What to know so that your flight is as calm and friendly as the skies you’re flying.

By Real Simple
Updated March 21, 2006
Michele Gastl

Pack Right

Make sure that every piece of clothing can be worn with everything else. “You should pick some base colors,” says Paul Eisenberg, editorial director for Fodor’s Travel Publications. “Men can do this just as easily as women. With men it tends to be black or brown. And for women, beige is a color I hear recommended quite a bit. The key is to look at your wardrobe and pick the color that makes sense.”

Most travelers can make do with two sets of shoes. “If you’re going to be doing nightlife stuff, try to get away with a pair of smart but comfortable black rubber-soled shoes,” Eisenberg says. “You can use them for sightseeing as well as for dinner.” And since the airlines don’t count the clothes on your back as part of your carry-on allotment, it makes sense to wear your bulkiest items en route. Instead of taking a big winter coat, Eisenberg says, “I like packing fleece layers. If you’re flying, you can wear one on your back and keep one in your bag―and one doubles as a pillow.”

Prep for Security

Save time at security checkpoints by avoiding outfits with big metal belts that will set off the machines or lace-up boots that will take forever to untie and remove. The Transportation Security Administration (tsa.gov) recommends wearing thin-soled slip-on shoes (such as flip-flops) that you can get on and off easily and that won’t need additional screening. “Don’t dress for the airport,” says travel expert Peter Greenberg. “Undress for the airport. Get a couple of Ziploc plastic bags and put anything metal―car keys, loose change, PDA, cell phone, money clip, pens, jewelry―into the bags and keep them in your carry-on. After you’ve taken off your shoes and removed your jacket, you can breeze right through the metal detector and not hold up anyone else on line. Then dress after you’ve cleared security.”

When flying from an airport you’ve never used before, leave extra time in case of unexpected obstacles. Getting your boarding pass online or using an automated check-in kiosk will save time as well. If all else fails, “it certainly doesn’t hurt to let security know you’re late for your flight,” says travel analyst Jared Blank of Online Travel Review (onlinetravelreview.com). You may be allowed to move to the front of the line.

Deal With Your Baggage

“There are two ways you can go: soft-sided case or hard-sided case,” says Trainor Rembe, director of development for Flight 001 travel stores. “Soft allows you to cram―you can shove an extra pair of socks in it, sit on it, and zip it up. With the hard-shelled case, what you see is what you get. They don’t stretch; they don’t give. But what you put inside a hard case is going to be better protected.” Two of Rembe’s favorites are the soft-sided Mandarina Duck carry-ons and the hard-case Hideo Wakamatsu brand.

Once you have your carry-on, you have to decide what to put in it. “Prescription drugs and valuables are important,” says Eisenberg. Greenberg goes even further: “Not just any prescription drugs you need to take, but photocopies of the prescriptions, too, just in case you have to get refills or you have to explain what you’re carrying.” He also recommends carrying photocopies of your passport and the front sides of your credit cards. “And I always carry two $100 bills in the inside zipper of my briefcase―that’s my emergency money if my wallet gets stolen.”

If you do have to check luggage, seal any bags with TSA-approved locks, such as those made by Travel Sentry (travelsentry.org) and Safe Skies (safeskieslocks.com). These locks can be searched by security without being broken or cut off, and an indicator light on the body lets you know if the latch has been opened. “It’s probably a good idea to get one for your carry-on too. If you’re getting up from your seat, snap it into place,” says Eisenberg. “There’s no shame in having peace of mind about your valuables.”

Make Yourself Comfortable

A few well-chosen accessories can help counter the discomfort and noise of air travel. “You can spend five bucks and get a pair of earplugs, which, if you’re on a red-eye, can be fantastic,” says Rembe. On the pricier side, noise-canceling headphones are equipped to emit sound waves that counter offending noises. “If somebody shouts, these are not going to block out any of that noise,” Rembe explains. “But if there’s a constant droning, like the whine of an airplane engine, it electronically identifies the sound and then provides a noise that cancels it out.” A cheaper option is noise-blocking headphones, which cost anywhere from $50 to $150. The difference is that these don’t have the cancellation circuitry. Says Rembe, “They cup your ears and don’t let a lot of sound leak in.”

A comfortable pillow will also help you relax. Your choices include inflatable neck rests and puffy ones filled with memory foam or buckwheat husks. Rembe rates the latter types as the most comfortable, but the trade-off is that they take up more space and weight in a carry-on. And, as Eisenberg notes, you’ll want to save a little room for refreshments. “Snacks and water are key,” he says. “A Ziploc bag full of granola bars would serve you very well in your carry-on.”