Academic Travel 2: Getting There and Being There

This is part two in a series about what has worked for me during a year of busy academic travelling.

The First Great Western trains in the UK now have in-seat entertainment!

Part 2: Getting There and Being There.
In this post I’m going to cover plane (and train) travel, exploiting your accommodation, and your “kit”.

For the previous post: Part 1:  Preparing For The Trip.
[Updated 23/10/2011]

1. Don’t Write Your Talk on the Plane Mrs Jones

While it’s true that you can get a surprising amount of work done while sat in your seat at ten thousand metres up, the nature of that work should ideally never be the talk you’re about to give. Two reasons:

1. Your laptop can and will fail. This happened to me twice this summer: once at the very beginning of the trip, and once halfway through the conference but before I gave my talk. Both times my talk was done and safely saved to my Dropbox (more on that later), and it turned what could have been an absolute disaster into just a small annoyance.

2. Travel is stressful and unpredictable enough without leaving writing your talk until that 2/5/8/13 hour journey. And it doesn’t matter how long the journey, you really only have the battery life of your computer to get it done. You could be using that time to strategise your conference networking, reading papers to flesh out the fine points of your arguments, or watching a Drew Barrymore comedy on a tiny screen.

That out of the way, let’s imagine your talk is done and just requires a run-through the night before. You’ve arrived at the airport/station with your well-packed luggage, checked in, claimed your frequent-flyer points, and because you’re clever, you’ve worn an outfit that is comfortable yet business-y (increasing your chances of an upgrade), with easily removable shoes (for ease of navigating the security theatre).

If you have any time at the airport your choice is usually shopping, eating, or working. If I have time I walk around all the shops, for two reasons: first because I’ll be sitting down for the foreseeable future, and secondly when else do you get a good excuse to window shop in the luxury goods shops? The electronics shops at airports often have travel-related gadgetry, as well, though most of the time the trick is to note down anything you think looks useful and see if you can get it online. Speaking of online:

Lists of airports with (free) wifi here and here.

The other option is to exploit the lounges at the airport. Some require membership in a scheme, some are pay-per-visit, and some are complimentary depending on the type of ticket you hold. For example, I had a first-class rail ticket back from Berlin last week, and use of the business lounge was complementary. It’s a good idea to suss this out before you travel, and sometimes it’s worth the €25-50 fee if your trip is a long one or you’re changing planes on a long-haul trip. Being able to take a shower, have a light meal and zone out in a quiet space make long flights much more bearable and help you get over your jetlag quicker.

Final boarding call!
Because I check my bag most of the time my strategy is to board the plane LAST (why wait in a queue?), but if you like to do the one-bag carry-on thing then you need to get on EARLY to get that bag up in the overhead bins (especially on budget airlines or internal North American flights). Boarding the plane last-ish is apparently supposed to increase your chances of being bumped up a class on a full flight, but probably carries a chance you might be bumped OFF if the flight is overbooked.

On trains, board EARLY all the time. Luggage space is always at a premium and often seating is unassigned (or the assignment is ignored, passengers on UK trains I am looking at you). Many train companies have carriage maps on their websites so you can see the layouts, and many stations have maps that tell you where each carriage will stop. More on trains: many have wi-fi these days, you can check on the train company websites. Be vigilant about luggage and belongings on trains as it is much easier for theft to occur.

Aisle or window?
I reckon that if your flight lasts for 4-5 hours or less an aisle seat is the way to go. Those short hops are usually where you’ll have an interconnecting flight and so want to maximise chances of getting off the plane quickly. If the flight is any longer (and if there’s a chance you’ll sleep) then the window is the best place. Less disturbance from people clambering over you, but your personal preference may be determined by your bladder. SeatGuru is a fabulous website (especially for plane nerds) that gives you not only all the amenities on your particular flight but also the seating layout, with all the details for each seat such as when seat recline is obstructed, or the entertainment unit is under the seat in front (and thus no space for your bag/legs). Choose wisely!

If you’re travelling with someone a good trick is to book the aisle and window of a three-row. If the middle seat gets taken on a full flight, you can negotiate to sit together, and if not, you’ve got an extra half-seat each. Let’s not pretend that academics ever get to travel business class, but nowadays many airlines now have some sort of “premium economy” where there is more legroom and the seat recline angle goes further back. For short haul flights there’s not really a point unless you’re a big or tall person, but for long haul flights the extra €100-€200 might just be worth it. For me, the extra recline angle means I actually get to sleep (otherwise I slide out of my seat because my legs are too short).

Speaking of sleep, I advocate sleeping pills over alcohol, and an eye-mask, earplugs, and supportive pillow are absolute necessities. You can also always ask for more pillows and blankets, even in economy. With food and drink, I avoid all caffeine on flights (both tea and coffee are always horrible) and guzzle my coffee at the arrival airport instead. I keep a drink bottle full of water, and you can always ask the cabin crew to top it up for you. Generally I order a special meal when travelling by myself, because you get them before everyone else, and they seem to be just a bit more interesting (asian vegetarian especially).

It’ll come down to personal preference what sort of work (if any) you like to do while travelling, but I’ve noticed that I gravitate towards tedious coding jobs, filing my poorly-named image files, and fiddling with diagrams in Illustrator. I can read a little, but it has to be gripping stuff and definitely not abstract theoretical argument. Remember, the cabin pressure is designed to simulate air pressure and oxygen at 2000m, not sea level, so unless you normally live at that altitude, your brain doesn’t work as well on a flight. It’s also a reason to not engage your colleague in 13A in an Important!Science!Discussion! unless they’re keen too: if they’re anything like me, most people’s thought processes on a flight are a bit sluggish.

Finally, a word about travelling with colleagues. It depends on how well you know them, but remember that your colleagues might have variable attitudes to travelling. These could include debilitating problems with travel such as motion sickness, fear of flying, fear of crowded spaces, sleep problems, and discomfort with unfamiliar places. People can have their own routines that cause stress if they’re interrupted: for instance, I’ve known a colleague who immediately rushes to the gate at any airport, even if the flight doesn’t depart for hours. And if you are travelling together, do make sure you know who is responsible for what. Some people like to be the one in charge with all the information, and other people are quite happy to just assume their colleagues will have taken care of things like departure times and the address of the hotel.

2. Is The Room To Your Specifications, Madam?

For academics on business travel, where we stay is often out of our control: there’s a single conference hotel, we’re staying with colleagues, our employers or granting agencies have rules about where and how much to spend, we’re students or junior researchers on a limited and/or personal budget, the conference is being held in a small town with one B&B and a giant Best Western …  etcetera. I covered some of the issues about choosing where you stay in Part 1.

Given all that, here’s a collection of tips to make your stay — wherever that is — restful and productive.

Some people can share a room, and some people can’t. Things to consider about potential share-ees: personal hygiene, differing sleep schedules, status/power differentials, likelihood of long calls to family, items charged to the room, displacement of anxiety/stress, person is reviewing your paper/grant. Don’t be pressured into sharing a room against your better judgement, and if it’s the make-or-break financial aspect to a crucial conference, then plan ahead and save up for your own room: you need the space to practice your talk, and wind down and rest.

Amenities vary hugely. If things are not available in your room, they’re often available at the desk (e.g. hairdryer, iron, extra hangers, extra pillows, more towels). I get very cranky when tea/coffee making facilities are not available in my room, because I’m not really a breakfast person and prefer to have my caffeine and a muesli bar in my PJs rather than talk about work over breakfast with colleagues. (Seriously, you guys! It’s indecent!) See Section 3: Stuff below on this. Also remember to ask the desk for things like power adaptors, extension cords, or a shower cap and toothbrushes if you’ve forgotten anything. It’s their job to be prepared for the forgetfulness of travellers.

Always go around the room and check things (including the internet!) as soon as you arrive, and always complain if things are not right. Ask to be moved immediately if necessary. Remember, you are there on business*, and you need to do your job effectively. If your shower only runs cold and you don’t sleep because of overactive airconditioning, that will impact your functioning!

When you check-in, ask the hotel staff about checking out: Can you stay later? Is there somewhere to keep your bags? If you’re giving a Very Important Talk, you might want to ask the hotel if they have a room you can practice in (quite likely if it’s a corporate hotel). And always ask them for restaurant recommendations, taxi companies, and local convenience shops. Even though this information may be available in the folder in the room, it’s good to have the desk staff familiar with your face — you’ll get more personal attention that way.

In sum: remember that this is not a holiday. Focus on why you are there, and think about what you will need to get the best out of your conference attendance and academic networking. This is not advice to “go cheap” but rather to be utilitarian about your travel: what do you need to be effective and comfortable? You might need to supplement your travel budget from your own personal finances, but if the trip is one in which you deliver an important lecture, or give a job talk, or meet important colleagues, then think carefully about investing in yourself. Think about it from your colleagues point of view — people prefer to interact with refreshed and on-task people, rather than people who are tired or chaotic.

3. Stuff, or, The Fine Balance Between Minimalism and Remembering to Bring a Pen

In this section I’m going to describe the kit that has been useful for me on my academic travels. There’s a few generic items at the end, but I include these for your (hopeful) use in your own travels.


1. Laptop
I have a 15″ MacBook Pro, which I love for its rugged titanium case (I’ve dropped it on concrete and it didn’t break), but  it can be a bit heavy to lug around. I also have bad eyesight, which means smaller screens are no good for making graphics (especially detailed phylogenies) for  presentations. However, if you have been paying attention you’ll know that I (now) have my talk ready before I go, so I’m not making slides the night before (anymore). So while I generally take my laptop with me while travelling, I don’t usually take it with me to the conference venue aside from the day of the talk. But, you ask, how do you tweet? How do you download and skim papers that are being talked about? Take notes? Answer: see item #2 Smartphone.

2. Smartphone
A year ago I was perfectly happy with my ancient mobile that made calls, played MP3s and took very bad pictures, and I still maintain that not everyone needs a swanky phone. But my phone was on the blink and a friend was selling his Android HTC Desire,so I bought it without having to angst about what to buy, and it’s been an absolute boon. This is not the place to extol the virtues of Android v iOS v BlackBerry phones (whatever), but the internet / file transfer features of the smartphone were invaluable when my laptop died. The mapping features are brilliant in unfamiliar locations, especially when combined with personalised Google Maps with all your hotel/conference/transport locations that you’ll need (conference organisers, take note and do the work for your attendees). I can access email and internet, and the brilliant DropBox app (see #8) means I can access all the files and papers I need. There are a number of note-taking applications that I use during talks, and it’s also cool as a big stopwatch when you can’t use presentation tools during your talk.

3. Clicker, pointer, dongle and case
I have a wireless USB presentation clicker/laser pointer that gets me free of the keyboard when presenting. Sometimes your facilities will come with these, but it’s always nice to have your own. I also have a neat telescopic pointer (basically a car aerial disguised as a ballpoint pen) which can be effective in small rooms when you’re close to the screen. I keep these guys, together with a USB stick and my video cable connector dongle, all in a little zip-up pouch, with a note reminding me what should be in there.

4. Laptop case and bag
I have a generic neoprene fitted case for my laptop, although I am eternally on the hunt for one with a integrated shoulder strap/handle. The one I have fits into my bag from Jost, a German company who I can recommend. I love this bag: it has multiple pockets without being “full of compartments”, a wide shoulder strap, lovely brushed leather that looks neither too corporate, studenty or handbaggy, and is not so deep or spacious that I overstuff it and lose items or strain my back. It’s a good carry-on size for short hops, too. I think that finding the right work-bag takes time but is worth the effort.

5. Business cards
People are always divided on this issue. The nays generally argue that (a) there’s no practical need because everyone is on email and/or (b) that’s something for the business world and/or (c) they feel too formal giving them out and/or (d) their institutional business cards are horrible. While (a) is true and (d) is often true, I disagree completely with (b) and (c) and think that academia would do well to integrate some of the formal rituals of the business world into our culture. While starting and ending conversations with strangers is hard, having a business card gives you an edge in being memorable. Even if the person doesn’t use the card for your details they will simply remember the fact they had an interaction where you gave them the card. They now are in possession of something with your name on it. They will think about you at least one more time.  Regarding (d), no matter if your institution’s card are good, bad, or otherwise, you should make your own, because as an academic ultimately You Are Your Own Business. If you feel weird about handing them out, make a space so that they’re “a scrap of paper to write on”, or have a useful diagram on the back. For example, I have a schematic phylogeny on mine that’s handy for explaining the concept of an evolutionary tree.

6. Kindle (or other e-reader)
These things are amazing. I don’t know about the capabilities of other e-readers, so this is just one perspective, but I got my Kindle a year ago and as well as being great for fiction, it’s changed my work habits completely. No more printing out papers or photocopying book chapters to take to read when I travel. No piles of dead trees. I just send pdfs to my Kindle (kept in original form or converted to the native format), where I can skim loads of papers without killing the rainforests, read a few closely, annotate those and save the notes to a text file, and keep important papers for further referral. You can download the first few chapters of most Kindle books on Amazon (great for when you’re indecisive), and many out-of-copyright classics (especially in anthropology) can be found in electronic format. I’ve converted six or so colleagues to using an e-reader (many of them total book-fetishists) and really credit it with reading more, and more effectively. And of course, it’s the size of a skinny paperback. One of them.

Bonus: before I got my smartphone I was using the Kindle as a halfway device: I saved maps to pdf and loaded them on, and kept all of my travel documents on the Kindle instead of printing them out. If you’re short on budget and tossing up between a smartphone and an e-reader, the e-readers are hands-down winners in the eyestrain/readability stakes. Screen glare is for losers 🙂

7. Spare battery for your laptop
Expensive, but if you ever take seven hour journeys where you do want to work, utterly invaluable.

8. Cloud data storage
As I’ve said, having my work saved in a remote location has been brilliant when technology has failed me. It’s also excellent if you have need to access your files (be they data, writing, or literature) when you’re travelling, but you’re not really certain what you might need. All the presentation-related files I need are  in my Dropbox, as is my Papers library of pdfs. Although technically most institutions let you establish a secure connection to your files from remote locations, in practice the variable networks we encounter while travelling make this tricky sometimes. Cloud storage is a good solution if you can work it, I can recommend Dropbox. They give you 3GB free to start off with.


9. Collapsible drink bottle
Cannot recommend my Vapur bottle highly enough. Holds half a litre of water, flattens and rolls to nothing, comes in great colours, and can attach to your bag strap with the carabiner. Brilliant for bypassing airport security nonsense too. I get curious-then-envious looks everywhere.

10. Tea, coffee and sustenance
I have one ziplock bag containing a selection of teabags, instant coffee, sugar, and powdered milk/creamer, and another containing muesli bars and other “breakfast bar” -type snacks. I top the first bag up with the complimentary teabags/sugar etc in the hotel room if they are deemed to be of sufficient quality 😉 Following Ann’s advice, (more here) I now also have a small french press / insulated mug for travel where the coffee might be dire for some time. It’s also just generally useful for keeping your hot drink hot throughout a two-hour session. I always have a packet of mints in my bag during travel and at a conference too.

11. Personal items
I have a small clear toiletries bag for carry-on, so I don’t have to repack my deodorant and moisturiser out of the regulation plastic bag into another. It’s generally the same stuff that I carry in my bag during the day (lipstick, asthma inhaler, perfume spritzer) so I then just throw it in my conference bag.

TIP (mostly for the ladies): If you buy your cosmetics from department stores or upscale pharmacies you are more likely to get samples of useful products for your carry-on, like moisturiser, hand-cream, refreshing sprays etc. If this sort of thing is out of your normal price-range then fashion magazines often have surprisingly generous travel-size “free gifts” that are definitely worth the price of the mag, even if you don’t read it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for free samples at the duty-free.

12. (optional) Crochet
I find that if I have something to do with my hands I listen and comprehend much more effectively. If I’m doing herringbone half-double crochet stitches during your talk, I’m listening really closely.  🙂

* Not just the business of your university or employer, but the business of Your Career. More about that in a later post.

Let me know what you think about the issues covered in this post, and if you have any further travel tips of your own. In the third and last post in this series, “Making The Most of Your Trip”, I’ll cover: practicalities on using conferences, workshops, seminars and visits effectively, and your travel follow-up procedure.

4 thoughts on “Academic Travel 2: Getting There and Being There”

  1. Great post. I have one of these also which I find invaluable for travelling when you might not have access to a charger for a while, or for short trips where I don’t want to take a pile of different cables. I’ve used mine to juice up my iPhone or Kindle any number of times.

  2. Looking forward to hearing people proselytize for the iPad — am interested in how many have given up the laptop for conferences for its sexier alternative…

  3. All excellent advice Fi! One of these days I will have to borrow your Kindle and play with it. I am yet to be converted and thus drag with me at least 1kg of paper per week of travel. The public library’s books are distinctly worse for the wear I have inflicted upon them.

    On the subject of the special meals, I concur in general, but lest someone be considering experimenting, caution against the gluten-free meals. They are generally unpleasant, even within the realm of airline food, and in my experience (Star Alliance airlines) almost always come with stale rice cakes as the major source of carbs.


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