Charlie Stross: September 2007 Archives

I've been traveling too much lately, and it tends to concentrate the mind. Not your usual commuting travel, of course, but international, intercontinental travel, which in the post-9/11 era is more than a little trying.

(On the subject of terrorism and flying, I have this to say: your chances of being involved in a real incident — as opposed to a false alarm — are vanishingly small. Much of the post-9/11 security checks are smoke and mirrors, nonsense designed to demonstrate that something is being done in order to justify the ever-increasing demands for money and attention emanating from the monstrous $90Bn baby of the counter-terrorism industry that has sprung up since 2001. The real solution to the security hole exposed by the Hamburg Al-Quaida cell on September 11th 2001 was in place the very same day, as the non-arrival of Flight 93 demonstrated. The ground rules for hijacking have changed: if someone tries to gain access to the cockpit in flight, you need to stop them at all costs — all else is secondary, and the simple fact that the traveling public are aware of it makes the post-9/11 security measures pointless. As for the "liquid explosives" nonsense of 2006, it's precisely that — nonsense that obsesses scientifically illiterate politicos who slept through chemistry class at school and learned everything they fear about terrorism from Hollywood.)

But I digress. I'm not here to talk about terrorism, I'm here to talk about long-haul international travel, and how to do so with a minimum of discomfort and inconvenience. Herewith, a brain dump of what I've learned from flying upwards of 50,000 miles a year for several years.

Note: this essay is applicable to ordinary middle class stiffs like you and me. The very rich need simply have their secretary call the Netjets agent and settle back to wait for the limo to take them to the Gulfstream or BBJ. The merely rich fly first class or business class, bypassing all of the discomforts and restrictions on baggage except for the onerous check-in security theatre. As for the rest of us ...

Rule #0: be prepared. If you're going to travel, you need to line up all your ducks in a row first. Make sure your passport is in date and doesn't look as if it's been tampered with. (In particular: if the photograph page looks as if someone may have messed with the photograph, get a replacement passport right now.) Make sure your flights are booked, and (if flying to the USA) you've got an itinerary with the addresses of where you're going to be staying. There will be an exam, administered in flight, and if you don't fill out the landing card properly the immigration officer may refuse you entry. Take a black ballpoint pen. (Pack two!) Visas are a whole other kettle of fish; luckily for me, most places I fly to don't require them. (The USA has a visa waiver scheme for EU citizens that covers vacations and short business trips — as long as you're not working as "an agent of the foreign press" or earning a living. This covers things like trade shows and, apparently, science fiction conventions and publicity tours.) You should also almost certainly ensure that you have comprehensive travel insurance policy, including medical and legal cover of at least $1M. Oh, and make sure your mobile phone works in your destination country and your phone plan covers international roaming. (Note that GSM phones do not work in Japan, dual-band European GSM phones don't work in all parts of the USA, CDMA phones — from the USA — do not work anywhere outside the USA, and so on. There are some other rules. Ask your phone company for guidance.)

Rule #1: allow far more time than you expect to need for connections. If you're flying international, especially if one of your endpoints is inside the United States, you really need to allow 2-3 hours for check-in these days. If you're flying intercontinental distances via a major hub — for example, flying from a regional airport like Edinburgh to Heathrow, then transferring to a long-haul flight to the west coast (as I'll be doing, next week) — you need to ensure that there are at least two, and preferably three, hours between flights.

Airports are huge places. (Heathrow employs 120,000 staff — where do they keep them all? — and shoves through a similar number of travelers on a daily basis.) It can easily take you fifty minutes to make your way from an arrival gate to a departure gate. And air traffic control delays can result in your initial feeder flight arriving an hour late. During 2006, Heathrow operated at close to 98% capacity; a light morning fog around 6am could delay take-offs, result in knock-on delays to all flights in British airspace later in the day as planes arrived late and were late taking on passengers for subsequent flights. Don't assume you can run from your arrival gate to a departure lounge in a quarter of an hour. These days you'll almost certainly have to go through a security checkpoint before boarding your onward flight, adding another 10-45 minutes to the journey. On a recent trip, flying via Paris Charles-de-Gaulle, I'd allowed two hours and 50 minutes between connections. We ended up spending less than 30 minutes in the lounge — the rest of it was spent walking, riding a mass transit system, and queuing at checkpoints.

Rule #2: for dealing with security, the cardinal points are: do not be impatient, and do not be an asshole. Security personnel are not responsible for security policy. They've got a thankless, annoying, badly paid job to do. They do not bear you a personal grudge. Things will go more smoothly if you do not make a nuisance of yourself or stand out from the crowd. Most of us find it easy to get annoyed at being treated like sheep, but consider the alternative: if you pick a fight or an argument with these people you are going to lose, probably miss your flight, and possibly end up being prosecuted. If you can't suck it up for all of ten or fifteen minutes, you probably shouldn't be strapping yourself into an aluminium can with several hundred strangers for several hours. Be polite, obey instructions, don't give in to the temptation to mouth off, and you'll almost certainly be okay. Remember you agreed to this nonsense when you decided to fly; nobody held a gun to your head. (If they did, you're being subjected to extraordinary rendition and you can ignore the rest of this article — you've got much bigger problems.)

This may sound overly paranoid, but these days I make an effort not to wear clothing bearing any kind of logo or design (you have no way of knowing what might set someone else off). I do not wear a belt (some airports are currently X-raying belts). I wear comfortable shoes that I can slip on an off easily (airports conduct random checks of footwear): sandals for preference, because they're less likely to attract a search. (You can't conceal anything in them, and you can take them off more easily during the 8-12 hour flight.) I do not carry a multitool or knife or scissors on my person or in my hand luggage — they go in a padded bag in my checked luggage before I fly. I do not carry books or periodicals that have hot-button titles or subjects on their cover (although ebooks, on an ebook reader which is switched off when going through the security tap-dance, are another matter). In other words, nothing that's potentially going to slow me down or risk setting off a stupid, angry, paranoid idiot with a bee in their bonnet. Not because I think all aviation security people are stupid, angry, and paranoid ... but because planning for the worst is prudent.

(Left to my own devices I'd normally do the exact opposite to this list ... but I've made a decision to travel and these are the rules for that particular environment. Intrusive and annoying they may be, but that's the score. Spend your time in the queue mentally drafting a letter to your legislator — who knows? If enough of us write them, the security theatre run might get canceled. But this is another digression. Back to the topic.)

Rule #3: luggage. The UK is currently a pain to fly from, because the government is enforcing a "one piece of hand luggage ONLY" rule. This may be relaxed next year with the installation of new screening machines, but for the time being, you get precisely one bag — not the usual one bag plus one personal item such as a laptop or handbag. If you want to take the "personal item", you need to be able to shove it in your single carry on bag while it goes through the security check. They don't mind you taking it out afterwards; go figure.

For a long haul flight my needs on the plane are: essential travel documentation, money/wallet, medicines, hydration, and entertainment. Hydration (in the form of water — one litre per 4 hours in the air) can be purchased in the departure lounge at the airport your long-haul flight departs from. (Don't buy your water air-side at your regional departure airport; security will just take it off you at the next airport while you're waiting in line for your connection.) Remember that the air on most modern airliners is dessicated and your mucous membranes will dry out. The way to deal with this is to avoid alcohol (which will hit you extra-hard in flight anyway, because the pressurized cabin is maintained at around the same air pressure you'd find at an altitude of 3000 metres), and drink water regularly, ideally a quarter to half a litre (half to one pint) per hour.

Medicines are a hard call. If you have regular prescription medication, take it with you in your hand luggage in the dispensed, labeled, packets. Take a photocopy of your prescription, or get your doctor to write a "to whom it may concern" letter. Take at least seven days' more medication than your trip calls for, in case you are detained by happenstance at the other end. If your medication includes opiates or stimulants, you really ought to seek expert advice before travel, from the consulate or embassy of your destination. Do this before you book your flights — in some rare cases, you may find it impossible to make suitable arrangements for travel. If taking over-the-counter remedies, keep them in their original purchased packets, try to check that they're legal in your destination country, and don't be surprised if Customs officers at the far end confiscate them. (I've avoided this so far.) Bear in mind that boxes or jars of unidentified white pills or capsules make drug enforcement officers twitchy.

Entertainment: you need a book or magazine for the hour or so that your long-haul flight will spend on the ground, queuing for take-off, or on final approach for landing. During this period you're not allowed to use electronic devices. (The real reason is nothing to do with radio interference and everything to do with folks who are wrapped up in an ipod or a laptop taking longer to evacuate from a burning wreck. In the event of the unthinkable, do you want your escape impeded because some ass-hat in front of you is trying to take his 17" laptop with him?) An ipod loaded with your favourite music and a few movies or TV shows is a wonderful thing to behold on an 8 or 12 or 22 hour flight. Make sure it's fully charged before you depart, though, or take an external battery-powered charger with you. You might also want to look into getting some decent ear canal headphones. They block external noise just as effectively as ear plugs, while letting you hear your music — and they give better sound quality.

I can plough through about one novel per 6 hours of flight. These days I carry a PDA — a Palm TX — loaded with ebooks. Even with a battery powered charger and a case, it weighs no more than a single paperback and it gives me a whole bookshelf. (I'll probably swap it for a real digital paper based ebook reader one of these days, when I see one I like.)

Using a laptop is next to impossible in economy class, unless it's tiny and you're supermodel-skinny (I'm not). Be very wary about pulling one out and putting it on the tray table before the person in front of you has fully reclined their seat — every day, laptop screens get crunched that way. Be warned that few airlines provide seatback chargers in economy class (although it's beginning to show up). Your laptop will be security-screened separately, so keep it near the top of your carry-on luggage so you can pull it out fast. Security may also ask you to turn it on to demonstrate that it's not a fiendishly-disguised bomb. Having it in sleep mode rather than hibernating or switched off is a sensible precaution when going through security. If you plan to actually use it in flight, either go Business Class or take a spare battery.

Be aware that various countries run on different voltages and have different types of mains socket. When I travel, I have a kit bag containing multi-voltage adapters and different plug heads for all the electronics I've got. It adds weight, but it's essential. While laptops and ipods are generally flexible, not all phones and game consoles have power supplies that accept multiple input voltages. Try and get your travel adapters sorted out before you travel (and if you're American, make sure your adapters will safely take inputs up to 240 volts).

Security personnel of some nations claim the right to grab your laptop and rifle through the hard drive for Cthulhu-knows-what. If traveling with a laptop, it's best to assume it's going to be searched (or stolen) and plan accordingly. Oddly, they don't seem to be routinely doing this to memory cards in digital cameras, thumb drives on keyrings, or your online accounts.

(Don't put your laptop in your hold luggage if you want to see it again in one piece, okay? Ditto valuable jewelry, cameras, electronics, and so on. Hold luggage is for items you're willing to shrug and replace on the insurance. It may get lost — British Airways at Heathrow have a notorious baggage problem this year — or dropped off the edge of an airliner's cargo bay onto the concrete ramp from ten metres. Keep it for clothing, toiletries, shoes, and the like. Oh, and any duty-free gifts for friends — as long as they're heavily protected by bubble wrap or the like, and the case has hard sides.)

You may want to fly with other electronics. A Nintendo DS or Sony PSP can make the hours pass faster. A personal digital video player (such as an iPod video) frees you from the usual execrable airline choice of bowdlerized pap. And a decent blindfold and a pair of ear plugs are a real help when you get sleepy.

Rather than irritating everyone by repeatedly hauling your hand luggage down from an overhead bin during the flight, look for a compact bag that holds your minimum stash — documents, meds, toys, books — and that you can pull out of your main bag and store under the seat in front of you.

Rule #4: arrive alive. Long-haul travel in an airliner is one of the most uncomfortable experiences most of us will pay good money to undertake. As I said earlier, if you can afford to, fly Business Class. Business Class is expensive, but it's not unimaginable luxury; it just takes the pain out of the experience and ensures you arrive feeling tired and grubby but not entirely bent out of shape. Unfortunately, Business Class is expensive. (For some long-haul routes such as UK/Australia or UK/Japan, it's about a 120-150% mark-up over economy ... but on the EU-US routes, price gouging holds sway and the premium can be closer to 500%.)

One thing I'd strongly recommend avoiding is flying for any route that takes more than 3 hours in a Boeing 737, 757, or Airbus 318/319/320/321. These narrow-body airliners (with one aisle) are designed for short-haul routes. They don't have the leg room, baggage space, in-flight entertainment system, or toilets to adequately serve a long-haul route. I've gone trans-Atlantic on a packed 757 once. Never again! The only exception is if it's one of the special business-class-only services — and as I indicated earlier, if you can afford them, this essay ain't really aimed at you.

Airliners are dessicated and dry, and after that first lunch or dinner is served, it's common practice to close the window shades and turn the heat up, encouraging passengers to sleep. (Sleeping passengers put fewer demands on cabin crew and are less likely to act up.) Loose, comfortable clothing is strongly recommended. Lots of extra fluid (far more than the cabin crew will offer you) is a good idea. And frequent toilet trips.

One aspect of arriving alive is to make sure you keep your circulation going. You do not want to succumb to a deep vein thrombosis. The British government has a web page here that explains what it is, and details some simple exercises you can carry out during the flight to reduce the probability of suffering from one. A simple point that they don't emphasize enough is that getting up and walking around helps. This simply isn't feasible in a narrow-body airliner, but in a wide-body there's enough room to get up and go to the toilet every hour or so, stretching your legs. (I'd advise against exercising in the toilets; it's rude to your fellow passengers' bladders and it may alarm the cabin crew.)

I'm on blood pressure medication. I always try to get an aisle seat, because the combination of medication and hydration in flight turns me into an animated fire hydrant. Crawling across strangers' laps every hour to go to the toilet isn't cool: if you have a similar condition, try to plan your seat allocation accordingly.

The next major issue is jetlag.

I don't have any real answers to jetlag except: it is essential that on your day of arrival you should try not to go to bed until your normal bed time in the time zone you're arriving in. You may need to take a nap en route, either on the aircraft or in your hotel post-arrival, but make sure you don't sleep through. I usually find that when taking a red-eye from the US home to the UK, I need a two-hour mid-afternoon nap after I get home; that's okay because it sets me up to stay awake until 11pm, and the next day I wake up on local time. On the other hand, crashing out for 7-8 hours would leave me waking up around midnight, fresh as a daisy, which is exactly what you don't want to have happening to you.

A good rule of thumb is to calculate how long your travel day is going to be, from waking up to catch your flight to hitting the pillow at 11pm or so in your destination. If it's over 18 hours, you probably want to schedule a nap, somewhere. Just remember to set your alarm, unless you do it in flight. (The cabin crew won't let you sleep through final approach and landing.)

Rule #5: Immigration

I have never met an airport immigration desk that was set up to make travelers feel welcome, but there are various grades of awfulness. Entering the USA today has been compared unfavourably with entering Iran, or the Soviet Union circa 1985. It's a very unfriendly experience, but a bit of preparation helps.

You need your travel documents close to hand during your flight because the cabin crew will hand out customs declaration forms and landing cards/visa waiver forms. This is where the ballpoint pen comes in handy, and the address of your hotel, and your passport number. (I said there'd be an exam, didn't I?) Read the instructions on the forms before filling them in, because there's nothing as annoying as being sent to the back of a queue of 300 shuffling jet-lagged tourists at what your body insists is 3am because you forgot to fill it in in block capitals or something.

US immigration will photograph you with a webcam and fingerprint you. They'll ask intrusive and annoying questions and try to spot holes in your answers that suggest you're lying to them.

Do not lie to these people. They can lock you up and throw away the key. The former US attorney general was of the opinion that they could beat seven shades of crap out of you with impunity, as long as they didn't kill you. Until you clear immigration and customs you are an un-person. Admonitions about being polite and playing by their rules apply doubly here. If you give them cause, they will clap you in hand-cuffs and put you on the next flight home. This is not what you suffered through 8 hours of long-haul travel for.

(Here, I'm lucky. I tell them I'm a novelist. If they ask for more, I can pull out a book printed in their country, with my photograph on the back cover. It's never failed yet: the DHS must have some rule that says terrorists aren't allowed to masquerade as science fiction writers. However, I live in fear of the day some budding Svengali of Sabotage realizes he can infiltrate a jihadi cell into the USA by disguising them as a literary conference.)

After immigration you hopefully get to claim your hold luggage. If it's not there, find an airline rep and tell them, fast. At this point, you need to have those bar-coded receipts they gummed to your ticket envelope or passport or forehead, and tell them your final destination so they can forward the bags to you. NB: you can usually screw a small allowance out of them for essential replacements such as underwear and toiletries. And you may need to hang on to those receipts as proof of carriage in the event that the bags never turn up and you need to make an insurance claim.

Next you go through Customs. The admonition about not lying goes for Customs, just like Immigration. If you're carrying something and you're not sure of its status, approach them and ask. They may tell you that you need to pay a fee, but the mere act of asking tends to defuse any suspicion that you're trying to smuggle stuff past them.

(NB: when entering Australia, pay attention to the warnings about food. The Australians are extremely hardcore about food. The only appropriate way to take foreign produce into Australia is in your stomach, being digested. They can and will treat a bunch of bananas as harshly as an eighth of grass at a BRitish port of entry.)

Rule #7: Arrival. You have arrived, jet-lagged and exhausted, at the arrivals hall of a foreign airport after 12-24 hours of travel. You are towing a battered piece of luggage and have a laptop weighing down your shoulder bag. At this point, you need to get to a hotel or a friend's house. It is a good idea to have ensured you have a stash of the appropriate currency before you set out, because it is at this point that you usually discover that your credit card won't work in any of the ATMs in the concourse. Hint: taxis from airports into cities are convenient but tend to cost a chunk of money. (From Edinburgh Airport into Edinburgh can be anything up to £20, depending where you want to go. New York cabs are capped at roughly $50 between any airport and any destination in Manhattan. And so on.) If your airport is far enough out to warrant a dedicated rail link to the big city, it's probably so far out that a taxi will cost as much as a flight to the next city over. You need to have planned for your arrival every bit as much as you planned for your flight.

The best way to arrive is to be met in by a friend who drives you to their house or your hotel. They'll be awake, even if you're dead on your feet, because they're running on local time. Few things are as soul-crushing as trying to make sense of the public transport infrastructure of a foreign city at what your body insists is three in the morning, with thirty kilos of luggage on tow and no money.

Anyway, that's the highlights of the travel process. I've left out a lot. What toiletries do you really need? (Most hotels provide toothbrush and toothpaste these days, or have a shop that sells such sundries. Dry dental powder, unlike toothpaste, saves you from the liquids-in-baggies nonsense at security. And so on.) Should you pack lots of clothing, or rely on hotel laundry services? What's the best way to go about booking an intercontinental trip — hotels first or flights first? How to choose an airline hub for the long-haul leg? And so on. This brain dump only scratches the surface, but hopefully it'll be useful to someone. Just remember, advance planning saves headaches later.

Safe traveling!

Much to my surprise, Ace are kindly sending me on a signing tour of the North-Western United States next month. (I'm surprised — and gratified — because Ace are my SF publisher, and signing tours for science fiction novels are as rare as hens' teeth.)

Anyway ...

On Tuesday, October 9th at 12am I'll be participating in an Fishbowl session at Amazon's Union Station Offices in Seattle.

Then at 7pm I'll be doing a public reading (and signing) at University Bookstore at the Science Fiction Museum (325 5th Avenue North, Seattle).

On Wednesday, October 10th at 2pm I'll be doing a reading and signing at Google in Kirkland. (Open to staff only.)

On Thursday, October 11th at 7:30pm I'll be in Portland, doing a reading and signing at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside Street). (Parenthetically speaking, I'll also be browing the bookstore — I last visited Powell's in Portland about ten years ago!)

On Friday, October 12th at 1pm I'll be doing a reading and signing at Google in Mountain View.

At 7pm I'll be doing another reading and signing at Borders at 400 Post Street, San Francisco.

(Note that these are the public sessions — much of the blank space in the itinerary is occupied because I'm doing radio and magazine interviews.)

I'm just about over the jetlag from Japan, and writing up a travel piece for publication elsewhere. Hopefully I'll be able to repost it on the blog in due course, but not for a month or two. Meanwhile, one impression of lasting strangeness stands out enough that I want to share it with you now:

On our last day in Kyoto, my wife and I headed out of our hotel to do some exploring. As we descended into Shichijo subway station, an elderly fellow rushed over. "Hello! remember me?" (Apparently we'd met him a couple of days earlier while exploring some of the Buddhist temples for which Kyoto is famous.) "Here, please help." He thrust a sheaf of papers at me. "Can you proof-read?"

It took us a quarter of an hour to disentangle ourselves from his polite but insistent demand that we check the English vernacular in his papers, which turned out to be part of the second edition of the Japanese-English dictionary that, being a Professor of English at Kyoto University, he was editing: between us I think we checked about five pages.

How often have you been accosted on the subway by feral English professors and forced to proof-read Japanese-English dictionary entries? Alternatively — how many countries have you visited where elderly English professors would feel safe enough to approach near-total strangers on the subway, and invite them to proof-read their dictionaries? I think it says something fascinating about Japanese society that none of the participants in this little incident realized just how outré it would seem anywhere else. Food for thought ...

Sorry to have been so quiet; having a two-week post-worldcon vacation in Japan tends to reduce one's blogging output. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

NB: conclusion #1 from the Japan trip was this: when the Singularity comes, the first AI to transcend will be a Panasonic toilet seat. No, really ...

Please excuse the lack of recent updates; I've been recovering from the worldcon in Yokohama by indulging in gratuitous tourism. Japan is, indeed, pretty weird, and my wife's been getting to use the Japanese lessons she's been taking for the past couple of years (she's a language geek: I'm sadly monolingual).

Yesterday — still staying in Yokohama — we headed up into the hills to Hakone, where we ascended about 550 metres on a remarkable 1930s high-altitude railway (taking slopes of up to 1 in 10 and making several switchbacks). Then we spent most of the afternoon in the Yunessun spa, which boasts something like 23 different bathing experiences (from the hot springs to the flumes by way of a coffee-flavoured pool and a whole bunch of other stuff besides). Very much a tourist experience, but fun — and given we've had temperatures up to 31 degrees and 80% relative humidity for the past week, feeling clean (in the way you can only get after several hours of bathing) is really good. On the way back we stopped to go up the Landmark Tower (274 metres to the observation deck -- lower than the Empire State Building, but not by much) and failed to see Mount Fuji, mostly because of it being (a) nighttime and (b) foggy.

Foggy? Well, the weather forecast may have something to do with that. Typhoon Fitow has been gathering force for a couple of days, and today it's making landfall ... on Tokyo. We checked out of Yokohama this morning, caught a series of trains to our next hotel (near Shinjuku, in Tokyo), dropped our bags, and went exploring. Hint: if you're going to explore downtown Tokyo, and there's a typhoon warning out, take an umbrella and be prepared to have fun getting back to your hotel if you leave things too late! Exploration came to an end around 6pm, as the increasingly gusty squalls and cloudbursts began to get worse, and on our way home the station information boards began displaying lists of service interruptions. It's not a powerful typhoon, but a typhoon by any other name is a hurricane (in the Pacific). It shut down the Shinkanesen and many of the commuter lines, and right now it's rattling the triple-glazed window half a metre in front of my nose, booming and rumbling outside and throwing sprays of rain at my face.

The plan for tomorrow (if Typhoon Fitow leaves us alone) is to visit Puroland, which is to Hello Kitty as Disneyworld is to the rodent prince. Then we hit Akhibara, before zipping along to Kyoto. Tourism is an exhausting business!



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