Come Fly with Me
Domestic and international travel is becoming more important to developers across the games industry. The proliferation of conferences all over the world, as well as international contract and full time games jobs, has made travel a fairly standard part of the yearly schedule for game developers. GDC 2016 is just around the corner and if you have not started to think about your travel plans, you probably should.
For those of us living outside the US, long haul flights get pretty standard if we want to take part in the industries major events. But even at a local level, planning ahead for any trip or industry event can make everything so much easier.
So why is a game audio guy presenting tips on how we should be travelling? Well, for a variety of reasons, 2015 saw me spending more time inside of aircraft than inside my car. Through the course of the year I flew from Australia to:
- New Zealnd
And in the case of the US and New Zealand it was multiple times for both. Over the course of 12 months I completed over five laps of the planet, which if you are into trivia is over one third of the way to the moon! So for my own sake I learnt how to make the trips easier, the process more efficient and travelling less exhausting.
Frequent Flyer Star-miles
Why does any of this matter?
Air travel can be stressful. In fact, air travel can be incredibly stressful. Whether it’s a holiday or travelling to a conference to increase your knowledge and meet potential employers or clients, the process needs to be to be as easy and straightforward as possible for your own sanity. Things can go wrong and often will, but being prepared can go a long way to helping you deal with unexpected situations.
Before you even book
The first thing to keep in mind is that various countries have various different agreements for allowing people to travel in and out. Some countries require travel visas regardless of your purpose for visiting, while others have a variety of visa waiver programs.
A visa waiver essentially says “its ok for you to come and visit without a visa”, but these will almost always have various restrictions. For example, as an Australian citizen I can travel to Japan for up to 90 days without a visa. My passport is all I require to freely enter Japan and stay and travel for that period of time. The USA also offers a visa waiver option, however I do need what is referred to as an ESTA.
An ESTA or Electronic System for Travel Authorization is kind of a visa-less visa. You have to apply for one, pay the fee ($14 USD) and once approved it means you can travel into the US without a visa. There is a restricted list of citizenships that allow the ESTA authorisation, and recently the USA has further restricted conditions for those who have travelled to certain countries. You can check the full details of who can apply and under what conditions here:
The e-Passport is Your Friend
If your country provides the more recent electronically chipped e-Passports, then GET ONE! Even if you have a valid passport, if you plan to do much travelling the e-Passport can save you so much time at many airports. Essentially the new systems mean you can use a machine to process your passport and take your photo, this avoids waiting in the manual processing queues with everyone else. Bear in mind, if you are travelling to the USA, you may need to have used your E-Passport at least once to be able to use the machines.
Let me put this into context for you. I travelled to San Francisco a few years ago for GDC and I waited in the queue at immigration for over an hour. These days I can be off the plane and outside the airport in less than 15 minutes, and that includes customs as well as immigration.
Flights and Accommodation
Both flights and accommodation can vary hugely in cost and not everyone that travels can afford first class…or even business class…actually, most of us are loaded up like cattle. There are deals offered at various times and booking early can really make the difference.
Do consider, however, trying to get international flights directly into your location if possible. If you are going to GDC this year, try to go directly to San Francisco. If you do have to fly into LA or another port and then fly domestically to San Francisco, keep in mind you will have to pass through immigration and customs and collect your bags before you fly on. Make sure you leave yourself at least two hours between the expected arrival time of your flight into the US and your connection to SF (or anywhere else for that matter). In some cases, even two hours may not be enough. I have had to run between terminals with my bags in the past.
Domestic flights in the USA and other countries are often overbooked, and many leave the gate like a train leaving the station - as close to on-time as they can. If you are stuck in customs or waiting for your bag they will leave without you. So, sitting around waiting for an hour because you have time to kill is a much better option than missing your plane and twiddling your thumbs for eight hours until the next possible flight.
There are some pretty good accommodation options these days, thanks to services like Airbnb, which can provide better options for sharing rooms whereas hotels are more limited. For larger events such as GDC in the USA and Gamescon in Europe, there are a LOT of people travelling in to town for those events. This generally means all the accommodation at those times will get expensive. The later you leave it to book, the more expensive everything will be.
I always try to book to arrive a few days before a large conference. I appreciate that this means paying for extra accommodation and meals and might be a stretch for some people, but it really is worth it if you can afford it.
Firstly it allows you to get to know your location, spend a bit of time being a tourist. You have put all this effort into travelling, so why not get to see some of the sights? More importantly it allows you to get over the tiredness of travelling and be better switched on for the main event. The last thing you want is to be exhausted from your flight. GDC and other big conference events are exhausting enough anyway.
Sometimes it also helps with the cost of flights if you can travel out on a Thursday or Friday rather than the weekend. Flights closer to the time of the conference can get booked up quickly, which means finding cheaper fares is more challenging.
Packing to go and what to take
Ok, this one can be extremely variable depending on where you are going, how long and if you need to take additional stuff for specific purposes. However I will start with one important point. Do you really need to take all that stuff?
One of my regular trips last year was to travel to the USA for a series of meetings. I was usually only in the US for about a week and I was in an area with pretty warm climates. This allowed me to travel with a single small suitcase and my satchel. This meant NO CHECKED BAGS. This is the single biggest contributing factor to being off the plane and out of the airport in less than 15 minutes.
If you do not need to wait to pick up a checked bag it can save a lot of time. It also just makes moving around so much easier.
Admittedly this is tricky if you have never been to the location before and the weather might be a bit variable, but we ALL OVERPACK, it is just human nature. I once had to run to catch a connecting flight after my plane was delayed for two hours. I got off my late plane with only my small case and sprinted, got through passport control with my e-Passport and got to my next plane with only a couple of minutes to spare. A checked bag would have made this impossible.
Now, even if you do need a larger bag…take half that stuff out of it because you don’t need it…no really, you don’t need it. And a lighter case will make your life easier. The less weight you are carrying and the fewer bags you are wrangling the easier your life will be. Once at GDC I was cold because San Francisco had some unusual weather. So I bought myself a nice cheap sweater, problem solved. If you have printed material you need at the conference then take it on a USB key and get it printed at your destination (for example, there is an office supply store right near GDC in San Francisco that does good, cheap printing). Alternatively, arrange for marketing material to be created ahead of time and have it delivered to your hotel or for pickup just before the event.
At the Airport
The early bird catches the plane
Arrive early, no really, three hours before an international flight is a good plan.
Do this for several reasons. It gives you plenty of time to check in, get through security and customs and deal with anything unexpected because airports are where unexpected should be expected. It also gives you some wriggle room in case of misadventure on the way to the airport.
Also keep this I mind. If you are late and they have to hold your plane for even a few minutes, you have just added to the stress of maybe 500 people. Please don’t be that person! I have found that by the time I get everything sorted and to the gates my three hours has been mostly used up. I then have time to look at duty free or the bookstore if I like, but generally I get to relax.
For many airlines you can actually check in and confirm seats on the internet prior to heading to the airport. This can help you avoid queues and also get the seat you want.
I always carry a pen in my carry-on satchel. Wherever you are going you will need to fill out forms so having your own pen makes this much easier. Fill out any forms you are given on the ground or on the plane as soon as you get them so you don’t forget and so you are not messing with them when you are in a queue. I carry my passport and forms in an easy to access compartment in my satchel (easy for me, not pickpockets). I know what I need and when I need it so I do not hold myself or other people up looking for stuff.
There is ALWAYS paperwork
Getting through security
When flying, dress for security as well as comfort. Be aware of what you’re wearing that is metal, and make sure it’s easily removable if you want to do your best to avoid the dreaded pat-down.
Being prepared and aware, I take my belt off (it has a metal buckle) before I even get in line and I place my metal wallet into my bag. Generally, while everyone else is still busy sorting themselves out at security, I head straight through. If you wear lace up boots they will take ages to get on and off, if you have packed your laptop at the bottom, it will take ages to get out and repack.
For those of you with long hair, be aware if you are wearing a metal clip, take it off and put everything in the tray to go through. My other half once had to surrender her metal hairclip as it was considered too sharp to be allowed on the plane.
The same thing goes for jewelry, if you’re wearing anything with lots of metal, make sure it’s easy to take on and off. Pulling out a screwdriver to undo your fancy Cartier bracelet is not the most fun thing to do in the security line, and will not endear you to those waiting in line behind you or the security staff.
Many airports have restrictions on liquids and gels, so it pays to place any lip balm, deodorant or similar items in an easy-to-access clear bag (ziplock bags are your friend here). Finally, it’s probably best to wear pants and a comfortable top. Mini skirts or maxi dresses can get a little interesting if you get selected for the pat-down, as the officer generally has to get a little personal to ensure you don’t have an Uzi strapped to your leg.
All of the requirements for passing through customs and immigration, what you can take and what you cannot, can be found under the government webpages for the respective departments for the country you are travelling to.
Take the time before you travel as it could save you time in a stressful airport environment.
Time to indulge
This is a bit of an excess, but at some airports I will even make use of their massage facilities. Most will have those funky massage chairs, if you’ve got enough coins in the local currency. Some even have a proper massage service. These can be a bit expensive, but getting yourself nice and relaxed with a massage before sitting down for 15 hours can actually make a huge difference. I value being able to get any sleep at all on a flight, and I will not always have the time or the airport may not have the facilities, but I have found when I do get even a 15-minute shoulder rub, it can be pretty awesome.
I will usually grab something to eat at the airport for the reason I am about to explain. If you’re watching the budget, a packed sandwich or snacks will do as well, so long as you remember not to try to take any food through at the other end.
Eating on the plane
I don’t do it…hardly ever. I discovered sometime back that eating the food on the plane left me feeling generally pretty crap. I am stuck in a seat for 15 hours (Australia to USA) where I cannot move, cannot lie down properly and generally have to be immobile. Combined with the cooking process they use for most airline food, I just find it makes me feel pretty bad.
I drink plenty of fluids and maybe a small snack or fruit, but ever since I stopped eating the airline food I find I feel so much better when I travel. Most people get dehydrated on long flights, so bring an empty bottle and fill it up after security but before you get on the plane, most airports have filtered water available so you don’t need to buy it. Generally airplane water has a bad reputation, so a little forethought can keep you hydrated without much risk of picking up something nasty. There are heaps of compressible bottles on the market if you’re conscious of space.
So I will either have a decent meal at the airport on the way out, if it is an evening flight, or grab something to snack on while flying. I am not saying everyone should do this, but with all the travelling I did last year there was a huge difference once I started skipping the in-flight food.
IMPORTANT POINT RE Airport staff
You will have to deal with a variety of people as you travel through the airport. Like anywhere else you will come across good people and bad, polite people and rude people (or sometimes good, polite people having a bad day.) Do your best to be happy and polite at all times, even if things aren’t going that well.
These people have the power to make your life VERY BAD if they decide to and right or wrong, there is very little you can do about it. From the minute you enter the airport at one end, to the time you leave the airport at the other, customs, security, flight staff are all in a position of trying to keep you and other travelers safe. Many airlines have a terrible habit of not providing enough info, but if you get angry and noisy then it will only make things worse for you.
Don't make this man grumpy
In the same vein, it pays to dress a little conservatively. Going into America or Europe wearing your cool new t-shirt with political messaging about refugees or the global conflict just marks you out as a potential problem. Even if your t-shirt says “Peace and love to all” in Arabic, get the wrong security officer or fellow passenger, and you could be inviting a hard time. Don’t believe me? Look here and here and here.
It may seem wrong to say ‘be boring’, but it comes down to how you want your day to go. You may be fine, but there are enough examples of people being pulled off planes because other passengers or staff members felt uncomfortable about what they were wearing. My advice here is if you want to get from A to B smoothly, dress the part.
Oh, and it should go without saying, but don’t say “bomb”. Not even in joking. Just don’t.
Specific to USA residents
USA citizens and residents can apply for TSA pre-approval. This essentially confirms your identity with the TSA and can significantly speed up the process for you to get through airport security. So check it out if it’s relevant to you.
On the plane
I prefer sitting in the aisle as it means I can get up and down at my leisure, access my bag to grab my laptop and even stick my legs out in the aisles a tiny bit. The downside is if the person in the window seat has a weak bladder or is extra tall. In reality, there is no perfect place to sit, so sit where you are most comfortable. Do keep in mind how your habits affect others. If you know that you like to get up and stretch your legs regularly, or that you need to use the bathroom a lot, then choose an aisle seat, even if you prefer the window. Otherwise you will spend the entire trip disturbing the person in the aisle seat as you get up. If it is a friend or partner then that’s probably fine, but if it is someone else, that’s not so cool.
I always take my studio headphones with me and I even sleep in them. These are not noise-cancelling headphones, but a full set of headphones means the movies sound better, the screaming children are less of a distraction and in general all the sound is less.
For reference I once tested the noise levels in an A380-800 (very big plane). Headphones dropped the noise of the plane by about 30dB. That is like going from a noisy street into a nice quiet shop. Keep in mind that noisy street will be your constant companion for say 15 hours so even if you don’t listen to anything, those headphones can save your ears and your sanity.
When you choose the headphones, think about how comfortable they are for long periods and sleeping. If you can afford them, get ones that go over your ears completely, as a squashed ear can get uncomfortable after a while.
You can also by converters for the weird plane double headphone sockets to allow you to use your good headphones, so look for those. Best $5 you will spend! They’re not always available in the airport, so think ahead and grab some online (shop around for price) or locally.
We like to move it, move it …
Get up and stretch your legs a few times. I drink lots of fluid to make sure I don’t dehydrate, so this also forces me to get up and go to the bathroom. So when I am up I stretch just a little bit to make sure the blood keeps circulating. Walk down to the window seat area and even do some squats or wall pushups. This increases circulation in your body, helps with fatigue and prevents nasty blood clots.
There are these new air travel drinks available, which claim they hydrate you and make you suffer jetlag less. I don’t bother with them. Considering 80% of my body is made up of normal water I figure that is all I need and it has always worked fine for me. You’re not running a marathon, so your salt levels should generally be totally fine. If you’re a caffeine drinker, be aware that it can act as a diuretic, so you’ll need to drink more to keep hydrated (and may be visiting the bathroom more frequently).
This might sound really daggy, but the eye covers you get given on some flights, or can buy at airports are actually really very good. It can make a lot of difference to you being able to sleep and if your neighbor wants to read with the light on or watch a movie it really doesn’t matter. Anyway, everyone on a plane looks daggy, so anything that helps you relax is a good thing.
Foot rests for short people
If you’re height challenged like my other half, an inflatable foot rest can be an awesome addition. She-of-the-short-legs cannot reach the floor in most planes, and this can cause an ongoing ache or discomfort in her legs. A few years ago, she stumbled across one of these and now she brings it on any long haul flight. It’s inflatable, so it tucks away neatly enough, and has really helped her comfort levels.
She also carries around a tiny face washer that she dampens and uses to wipe her face down. With a handy ziplock bag, she can keep everything else dry and still feel less gunky during the flight.
So, you have arrived, now what?
Ok, this is my standard process. GET TO THE HOTEL (and have a shower!). Most airports provide several options for getting into the main city from the airport. If you’re off to GDC, San Francisco does have a train, although I have never used it.
Most European and Asian cities have excellent train networks between their airports and city centers. It’s often a good way to see a bit of the landscape as you head into town.
For me the shared ride vans in the USA are a pretty good option. They are slower than taxis as they will drop off passengers around town at various hotels but they are usually less than half the price of a taxi and unlike the train you don’t need to lug your bags around, so it’s pretty much door to door. You can then book a return trip to the airport with your hotel concierge for when you are leaving. It makes life much easier. Having a shower at your hotel as soon as you arrive is most likely the best thing you can do to make yourself feel like a human being again. Even if you’re too early to use your room, drop your bags off and pop into the bathrooms for a quick face wash. It really does help.
Once checked in, I generally go straight to a phone shop and get a local sim card for my phone and often for my tablet as well. Please do not underestimate how useful/important this is for international travelers. You are in a foreign country with different laws in a city you may not know very well. A phone provides you with the ability to navigate via maps, contact friends and colleagues and more importantly allows you to contact help if anything bad happens. I find once I have access to google maps I am happy to explore almost anywhere as I can navigate and find out important info about where I am. Seriously for about $20-$30 wherever you travel this is probably the best investment you will make.
If you don’t plan to get a local sim card, but will still have a smart phone or tablet with a sim card you can download offline maps for many major cities around the world. An offline map is essentially a detailed pdf of a city that has links to the major sites and roads. It utilizes the GPS function in your device. This GPS function ALWAYS works whether you have a local sim card or not (as long as there is some kind of 3g/4g function in your device). So essentially it is the small blue dot in google maps that shows your location, it just links this up to a preloaded map image so you don’t need wifi or phone 3G/4G access. There are even free apps that do this, so check them out. Look for offline city maps for your destination in the various App stores.
Whatever you do, don’t accidentally have international roaming on your home sim card on. There are plenty of horror stories of people arriving home after having their phone on overseas and ending up with huge data bills. Most telecommunications companies charge a huge premium for using other networks, so take care to avoid the pain. Here are some tips on avoiding the problem.
Don’t blink, don’t even blink
DO NOT GO TO SLEEP!...well, not yet anyway. Try as hard as possible to adjust