Tips for Early Morning Travel

Sometimes, you’ve got to get up beyond early to get to the airport. As someone on the West Coast who flies back east for things like Gen Con, I have a choice between catching the earliest flight in the day and actually getting some relaxation time when I land, or catching a later flight and feeling like I’ve lost my whole day.

I always opts for the former, which means a 6am flight. or thereabouts. Here are some tips that have helped me survive around 40 such trips:

  • Make a packing list the day or two before. Include everything, even the number of socks and underwear you’re planning on packing. Once you’re done, don’t pack right away. Go and do other stuff — you’ll likely remember something you forgot to put on the list as you do, and you’re more likely to remember that if you aren’t also processing the list at the same time. (I always forget business cards when I fight make the list.) I use Wunderlist for packing lists, among other things.
  • Pack the evening before. It should go without saying. Not mere hours beforehand.
  • If you can get at least six hours of sleep, try to. If you can’t, and you feel like by sleeping you might not get up in time, then I still advise that you try to “rest your eyes”, but in a different environment: in a chair rather than in bed, lights on, and with your phone’s ringer cranked up and alarm on. Get people who will be up then (like other people traveling that day from the East Coast) to call you at a certain time if they don’t see you tweet that you’re awake.
  • Know when the airline kiosks & security stations open.
  • This last piece of advice is for the advanced class, and should not be taken if you are unfamiliar with the airport or shuttle situation. When you call for a shuttle, they’ll ask for a flight time, and tend to pick you up with plenty of time to spare. During the day, that isn’t so bad, but in the morning before everything is open and you’re forced to wait an hour before you can check your bag, that is a bunch of suck. For example, when I lived in Oakland, the shuttle wanted to pick me up three hours before my 6a flight, but the airport didn’t properly open until 5. Given that very early morning traffic is light in the area, and that I only lived around 10 miles from the airport, I would routinely list my flight time as between 7 and 7:30. Not once was I late to my flight, because usually they like doing the closer pick-ups last, so being told to be ready at 4 or 4:30 wasn’t a big deal. Still, I did that because I understood how the shuttles worked there, and could reasonably assume I wouldn’t be screwed out by that decision.
  • Don’t drink caffeine. Don’t try to be alert while you’re waiting for that first flight, unless it’s crucial and you can’t otherwise be awake or you’re intentionally trying to cop with jet lag early. Let the time flying feel dull, and caffeinated yourself when you get closer to or at your destination.

What tips do you have?

– Ryan



7 Responses to Tips for Early Morning Travel

  1. Nancy McKeown says:

    If you need passport and paperwork, put it all in a folder in your carry-on when you pack. Double-check it’s there in the morning.

    If you can check in ahead of time, do so.

    Do *as little as possible* the morning you need to get up god-awful early. Shower the night before; pack everything before; set the clothes you’re going to wear out; eat breakfast/drink caffeine at the airport once you’re through security. Why? /You get more sleep/. All you have to do at 4 am is roll out of bed, throw on clothes, shove your deodorant and comb in your bag, and go. No brains required.

    And I really must emphasize about knowing when things open at the airport. I’ve been stuck waiting around for an hour and half when I could have been sleeping. It sucks.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That reminds me that, on those nights where I know I’m not going to get a lot of sleep, I’ll wear my travel clothes to bed — not optimal, but it means if I need to spring out at a moment’s notice because the shuttle calls me and I was asleep, I can. And I also find it someone therapeutic to change my clothes the moment I arrive at my hotel anyway.

      – Ryan

  2. Hamish says:

    I’m lucky enough that I don’t often have to get up in the pre-dawn hours for flights as trans-pacific flights leave in the evening, but when I do, I do try to be awake before and during my flights. But, I’m wary of offering this as advice for several reasons: 1) I can (and like to) work on planes, 2) I’m a morning person, 3) I feel more relaxed about the flight if I’m awake and confident that I haven’t done something stupid in a sleep-filled haze, 4) I mess with my sleep schedules a lot, so my body is used to that sort of thing.

  3. I must have done hundreds of these early AM flights during the course of my last job.

    Springing for a private car is worth it when you have deadlines to make. I will frequently follow that with public transit (when possible) to make up for the cost.

    Earplugs, an inflatable (or stuffed) pillow, and a good eye mask are a glorious salve for early AM commuter flights in particular. I’ve had the pleasure of zonking out shortly after clicking my seatbelt and waking up as people are pulling down their luggage at the destination gate.

    Know your airport’s context. San Jose [SJC] is EXTREMELY CROWDED for the 6am departures, and then by the next round of flights, they’re practically empty. Big city airports tend to be more of a mixed bag.

    Curbside Check-in can be awesome if you *have* to check a bag.

    Put your Shoes first on the belt, so that you can put them back on while waiting for your bag to pass through the x-ray.

    Don’t ever empty your pockets into the bins directly, empty them into a stash bag, zippable jacket pocket, or suitcase pocket ahead of the scanner du jour.

    I could go on and on, but that’s a good start.

    • Wayne Zombie says:

      I like using a fanny pack when I fly for pocket contents so my pockets are totally empty, I also find it makes a more comfortable flight, though it can interfere a little with the drop down tray.

  4. John Powell says:

    Tip for Seattle – we now have excellent light rail from downtown to the airport. The schedules are here:

    So.. as an alternative to a shuttle, you could take a bus, cab, or have a friend drive you down to Westlake Center and then hop on the light rail. No more surprise early pickups from the shuttle service!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I do love the light rail for that. However, it doesn’t work for the earliest flights — the soonest you can get to the airport there is 5:46am if you plan to leave from Westlake. You can get to the Stadium or Beacon Hill stops to catch an earlier train, but at that point you might just be better off not combining a cab and light rail trip for an early morning departure.

      – Ryan