Travel Tips for Non-Frequent Flyers


If you’re traveling to one of the upcoming fall conferences, here’s a few of my favorite travel tips – as inspired by Kevin Kline’s recent travel tips post.  (If some of these familiar, it’s because I originally ran parts of it last fall before the conference season.)

Use or to get the best seat.

I’m not talking about first class versus coach – even in coach, not all seats are created equal.  Every plane has some surprise seats that have more room or awkward armrest setups.

SeatGuru and SeatExpert have maps of every plane flown by every airline.  Call your airline or check online to find out the exact make & model of plane you’re flying and then pull up the SeatGuru or SeatExpert map.  The seats are color-coded by comfort level.  Hover your mouse over your seat, and you’ll see detailed notes about the comfort level of that particular seat.  Then, with that map up on your screen, call your travel agent or go to your airline’s web site to change your seat.  You can sometimes do this online even when it’s too early to check in for your flight, and the earlier you do this, the better your chances are for getting a good seat.

I’m typing this from the comfort of a Continental Embraer RJ-135, seat 12A.  It’s an exit row seat with no seat on either side of me, so I have plenty of space in front of me for my legs, and plenty of space on either side for my arms.  It didn’t cost me any extra – I just went to and tweaked the seat on my reservation.

For long flights, I recommend the aisle seats because it’s easier to get up and go to the bathroom and the bar.  What?  You didn’t know about the bar?  Anytime you’re thirsty, just head to the flight attendant area, and they’ve usually got water, soda, and snacks available for self-service customers.  If you’re right-handed, get the aisle seat on the left side of the plane so that you’ve got room to maneuver; I find it easier to type, move the touchpad around, and so on when I’ve got room for my right elbow.

If you don’t find a better seat, don’t give up: check again exactly 3 days and 2 days before departure.  Airlines automatically upgrade their elite frequent fliers to first class for free at those times, and guess what – that means their seats in coach are suddenly empty.  These people are exactly the kinds of people who usually know to grab exit row seats and those “special” seats with more room, so you’ll find these seats opening up again.

No assigned seat?  Check in online ASAP.

If your airline reservation doesn’t show an exact seat number, your flight may be overbooked.  Airlines routinely overbook flights because not everybody shows up for a flight.

Go to your airline’s web site and try to check in right now.  You won’t be able to, but it will tell you when the flight checkin will open up.  Set yourself a reminder to check in at that date/time.  The earlier you check in, the more likely that you’ll get an assigned seat.  The later you check in – well, let’s just say you don’t want to get a miserable $100 air travel voucher in exchange for missing the first day of PASS.

Knock yourself out on long flights.

Drool Not Shown
Drool Not Shown

Forget paying extra for a first class upgrade.  Get a travel pillow for under $10.  The one shown here is an inflatable model, which is nice because you can deflate it and stick it in a laptop bag.  If you don’t want to carry one around, you can usually pick up the non-inflatable ones in airport gift shops for around $20.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – you’re thinking that wearing an inflatable toilet seat around your neck will make you look stupid.  You’re wrong.  The drool coming out of your mouth is what’s going to make you look stupid.

As you’re boarding, take a sleeping pill.  Settle into your seat.  If you want a blanket, buckle your seatbelt on the outside of your blanket so that the flight attendant won’t have to wake you up to make sure you’re wearing it.  You’ll be out like a light in no time.

Conquer time zone changes with vitamin B12.

This tip comes from Douglas McDowell of SolidQ, and it’s saved my bacon more than a few times now.  Pick up some vitamin B12 pills at your local drugstore and keep ’em in your laptop bag.  I prefer blister-packed sublingual pills – the sublingual ones that come in a bottle break up pretty quickly if they bang around.  Take one, and you’ll be comfortably awake for a couple of hours, but not wired or jittery.

Caffeine is the wrong answer – it dehydrates you, makes you jittery, and has other side effects that you want to avoid when traveling.

Be wary of taking late flights for travel vouchers.

Those travel vouchers sometimes have blackout dates, and the blackout dates are like “Valid only for trips with a Saturday stay on the third week of the month.”  If you really want to risk it, then talk to the airline staff before you volunteer the seat.  Ask whether the voucher has any restrictions at all, and ask them to show you one of the vouchers.  If it says anything about “Only valid for fare code X”, there’s a catch.

Oh, and whether you’re delayed by weather or you take a late flight by choice, call your hotel to let them know.  If you don’t show up by midnight, they have a tendency to give away your room to somebody else when they’re booked solid.  Don’t expect to be able to waltz in the next day thinking your room will still be held for you.  If you don’t show up on the day of your reservation, they might charge you for one night’s stay, but they won’t hold the room for your entire stay.

Leave a tip for the hotel maid on your pillow.

The Wrong Kind of Rock Star Behavior
The Wrong Kind of Rock Star Behavior

Hotel maids make minimum wage, and it’s common to leave them tips.  Some folks only leave the tip on the day of checkout, but I prefer to leave a tip daily because the same maid may not clean your room the entire time – they do get days off, ya know.

Also, make it as easy as possible for the maid.  Use just one trash can if you can, and dump your used towels in a single pile on the toilet seat (with the seat closed, speedy).  It’s less bending over for them.

Plan questions for vendors and peers.

Ahead of time, make a list of projects you’re working on, new products you want to implement, or large challenges that you’re facing.  Write this stuff down now, because you won’t remember it when somebody asks, “Do you have any questions?”  Us humans are terrible at that.

This is just my personal opinion, but I say do NOT ask tech support questions at a conference.  Tech support people aren’t usually the ones sent to conferences.  If you want support, call the support line.  If you have large architecture questions, implementation ideas, or tips and tricks, then you’ll find good answers at a conference.  If you’re getting error 0x8004005,search the web.

Make a list of things to bring to the conference.

Here’s a list of things you may not think to bring along:

  • A small, light extension cord or surge strip. There’s never enough outlets, especially at tech conferences.  If your laptop has a two-prong electric adapter, bring a two-prong extension cord too, because not all outlets have three prongs.  A 2-prong extension cord will get you into places other people can’t go.
  • An extra laptop battery. It ain’t cheap, but if you want to take notes during the sessions, it’s easier if you don’t have to fight over power outlets.
  • Business cards. If you have a personal web site you want to promote, or if you use Twitter, order business cards now.  They’re surprisingly inexpensive if you’re doing simple text with no logos – like $10 for 250-500.  I order a set just for conferences that have conference-relevant information like my work email, personal email, Twitter link, web site links, etc, but not mailing address.  (Nobody at a conference wants your snail mail address, although you can put city & state if you want an icebreaker.)  For ultra-personal cards, check out

Don’t feel guilty about skipping sessions to mingle.

I make a list of sessions that I absolutely can’t miss, but the rest of the time, I wing it.  If I get the chance to have a one-on-one impromptu chat session with somebody really brilliant, I’ll go for that, because frankly, that’s worth way more than a session.

For example, I got the chance last year to sit in the hallway during a session and do some impromptu data mining with Donald Farmer, and that’s one of my favorite memories from the Summit.  Did I miss a session?  Yep.  Did I feel guilty?  Only for about the first five minutes.

Leave the support calls at home, or bring your evidence.

PASS is a great place to get access to some of the brightest minds in the database business.

It’s a really crappy place to open a support case.

If you’re struggling with a problem that you just can’t fix, and you’ve opened a support case with Microsoft (or in my case, Quest), it can be tempting to approach Microsoft employees and ask for insight.  You know how when the doctor bangs your knee, your leg jerks up?  I have a really similar reaction.  When someone says they’re having a problem, I blurt out, “I need your Windows event logs – both system and application – plus the results from sp_configure and dbcc tracestatus.”

If you’re going to ask support questions, be fair – bring along your support case number, a folder with all of the evidence you’ve gathered so far in the case, and a laptop that can access the system remotely right now.  Armed with that, you stand a great chance of getting great minds to ponder your problem and cooperate with you pronto.  Without that, you’re probably going to get a polite smile-and-nod-I-feel-your-pain.

Never eat or drink alone – tweet with #SQLPass.

If you’re going to an upcoming conference, bookmark these two links now on your phone or your PDA:

During the conference, I’ll tweet whenever I find out about after-hours events, dinners, meetups, or spontaneous meetings during the day.

I remember what it was like going to PASS 2007 as an attendee who didn’t know anybody – man, it was tough to find out what was going on!  I ate lunch and dinner by myself most of the time.  Let’s face it, us DBAs aren’t always the best party people.  (Except for the PASSCamp Germany guys, they know how to put on a party!)  Now that I’m an insider (woohoo!) I’ll share the knowledge to get you folks into the action.

A lot of us will be roaming around downtown Seattle with our handheld gadgets, monitoring the Twittersphere for the phrase #SQLPASS in much the same way that truckers use their CB radios to monitor channel 19 looking for bears.  When you’re bored, get on Twitter and say so, but make sure to include the phrase #SQLPass.  Someone will hear your pain and tell you where the party’s at.

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21 Comments. Leave new

  • To each his own, but I’m not a big fan of the aisle seat. Regardless of left- or right-handedness, my elbow always gets hit by the drink cart at least once. I like the window because, if I’m not going to be doing work, I can rest my head against someone other than Bubba in the middle seat. And since I can usually hold my bladder for the duration of the flight, I’d rather make someone else get up than get up 30 times to let someone else in/out. When I am doing work on a laptop, nothing can be more disruptive and irritating than constantly stopping everything so Miss Daisy can pee again. I guess whether an aisle seat makes sense or not depends on how often you get up and your level of patience for other people doing so.

    Great tips about the seat sites though. The normal seatfinders on the travel sites certainly do not do “premium” seats any justice. Though I will say that most airlines are wising up and not releasing exit row seats for free.

    • Good point about the wall. I don’t usually lean up against’ em because I use the travel pillow, but I’ve heard from other travelers who like to wad up their jackets and use those as pillows when leaning against the wall.

    • KLM is one of those airlines. 50 Euros extra for an exit seat.

      I pick an aisle seat because I have an old knee injury. If I don’t walk around during the flight I won’t be walking off the plane.

  • United Exit Row is in the Economy Plus section, so they cost $$ if you are not a Premium member.

    I prefer aisles, precisely for Brent’s reasons, but it’s personal preference, and I tend not to work in planes.

    I’d also had headphones to the list. Unless you want to talk to people, it’s nice to get a little privacy when you’re at 30,000 ft.

  • Yes, noise-canceling headphones are an absolute necessity. I have QC3s and I always pack an extra battery just in case. The charger comes with me too in case my roommate snores and I need them throughout my stay. 🙂

  • Agree on the window seat, if you have broad shoulders or a big profile, sitting in the aisle means getting smacked frequently by the carts and people in the aisle.

    My tip: If you are going on a 1-2 night trip, pack everything in your carry-on. Smiling with glee as you head straight to your rental/taxi while everyone else goes to baggage claim is the best feeling in the world, esp if you get the last ‘good’ car, i.e. anything other than a HHR. This usually means only a single pair of shoes, so invest some $ in a pair that looks the biz-casual part and is good for lots of walking and standing, plus looks good with jeans.

    • Good point about the carry-on. Plus, if you’re a National Emerald Aisle member, that means you get to the car rental aisle before everybody else. I just snagged a Jeep Wrangler for this trip by being the first guy outta the bus.

  • Great tips Brent – I normally always do aisle (Always.. I travel on a plane about, what.. 3 times a year max!) but Tim brings up a great point. My United flights for PASS were booked solid so the aisle seat selections weren’t great. Maybe I should try a window for the 7 hour flight from IAD to SEA and see how it works out. I am like a camel and hate it when the drink cart comes by.

    I also really liked the point about skipping sessions. There are some I will definitely not want to miss. The rest I can catch up with on the DVD I ordered. I really like hanging out for the chalk talks, the experts pavilion and the ask the experts area. Even if I don’t have questions I love to listen in on the questions and the discussions about the answers.

    I also took some advice directly from your blog today. Not only will I come prepared with questions I had but since work is covering my airfare and part of my hotel (and still paying me whilst there) I sent an e-mail to all of my “customers” and colleagues asking them if they had any questions in their areas. Told them I will schedule my sessions accordingly and try and ask the questions and bring back the info in a series of lunch and learns. Thanks for another great post, Brent.

  • Come hell or high water, I will be at PASS next year. Regarding the laptop battery life, my new work laptop has the regular battery, an extended battery in back, and sits on a base which is one large battery. I get 10 hours of battery life without any power conservation issues (Wi-fi, dim screen, etc).

    It’s heavy, but wonderful.

  • Some of my tips:

    Never fly without a frequent flyer number on your reservation and boarding pass. It’s doesn’t matter if you think you’ll never accumulate enough points to buy anything with them. Having a FF number on your itinerary puts you one level higher than people who don’t when it comes to bumping passengers, rebooking for cancelled flights, or generally getting something done when things go awry. Sure, the amount of money you paid for your flight has an impact, but you don’t want something as silly as not having a free number shown keep you at the airport overnight.

    Check your seat assignments when you book, when you check in, when you get to the airport, and what’s printed on your boarding pass, especially on international flights. Seat assignments can change and you want to know when they do in case you’ve been moved from your single seat exit row to a middle seat in a row next to the loos.

    Don’t rush the line, but don’t lolly gag getting on to the plane. If your boarding pass says you are in seat 17A and so does someone else’s pass, the first butt in the seat almost always wins. You’ll also have a greater likelihood of finding a place for your carry on.

    If you are an infrequent traveller, look up your airline’s baggage policies a week or so before your flight. These policies change constantly. You need to know the fees, limitations, and policies to pack appropriately. Don’t rely on what others tell you, including reservation agents, travel agents, and your buddy who flies to Florida “every year”. This is especially true for international flights, where carry on restrictions are tough – weight and size limitations can skewer your “carry on only” strategy quickly.

    If you travel infrequently, get you and your entourage to airport early. Yes, it can be a huge waste of time, but there are times when the 2-4 line ups you have to clear can have wait times of 1 hour+…each. Airlines are serious about the 60-120 minute cut offs for check in — for both you and your baggage. Some airlines enforce these business rules in their applications, so even sweet talking a gate agent does no good.

    Check in online, 24-48 hours (depending on your airline) before your flight. Do not wait until you get to the airport to check in. Not only do you get better seats, but you also can move up a level of respect in cases where things go bad.

    Review the TSA list of prohibited items. Follow it.

    Every TSA checkpoint interprets the rules differently (no matter what their policies officially state), so pay attention to where you are supposed to put your shoes (belt or box), whether or not your laptop has to be alone in the litter box or can have another item there, whether or not your belt has to come off, etc.

    If you are getting a ride to the airport, don’t tell your driver when your flight is – tell them when you have to leave for the airport. Trust me on this one.

    Pack contingency snacks and grab a $10 bottle of water at the airport (*after* security) or bring an empty bottle* with you to fill on the the other side of security. Flights with food often run out or fail to offer any food, even paid food. If your flight is delayed, it can be several hours before you’re able to find something to eat. You really don’t want to drink the tap water on the plane and you’ll never get enough from the flight attendants. *Note that some TSA agents will take your empty bottle (another example of inconsistently applied policies)

    There’s more. I guess I need to post my own blog entry :).

    • You DO need to post these! These are good. First butt in the seat is a great rule, and it really does work.

      • Granted, every time I’ve had a “seat conflict” it was simply the other person’s inability to read. A,B,C are on one side of the plane, D,E,F are on the other. Get a compass.

        • Yeah, that happens. Heck, even tired frequent flyers manage to do this once in a while.

          But when there are massive rebookings, some systems fail at getting the one-butt-per-seat rule working correctly. So get your butt in the seat pronto. I managed to get a first class upgrade from London once due to rebooking putting THREE of us in the same same seat. I wasn’t first on, but I was first to point out the problem and the fact that I was Elite and could get myself into another seat quickly.

  • One other thing I would add is that if you are prone to sinus problems (sinus headaches, earaches, whatnot), take a dose of pseudoephedrine (or the non-meth-making equivalent; assuming that you are medically able to do so) right before takeoff. It’ll help minimize the pressure on your ears as you increase altitude. Also, if you’re not sleeping, keep chewing gum handy.

  • Keep the bugs off yer glass and the bears of yer…tail. We’ll catch ya on the flip-flop; this here’s the Rubber Duck on the side, we gone buh-bye!

    (We’ll see you guys out there next year 🙂 )


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