Nine tips for zen-like travel

Sarah Davies (20 September 2011)

In a recent thread discussing working abroad a distinction emerged: actually being away from home (whether for fieldwork, conference attendance, or a longer-term research post) and getting there, in the sense of the travelling involved. A consensus emerged that while travel broadens the mind, travelling itself is something of a chore.

while travel broadens the mind, travelling itself is something of a chore

I want to dissent a little in order to speak up for travel: while I think it's inevitable that I’m fundamentally ambivalent about it – struggling, for instance, with the carbon-guilt of my long haul trips and with the more geometric problem of fitting long legs comfortably into aeroplane seats – I have a sneaking fondness for the mindless, automatic behaviour contemporary travel often involves. I find the neutral emptiness of hotel rooms soothing (unlike a colleague, who finds hotels so depressing that he gets teary and has to ring his family), quite enjoy an opportunity to stare blankly into space while waiting at the gate, and travelled so rarely as a child that I’m still able to cling to the vestigial glamour attached to airports, stations, and planes. At the very least, I’ve developed some good coping strategies for long haul journeys. Here are a few of my tips…

1. Make sure you’re utterly exhausted before you start. Work flat-out the week before a big trip and don’t sleep the night before: it sounds crazy, but I’ve found that doing this ensures that you’re in such a zombie-fied state that crashing for 10 hours on a plane becomes absolute bliss.

2. Don’t work. Some people, faced with five hours of sitting, whip out their laptop and attempt to finish their latest paper. This just doesn’t work for me: travelling becomes much more pleasurable when you’re reading a novel rather than Deleuze.

3. Find an airline you like. This is a little bit spoddy, but I think it’s worth working out which airline gives you the most comfortable experience and sticking with them as far as possible.

4. Get an iPad. I bought my iPad with the full intention of using it for work. It turns out that while it’s pretty good for reading papers on, what it’s really excellent for is watching movies when you’re travelling with an airline that doesn’t give you that option (US Airways, I’m looking at you). Ditto downloading and reading novels, and playing Angry Birds.

5. Don’t recline your seat too early. Okay, this isn’t really about your own experience. But nothing gets me more irate than someone whipping down the seat in front of me as soon as the seatbelt light goes off, regardless of everyone else’s comfort. If you do this to me, expect lots of stretching that involves kicking the back of your seat.

6. Just take a cab. While I’m prepared to invest some energy at the start of a journey in getting to the airport by public transport, this is rarely the case at the end. Jumping straight into a cab – rather than negotiating a foreign language bus, metro or train system – can be expensive but I think is ultimately worth it after any journey that’s taken over ten hours.

7. Pack light. As in: the bare minimum. There are few places where you won’t be able to buy any forgotten essentials, and tugging a small, light case around airports, stations, and cities is much better than struggling with a big one.

8. Make sure your office knows what you’re up to. Another spoddy one, but most departments will ask you to fill in some kind of travel notice or authorisation which will ensure that a) they know where you are; and b) you’re covered by any travel insurance they have. It’s really worth remembering to do this.

9. Make use of dubious US sleeping pills to overcome jetlag. Urgh, jetlag. This is one that I do struggle with. I’ve found that taking melatonin helps – but really the only way to avoid it is to stay at home.


Blanka Sengerová
I think I travel so rarely for work that it still holds some excitement and I don't find it too tedious. But I do like many of your recommendations, they do seem to ring quite true (although I don't have an iPad and usually supply myself with a decent book or two which seems to do the job very well).

>>2. Don’t work.

I tried that when, as an undergrad in my third year, I suddenly had a load and load of papers to read, which had never happened to me before. I took some with me to New Zealand over Christmas and pretty much all came back unread, except for the couple that I made a half-hearted attempt at reading in the plane before reverting to said book.

>>5. Don’t recline your seat too early.

This point so reminded me of a journey from Prague to London on a coach many years ago when the person in front of me did exactly that and I did exactly what you suggested you end up doing iff the person in front of you reclines too early.

>>6. Just take a cab.

I guess that's true, it never occurred to me and I do try to save money. Even though I'm on expenses, I guess if my work is funded by a charity that the little old lady is collecting coins for on a Saturday morning I sort of feel some sort of responsibility towards saving money...

Sarah Davies
The irony is, Blanka, that I actually posted this in transit during a mammoth, 24-hour Phoenix-to-Vienna journey on which I broke loads of my own rules - I took the train to the city centre rather than jumping straight into a cab, managed to forget my trusty melatonin, and was transported (for reasons of cost and departmental booking) by US Airways, who make you feel more like cattle than any other airline I've ever experienced. Right now I'm not feeling very zen at all: tired out of my mind, to the extent of hallucination, more like...

Simon Smith
Hi Sarah, I think I'm going to succumb to the iPad trend before too long. I know you said you don't quite live up to your intentions to use it for work, but what office software do you have installed on yours (I found these reviews), and how do you find typing on the screen? Do you get used to it quickly?

Blanka Sengerová

As for the iPad, someone at work said recently that EndNote were thinking of an iPad application, which would actually make an awful lot of sense and could make it a great researcher's tool. And I have also heard that the iPad is not a work thing, it is just an expensive toy (typing on it is actually not very good), but maybe people just accept it as that...

Hannah Dee
I've got an EEE pad - an Android tablet - and I like that. It's got a detatchable keyboard which doubles the battery life (to a fairly whopping 16hrs or so) and which makes using it for typing much easier.  Really quite a fan of it for travelling - it's no use for my research programming, but I'm guessing that most of you won't be doing much of that anyway, and it's fine for reading online.