GeekWire columnist Frank Catalano with an Alaska Airlines flight attendant in January as the airline took delivery of its first 737-800 with Boeing's new Sky Interior.

You say you know what it’s like to live like a geek. But do you know how to fly like one?

I do. And not like the annoyingly self-important “look at these cool-expensive-huge headphones that I just bought with the red light that make me look like a Star Wars Cloud City administrative aide” road warriors.

No. These tools and gadgets, I guarantee, will make you travel geekier even if you are a hardened frequent flier. Or just want to have the benefits of that kind of knowledge. I have nearly one million earned butt-in-seat Alaska Airlines miles (plus hundreds of thousands on other, lesser carriers) to prove it.

So as the peak summer travel (a.k.a. “amateur”) season begins, here’s some of what I find invaluable.

Before the bus-with-wings departs. Three websites make planning and purchasing as painless as possible: Kayak, Yapta and ExpertFlyer. Kayak is probably the least unique of the three in that there are a lot of airfare comparison engines. But I like Kayak because of its no-nonsense, intuitive filters for airports, airlines, stops and times. I frequently use it when I’m flying on an unfamiliar route to verify I’m paying a reasonable price, even when flying a favorite airline.

Once purchased, I immediately go to Seattle’s Yapta (founded by a former Alaska Airlines marketing exec) and enter the flight and price I paid. Yapta then transparently and frequently checks the price, alerting me by email if it drops and also sends me a weekly summary of all the flights it’s watching for me. Useless after buying, you say? Not necessarily. Sometimes a flight price drops more than the change fee, and some airlines – including Alaska – have a low fare guarantee. I’ve saved hundreds through this free site.

Not always free, but equally valuable if you want to take travel geekiness up a notch, is ExpertFlyer. Sure, you can search for available flights and fares. But a feature I find far more useful is the seat maps for every flight (similar to SeatGuru and SeatExpert) that let you select a currently unavailable seat that you want, and then emails you should the seat open up. Plus, you can create email alerts for when award tickets or upgrade space becomes available. While seat alerts alone are free, I literally have recouped my $100 annual Premium subscription several times each year in saved chiropractor fees by being alerted to aisle or exit row seats I was able to snag, rather than wedging my 6’4” frame into a regular middle seat.

And to keep up on changes in airline, hotel and other travel loyalty programs, I frequent FlyerTalk. It’s a well-moderated collection of discussion boards featuring obsessed frequent travelers, but often has news of changes to hotels and airlines far faster than other media, online and off. I’ve been there, since 2004, as Seattlenerd.

On board the metal, people-filled tube. Status snark aside, I do find noise-canceling headphones a must. But not for status, and certainly not everywhere on board. (Wear them into the lavatory? Eeewwwwww. Bose might as well read Bozo.) I prefer lower-profile, noise-isolating earbuds with noise cancelling circuitry, such as my current pair of Pioneer SE-NC31C-K headphones, for a couple of reasons. They are friendlier on ear cartilage than ear-cupping models. And after I land, I can use them in the hotel gym without drawing stares. (Little known geek fact: noise cancelling headphones actually generate noise. Really.)

I also carry an extra set of batteries for every device that doesn’t recharge. Nothing frustrates like having that battery-dependent headset fail two hours en route SEA-BOS. Or LHA. The added weight is minimal, and the frustration-prevention, priceless.

It’s now almost quaint to suggest a Kindle, Nook, iPad or other e-reader or content consumption device. Angry Birds has gotten me through many, many delays. But also bring a physical magazine or two – for when you can’t play Words With Friends on taxi, takeoff and landing.

The airlines have yet to adopt my long-standing suggestions for trash compactor mechanisms in the overhead bins to accommodate more carry-on luggage, or Velcro strips on the ceiling to allow passengers to wear Velcro gloves and booties for overhead navigation of aisles blocked by service carts (2001: A Space Odyssey was the inspiration). But I’m always hopeful.

On the ground wherever. Rather than just rely on Google Maps to help me navigate an unfamiliar major city, I’ve now taken to downloading whatever TripAdvisor city guide smartphone app might be available for my destination. They are far more reliable than no-name (and suspect) city guide apps. While I rarely fully trust the reviews, the integration with my mobile device’s GPS is great for finding landmarks, hotels, attractions and restaurants, plus it works offline as a reference. There’s no need to buy a guidebook, paper- or e-, for quick info. And it’s easily deleted upon return.

Finally, if you really want to be everyone’s best friend at outlet-starved airports and conference hotels, pick up a Monster Outlets to Go. This brilliantly designed, five-inch accessory combines a short extension cord and three adapter-spaced outlets to convert one plug into three. For generally under ten bucks. I carry mine everywhere I need something electrical. Which is everywhere.

There are, of course, the overrated accessories (nothing says newbie like a neck pillow). Yet prep, travel and land with any or all of the above, and you’ll gain geek travel cred. Especially if you also carry on a smile, polite demeanor and killer sense of humor. In times of transit stress, these last will take you farther than any app will.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. He also relies on the Alaska Airlines mobile app, which he finds even faster and simpler than the full AlaskaAir.com website, always packs his own hotel coffee, and wrote this post on AS3 DCA-SEA from seat 17D.

More by Frank Catalano: Inside Alaska Airlines’ new Boeing Sky Interior

Comments

  • Bill Schrier

    Wow, great article, especially when some travel agency I’m required to use puts me in Seat 27E.  What’s wrong with neck pillows?  My best friend on redeye flights, although I hate the way my mouth hangs open for the whole flight. 

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Bill, you’ve got me on that one, as I don’t do redeyes. You’re right. While I find them to be useless bacteria magnets on daytime trips (and often see leisure travelers carry them, even for two-hour hops), I can imagine how they’d be useful on long overnight flights. Pity they haven’t yet developed one that stops drooling & snoring.

      • Lee

        This geek flyer uses a neck brace for sleep. Useful when I get a stinger, but far better for fully supporting your head for inflight sleep and it packs better. Want to double geek it – get a cool sleeve for it. Just don’t wear it when boarding the exit row….

        As for earphones I find Etymotics in ear phones far better than noise canceling – you don’t get the extra noise.

        But for my dollar nothing says true road warrior like Briggs and Reilly luggage. Sturdy, stable, well designed, and lasts for freaking ever.

        Also you forgot rule #1 – never walk past a working bathroom….

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          Well, rule #1 (including, one assumes, #2) and luggage aren’t just geek-focused tips. They’re tips for every frequent flier. I left a lot of those out. Yet I’m completely with you on Briggs & Riley and own both a 20″ carry-on expandable wide-body upright and a briefcase … and surprisingly, saw the carry-on recently at Costco, apparently in a color that was being closed out. (For those who don’t know, what sets Briggs & Riley apart is that it’s unconditionally guaranteed, even against airline damage.)

          While I’ve tried noise isolation earbuds, I prefer active noise cancelling, though I get the niceness of not having the extra noise. Whatever works, works. 

  • Dave

    A really small bag to hold the random stuff you need on a plane–headphones, a cord, a pen, etc.–is a great help. Put the small bag and iPad in seat pocket and I’m all set. I avoid reaching down to my briefcase/backpack 10 times a flight. It also makes getting on and off the plane a snap–small bag plus iPad and a magazine for takeoff and landing is all I need, rather than grabbing 5 or 10 different small things, one of which I always forget.

    And for luggage, I swear by Tumi. Briggs & Riley is great stuff, but Tumi always seems to have the compartments in the right place for me. 

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Great idea on the really small bag to hold all in-flight needs in the back seat pocket, so you don’t forget anything when you leave. Made me recall I have a bunch of Rick Steves’ small zipper black mesh bags that might do the trick (the largest can hold a Kindle or iPad).

      • LD

        I no longer put all my eggs in one bag. Lost a drawstring bag with two iPods, Shure headset, iPhone, pen, eyeglasses and a bunch of other stuff. Had it in my lap during descent so as not to forget. When I pushed the blanket aside to get up it apparently got buried and forgotten.

  • http://openid.aliz.es/username username

    Huh. How could you omit Tripit ? 

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Easy. I don’t find it especially useful. Others might.

  • http://wayan.com wayan

    Apple iTunes + iPad is a gift from the gods for long flights. Pack it with movies I want to watch, rather than the plane choices, and AudioTechnia noise canceling headphones and I am set. Add in Ambian for the red-eyes and my 16+ hour flights to Africa pass quickly.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I’m not one of the iPad faithful, but I agree in principle. My equivalent is to make sure I have at least two interesting books (fiction and non-fiction) on my Kindle, depending on my reading mood; a lot of music downloaded to my Android smart phone using Amazon Cloud Player (with the occasional podcast or two); and the noise-cancelling headphones. 

      While I generally like Alaska Airlines’ digEplayer (it was the subject of my first GeekWire column, more than a year ago http://www.geekwire.com/2011/digeplayer-long-flight-obsolescence/), I’m not much of a movie watcher on planes, preferring to read. Yet packing your own media is always a good idea.

  • Stewart Baines

    This stuff is the thin end of the wedge, really, isn’t it? The mobile carriers, air travel firms and technologists are working to develop all kinds of odd tech innovations: baggage tracking and reclaim, airport management, NFC-based ticketing and boarding systems and more. I”m expecting much more activity in the next 12 months or so. (This is an article I chanced upon on this on the Orange website, http://blogs.orange-business.com/enterprising-business/2012/06/innovation-in-the-air-part-1-of-3.html)

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I prefer to think of it as the tip of the iceberg, but one’s metaphors may vary. It’s a good point. Much of the truly geeky stuff in aviation is done behind the scenes, in areas passengers rarely see directly but then are beneficiaries of the results (mobile boarding passes are an exception, and they’re so increasingly common they’re almost, well, pass-e).

      The focus of my thoughts was on what travelers can directly control, with a slightly geeky tip of the hat to tools of which they might not be aware.

  • NB

    Not about the plane, but post-plane… My fav new geek travel gear is my own wireless router with iPhone App for connectivity. How many times has a hotel advertised rooms with “high-speed internet” which means a port, or perhaps a RJ-45 cable hanging out of the wall – not useful with a smartphone or iPad.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Cool idea for the wired rooms. Carrying a small router is a great approach. Alternately, as an HTC Droid user, I’ve occasionally thought about getting a separate dedicated 3G hotspot or using the embedded on-device mobile hotspot app to provide WiFi, but couldn’t quite stomach my carrier’s additional charges. And I haven’t yet found a great Android app to turn my phone into an unofficial hotspot (then again, I haven’t looked very hard).

      However, I’ve lately found that most hotels where I travel have switched to WiFi instead of wired broadband. That’s both good and bad. Good, in that I can use it with any device in my room. Bad, in that it’s less secure. So I use a personal VPN for security (my current choice is Witopia, which works well and is priced fairly).

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