Staying Sane and Frugal When Flying Across the Country

Last October I posted my plans for staying frugal on my first flight across country in years. Since that trip, I’ve taken a few more, and I’m currently in Chicago at BlogHer. I’ve learned a few more things during my recent travels.

1. Over Prepare

Take more snacks that you think you’ll need. When I flew home from Bentonville in October, my flight was late getting into Denver. I had planned on grabbing a meal on my layover, but there wasn’t time. So I was starving by the time I got to San Francisco. The discomfort could have been avoided, had I packed extra snacks.

This is also good advice, in terms of luggage. If you are checking luggage, it’s a good idea to carry a change of clothes and some toiletries on the plane with you. Just make sure you follow the airline regulations for carrying on liquids. If your luggage is delayed or lost, you’ll have at least one clean change of clothes.

2. Pack a Lot of Entertainment

I get bored really easily when flying. On my last flight, I packed a book. Unfortunately, when I got on the plane, I wasn’t in the mood to read. It would have been much better if I had remembered to download some interesting podcasts onto my iPhone. Packing DVDs for viewing on a laptop would have been good, too.

This is also good advice for layovers. Flying back from the CPG Summit in March, I had a layover in San Francisco. Unfortunately my connecting flight home was delayed several hours, so my short layover turned into a long layover. Since San Francisco charges exorbitant amounts for internet access, I couldn’t use the web to entertain me. I ended up buying a book at the bookstore. I finished it by the time I got home. This time I packed movies, books, and downloaded some podcasts. I’m prepared for anything!

3. Carry On all Power Cords & Chargers

Marci suggested this in the comments last October, and it’s the best piece of advice I’ve received. If your flight is delayed or you get stuck with a long layover, a cell phone charger and laptop cord will be priceless commodities. You want to make sure you can get a hold of your family to tell them about any delays. And a laptop is good for endless entertainment, but only if it has power. And unfortunately most laptop batteries don’t last a really long time. It’s better if you can plug in.

4. Carefully Consider an Aisle or a Window Seat

If you like to sleep on the plane, a window seat is a good bet. I like the window seats, because I can lean over and rest my head on the side of the plane while I sleep. That ensures I won’t end up resting my head on the poor stranger next to me.

However, if you’re a person who needs to get up and move or use the restroom a lot, an aisle seat is a better bet. I learned this the hard way, when I had to climb across two strangers to use the restroom on a crowded flight. That wasn’t very much fun…for me or them.

5. Make sure Your Carry On Bag has Wheels

I learned this one the hard way. That trip to Bentonville…the one with two layovers? I was carrying a laptop bag and a purse. Both needed to be slung over my shoulder, and I had a lot packed into both.

After traversing across three different airports each way, my arms were TIRED! Since then, I’ve packed along a carry on with wheels, and it’s made my life a lot easier! Especially in airports like San Francisco, where you might have a long walk between terminals, even if you’re not switching airlines.

6. Carry Extra Money

This can be in the form of a debit card or carefully guarded cash. But sometimes despite the best planning, unexpected expenses come up. You’ve packed lots of snacks, but your layover tripled in length and you’re hungry. Having money for airport food is a good idea.

Or if you come down with a headache or motion sickness, it’s nice to be able to buy medication at the airport shops, even if it is expensive. Realize that you can’t pack for every contingency in a small carryon. Make sure you can afford the unexpected.

I’ve learned a lot since that flight in October, and every trip I’ve taken since has gotten better.

Have you learned any airline traveling lessons the hard way? We’d love to hear them!


By , on Jul 23, 2009
Lynnae McCoy I'm Lynnae, wife of one and stay-at-home mom of two. I'm committed to getting out of debt by being frugal with my choices in life.


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  1. Lynnae:

    Thanks for the additional tips, everyone!

    Now that I’m back, I’ll let you know what I actually did!

    Campbell’s sent me a rolling backpack, which was basically a jansport backpack with a “Chunky” logo on it. On the way to Chicago, I packed everything in that…laptop, purse, books, etc. The wheels were nice.

    On the way back, I had too much stuff. So I packed along the chunky bag plus a little tote, where I carried my books, water bottle, etc. On the flight, I actually put my laptop in the tote, rather than in the backpack.

    When you’re flying a small plane, like I frequently do, make sure you have a place for your electronics, other than the standard carryon. Even my rolling backpack was too big to fit in the overhead, so that’s why I threw the laptop in the tote. The backpack had to be checked into the planeside luggage.

  2. Great tips! I used to fly 3-4 days a week. There was always plenty of dead time– I was always sure to have a book or two.

  3. Frank:

    Ditto on the large daypack. I’m military and travel a lot–especially internationally. Having a good sized daypack means you can fit snacks, jacket and fleece, along with laptop and other stuff all mentioned above. The fleece is key as airplanes are generally chilly and the blankets they offer don’t do much. As an extra hint I usually carry a couple packages of instant oatmeal in case I arrive late (or early) and need a breakfast.

  4. Another backpack advocate. Handsfree is the way to go – assuming that you’re ok carrying a backpack.

    We have much stricter rules over here about what and how much can go as carry on. Knitting needles are usually confiscated, and you may take exactly one bag. For entertainment, I usually take a new book, a magazine, and a newspaper. And hope for a decent in-flight film.

    On shorter flights I prefer a window seat, and on longer flights an aisle one. Middle seats are always rubbish.

  5. Diana:

    A comfortable back-pack (like a day pack you would take hiking) is awesome because it frees up your hands. This allows you to easily run between terminals if needed. You can pack a purse, lap-top, i-pod, Bible, emergency undies, and the zip-loc of immediate selfcare — all in a pack that will fit under the seat in front of you. That’s all I usually take as carry-ons for domestic flights. Re: i-pod — Although I’ve traveled all over the world, there’s nothing more soothing than listening to teaching from your church when you’re in a huge thunderstorm or the pilot announces (mid-flight) an emergency.

    On international trips, I usually take that same back-pack as well as a small roller. (The roller is filled with business stuff plus a full change of clothes.) I recommend checking out your roller ahead of time to make sure it works for you. I’ve purchased many since I’ve had to travel a lot. My favorite now is one I bought in a shanty in Morocco. It’s light-weight and does the job. Many times, it stays in the overhead bin; other times, I’ve taken it out to take out files and work. A change of clothes saved me when I went on a missions trip to Cameroon when my checked bagged didn’t get there until the day before I left to go home!

    Hint on your zip-lock bag — Although personal opinion, I recommend:
    1) Nose-spray. I never use it in daily life. Even on domestic flights over a few hours, I would find myself with bloody bugars (sorry for the graphic). It’s not the altitude, but the dryness of the plane. I had no idea. Finally one time in Switzerland, I gave it a try, and it works wonders! Eye-drops are good too.

    2) Lotion – The hotel freebies are the perfect size. Plus take your fav eye-and-face cream.

    3) Minimal make-up — just in case.

    Seat choice – I agree with Lynnae’s recommendation. I like to have the opp to get up (plus my bladder must be the size of a pea), so I always try to get an aisle seat. If you’re a better snoozer, then windows are defintely the best.

    I think Lynnae mentioned this in a prior post, but an empty water bottle is the best. After getting through security, I find the nearest water fountain. I put in my zip-fizz (vitamin mix) and fill ‘er up. That way, I get water when I need it and at the volume my body needs. On super-long flights (like to Japan), I’ve never had a flight attendant who wasn’t happy to re-fill it with water.

    One LAST thing (finally) – Do carry a bit of cash, but DO make sure to have your debit (or credit) card with you. Some airlines (like American) no longer take cash – period.

    Enjoy your travels!

  6. Marci:

    Use a small backpack instead of a purse – or one you can stick your purse in. Frees up your arms entirely :)

    Definitely take a complete change of clothes in your carryon! You never know when the toddler next to you will ‘urp’ all over you…oh wait, that was MY toddler and he got the guy sitting next to me…sorry :( If you ever have to spend the night at an airport unexpectedly, the large ‘family’ or handicapped separate bathrooms make a decent ‘quick washup’ room with privacy.

    If traveling with kids, or even just you, take wetwipes.

    Cheese, sausage, and crackers, and apples are all things that travel fairly well and can last for days if you get stranded. I get the Tillamook cheese/sausage individually vacuum sealed packages that don’t have to be refrigerated.

    Take an empty water bottle and fill it up once you are past the scanners. I seem to want water when it is not available yet on the flight – or to take my seasick pill with :)

    Carry your prescriptions and emergency meds on your body. Then no matter what, they are accessible to you even if you are stuck in your seat.

    A second on the blow up neck pillow – a godsend :)

    My jacket folds up into it’s polar fleece hood, ties with the neck strings, and can be hooked to my backpack. Again hands free :) And the jacket, rolled up that way, can double as a pillow, or unfolded as a blankie. Same jacket has flown with me for the past 25 years just for that reason :) It came in handy as a blanket on the floor of the Houston airport one terrible night :( And the backpack doubled as a pillow then.

    Pack a couple pages of a sudoku, crossword, wordfind, etc – instead of the whole books. And a couple of pages of paper in case you want to write a note or letter while waiting.

    I carry and extra stash of cash, a spare credit card, copy of tickets,and a photo ID in a separate place on my person, in case my wallet gets stolen (altho as it’s in my front jeans pocket it would be very very difficult for anyone to do that)

    And enjoy your flight!

  7. Jean:

    I have an inflatable travel pillow that takes up almost no room, but you wrap it around your neck and if you fall asleep it cradles you and keeps you from landing on your neighbor’s shoulder – or worse yet, waking up with shooting pains in your neck. I bought it years ago at Sharper Image – a store I always thought was frivolous and gimmicky until I found this wonderful little pillow.

  8. Rebecca in Michigan:

    Besides what you wrote. I do the following……

    Pack a craft item; like cross stitch, crochet, knitting or a loom. I packed my circle loom/pick and made a scarf will waiting and flying. I needed to get this done for a conference. I received a lot of questions and amazement on how fast I was able to get it done.

    I pack a small circular container that has a few allergy pills, pain medicine, and cold medicine. Then I pack the rest of the boxes in my regular suitcase.

    During the summer months of travel, I put a pair of socks and two small baby blankets in my bag. That way when I am cold, I put on my socks and drap the blanket over me.

    I bring along my flashdrive because some airports have free downloads in their terminals that have movies and music.

  9. Angelsong:

    There really is nothing like experience! You may also want to check out: for ideas to help you pack lightly without leaving out anything important.

  10. Brent:

    If you miss number 1 and don’t get those important snacks, make sure you have a credit or debit card on you. I’ve noticed the last few times on Frontier flights that they are “NO CASH” flights and will not accept it. Good thing for me that my wife always makes sure we have our snacks!

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