It’s the Secret.
For reasons that are obvious to some, though elusive to others, conventional wisdom holds that modern-day air travel is experiencing something of a devolution. We’ve moved backwards from the days of futuristic waiting lounges and sweet-smelling stewardesses offering “coffee, tea, or me?” to impersonal security checks, all-too-personal pat downs, and infinite delays, cancellations, auto-pilots, and microwaved food in very small packets. Sigh.
I get why all this would annoy my fellow travelers. But as many scientists have argued, we humans are hard-wired to remember the more emotionally disturbing experiences rather than the simply good ones. In order to survive, in other words, we recall the bad stuff, so we don’t repeat it; but the good stuff—well, unless you keep a journal filled with hearts and bubble letters—is lost to the past. And I would argue that, even with all the inconveniences of modern air travel, the good stuff still outweighs the bad.
"It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to."
-- JRR Tolkien
First of all, let’s remember: only a few generations ago, it would have taken a week to get to Europe, months to flit around the globe. Air travel has opened up the world to us, spreading ideas, talent, probably revolutions. Even the past few years have seen change for the better: Remember having to call the airline and wait on hold until you could speak to a booking agent? And what about making an itinerary change or, god forbid, trying to get a refund? Now we have instant online booking and even internet access on the plane. Wifi! To Skype your mom from row 32A! I love my Boingo account, it’s $5 so well spent.
But yes, like everyone else, when I wait in line to crawl through security, I check out my neighbors and they are all to a man miserable. You know why? Because they are recalling the bad stuff. They’re not thinking about how freaking awesome it is that in 7 hours they’ll be on the beach, or in an exotic city, or somewhere where English isn’t the first language. They are not forcing themselves to acknowledge that this, too, shall pass, and soon. Call me judgmental, but I think that mostly, they forget not just the good stuff, but the obvious: they forget to smile. Try it. Smile at a TSA agent. I promise you good will come from that small gesture.
On a summer trip to report on Senator Wendy Davis in Dallas, my smile and chit-chat got me some awesome intel on the senator’s travel attire. Just two weeks ago, en route to Tanzania, being human to an airport worker scored me an exit-row seat and entrée into the luxe waiting lounge (free champagne!). Seriously yesterday, as I was explaining to the guy who was checking my family in that we were headed to Costa Rica to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, he upgraded us. We were “randomly” selected to go through the Pre line, in which we didn’t have to unpack our laptops or take off our shoes. When we got to the gate, that same guy was waiting to make sure that we got our fancy seats. All from a smile and a little chin wag.
More than once my children have been invited into the cockpit to meet the captain, who has thoroughly explained his controls while his co-pilot nodded. Recently we left a backpack in the overhead bin and a stewardess met us at passport control to hand it to us. With a smile. In fact, I can’t think of any terrible experiences I’ve had on airplanes—and I’m a travel writer, so I travel a lot—that out-bad snarling weekend traffic, getting cut in line for a beer at a concert, or just missing a perfect parking spot. Is the lack of real food during a flight really worse than the terrible service at that fabulous restaurant? Is the long wait for your seat worse than the wait at the Genius Bar? It just isn’t, and I refuse to let conventional wisdom ruin my love of travel.
Perhaps this is because, like the Swedes, I have lowered my expectations, but I think it’s more due to The Secret. As soon as I zip my Mandarina Duck suitcase closed, my attitude changes. I’m going somewhere, escaping my life. How could I not put some good vibes out there? It’s so darn exciting, I have to smile it to the world. And my taxi driver. And my husband.
So, as we enter the holidays full of dread about getting to the gate on time and repacking to keep our weight below limit, let me offer these few curative thoughts:
Stick with one airline network whenever possible and those rewards do come—in the form of upgrades, priority or free baggage checks, free tickets. My dad has had premier status with American Airlines since the 1970’s and is treated like a celebrity every time he flies. Once they merge with US Airways, he’ll be golden there, too.
Splurge on an iPad.
I don’t totally get the need for these contraptions, until I board a plane with my three kids. 12 hours to Shanghai got nothing on Adam Sandler on demand and hours of Minecraft.
Take the first flight out.
Delays are less frequent, lines are shorter, staff are less fatigued. I prefer a direct flight, but I’ll take a quick layover if it saves me more than $75 (multiply that by 5 of us and it’s real money).
Think in advance.
I’ve invested in Global Entry so I can return from Scotland and be in a cab five minutes after I’ve left my seat. I’m about to sign up for the prescreen program, so I never have to take my shoes off again. These time-savers can bring us all back to the Golden Age of Jet Travel.
C’mon, throw the TSA worker some slack. You’re on your way to a family frolic, and she just left her kids for the 5am shift. Give her a little love, and I guarantee, she’ll give you some back.
More about Heidi…
Heidi Mitchell is a journalist with 18 years of experience writing about trends, travel, media, and celebrities. She is the former editor in chief of Town & Country Travel and a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure, the Wall Street Journal, Lucky, and Vogue. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and three children.