Expat Life

Flying lessons

Here are some flying lessons based on my recent trip.

It doesn’t matter how often I fly, the experience is always different and always a learning one. The protocols for checking in, going through security, and getting to the terminal and gate seem to change every day or, at least, every time I fly.

Sometimes I check in at a kiosk without help from anyone. Sometimes I need to stand in a long or short line to check in with an airline agent. Sometimes they give me the boarding pass for the connection and sometimes they don’t. Security is always different. Take your shoes off; leave your shoes on. Leave your laptop in your carry-on; take it out and place it in its own bin. Take your jacket off; leave it on. Sometimes the walk to the terminal or gate is short. Other times, I feel I’ve walked a marathon or I have to take a bus to a remote concrete island.

Lesson 1: Don’t carry too much in your carry-on bag or make sure the bag is on wheels.

This time, I travelled with the bag that’s the smallest in my suitcase set and doesn’t have wheels. When I packed it, it didn’t feel heavy. It only contained a book, some papers, my laptop, and various device chargers. That was in the middle of the day when I was feeling refreshed and didn’t have to walk a mile to get to the gate. Along with my purse containing my tablet, Kindle, and extra book, I thought my shoulder was going to break away from my body after a while.

Although my flight out of Melbourne was delayed three hours and then I had another four-hour layover in Los Angeles, I didn’t use my laptop. I relied on my iPhone and my Android tablet. I get nervous about packing my laptop in the suitcase I check in. Theft by airport employees happens. What do you do with your laptop? Do you pack it in your checked-in suitcase or carry it with you?

Lesson 2: Relax.

It’s easy to get worked up when things don’t go smoothly. As I mentioned above, my flight out of Melbourne was delayed by three hours. Some people were very upset and complaining. I sympathise. I wanted to get going too and I worried about missing my connection, but it’s not as if the airline is deliberately trying to hold you up or upset you. On the contrary, Qantas is very accommodating and has the best service I’ve ever experienced. Getting angry and making a scene isn’t going to get you moving any faster. So, sit down and chill out. Read a book, play a game on your mobile device, or catch up on Facebook.

Lesson 3: Take an extra bag.

I mean a folding tote bag that you can carry along in your purse or carry-on. When I finally got to my seat on the plane, I found what I always find on a Qantas flight: a pillow, a blanket, and headphones. Sometimes you also get a little bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, sleeping mask, and other small items. Plus I have a neck pillow and water bottle. There’s not a lot of room in an Economy seat and I never know where to put all this stuff. I don’t want it to end up on the floor. My folding tote bag turned out to be the perfect solution. I stuffed all these extra items in there and under the seat it went. I also took a plastic supermarket bag with me. Sometimes you accumulate trash – food wrappers, napkins, tissues – and the flight attendants don’t come by often enough to pick it all up. I just collected it in the bag and handed it over at the end of the flight.

The flight was as comfortable as could be for Economy. Flying Qantas is always pleasant. I was too tired to read, but I can’t sleep on flights. I caught up on movies instead. There were easily over a hundred movies to choose from including all the latest releases. I watched Django Unchained, Argo, Lincoln, and Anna Karenina. For dinner, I chose Roman Beef Ragu with mashed potatoes, roasted zucchini and carrots. Other choices were a chicken, potato, and coleslaw salad or a white fish due to it being Good Friday. All came with a salad of cos (Romaine lettuce), fire roasted capsicum, and feta cheese. Dessert was dark chocolate mousse with salted caramel fudge. Snacks were served throughout the flight – a hot mini-pizza, a mango ice cream bar, crackers and cheese. For breakfast, I chose cereal (muesli) and milk over a hot breakfast of eggs, bacon, and spinach, along with a muffin, melon salad, orange juice, and coffee. Everything was delicious.

I finally arrived in Los Angeles. At customs, the line for residents and citizens was not too long, but it moved very slowly. In Melbourne, customs had been staffed by friendly and smiling women and the line moved quickly. In L.A., there were six sour-faced men who took their sweet time. There were never more than two assisting a traveller at the same time. When I finally got through and looked at my watch, I realised my flight to Miami was leaving. I went on to retrieve my suitcase.

A broken suitcase.As I was waiting for my suitcase to appear on the baggage carousel, an announcement was made overhead: travellers on Qantas 93 who missed their connections should see the agent near the baggage carousel. She was just a few feet away where I could still keep an eye out for my suitcase. I gave her my name and she handed me a boarding ticket for a flight to Miami in four hours. And then she said my suitcase had suffered damage during the flight. I saw it then, just behind her. The whole side had been ripped off. Minutes later, I was in the baggage claim. The airline quickly replaced it with a larger suitcase and none of my personals were damaged. Unfortunately, the new suitcase is black, like thousands of others. The agent kindly gave me some stickers I plastered all over it so I’d be able to quickly identify it later.

Lesson 4: Reconsider your baggage.

I’m still working on this one. When I went to England some years ago, I travelled with only a single carry-on for a week’s vacation. That was before 9/11 and travelling was easier. After 9/11, I figured I would avoid the hassles of security by checking my bag and, if was going to check my bag, I might as well take a large suitcase and take what I want. Now, after the near destruction of my suitcase and many horror stories of theft and lost baggage, as well as the discomfort of lugging a heavy suitcase around plus carry-ons, I’m reconsidering this approach. When you travel internationally, how much baggage do you take? Are they large or small suitcases?

I rechecked my suitcase, went through security again, and on to terminal 4, which has changed some since I was last there six months ago. The most annoying change is that there are hardly any places to eat. There is a Starbucks, Homeboy Cafe, and Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza as well as some kiosks selling overpriced cold sandwiches. There used to be a Chili’s Too and Burger King, but both appeared to be closed. I opted for Sammy’s. Between the wait and serve time, it was about an hour, but the mini-cheeseburgers I had were good, and I overheard other patrons comment on how good the pizza was. A nice hot meal certainly made me feel better.

Then it was just more waiting time at the gate. LAX now offers free WiFi, which is terrific, but by this time, my iPhone’s battery was low. In the whole terminal, there were two charging stations with four power outlets each and constantly in use. Beyond that, I saw only one power outlet and it required a converter. My tablet’s battery was half-full and I used that to  update family and friends via Facebook. So, this brings up a couple questions and I’m curious as to how other international travellers solve these problems.

Lesson 5: Something to do with mobile devices and communications. I haven’t figured it out yet.

Do you carry more than one mobile phone or sim card, one for each country? Once I left Melbourne, I could no longer use my iPhone without incurring outrageous charges. I become dependent on WiFi to update family and friends and let them know I’m okay. WiFi is sometimes free, as it is in LAX, and sometimes it’s not, as in Miami. When I arrive in Miami, I’m unable to communicate with anyone. Pay phones are a thing of the past, and it’s not worth paying for the airport WiFi if you’re going to be there a short while or just to let my mom know I’ve arrived safely and will be there soon. What do you do? Do you carry an extra battery pack or some other way to charge your mobile devices as you travel?

The flight from L.A. to Miami was on American Airlines. They get you there. It’s not particularly comfortable. The plane always feels old and dirty. The food is never complimentary ($8 for a bag of chips?). The in-flight entertainment is very limited and quality of the screens is usually poor. I dozed a little and then watched The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2.

I arrived in Miami at about 10 o’clock Friday night. By the time I collected my suitcase, which made it intact this time, and cabbed my way home, it was about 11pm when I walked through the front door. I greeted my mom and my cat, had a bite to eat, and crashed on my old familiar bed.



  • I never leave my laptop in checked luggage. Most airlines recommend you don’t, because if it gets stolen, I’m pretty sure you can’t hold them accountable. Not too sure how it works but I’ve always traveled with my laptop in my carry-on. Luckily my current laptop is so much lighter than my old one. I also have accrued a Kindle Fire and an Ipod Touch in the past year so those go with me as well.

    As for suitcases, I can’t recommend any specific brand over another. I mostly used this one sturdy blue suitcase when traveling between the US and Spain. It never broke, it’s been through a lot but always pulled through. I had another duffel type suitcase whose zipper broke not long after I bought it. Another suitcase I used while studying abroad was the LL Bean duffel bag which is HUGE. My mom thought it would be practical for a year away and I guess it is if you are doing big moves (I used it every year when going to college). It’s nylon too so I rarely had to pay surcharge fees since the suitcase was so light. However practical it is not. It has wheels and a handle to pull around but the suitcase does not stand upright by itself–I was constantly having to put it down on the ground which hurts the back! And because it was so big, it was not practical to travel onto buses and trains. When I went to Spain, I left it behind.

    The only advice I can give to luggage is trial and error and I guess doing research online. I need to buy a good carry on suitcase eventually. I’ve been using a Jansport backpack forever and while practical, I want to give my back a break!

    • Thanks for the feedback, Amelie. My suitcase had made a few trips. I think it got caught in something. I admit I’m being shallow when I say that the most upsetting part is that I now have an incomplete set lol. I think I may splurge a little more on a quality and comfortable carry-on and keep my laptop and other electronics with me and leave the big suitcase for things that I won’t cry over if they’re lost or stolen. I may also ship some items back. I used the post office to ship several boxes and although it can be pricey, everything arrived safe and sound.

  • Hi Cosette,

    I love to travel but really dislike airports. I always feel as if I’m at the mercy of the TSA agents and what kind of day they are having. Then they look at you funny if you start to take your shoes off or don’t do it because you didn’t have to last time. So frustrating.

    My carry on is a back pack to free my hands and the largest sized carry on allowed. I try to pack it with essentials in case I am stranded without my checked luggage. This has proved beneficial for me a couple of times domestically in the US, flying from Reno to Orlando, when my flight could not land in Chicago in the winter (seriously, who purposely connects planes in Chicago in the winter? Another learned lesson.) My backpack is like a purse or handbag and actually contains my purse as well. This goes under the seat in front of me and has all of my electronics, reading, snacks, slippers, etc. If I bring my laptop, it goes in this bag. I would never check my laptop. I carry a backpack for a couple of reasons: It keeps my weight evenly distributed and I don’t feel like one side of my body is being pulled. I also have kids and need the free hands to hold a child’s hand or pull a suitcase.

    My checked luggage is lightweight but durable. My main concern with this is weight allowance but I am happy to pay more to bring more if need be but I go for the lightest luggage I can. As for batteries, I recharge where I can. I have an external battery for my iphone which I can switch on when the first one starts to go and its like having another battery. I also scour the terminals for power points to recharge is the stations are full. I will sit with a book next to a power point if necessary to charge my phone. I flew ANZ for the first time last year and all the seats on the flight had USB ports for recharging on the plane.

    I bring my own snacks because you never know when you’ll get the munchies and $8 for a bag of chips is not do-able for my tight-wad self.

    I found it interesting that you write you cabbed your way home. Is it still home for you? I’m in the in-between stage of not knowing where it feels like home yet. I love that you have a cat and a bed waiting for you! I hope you’re having a great time. I miss the US so much!

    Safe travels,

    • I think that’s where I am too, Terry; I like to travel, but I dislike the airport part. I completely agree about TSA agents. In general, I find most airport employees and airline agents to be friendly and helpful. And then there’s TSA – under-skilled, underpaid, and with delusions of grandeur.

      I’ve never had a suitcase lost (knock on wood), but I generally prepare for it and carry an extra set of clothing in my carry-on. I’ve considered a backpack for a carry-on. I think it would be easier on my body. It sounds like the best idea when you’ve got little ones along.

      An external batter for the iPhone sounds like a good idea. I recently saw a solar charger, which needs to be on a sunny window. I wonder how well those work. The USB port on the plane is a brilliant idea. I’ve never looked closely enough to discover whether Qantas has that. I’ll have to check next time.

      Terry, when you say you bring snacks, do you mean from home? You’re able to get through security with it?

      Home. That used to be such a simple concept. It’s strange. I consider where I live with Theo home, but I don’t think of Australia as home. I consider my parent’s house home, but I’m not sure I think of Miami as home anymore either. Both Australia and Miami seem foreign to me albeit for different reasons. I think I’ll have to reflect on that more and explore it in a future blog entry.

      Thank you for your comments!

      • I just bring packaged sealed snacks from home (pretzels, travel size box of crackers, etc.) or I buy something at the airport. Not too cheap but cheaper than on the plane. I also like to buy sandwiches or cups of fruit at the airport for the long flights and when I say long flight I mean a flight longer than 4-5 hours. I was once on a flight where I thought I would have time to grab a quick bite at the airport for my connection but my flight was late and there was no time. I didn’t eat for another 3 hours on top of that.
        Try taking a shorter flight if you can with a backpack before you do the long haul in case it doesn’t work for you.
        The home concept is understandable. My home is where my husband and kids are too but I’m also not sure if I feel at home yet here. Definitely more so than I did a few months ago but everyone says the first year is the hardest.