Travel Tips

How to Survive a Transatlantic Flight

On a recent flight home from Europe, somewhere over Greenland a woman seated in the back of the plane went berserk and tried to storm the cockpit. She made it as far as the curtain between coach and business class before she was subdued by the flight attendants and the heretofore unidentified sky marshals. She spent the rest of the flight with her hands ziptied behind her back, only slightly more uncomfortable than everyone else in coach.

Rumor quickly circulated around the cabin that she was mentally unstable. Ya think? I had to wonder if she was insane before she boarded the plane, or if conditions on board drove her to it. I mean, how many times can you expect people to watch “Zoolander” without consequences?

It’s no secret that flying isn’t what it used to be; gone are the complimentary cocktails, comfy seats and gracious flight attendants. Nowadays you’re lucky if your tiny bag of pretzels are fresh. Forget about peanuts – too expensive.

Large sweaty seatmates, cramped bathrooms and really bad movies are hard enough to take on flights across the continental United States, but they can be downright unbearable on flights lasting up to 15 hours – the time it takes to get to Ireland from Seattle. But with a little advance planning, your flight abroad can be bearable, maybe even enjoyable.

I’ve flown to Ireland six times round trip, so that’s 12 flights, with at least one plane change on each flight, so 24 different planes. Services tend to be going downhill each year, which means the savvy traveler has to be much more self-sufficient.

Here are some items I find essential on the long flights:

1. Comfortable clothes. You’ll be sitting for a long time, so leave the sexy skinny jeans home and opt for something stretchable and wrinkle-proof, like yoga pants or leggings. I like black stretch pants with a loose fitting cotton top; dressy yet comfortable. Airplanes tend to be hot and stuffy, so dress a level cooler and cover up if you get chilly. Which brings us to number two:

2. Pashmina or similar large, lightweight scarf. This is an all-purpose item that will serve for many purposes on your travels. It makes a great lightweight blanket, you can throw it over a light jacket to dress up a look and add warmth, or you can put it over your head when you dash out into the rain.

3. Slip on shoes. These will not only make getting through security easier, your feet will thank you on the long flight. In summer I love my Birkenstocks, in cooler weather I go with zip up ankle boots. The close seats don’t allow room to bend over and tie your shoes and you don’t want to leave them untied on the way to the bathroom!

4. Noise canceling headphones and portable music system, or earplugs. It seems to be the law that the longer the flight the more crying babies there will be. And they will always be right behind you. Just be glad you are not the parent, and turn up the music. In severe cases, use earplugs and headphones.

5. Audiobooks or e-book reader. Audiobooks also help to drown out noise, while e-book readers are much lighter than lugging books along. I like David Sedaris or other humor writers for long trips. Travel books about your destination are also good. For Ireland I suggest “McCarthy’s Bar,” by Peter McCarthy.

6. Trail mix-type snacks. A hungry passenger is a cranky passenger, and it can be a long time between “meals.” You can take control and head off hunger pangs by bringing your own snacks. I suggest high protein munchies such as trail mix or granola bars, and of course chocolate. Be a pal and offer some to your seatmates. Try to avoid smelly things like tins of sardines or egg salad sandwiches. Your seatmates will thank you.

7. Bottled water. So far most airlines aren’t charging for water, but it’s best to bring your own anyway. You’ll need it for washing down your snack, and for preventing dehydration in the arid enclosed space. Also good for washing down painkillers (see below).

8. Painkillers. After this many hours on a plane, you will get stiff and sore. You can head off many aches and pains with a preventative dose of over-the-counter pain reliever.

9. Neck pillow. I used to think these looked silly, but after one stiff neck too many, I caved and got an inflatable one. All I can say is, ahhhh! Airplane seats seem to be designed to be uncomfortable for all body types, curving in all the wrong places. You can mitigate this with an inflatable pillow, plus the tiny pillow they may give you can be used for lumbar support.

10. Infinite patience and a sense of humor. OK, that’s two things, but both essential to surviving a modern-day transatlantic flight. Just remember, the flight will end and you will be at the start of a new adventure!

What do you do to make flying more bearable? Please share your tips and tricks with us!

How to take a great passport photo

The late, great American humorist Erma Bombeck nailed it with the title of her book: When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home.

Maybe this will look better to me in 5 years when it expires.

Maybe this will look better to me in 5 years when it expires.

In my case, my photo looked terrible from the get go. I prayed I never looked that bad while traveling, and that I wasn’t pulled aside for interrogation by the TSA.

I thought it would be a good idea to go to a “professional” photo studio for the shot, as it would adorn my passport for the next 10 years.

As I lined up on the stool in front of a white backdrop (wearing a light purple shirt) the girl said new regulations said you weren’t supposed to smile. OK, so they wanted everyone to look suspicious? (In the newspaper business they call this format a mug shot.)

The resulting photo was washed out and terrible, but I had paid too much for it and was too wimpy to insist on a retake for free. I shoved it in a drawer until my current passport neared expiration, then finally included it with my renewal. Now I have to regret that for the next five years.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  In preparing for your trip abroad, here are few tips for taking a passport photo you will be proud to show at any security checkpoint.

1. Visit the State Department travel site’s photo requirements (  to see the official parameters for a passport photo. They now offer a tool for sizing your own digital photographs so you don’t have to use a paid photographer. Take as many photos as you like and keep only the one you want! I like that.

2. Get your hair done. That may sound like old lady advice, but having a good haircut will make you look good for years to come. Consider a cut (and color) that won’t look terribly dated before your passport expires. Beehives looked awesome in 1963; by 1973, not so much.

3.  Decide what time of day you look your best. If you’re a morning person you might look great at 8 a.m., bright-eyed and ready to take on the world. If you’ve stayed up until 4 a.m., consider taking your photo at 4 p.m., when the bags and shadows have diminished.  (They don’t like you to significantly “alter” your photos.)

4. Wear makeup, even if you normally go bare. Just a little mascara, light blush and light colored lip gloss will make your features stand out and your photo “pop.”  DO NOT overdo it, or you will regret it. Do you really want to look like Amy Winehouse for the next 10 years?

 5. Wear a simple, timeless top in a color that complements your hair and skin tone.  Not much of your top will show, but still, you don’t want it to detract from your face or make you look dated before your passport expires.

 6. Look friendly. The rules do state to keep a “neutral expression,” but this doesn’t mean you have to look petrified. Practice the model’s trick of smiling with your eyes — open and friendly, but not squinchy. You want your look to say “trust me, I’m not a terrorist.”

7. And like your mother always told you, sit up straight!

For more information on passport requirements and to apply, visit the State Department’s passport website at www.

Do you have a passport photo horror story you’d like to share? Or better yet, a bad passport photo? We’d love to see them!  And if you find these tips useful please feel free to share them on your social network of choice by clicking the buttons below.

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