Introduction: Airline Travel Tips

Picture of Airline Travel Tips

My wife and I most often fly Southwest Airlines domestically, that is, within the borders of the United States.  This is the interior of a Boeing 737 like Southwest uses exclusively in their fleet.  (The photo is from Bing Images.)

If I am trying to read, I do not like splotches of sunlight and shadow coming through the cabin windows onto my book.  If we are flying from east to west, I like to plan to sit on the north side of the airplane while it is in flight.  That would be the right side in the photo.  Since Southwest has open seating rather than assigned seats, this is very much possible. 

Step 1: Are We There Yet?

Picture of Are We There Yet?

Most of my flights are only an hour or two in duration.  But, we recently had a four hour flight from Nashville, Tennessee to Las Vegas, Nevada.  Some pilots give the passengers frequent updates on where the plane is at the moment.  Most do not.  After a while, adults can be as curious as children to know where they are.  Southwest Airlines gives small napkins with the snacks and beverages.  The back of these napkins includes a nice map of the continental United States with cities served by Southwest neatly marked.  Passengers can turn these into progress maps.  

Step 2: Draw a Straight Line Between Cities

Picture of Draw a Straight Line Between Cities

Use the safety information card or the inflight magazine for a straightedge to draw a line between the city where the flight begins and where it is to end.  If your airline does not have a map on the napkins, you can photo copy a suitable map and bring it with you. 

Step 3: Fold

Picture of Fold

Bring the two cities together in a fold so they are exactly one over the other.

Step 4: Sharp Crease

Picture of Sharp Crease

Without disturbing the overlapping of the two cities, turn the napkin over and make a very sharp crease.

Step 5: Mid-point Mark

Picture of Mid-point Mark

Open the napkin and make a mark in the crease.  This is where the plane should be halfway through the flight.  Our flight was to last a few minutes less than four hours.  There are not a lot of recognizable landmarks in the panhandle of Oklahoma, but two hours after our flight began I had a rough idea of where we were. 

Step 6: Mark Quarter Way Indicators

Picture of Mark Quarter Way Indicators

I made a fold that pulled the mid-point mark to overlap the city of origin and made another crease.  A mark in this crease indicates where the plane should be after the first hour of the nearly four hour flight. 

Step 7: Fully Marked

Picture of Fully Marked

The napkin has been marked for each of the four hours of the flight.  If I wanted to, I could guess to add marks midway between the quarter of flight marks. 

It worked out neatly that we had a four hour flight.  Suppose it had been a five hour flight.  Each mark would represent 5/4, or 1.25 of the distance covered in one hour, or one hour and fifteen minutes.  I could have made a notation by each mark: 1' 15", 2' 30", 3' 45", and 5'.  Or, I could have converted that to real time.  To be useful, that would mean factoring the difference in time zones between the city of origin and the city of the destination.  In this case, Las Vegas (Pacific Time Zone) is two time zones away from Nashville (Central Time Zone).  If we were due to land in Las Vegas at 2 PM local time, that would have meant a 9 AM Pacific take off in Nashville.  I would have wanted to have changed the setting on my watch to Las Vegas time before taking off and before making my napkin calculations.  My marks on the napkin would have indicated 10:15 AM, 11:30 AM, 12:45 PM, and a 2:00 PM arrival.

As of about 2012 Southwest Airlines offers WiFi on many of its aircraft. Above 10,000 feet in altitude devices which do not transmit or connect to cell phone towers may be used with the WiFi. A flight tracker is offered without paying the connections fee. A laptop or a Kindle will work, but a smart phone will not, not even on airplane mode. The image on a Kindle is grainy, but useful, and it gives other information about the flight (altitude, ground speed, estimated time of arrival, etc.)

Marking my napkin in this way did help me identify a couple of major rivers we overflew.    

Step 8: What to Do in Four Hours

Picture of What to Do in Four Hours

People often sleep on airplanes.  When I fall asleep my muscles become very relaxed and slack.  The result is that my knees spread.  One night we were on a long flight.  I fell asleep.  My knees spread with one of them going out into the aisle.  I awoke suddenly when a beverage cart crashed directly into it.   In the photo I am sitting in an easy chair at home, not on an airliner.  My knees are relaxed and spread apart.  Even if I were not sitting on an aisle, I would be invading the space of other passengers. 

Step 9: Keeping Knees in Control

Picture of Keeping Knees in Control

Assume the left side of the photo is on the aisle.  I want to keep that knee from wandering into the aisle.  I place that foot behind my other foot.  Then I pull the foot in front back toward the seat.  This hooks my leg in place and keeps my knee from wandering.  Although it may not sound comfortable, it is and I sleep very well.  Compare the photo in the previous step to see how much closer together my knees are in this photo.  

Step 10: Using the Time

Picture of Using the Time

On long flights I like to change what I am doing about every 20 to 30 minutes.  I often plan four or five things to do, and then I rotate to a different one of these regularly.  Naturally, I take a book.  After about 30 minutes of reading I am usually ready to do something else.  Often I have work to do before I return home.  As a pastor, this could be preparing a funeral sermon. 

Many people use a laptop computer on an airplane.  But, if the person ahead of you suddenly pitches his seat backward toward you because he wants a more relaxed position, his seatback can catch your laptop screen and break it.  If I take a laptop on the plane, I do not often use it.  First, the battery may not last the entire flight.  Second, space is cramped and I do not want to risk damage to my screen.  I prefer to think and make notes on a pad.  When I am in an airport waiting for my next flight I can type the handwritten notes into the laptop.  I can also use programs on my computer to generate more about which to think on the next leg of the trip.  

Although it is now old technology, I really do like using my Palm organizer with a folding keyboard in place of a laptop.  It synchronizes with my computer and allows me to compose or edit standard documents.  If I am preparing a sermon, I can use a Bible loaded onto my Palm to find, copy, and paste references.  The battery lasts and it is so small that I can use it on a seatback tray without danger of it being damaged.  

I take an audio player with me and prefer earbuds as the best thing I have found for being heard over engine noise.  But I do not often use them inflight because the volume must be quite high to be heard well, and I do not like to do that to my ears.  Still, that is one thing can do for 20 or 30 minutes.

Reading the inflight magazine usually takes no longer than 30 minutes and is not a repeatable activity.  The same can be said for consuming the inflight snack and beverage.  I might sleep twice during a flight, but probably only once, at the best. 

Occasionally, a seatmate is willing to converse, but that seems to be more rare all of the time.  Sometimes I just think about some problem in my workshop that I would like to solve and make notes on it.  

One good aspect of changing activities is that your mind can problem solve in the background while working on another activity. 

Step 11: Directional Confusion

Picture of Directional Confusion

I have been on some flights during which the pilot began changing the plane's direction in unusual ways that confuse.  He may have been avoiding weather or other aircraft.  Or, he was receiving complex instructions for his landing approach.  Then it becomes desirable to remember how to use a wristwatch, real or imaginary, as a compass. 

A finger works as an indicator.  The watch must be set for the local standard (not daylight) time where the plane is at the moment.  Point the hour hand toward the sun (yellow lines).  Watch shadows across the aisle if you are not on the sunny side of the plane.  Bisect the angle between the hour hand and 12 o'clock (red arrow).  In the Northern Hemisphere, that line defines north to south, with north being opposite the sun, not toward it.  Here is a more complete explanation for both hemispheres.  

Step 12: Altitude Changes

Picture of Altitude Changes

These are my favorite style of earplugs for flying.  I wear them on takeoff until the plane reaches its cruising altitude, and again during the descent and landing.  Once I did not take them with me and the plane descended rather rapidly.  I had a swimmer's ear for almost three days until my ear "popped."  These allow the pressures to change gradually and I have never needed to wait for an ear to "pop."  It is easy to know when to put the earplugs back into my ears before landing.  About 30 minutes before landing you can hear a sudden change in the sound of the engines.

Step 13: Setting Your Watch Accurately

Picture of Setting Your Watch Accurately

Often I travel with a digital watch because I can reset the hour without disturbing the minutes and seconds.  But, I really prefer my analog watch.  When I reset it for different time zones, the minute hand often is no longer an accurate indicator of the actual time.  Although I cannot use my cell phone inflight, I can use it when we land to make certain the minute hand (and even the second hand) on my watch is set accurately.  The time display on a cell phone must be very precise and accurate, or two way communications are not timed correctly and you hear only a jumble of sounds, not conversation.  And, my cell phone always gives the correct local time, in case I am confused about what time zone we are in.   

You may have more and better tips for airline travel, but these have helped me a lot. 


lemonie (author)2010-12-04

And "they"'re planning a l o n g -haul trip to Mars...


Phil B (author)lemonie2010-12-04

That would be a tough trip. Perhaps you heard the US space program once allegedly included space for 120 pounds of recreational equipment in one of the capsules. The two astronauts asked if that recreational equipment might be a woman.

finton (author)Phil B2013-05-07

Heh! Bet that went down like a ton of bricks! Here in 2013* it probably wouldn't :]

*Wow! this is seriously like time-travel!!

Phil B (author)finton2013-05-08

I think those astronauts were back in the 1960s. Political correctness probably would not allow it.

lemonie (author)Phil B2010-12-05

I had not heard that one(!)


Phil B (author)2013-03-13

Thank you for looking and commenting. I hope the move goes well.

kretzlord (author)2011-08-26

I just got back from a work-related trip the other day. It was on an old RJ with super worn out seats, it felt like I was sitting on plywood with carpet padding on it. aside from getting a pillow from the stewardess (which i don't like to do because they aren't always the cleanest), the only thing i could do was switch positions about every 10 minute. it makes for a very long hour flight. someday soon i will make an inflatable butt pillow to accompany the inflatable neck supports...

Phil B (author)kretzlord2011-11-04

Even a foam cushion would not be too bulky to carry and would help quite a lot until you could find or make an inflatable cushion. I sympathize with you. I hope your flight was not too long.

rimar2000 (author)2010-12-04

Good work, Phil.

Regarding step 12, I carry chewing gum and use it at take-of and landing. It is effective, unless you are nasal congested, in which case you can use a descongestant previously (I don't know if there in USA they can be buyed without medical prescription).

But thinking well, your earplugs are simpler!

kretzlord (author)rimar20002011-08-26

If only i'd seen this comment before i posted! but i guess great minds think alike

Phil B (author)rimar20002010-12-04


Thank you for the comment. Chewing gum would work. I am not much of a gum chewer. I want to spit it out as soon as the flavor is gone! We can buy decongestants without prescription. Commonly we say "over the counter" when we want to say without doctor's a prescription. They are used mostly for headcolds when someone had difficulty breathing. I am often amazed in recent weeks how good your English is becoming.

rimar2000 (author)Phil B2010-12-04

Phil, many times I can write English without Google Translator help. But hearing it is still very difficult to understand for me. Spanish and English have grammar construction sometimes very different, that confuse me.

Phil B (author)rimar20002010-12-04


We were required to study German in school, but only enough for reading a little. There came a time when I wanted to understand spoken German and to speak a little. I began by listening to the world news in English at 7 AM and then in German at 8 AM by shortwave radio. It took a long time, but eventually I was able to understand quite a bit. German grammar is often quite different from English, too. I always told people studying a language that a lot of stupid little kids in those countries learned that language, and they (the students of a new language) probably can, too.

rimar2000 (author)Phil B2010-12-04

Sometimes I think I have a cognitive (computational) audition problem, because I hear clearly a phrase, but I need hear it twice in order to understand it. besides, my son and my daughter can understand perfectly English songs, but I am almost totally unable to do it.

Phil B (author)rimar20002010-12-04

I think songs in another language are difficult. The words often fade into one another with a clear distinction between them. And, the writer may choose a colloquialism that is almost slang not well known to non-native speakers because he needs to make it rhyme or fit the meter.

kretzlord (author)2011-08-26

A trick I used to use while flying on MD-88's was chewing gum for takeoff and landing. The jaw motion continually equalizes the pressure. it doesn't always work great, but if you forget your plugs, its a good alternate

Allard (author)2010-12-05

Good instructable, only the plane does travel in a straigt line but use the earth to travel via a shorter route. It uses great circels around the earth to find the shortest route. So ever point in your example line will be a fraction (on the map) more to the north. This results that your center point of your example route about 1 state more the north lies. Sorry for my poor English, I'm from Holland.
You can do the same thing on a large ferry or cruise. They also use this natural advantage: shorter route means less use of the engine and less time so it saves energy and most importantly money!

Phil B (author)Allard2011-08-15

My wife is making this exact same flight from Nashville, TN to Las Vegas, NV today. I am watching an Internet flight tracker and she has about one hour to go in the flight. I compared the progress map on the flight tracker with what I drew on the napkin in this Instructable. It is amazing how well both correspond with each other. The little cocktail napkin map is quite accurate.

Phil B (author)Allard2010-12-05

Thank you for your comment. I am merely looking for a rough idea of what area is in view out the airplane's window, or about where we are in the case of cloud cover. It makes the trip more bearable if I have some idea of how far we have progressed. You make good points. Your English is good enough. We have driven from Leer, Germany to Amsterdam, Holland. We were always pleased with how many citizens of the Netherlands speak quite good English. We did stop at a MacDonald's on the way to eat and the people behind the counter had more difficulty with English than personnel at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. I guess that is to be expected. Your English is certainly better than my Dutch!

porcupinemamma (author)2010-12-06

All I want to know is......ARE WE THERE YET?????? lol ;0)

Phil B (author)porcupinemamma2010-12-06


Nice to hear from you. The interval markings on the little napkin map actually relieve some of my "Are we there, yet?" anxieties because I have a fair idea of where we are. But, that does seem to be everyone's eternal question. Merry Christmas to you.

3366carlos (author)2010-12-04

Very nice tips. I like your idea of approximating the location, I don't think commercial airliners fly in a straight line all the time, but at least your approximation can be used as a good reference

Phil B (author)3366carlos2010-12-04

I think you are correct. On our recent trip the plane banked a couple of times to change direction slightly. That could involve avoiding military air space or a bunch of other things. Yet, I appreciate knowing with some certainty if I am looking down at Kansas or New Mexico or whatever. I should also say the inflight magazine mentioned GPS receivers are approved electronic devices for passengers while above 10,000 feet in altitude. Thank you for your comment.

About This Instructable




Bio: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying ... More »
More by Phil B:Picture or Shelf Hanging FixtureMake an Electric Motor Run AgainMotor Made New McGyver Style
Add instructable to: