The Lonely Planet series has a good reputation. It is also useful if you travel guide includes list of common words in phrases in the local language. I also found the Point It book particularly useful since a picture can be worth a thousand words.
Cloths – Obvious, but get information on the local climate to pick the right ones. For the flight it is recommendable to wear a sweater with a zipper and a hood. It allows you to quickly adjust to the change of temperatures in the airport, in mid‑air and on the ground.
Toiletries – Take small sizes with you that do not easily open. A shampoo swimming pool in your bag is not much fun. For shaving cream and deodorant, plastic bottles are better than metal ones, since they do not oxidize, are lighter and are not pressurized.
Glasses and contact lenses – For a blindfish like me, my glasses are of essence to any endeavor. But glasses can break and contact lenses get easily lost, so take spare ones with you. Sunglasses might also be useful in certain locations.
International driving license – If you want to drive any car you need a valid liscence. Some countries insist on an international license.
Cards – We are living in a plastic world. Take you discount cards, insurance cards and membership cards with you. Limit yourself to the ones you really need.
Envelope – My university loves receipts and I collect them in a paper envelope. My wallet appreciates it.
Surviving the flight
I know that everybody already told you to be at the airport early, but I can truly confirm the standard advice. Roads can be blocked, trains late and subways closed. It has also already happened that flights were suddenly scheduled to departure earlier than originally indicated. Being in a rush always makes a trip unpleasant and you are more likely to make bad decisions when being under pressure. Leave early and relax! You especially do not need to rush at the gate itself. You do already have a specific seat and when you followed the advice above you do not require additional storage space.
When you arrive early at the airport you can also have a good meal before the departure. The organic materials served in the airplanes do contain calories, but it often does not deserve the name food. Airports offer a wide range of restaurants and you will be able to skip the first in‑flight serving. You should also drink a lot of liquids in the airplane to avoid dehydration and headaches. Alcohol is not recommended and neither is tea or coffee, since it increases the need to visit the bathroom frequently.
But since you have been early at the airport anyway you also have the chance to get an aisle seat. From there you can easily walk to the toilet without bothering anybody else. The best seats are in the middle column of seats that allow your neighbors to exit on the other side in case you should be asleep. It is wise to visit the toilet before you are being served “meals”. You will be stuck behind your tray for some time and afterwards everybody will want to go.
Space is very limited in the economy class. Your seat will have a pocket with many booklets and advertisments in it. Have a short look at the movie list and then put all that crap in the overhead compartment. You can then use it to store your own stuff.
All of these tips are of course only valuable if you are actually in your flight. Airlines overbook their flights on a daily basis. Even if you arrive at the gate in time they might still not allow you in. They must offer compensation and it is important that you insist on a cash refund. Experience has shown that airlines are quickly to forget about these incidents and their telephone support centers are, well, telephone support centers. Every time you call you get another person and all the information you gave them is lost. Even if you get into the flight you must keep your boarding passes in case they forgot to credit your frequent flyer account.
Surviving the conference
Not every presentation is interesting and there are two strategies to deal with it. You can sit in the very back of the room right next to the aisle, so that you can quietly disappear if necessary. Alternatively, you can bring your laptop and work or entertain yourself. For this strategy to work you should acquire a seat close to a power socket so that you do not run out of battery power.
You also need to be careful when asking questions. Japanese avoid open confrontation and sometimes have a limited understanding of English. Asking them a critical question might only result in an embarrassing confusion instead of a vivid discourse. Other speakers have a tendency to answer your questions with a monologue that continues until you give up. This is not much fun either. In any case, it is good practice to mention your name and affiliate before stating your question or concern so that the poor speaker at least knows what hit him/her.
All the talking and discussing results in considerable hunger and therefore the conference banquets are quickly emptied. Even more so, if free alcohol is offered. Be early to have at least a chance to grab some calories.
Godspeed to all of you!