In this post I’ve collected some observations I’ve made during my travels. So how much do I travel? Typically I fly on the order of 60-80 thousand miles per year, which doesn’t really compare against the numbers of people who _actually_ travel a lot, but in practical terms translates to about 1 trip per month with half of them in Europe and half intercontinental. Yes, it’s about 3 times around the world every year, to put it into context (except I very rarely get to _actually_ go around the world).
My first observation is of course that traveling in economy class (which we are required to do) isn’t ever really that much fun. Adding insult to injury, my ability to work on planes is severely hampered by my eye surgery which means that when reading, I need to get the thing I’m reading to a certain distance from my eyes. Turns out this distance is longer than most economy class seating affords, meaning I can work only if the seat next to me happens to be empty and I can stretch out. Then again, my other eye will need surgery soon-ish, so I’m waiting to see how things play out in the end.
However, I cannot help but wonder at the speed at which you can travel these days by air. Trips that would take days, weeks, or months overland are over in a matter of hours. (And even if we were in the old days, I’m sure our administration would make us travel in the cheapest, i.e., least comfortable, way…) Despite the discomfort, I derive some (perverse?) pleasure at traveling by plane. Maybe it’s the above-mentioned excitement about jetting around the globe, maybe it’s the plane being one of the few places where I can take some me-time, maybe it’s something else. No, I don’t enjoy overnight flights since I cannot sleep in economy class unless I’m already exhausted and not sleeping seems to be the main cause for jet lag for me. Other than that, it’s actually not that bad.
In the years of my travels I’ve noticed that the queasy feeling you get after an overnight flight, where you feel like your internal organs are not quite at their right places, is largely due to not having been able to sleep. In many ways it feels similar to a hangover, minus the headache. On the few occasions when I’ve been lucky enough to be upgraded to business class, the symptoms are far weaker, since I can actually get something that a doctor would classify as sleep, as opposed to 3 hours of not-quite-sleeping-but-not-quite-awake zombie state. There’s not much I can do about that, but there is one variable I can control to reduce my jet lag, namely the arrival time.
I’ve noticed that if I arrive very late in the evening (after an intercontinental flight), I get a lot less jet lag. I arrive very late, get to the hotel, take a shower, and go straight to bed. By that time I’m so exhausted that no matter what the time difference, I’ll sleep easily a minimum of 6 hours which in most cases puts me pretty close to the local timezone, as far as waking up goes (read: not waking up before 4am local time). I’ve used that formula successfully both east (once only, though) and west (lots of times), although going east it’s pretty difficult because most flights from Europe to Asia arrive in the morning; pro-tip, connect somewhere in Asia, the added travel time and hassle are worth the reduced jet lag, IMHO. Going west it’s very easy and the easiest way for me to achieve that is taking the flight from Helsinki to New York, connect to my final destination, and Bob’s your uncle.
The downside of that is that you need to go through immigration and a new security check at JFK, but there’s a silver lining to that. If you’re flying Finnair from Helsinki to New York, then your connection is most likely going to be on American Airlines and there is a very nifty system to help you with the connection. (It’s actually something all Oneworld airlines do at their main airports, so should work at Heathrow, Dallas, Hong Kong, etc.) If your connection is shorter than a certain time (seems to be about 2 hours or a bit under for JFK), then, when you get off from the Helsinki flight, you can find your next boarding pass in an orange envelope next to the jetway. Why is this important? Because when the staff later on sees the orange envelope, you get taken to the front of the queue. Every queue.
Yes, this really means the front of the immigration queue and the front of the security queue, which makes for a very, very fluid and pleasant experience. My record is 25 minutes from getting off the plane to being at the next gate at JFK, _after_ going through US immigration and the security check at Terminal 8. Wonderful system and at least at JFK it works like a charm. I’ve taken advantage of it several times. The only downside is that it’s only for connections shorter than some magic number, which is on the order of 2 hours. If your connection is 2.5 hours, you’re out of luck, though, and have to fight through the normal immigration queue. Still, this system has made me a big fan of taking the Finnair flight to JFK and connecting on American.
Another thing that keeps me wondering are the security checks at Helsinki airport. It’s not that the people manning the checkpoints are rude or anything. They seem to be trying although I’m not really convinced. The thing is that I’m seriously doubting their competence, the competence of those who train them, and the competence of those who make the rules for them. (Yes, the rules are probably EU-wide, but a rule can be implemented in multiple ways, so that’s probably what the last category represents.)
I often travel with a lot of electronics, laptops, iPad, Kindle, maybe an SLR, and of course all the associated cables that go with them. Only in Helsinki (and Tampere, so that’s what makes me suspect the issue is with Finland) have they wanted to take out stuff from the bag and run each piece individually through the x-ray. Every other airport in the world, including the ones in the USA, is happy to just x-ray the bag once with everything inside it and be done with it. Except Heathrow, but that was because I had forgotten to take out my Kindle, so my bad. So, are the guys in Helsinki too poorly trained to read the x-rays or is it a case of extreme obedience to rules that is so pervasive in Finland? In other words, do we need more training for the security check guys or some relaxation higher up in the food chain? After all, if a lot busier and more important airports care less about security, why should we stick to the letter of the rules? Or maybe they are just better trained elsewhere.
It’s not just electronics, by the way. My little ziploc bag with my cosmetics (and everyone else’s it seems) gets a close look by the guy before the x-ray to check that all items are below 100 ml. Yes, that is the rule and I don’t have a problem with the rule (much), but how poorly trained or clueless do you have to be not to recognize immediately which containers are below 100 ml and which are not. After all, you look at those little baggies and their contents several hours per day when working at a security checkpoint. In my little baggie, I have toothpaste (50 ml), deodorant (50 ml), and shampoo (maybe 70 ml?). The first two are normal items sold in every Finnish supermarket and the last is in a Korean bottle which looks a bit larger than the other two but not markedly so. Those guys must see thousands of such toothpaste tubes and deodorant sticks every day and yet still feel the need to inspect the baggie closely. The Korean bottle may throw them off, but none of them ever actually checks that bottle closely enough to see the size printed on the bottle. They just like to fondle my baggie, bring it closer to their eyes, turn it around, and put it back on the tray.
Cluelessness abounds, but I’m not quite sure where in the food chain it is in this case. All foreign airports seem to be equipped with more clue. The Finnish cluelessness and blind adherence to rules does not seem like a winner here. I do have to say that this is very much a First World Problem™ since the security check in Helsinki usually takes no more than a few minute total (except the morning rush; go to Terminal 1 in that case 🙂 ) so it doesn’t really slow me down, but I just felt like getting that off my chest. I’m also happy that they do not bark like the TSA in the US, but barking seems to be the standard modus operandi in the US for controlling large crowds, i.e., it happens in Disneyland as well.
To end on a positive note, Finnair’s outsourcing of many of the European flights to FlyBe seems to have a silver lining for me (for a very, very desperate definition of “silver lining”). See, a while ago Finnair stopped giving away newspapers on European flights, except in business class and people with the highest level of Oneworld status. I only have the middle level status, so no more newspapers for me. No, it’s not a big loss if I don’t get the standard Finnish tabloid, but since Finland is behind others in allowing use of electronic devices during take-off and landing, I still need real paper to read to pass the time (this will hopefully change soon and my Kindle and I will be extremely thankful for it). On FlyBe-operated flights, the flight attendants offer the newspaper to me, saying that due to my status, it’s on the house. So, that’s 3 euros saved and take-off and landings pass quicker. I don’t know if they are somehow confused or if FlyBe offers better service (doubtful, though) and yes, it’s a very desperate definition of “silver lining”, but beggars can’t be choosers.