I'm back and I'm jet-lagged, so in lieu of writing something challenging, let me give you some travel advice:
Do not leave your laptop at home when embarking on an 8-day business trip ...
Here's what happened: I travel often enough that I'm in the habit of getting my kit packed a day or two before departure. When I say "packed" I mean I have my checked bag loaded and sealed, and carry-on loaded and trailing a bunch of charger cables so I can just unplug it and go. (There are duplicate chargers with foreign plugs already stashed in the carry-on.) I especially do this when, due to the vagaries of airline timetables I need to be in a taxi at 4am ...
Reason for being in a taxi at 4am: the 0610 take-off time, which in turn means an 0540 boarding call. My local airport is only 15 km from my front door, but it's a half hour drive even at four in the morning because there's an entire city centre in the way — one that wasn't designed for automobiles. So the plan was: into taxi at 0400, into airport at 0430, through baggage drop, security and passport control by 0500, and time for a cup of coffee before boarding.
There's meta-reasons for all of this, of course. The meta-reason for the 0610 departure was that I needed to be on a flight leaving my regional hub — Paris Charles de Gaulle (cheaper and nicer than London's airports, and equidistant in flight time from home) — and due for boarding at 2pm local time. The 0610 flight arrives Paris CDG at 0930 local. The 1010 flight arrives around 1240. Experience shows that allowing less than two hours for a connection at any major intercontinental hub is asking for trouble — such as last summer, when I allowed a two hour transfer window and our feeder flight was two and a half hours late taking off due to a maintenance issue. We missed our long-haul connection and ended up arriving ten hours late. (Lesson learned: always allow extra time for connections — lots of it, not just one or two hours.)
((Meta-meta-reason for the trip: guest of honour slot at Boskone, followed by trip to New York and meetings with (a) my agent, (b) my editor and marketing people at Tor, and (c) my editor and marketing people at Ace. Not to mention (d) a public reading on top. In other words: it was primarily a business trip, not a vacation.))
I got out of bed at 3:15 in the morning and, in a zombie-like haze, pulled my laptop out of my luggage to sync with DropBox (which I'd forgotten to do before getting into that nice warm bed the night before). Then I went to help my spouse with her bags. She's a firm believer in the leave-everything-to-the-last-minute algorithm and was still installing some last-minute additions at 3:30.
You can see where this is going, right?
I have this thing about trying to travel light. For an eight day trip, I was trying to travel with less than 15Kg of combined checked and hand baggage (of which the bags contributed around 5Kg in their own right). Mostly this worked fine (the clothes, toiletries, medicines, and sundry extras side of it went without a hitch). But it was a business trip — and I was on a minimalism kick. I had an iPhone and a (new, third generation) Kindle, so why take an iPad as well? I had a laptop, so why take a folding bluetooth keyboard for the iPhone or (not taking it) iPad?
If I'd packed the iPad (weight: 660 grams) I'd have been fine — an iPad is a sufficiently powerful computer for email, web browsing, some light duty writing, and so on for a week long trip. If I'd packed the iGo keyboard (weight: 220 grams), I'd have been able to make a decent fist of spending eight days on the road using the iPhone 4 as a general purpose computer — the screen's small, but it's sufficiently powerful that it might have been workable. But I'd decided to save nearly 900 grams by leaving them both out of my carry-on. Lesson learned — lack of redundancy is a mistake. Next lesson learned: do not make last minute changes to your inventory during the "sleep" phase of your sleep cycle.
Anyway, I discovered the absence of my laptop (a Macbook Air) at the airport; it was so light that its absence didn't make a huge difference to the weight of my carry-on. By which time there was insufficient time to curse and do a round-trip home by taxi to grab it before departure.
The withdrawal symptoms were probably comical to bystanders, but got tiresome fast. However, I had sufficient time crossing the Atlantic to figure out a solution. My wife, being sensible, hadn't left her laptop at home; rather than arm-wrestle with her for it, I bought an entry-level iPad on a buy-it-now-and-eBay-it-later basis. (An entry-level iPad (16Gb, no 3G) currently costs around £100 (or US $160) less in the USA than back home in the UK.) Despite my minimalism crusade I hadn't left my laptop's backup hard drive behind: so I borrowed her machine and used the backup drive to provision the iPad. With DropBox and Gmail set up, I now had access to all my work files and to my email — now all I had to worry about is how to dispose of a spare iPad. (Note: it's not actually going to eBay — it's already earmarked for a relative.)
Lesson learned: any computer problem can be fixed if you can throw money at it and you still have access to your data. Oh, and carry a bluetooth keyboard everywhere, at all times.
More seriously, I've never been good at pulling all-night stretches, and I'm beginning to think that if I want a long connection window in future I'd do better to fly out to the hub the evening before, sleep overnight in an airport hotel, then make the long-haul connection rather than mess around with 6am departures.
Finally, on this trip I got to make an interesting comparison — we flew out on a Boeing 747-400 and back on a new Airbus A380 super-jumbo. Air France uses the upper deck of both types for economy seating, and we were in comparable seats on each flight. So how does the old jumbo stack up against the new one?
If you plan on flying intercontinental distances over the next couple of decades you'll probably end up aboard an A380 at some point. The significant difference from a 747, from the passenger perspective, is that the A380 has a full-sized upper deck. That upper deck is huge — it has about the same floor plan as an MD-11, with economy seats in 3-4-3 configuration, narrowing to 2-4-2 in the tail. In contrast, the 747-400 upper deck is a single aisle configuration, with 3-3 seating (like a Boeing 737). The giant Airbus is significantly quieter than the 747. Seats in the rear of any airliner are generally noisier as they get the engine noise, but despite being only 5 rows from the back of the A380 I had difficulty hearing the big blowers over the air conditioning. The upper-deck windows on the A380 are much better than on the 747 — they're full size, at head height, so you can actually see out of them without having to hunch down. Alas, I can't speak for ride comfort; we took off in a storm that threw the 540 ton giant around like a puddle jumper, then caught a sleepless jet stream ride that shaved nearly two hours off the flight at cost of having to spend most of the journey strapped down, but all things considered, the A380 should be an improvement over the 747 from a passenger comfort perspective. Unfortunately, there are one or two gotchas ...
If you want to see where you're flying you should not pick a seat on an exit row or right in front of an exit row, and you should always avoid the rearmost seat block on the upper deck. The emergency exits and slides (and the embarkation doors) on the A380 are huge, the better to evacuate up to a thousand passengers in 90 seconds. So the support structures in the hull mean that there are no windows immediately fore and aft of the doors. Less obviously, the rear block of seats have low-profile overhead luggage bins — presumably because the roofline of the fuselage drops towards the tail — these hold roughly half the volume of carry-on luggage as the overhead bins further forward. There are also stowage bins under the windows (as on the 747) but none in the exit rows, for obvious reasons. So if you pick the rear exit row seats, you get no view and nowhere nearby to stash your carry-on ...
It could be worse. At least we didn't get rained on when the plane landed, like on the last couple of MD-11 flights I took before the type was retired for pure freight duty. (Condensation from the air conditioning apparently builds up in the bins, trickles backward during cruise climb flight, and gives the back row a cold shower when the plane lands.)
So. What are your long-haul travel tribulations?