Life Skills #1: Travel

From January 2011 until the end of June 2012, I traveled for a living. Nearly every week.

 The beautiful art installation of origami peace cranes in the Denver Airport commemorating 9/11–I snapped this picture traveling through that airport on 9/11/11.

The beautiful art installation of origami peace cranes in the Denver Airport commemorating 9/11–I snapped this picture traveling through that airport on 9/11/11.

I was part of the original cast of the 25th Anniversary national tour of Les Miserables, and in 18 months of being on the road, I saw dozens of cities, every climate in the continental US, and the inside of what felt like every major regional airport–and a few minor ones (Toledo, anyone?). I learned to TRAVEL. I dealt with delays, busted planes, hours-long runway waits, missed connections, and one non-English-speaking lady in front of me in a security line who had packed in her carry on – no joke – a huge package of butcher knives, a giant jar of peanut butter, and something that looked like a large glass vial of blood. And even now that I’ve been done with Les Mis for awhile, I’m still traveling often for work and play – including one very whirlwind trip to Shenzhen China for the most random performing gig ever. I’d like to share my travel tips and thoughts with you, along with some advice from my fellow travel warriors from Les Mis.

Basics

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  • Patience. Politeness. Like wedding days, big parties, and all other detail-heavy events and experiences, the perfect day you have in your head does not exist in reality. Accept that there will be small (and sometimes large) annoyances and hindrances in advance, and you have a MUCH better chance of surviving with your sense of humor and sanity intact. And often the best party stories come from those “hey, remember that time the lady in front of me was carrying giant knives and a vial of blood?” moments. In the end, everyone you see at the airport is either doing their job or trying to get somewhere for a reason that is probably very important to them. No one helps the experience by being a jerk.
  • Do whatever you know YOU need to reduce stress. Stressed out by being rushed or late? Drag yourself out of bed that much earlier so you won’t worry over a longer than expected security line. Know that you need music on a long flight to maintain your good mood? Make sure you ipod/iphone/mp3 player is fully charged and ready. Small measures make a big difference.
  • Follow the rules. Even when they suck. Even when they’re annoying or you think you know better or they don’t work very well anyway. It makes it easier on everyone.

Baggage

  • Want to be able to spot your bag easily in the luggage claim? For goodness sake, avoid buying a black bag! It’s inevitable that someone else will have something similar, but a color will be FAR easier to recognize. Also, think about tagging it with something distinctive–there are a ton of sassy luggage tags out there that will add some zip to your luggage. Check these out! 
  • I am all about personal preference when it comes to the type of bag (rolling, duffle, 360 wheels, hard-side, soft-side), but know that your bag WILL take a beating. Have you ever been seated at the window of the plane directly above where they load the bags? I have. It ain’t pretty. Having seen that plenty of times, I will not be buying Gucci or Louis Vuitton luggage any time soon. Something sturdy but inexpensive is more my speed. And think about how much your bag weighs when it’s empty. If you plan on taking long trips and want to be able to bring stuff without paying extra, go for something “ultra-light”. It really does make a difference.
  • I’m a big fan of smaller bags inside of large suitcases. There are great space saver bags out there that make organizing your stuff a breeze. I always make a point to corral cords and chargers together in their own bag, because otherwise I’m always digging for those. I never pack my jewelry or any electronics in checked luggage. I usually take one outfit to change into in my carry-on bag in case my bag is lost. And I always put liquids and gels in something plastic, ’cause the second you don’t, you KNOW you’re going to open up a suitcase to a catastrophic shampoo spill.
  • If you are an able-bodied adult and you can’t lift your carry-on bag over your head, lighten it up. Period. Good samaritans exist, but this is NOT the moment to rely on the kindness of strangers. Also, observe those carry-on luggage size rules. Airlines are onto you, and they will make you check that bag, and some will even make you pay for it plane-side. If it doesn’t fit in the overhead bin, just check it. You don’t want to lug that heavy thing around the airport anyway.

Security Line

First of all - if you travel more than a couple times a year via airplane, it is 100% WORTH IT to sign up for TSA Pre-check.  It's easy, and it will save you so. much. time.  That said, if you are more of an infrequent traveler, the tips below will help you zip through that security line like a pro. You have four things to think about: ID/boarding pass, liquids, tech stuff, and what you’re wearing (including shoes).

  • ID/Boarding Pass–I almost never pull out my driver’s license at the airport. I use my passport as my ID, and the main reason is that it’s larger and therefore easier to find in my giant purse. It’s especially easy to find because of my fabulous Penguin passport cover(Soapbox moment: If you are over the age of 18 and don’t have a valid passport: get one. Now. Who knows when someone is going to say “wanna go to Paris with me this weekend?” But seriously, you can’t even go to Canada without it. Just get a passport. Then go have adventures!) And smile at and be polite to the security guards. They really do appreciate it, and it often makes your life easier.
  • Liquids–The TSA still has the rule about liquids needing to be 3.4 ounces or smaller and corralled into ONE quart-size bag. It sucks. Just follow the rules (and check the bottom of your purse-I’ve definitely been surprised a few times by unexpected bottles!). No one likes to throw away an expensive sunscreen or even that bottle of Smart Water. It also helps immensely to have that quart bag in your purse–as accessible as possible–so you can just take it out and toss it in the bin on top of your coat.
  • Tech Stuff–Of course, I’m talking about laptop computers, because they have to be removed from your bag and placed in their OWN bin at security. Again–like liquids, have it as accessible as possible, without stuff on top of it. Everyone behind you in line will appreciate you not taking five minutes to dig your computer out.
  • Clothing/Shoes–I have two philosophies about travel shoes, depending on my length of travel. On long trips where I might be carrying several pairs of shoes (and I do. I really do.), I’m going to wear whatever my heaviest pair is to the airport, which usually means my cowboy boots. For short trips, I’m going to wear something that slips on and off easily, like loafers or sandals. I’m not trying to walk around an airport in crazy heels. My clothing philosophy follows: you will never see me in an airport in a sweat suit (even/especially if it says “Juicy” on a certain part of my anatomy), but I do dress, especially for long flights, in breathable, comfortable layers that are easy and quick to slip on and off. Sleek, well fitted black yoga pants, a nice fitted tee shirt, and a wrap sweater or loose blazer in winter, and often a maxi dress in the summer. But always layers. You’ll see why in the next section:

On the plane

 

Another 6:00 am flight, made special by this incredible sunrise over the runway before takeoff.

  • Planes are hot. Planes are cold. Planes are hot and cold in the space of five minutes. Layers that are easy to get in and out of (god bless the almighty wrap sweater) are key. I usually bring a wrap sweater and a large scarf like a pashmina. That way I can cover up if it’s cold or wad them up for extra cushioning between me and the window if it’s hot. I always bring a travel pillow on long flights.
  • One universal truth is that planes are DRY. Hydrate–your skin, your lips, and your insides. If you drink alcohol, plan on at LEAST one glass of water for every alcoholic drink, if not two (This is one of those suggestions that’s really good for life in general, not just planes). Coconut water is especially awesome for hydrating. I always bring lip balm, because otherwise my lips can get so dry they crack! I love Sephora’s Rosebud Salve, because you can use it anywhere–lips, cuticles, etc.–and it’s cheap.
  • Concerned about germs? You’re not the only one. If you have a cough or a stuffy nose, do whatever you need to do to stifle it (cough drops, tissues, decongestant, etc.). And PLEASE cover your mouth. It also helps, whether or not you are next to Mr. Sniffles, to turn on the little overhead blower and aim it in the space in front of your face. Helps the air circulate better.
  • Bring snacks. Most airlines aren’t going to give you anything now for free, and airline food is expensive, salty (read: dehydrating), and unfortunately often sub-par. And I know I am a decidedly un-fun person to be around when my blood sugar gets too low. I snack for the common good.
  • Plan for some entertainment of the non-electronic variety. I have actually found the airline magazines incredible entertaining recently–great articles about a variety of stuff, and I’ve gotten some serious travel inspiration from those travel features. The latest one I read featured Peru, and I’m smitten!
  • Don’t be a space hog and respect your fellow travelers. Rarely in life are we crammed so close to other people as we are on a plane. Don’t wear smelly perfume. DO wear deodorant. Observe armrest etiquette. Don’t knee the back of the seat in front of you. Say excuse me, thank you, and please whenever appropriate, and don’t chat your seatmates’ ear off, especially if they have all the classic cues of “don’t talk to me” (ear phones, work or book in front of them, closed off posture). Be patient with kids, families, and anyone who might move slowly because of an injury or disability, even if you can’t see it.

At your destination:

  • This seems like common sense, but use the magic of the Internet to research your destination, especially in a foreign country. On my way back from China, I had a surprise 18 hour overnight layover in Seoul, South Korea, and I was determined to see as much as I possibly could. Within five minutes of googling, I found out that most taxis take American credit cards, the subway system is cheap, clean, and has excellent signage in English but that it closes before midnight, among other things. A bit more research led me to some amazing stuff to see and do.
  • Don’t plan every detail. Leave room for adventure and wandering off the beaten path. Make friends with locals. People are remarkably willing to share their favorite spots in their home city, and they are unquestionably the best source of non-tourist gold mines.
  • If you’ll be in a city for awhile, there are small things you can do to make your hotel room feel far more homey. First thing I always did when arriving in a new city was to put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on–and only took it off if I wanted my room cleaned. I always had a travel candle or two, a couple of pictures, and even a brilliant collapsible vase for fresh flowers.
  • Want to experience a city from the local perspective? Find and visit a farmer’s market. I had some of my absolute favorite experiences on tour at farmer’s markets in Portland, San Antonio, Tampa, etc., etc., talking to local growers and artisans.

Long Haul Flights–Special notes:

 

The beautiful and ultra-modern Seoul airport

  • An eye mask, ear plugs, and melatonin are a long haul traveler’s best friends. I actually managed to not feel jet-lagged at all on arrival in China because I was able to rest on the flight. In economy class, no less!
  • When researching surviving transatlantic flights before China, I stumbled on this amazing video–Lisa Eldridge is a hugely respected international makeup artist who travels all the time, and she walks you through her entire in-flight beauty routine. I’m not going to lie, it’s intense. But I did my own version of the whole thing with my favorite products and some samples from Sephora, and my skin looked great and it made the flight feel less stressful for SURE. Girly genius at work.
  • Reading material, reading material, reading material. I asked my wonderful literary lovin’ friends on Facebook for suggestions and got enough reading suggestions to last me through the summer! Nothing like discovering new word artists to take the edge off of your 13th hour on the plane.

Thoughts from other Les Miserables Travel Experts:

“Bring a little something from home!! No matter how long I am going to be away, I always throw this little glass heart that I have and a tiny framed picture of my love in the bag. It sits on my bedside table and makes me feel at home no matter where my travels take me.”–Betsy Morgan, Fantine

“Make your hotel room home. Unpack, put a scarf on the bed, put away any “hotel stuff”.”–Heather Jane Rolffu/s Madame Thenardier

“Think “light”. There is nothing worse than having too much baggage when you are trying to run through an airport, or when you have a backpack stuffed with crap while you ‘enjoy’ walking around a new city. Also, sometimes not having a specific plan will take you to the most exciting places. You learn to see a place for what it is rather than what you think it might be. Locals love to help you find the good stuff.”–Eric Van Tielen, Combeferre

“Even when traveling in a group, I always get my confirmation number, choose my seat and check in 24 hours before the flight on my own. It saves being stuck in the middle seat and being bumped. Also, if anything goes wrong, being nice to the gate agent (even if you’re about ready to implode) will get you an upgrade or to your destination faster than if you act like an idiot. They have the power to really ruin your day.”–Richard Vida, Thenardier

“Take less than you think you’ll need and generally it will be enough. And if you’re on the road full time, invest in an electric skillet. They don’t weigh very much and you can cook most anything with them without needing a separate set of pots and pans. The best thing I’ve gotten on the road. Breakfast is fresh and tasty and I make it everyday.”–Shawna HamicMadame Thenardier

“Visit Karijini National Park (*in Australia)! It was absolute paradise down there. So peaceful and untouched and just heart-stoppingly beautiful. Nature at it absolute best. I can’t find enough adjectives to describe how much I love Karijini National Park, and the fact that I’m betting less than 5% of you have even heard of it BREAKS MY HEART! Add it to your bucket lists now!”–Sarah ShahinianYoung Whore

Note: If you’re interested in more pics and details from my time on the road with Les Mis, click here!

Casey Clark