Quiet Traveler

I’m an introvert.

There, I’ve said it. (If you know me, this will come as no surprise.) Introversion affects the way I travel, I’ve noticed lately. Turns out I’ve adapted to suit my social inclinations. On the other hand, I suspect many extroverts do too (in an opposite sort of way).

Here are some of my business travel practices and pleasures that have evolved because I’m an introvert. How does your travel social profile fit with or differ from this?

1. Plans A, B and C. My nature, and I think that of most introverts, is to reign in the variables. It’s important to me not to rush. I allow myself plenty of time to get to the airport. (This makes my extroverted husband crazy!) My travel plans are well organized. I know exactly what to expect when I get to the airport, when I land, and when I get to my hotel. This helps me feel grounded, even when flying.

2. Cone of silence. In an airplane seat I am shielded from the traveling masses by an invisible cone of silence. Few seatmates, by travel social convention, penetrate this invisible cone. As a result, several hours in my own little world during a flight can be incredibly restorative. I often deplane feeling fully recharged. Conversely, I’m not shy (there’s a difference!), and sometimes the vibe of a seatmate will entice me to talk a little (assuming I, too, respect their cone), which can be very pleasant and interesting. I like that I have some control/choice over who I talk to on an airplane. That is not the case in everyday work.

3. Hotel [re]charges. After a day of meetings and people, people, people, an evening alone in my hotel room is heaven. In fact, as much as I miss my family when I travel for work, it is a sweet change to have a couple hours in a beautiful room alone (after a Skype conversation with them). Quiet is good for me, and I can’t remember the last time I turned on a hotel room TV. Yes, I do email, but I like to be alone with my thoughts as much as possible when in a hotel room.

4. Big-small talk. Like most introverts, the conversations I enjoy most are one-on-one, and travel offers lots of opportunities for this. Particularly enjoyable are conversations with people whose worlds are different from mine. I have had some amazing and deep talks with drivers, flight attendants and even front desk clerks.

5. Bar none. I rarely order room service, and I’ve tired of subsisting on a small bag of almonds in the evening as I answer email. Now my preferred dining-alone experience is the hotel bar. For an introvert? Surprisingly, yes! I hesitantly tried this first a couple of years ago, nervous because of preconceived ideas from my 20s about the bar “scene.” I was pleasantly surprised at how well the bar meal suited my personality. It’s a structured environment (crucial for us quiet ones), most bartenders are skilled at starting conversations yet have a sense of when to leave you alone, and enjoying a fine meal sure beats the almonds.

6. On the run. A solo run is a lovely way to get to know a city. Leave the crowded hotel fitness room to the extroverts. I always run early in the morning and by myself. So many cities have such beautiful places to work up a sweat. Some routes I’ve enjoyed recently are along Lake Michigan in Chicago, the Embarcadero/Marina District in San Diego, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and Central Park in New York. Similarly, I’ve discovered that where it’s hot and humid even at 6 am, swimming laps in the hotel pool instead (if outside) is a peaceful way to enjoy the sunrise: alone.

Do you know if you’re an introvert or extrovert? An easy test is whether being with friends/strangers energizes you (extrovert!) or drains you (introvert!). For insights, I highly recommend Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. While I’ve been well aware of my introversion for years, I had not put together some of the elements in the full constellation until reading this book. And introverts, we love to figure things out by reading! (And then to express by writing….)

So, when it comes to travel, how about you?  I’m curious: Does being an introvert or extrovert affect how you behave on the road?

Where I Make the Case to Unplug under 10,000 Feet

I’m feeling a little contrary.

The FAA recently relaxed most of its restrictions on the use of personal electronic devices in flight. (Voice calls remain verboten). This was good news by all accounts, with the greatest criticism being of the “it’s about time” variety. Critics of the old rule ranged from scientists/engineers who knew a lot about why these devices posed no risk, to the rest of us (not scientists/engineers) who knew nothing but had the intuition to observe, “This doesn’t make sense.” So, it is indeed gratifying to see the FAA make some sense. However, as I mentioned, I’m feeling a little contrary.

Here’s why. I believe in actually experiencing a flight. This has changed my own business travel from a stress to a pleasure. Too often, we lose a sense of wonder at the fact that, really folks—we’re flying here! About two years ago, I changed my seating preference from aisle to window. The window seat changed everything for me.

Now, admittedly, I’m relatively small. If you’re a man over 6-feet tall, you can stop reading right here, because I get that you need the legroom of the aisle seat. But if you don’t mind the body fold, the window offers a lovely sense of actually traveling.

So back to the FAA ruling. No matter what seat you’re in, you will miss traveling when you’re buried in your phone, iPad or laptop. Yes, often I’m the first one powering up at 10,000 feet, but at least that’s after I’ve enjoyed the ride a little. The best part of a window seat view is below 10,000 feet, where you get to experience taxiing, the takeoff, the banked turn, and all that.

My colleague Janet Libert just wrote a piece for Executive Travel bemoaning the heads-down culture. When your head is down—in your device—you miss a lot. Sure, you have your emails and texts and movies and books and…–but you miss what’s going on around you. Like the every-flight drama of those last passengers to board, struggling to stuff their cellos and football team duffel bags into the overhead bin. Or the kite surfers’ aerobatics on San Francisco Bay. Or the unaccompanied minor in the seat next to you who is scared to death of takeoffs and could use a reassuring word.

I want to stay connected as much as the guy in the seat next to me. Yet because I can, doesn’t mean I should. Travel is a wonder, and I don’t want to disconnect from that. I’m glad we have more options. There are some days it’s critical for me to be 100 percent connected for 100 percent of the flight. But many days, I want to be sure to look out the window, at least for 10,000 feet, and TRAVEL.

Wi-Fi in the Friendly Skies

If you’re a frequent traveler and I tell you I’m writing this on a United Airlines flight with Wi-Fi, then you won’t be surprised when I tell you I did a little happy dance this morning. (This is a figurative happy dance, of course: Even Economy Plus wouldn’t have the legroom for an actual jig. Wi-Fi on United.) Apparently, I scored one of only 103 aircraft in the United fleet that is currently Wi-Fi-equipped. Incidentally, my A320 was also outfitted with UA’s new seat design, which I found comfortable and smart.

United was one of the very last airlines to join the Wi-Fi party, a fact their management has spun as a plus: “We were able to leapfrog over old, land-based technology.” According to United’s website, domestic flights with Wi-Fi use Gogo, the largest industry’s provider, but I did not see the Gogo branding so prevalent on other airlines. United also boasts that it was the first airline to use satellite service, enabling full connectivity on transoceanic flights.

The cost of my San Francisco to Chicago service was $9.99, which seemed a fair price. The cost is computed based on length of flight, though exactly how this calculation is arrived at is not disclosed. United has a neat perk for Mileage Plus members: You can switch devices without paying extra. I’m not sure why you’d need that, but it’s the first I’ve seen of this option.

Gogo-branded Wi-Fi on other airlines uses a similar sliding fee, with transcontinental flights coming in at up to $26. (Tip: Buy a pass online before flying for $14. Other insights on Wi-Fi from business travel writer Chris McGinnis are here.) The best Wi-Fi value, though, is $8 on Southwest, and it’s good for a 24-hour period. Since my last excursion on Southwest involved three flights in one day, that setup made all the difference.

While inflight usage is reported low (I’ve seen estimates at 8 to 13 percent of passengers on any given flight where Wi-Fi is available), when you need it, you need it. Like today, for me. Yes, I occasionally breathe a guilty sigh of relief when I get on a plane without it. “Gosh, I’d like to work, but I guess I’ll need to read this novel instead.” But when the stars align–a deadline looms, it’s a long flight, and I spot the Wi-Fi logo as I board–well, it’s time to log on at 10,000 feet.

Post Script: If you’re a frequent traveler and I tell you I’m writing this on a United Airlines flight with Wi-Fi…then you won’t be surprised to learn that the system failed as I wrote the last paragraph. WordPress hadn’t saved most of the post, and I was forced to rewrite after landing. Sigh.

Pilots with Heart

There’s a space somewhere between business and leisure travel called medical travel. It’s a space you wish circumstances hadn’t conspired to teach you about.

This summer my brother had a very serious heart attack, and he was treated at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. It’s one of the best cardiac care centers in the universe. Trouble is, he lives in rural Maine, and ongoing visits to Brigham & Women’s are required every couple of weeks.

The only treatment for my brother’s severely damaged heart was to have a Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) implanted in his abdomen. This device–which is about three inches long and looks like something you’d find in your garage–does the pumping for his heart. It attaches to large batteries and a computer outside his body. The follow-up hospital visits are essential to keep it tuned up.

That’s where the travel comes in. It’s a five-hour drive from his home in Maine to Boston. And he’s not allowed to drive for a year. That amounts to major family disruption and considerable expense every two weeks.

Enter PALS (Patient AirLift Services). A volunteer pilot picks him up at the Bangor Airport, and flies him to Logan. Often they pick up another patient en route (this week another VAD patient, last time a cancer patient), but the flight takes just an hour. They are deposited at the Signature Terminal (for private/corporate jets), and there is the huge benefit of no security checks. PALS even provides taxi vouchers.

This service has been a lifesaver, literally and figuratively, for my family. Pilots donate their time and aircraft, and the organization is further supported with grants and private donations. Other groups, such as Angel Flight, offer similar services. Traveling to superior medical care can mean the difference between life and death, and removing the stress and expense of getting there feels like a big hug. With every “wheels up,” we owe a huge debt of gratitude.

Southwest Airlines puts civility back into boarding

In the last month, I have had occasion to fly Southwest eight times, unusual because I have always disliked WN and do everything in my power to avoid it. My distaste, I recently realized, has been based primarily on open seating. Everyone has their airline hot button, the factor that provokes a guttural reaction, and for me, it’s seat selection.

This comes after too many years of transcon flights when my kids were babies and toddlers, a time when seating security–knowing exactly where we were sitting and the configuration–reduced onboard stress.  (For years my husband and I sat 2/2 behind each other so that our then-toddler could kick the seat of his older brother sitting in front of him, instead of some kind but easily irritated stranger.)

Southwest, despite pressure from loyal fans/customers to switch to assigned seating, has repeatedly recommitted to its open seating policy based on cost/efficiency savings. (Remember, WN is a low-cost, not low-fare, airline.) But what they have done very smartly is to evolve the process so that open seating has become painless. Remember the days when you received a plastic boarding pass at the gate, which determined when you could board and scramble for a seat? Fast forward to a seamless and well-organized A, B and C-group assignment given at online checkin, with options for Early Bird Check-In for a fee and A-group assignments for A-List (elite) Rapid Rewards members and certain business fares. Once you have your group letter and number, clear and simple signage and announcements get everyone lined up in a fast and efficient way. Passengers know the process (it’s easy even for first-timers) and the mood at the gate is relaxed and “luv-ly.”

Legacy carriers, meanwhile, have commoditized  seat selection. Getting an aisle or window seat without paying an ancillary fee has become an art. And messy boarding processes have heightened the stressful fight for overhead bin space. Airlines have experimented with myriad boarding procedures, leaving passengers confused about how boarding will occur (and how your group number is determined) and jockeying for position at the gate. My favorite trick (and it’s appalling that I’ve even devised such a trick)  is to begin the boarding process to the side of the gate agent, where I can slip in first for my group without appearing ruthless.

This new chaos at legacy carrier gates, ironically, has put Southwest back in my good graces because it has created a trusted, less stressful boarding environment. On Southwest, I have options for bettering my boarding position so once onboard I can choose a great seat. I know what to expect at the gate. And so do my fellow passengers. I had to laugh recently when I saw United had introduced group boarding lanes at SFO gates, not unlike Southwest’s.  The tides have changed, and I now call myself a Southwest fan (as long as I can control my position in the A group).