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7 genius traveling tips from a globetrotter

When you can't pay your way to a better flight by going in a premium class, follow these tips for a more comfortable and less stressful way to fly the friendly skies.

Kent German/CNET

This is part of CNET's #adulting series of stories to help you figure out how to live, work and play now that you're all grown up. 

Congratulations! You're going on vacation! Excitement awaits -- you just have to fly to your destination first. For some of us, getting there can be half the fun. But even as a committed airline geek, I know that flying sometimes can be dehumanizing, stressful and just plain awful. Economy class these days entails cramped seats, bad food (if you get it all) and no frills. On a long-haul flight it can be hell.

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Before takeoff, there are ways to make your flight better.

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Still, there are things you can do to make your trip more enjoyable. Sure, flying in first class would solve a lot of those problems, but there are cheaper ways to arrive in better spirits. So after you've bought your ticket, packed your bag and turned on your out-of-office email response, here's what you can do.

Choose your seat

Your seat is the key to a great flight. For short hops you can always suffer through it, but it's critical to choose wisely on a flight longer than two hours. No one wants to stuck in a middle seat or be separated from their spouse.

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Though landing a first class seat, like these on a British Airways Airbus A380, would be ideal, chances are that you'll have to do with less space.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

A site like SeatGuru.com is a good place to start. It reviews the seating plans for all aircraft types of the world's major airlines (or at least the airlines you're most likely to fly). Here's what to look out for:

  • A description of each seat, the width (the distance between the two armrests) and the pitch (the space between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it). Higher numbers are better, but remember that pitch is not the same thing as your actual legroom.
  • Find out how close you'll be to a galley or lavatory (where passengers and crew tend to gather).
  • Is your row is missing a window (something I particularly dislike)?
  • Is there a video equipment box underneath the seat in front of you that will restrict your legroom?

Also, consider the seating arrangement of your aircraft, which can differ even among similar planes on the same airline. (You can find your aircraft type information on your itinerary.) If you're traveling with people, for example, think about out the best way for you to sit together. Maybe as a family of four you prefer to sit in the four seats in the middle of a wide-body airliner. Or if you're a couple, sitting across an aisle from each other can be more comfortable than sitting next to a stranger in a row of three. There are tons of possibilities so weigh your options carefully to keep you from scrambling to change saets after you board. (Personally, I'm a window-seat guy.)

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There ain't no seat like a window seat.

Kent German/CNET

If you can select a seat before you travel, I recommend doing so, even if you have to pay a fee. I opt for the bulkhead or exit row if I can (some airlines save those for flyers with status) as you typically get more legroom. The downsides to those seats is they may not recline, the armrests may be immovable because tray tables are stored in them, or you can't stow anything on the floor in front of you due to safety reasons.

Sitting forward of the wing and the engines will get you a quieter seat, while seats in the very back are noisier and can feel cramped as the fuselage curves inward. If you're flying on an Airbus A380 or Boeing 747 and can sit on the upper deck with your ticket, always do so. You'll enjoy a smaller, quieter cabin, and you'll have an awesome side storage compartment next to your seat. That, and the upper deck is awesome.

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Though the airport is unlikely to be this empty, save yourself hassle by arriving early. 

Kent German/CNET

Get to the airport early

I'm a big fan of getting to the airport early. I love being able to walk in leisurely, not stress and get a drink or a bite to eat. Oh, yeah, I also like to watch planes.

I'd urge you to arrive in plenty of time, as well, especially if you're a nervous flyer or you're just annoyed with the whole experience. Sit, relax and read, or even just stare out the window. Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways Boeing 747 pilot and author of the book "Skyfaring" has the same advice. As he puts it, "Go through security, get your bottle of water, and watch the planes… You can look and think, 'Wow, that plane is going to take me to Rio tonight.'" Even when air travel is a burden, remember that it's amazing that we can do it all.

Airline lounges are a great way to relax in a more sedate environment. If you don't have status with an airline or you're not flying in a premium class, you may be able to buy a one-day pass with cash or by using those hard-to-use frequent flyer miles. Some airports also have third-party lounges that sell admission for a few hours. Check before you leave for the airport (start with the websites for your airline and the airport) as buying in advance online may save you money.

Follow TSA etiquette

But before you kick back, know the proper procedures in the security lane so you don't hold up the queue. Take out your laptop, empty your pockets, dump your liquids, and be quick about it. If you have that plastic bag with your travel toothpaste and mouthwash, make sure it's easily accessible and you're not dumping your suitcase on the floor in the middle of the queue to find it. And, yes, I say all of that knowing full well that the TSA can be maddening. If you travel frequently, TSA Pre with its shorter security lines is worth every penny. For international flyers, Global Entry in the US and Registered Traveller in the UK let you breeze through immigration. 

In case of delays

Whether they're the result of weather, a faulty airplane or a pilot stuck in traffic on the way to the airport, delays and cancellations happen. They suck, absolutely, but as with many things, the best defense here is a good offense. 

Start by checking your departure status 24 hours before you travel. If you have an evening flight and you're already delayed by noontime, think about rebooking immediately and getting a hotel for the night instead of taking your chances later. Not only will you have a better chance of making new plans if you try earlier, but you'll avoid the pain of waiting and waiting as the delay gets worse. Remember your airline may rebook you automatically and know your rights about whether you're entitled to compensation. The rules differ between the US, the European Union and Australia

If you stick with your original flight, still make the effort to reach the airport on time as the delay may vanish with little notice. If the delay develops after you arrive, you can pinpoint your real departure time (and not just the time the airline is promising you) by determining when the plane you'll be using will arrive. After all, you can't fly until you have a plane. 

Once it's on the ground, cleaned, refueled and restocked (figure about an hour for a flight turnaround), you should be ready to go. If you can't locate anyone to ask for this information, your airline's app or third-party flight-tracking apps may tell you. You can also look at the arrival monitors and find the flight set to arrive at your departure gate. You'll usually be using the same plane. It is true that early morning flights are less prone to delays, but I know that flying at the crack of dawn isn't always possible. 

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To calculate how long a delay might be, find out when the airplane that you'll be flying on will arrive.

Kent German/CNET

A better way to rebook a flight

If you need to rebook, don't walk over to a customer service desk and stand in a long queue. Instead, call your airline customer service number, use the company's app or try one of the computer kiosks in the airport. A few years ago, when our flight from San Francisco to Maui via Honolulu was canceled while I was taxiing to the runway, I called the airline from the plane and got rebooked on a nonstop flight to Maui before I reached the gate. Then, while most of the other passengers were waiting at the desk, I enjoyed a beer. When rebooking, research all of the options (including flights to a different airport) that you have for getting to your destination and ask whether they're possible on your ticket. An airline's rep may not offer them without being prompted, so do the work for them.

Finally, don't take your stress and frustrations out on the airline's staff. If delays are making the airport a madhouse, consider that the people working there are also having a bad day. So give them a break. Be polite, don't yell and don't be insulting. Be firm if you need to, but don't forget the tremendous power that a gate agent has. Be abusive and they'll have little incentive to help you. But be nice and you may be bumped to the top of the standby list or even an upgrade. When they're offering compensation to take a later flight, it doesn't hurt to ask for more. But nicely, of course.

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Don't be that person that crowds the boarding area... unless you want to take a photo of the plane. 

Kent German/CNET

Board the plane

In short, don't be "gate lice." That's the airline term for people who stand in front of the gate, usually blocking the way, long before the flight boards. Really… there's no point to this, especially if you're in one of the first boarding groups, so just don't do it. Sit and wait patiently until you're called.

When it's your turn, board as efficiently as you can. Walk on, say "hello" to the flight attendant at the door, find your seat (remember, the rows are sequential!), stow your bags, and sit down. If you need to root through your backpack and pull your magazines, headphones and bottled water, step out of the aisle to do so. Remember that there's a long line of people trying to get to their seat behind you. The sooner you all sit down, the sooner your flight will leave. Once, while flying to Crete from Munich, I watched a full load of passengers completely board an Airbus A320 in 20 minutes. It was a wonderful day.

For baggage, do obey those restrictions about how many items you can take on, and how large they are. I get it, bag fees are annoying, which is why I'd favor carry-on fees instead. But here again: You're on a plane full of other people, so be considerate. Stash your bags in a bin where you're sitting, put your smaller item under the seat in front of you (as instructed) and if you board late and are asked to check your bag sans a fee, just let the flight attendants do it. Checking it at the gate is the best way to check your bag anyway. You know that the bag is going on your plane, you won't pay a fee, and you may be able it collect at the gate when you arrive rather than waiting at the baggage claim.

On the plane

Now you're in your carefully chosen seat, ready to go. You just need to pass the time before you can have that first poolside cocktail. Fortunately, we're largely past the point where you have to rely on the one movie the airline is showing (that you've already seen) on a screen in the front of the cabin. Now, we have seat-back videos with a choice of films, or you can bring your devices on board stocked with any content that you want. Of course, if the US and other countries end up banning laptops on all international flights, your choices will be more limited. For now, though, we're safe. 

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You're up and away. Enjoy your flight!

Kent German/CNET

If you're going to stick with your airline's content, research ahead of time what will be available. Check your airline's website to see whether you'll have a screen at your seat and what it will be showing. Newer aircraft (yet another reason to know your type before flying) typically will have better options. Newer airliners like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or Airbus A350 also are more likely to have upgraded cabins, more comfortable seats and snazzy technology that can make for a better flight.

Also consider:

  • Be careful when you're flying a codeshare flight, or a flight operated by an airline partner, as amenities can vary widely between carriers.
  • Research your food options ahead of time to confirm whether you'll get a free or paid meal, or perhaps it might be wise to bring your own snacks. 
  • If you need to order a special meal from your airline, you must do so at least 24 hours ahead of time. Pro tip: the Asian vegetarian option is safer bet than the standard veggie meal.
  • Just as you would with the gate staff, remember the golden rule when interacting with flight attendants. Say "please" and "thank you" and ask them how their day is going. Being polite doesn't cost you anything. And who knows… you might even get a free cocktail.