While traveling as a Cadet, I usually felt like one of two extremes: "I'm a Rock Star," or "I am Sucking." As a new Cadet traveling home the first couple times, you usually go full Spartan. You pack a book bag with a change of clothes, iPod, maybe a book, and away you go. I use to think, "Man I'm going to save so much stress and time with this little bag. No checking in, this is going to be the bomb." Usually I would find myself still having to go to the counter to print up tickets and then wishing I packed more when I got stuck with a three hour layover somewhere. Traveling well goes beyond just packing right though. In order to travel well, you need to know how the system works so you can work the system.
For most of you, this first bit of advice may be mind-blowingly simple. If you are anything like I was though, you won't even know how to book a flight. When I went to West Point it was the first time I had flown on an airplane. I'm pretty certain that West Point booked that flight for me too, so until I went home for Christmas, I still had no clue how to book a flight. It really is easy and there are many ways to do it, but I will just recommend using Orbitz (the website). Find a flight using their search features, book it and pay with a credit card. It is that easy. You will get everything you need emailed to you. I recommend Orbitz only because I have spent countless hours scouring the internet for cheapest flights and such and I rarely find anything worth the time I waste on my search. Orbitz usually has the lowest prices and it's just easy.
Traveling well starts way before you fly. There are two things you need to do before you even leave for the airport: pre-check in and pack well. I know I was a little critical about packing light, but really you do want to limit yourself to one carry-on bag. If your airline offers pre-check in then bringing one bag is worth it as you can print up your ticket at home or school, go to the airport, then go straight to security. If you cannot do pre-check and your airline offers one free checked bag, you might as well do this. It won't add any time, you can bring more things with you, and you can bring more back to school. For your carry-on bag, I will recommend a few things. First, get a back-pack style bag that zips completely open like a suitcase. It needs to hold up well, have backpack straps, and zip all the way open. This makes packing much easier as you do not have to cram everything down into your typical back pack pockets. So, find yourself a good travel bag and then start packing these things:
A book or entertainment piece: You will get bored in airports and on flights.
iPod or similar music producing device: Entertainment and noise protection from crying babies and terrible conversations.
Snacks: You will without fail get miserably hungry while flying.
Phone charger: I seem to always forget this one. No better way to get stranded while traveling than to forget your charger. Better find a pay phone!
Toothbrush and paste: I usually just buy toiletry items at my destination, but toothbrush and paste are a good idea for carry-on. There is nothing worse than getting into your final destination and your family or love interest is there to greet you and you have Haggis mouth. I don't know what it is but you can't help but get bad breath while flying. Do yourself a favor and if you are looking to not offend someone with your bad breath, brush your teeth before you leave the arrival gates.
Clothes: This may sound like "duh" but I can't tell you how many times I only packed one set of clothes because I thought I would have something on the other side of my flight only to end up wearing the same outfit the rest of the trip. I lose.
The System: Owning the Airport.
Airports are, simply put, a pain. You're always in a rush, everything is really expensive, you're a poor cadet, you have to deal with security, lines, everything. There are a lot of life hacks that make airport travel easy though. Here are a few of the best:
USOs: USOs are the best thing that ever happened. USO stands for United Service Organizations and are basically a VIP lounge for Soldiers and Cadets in airports. Every major airport has one and most include leather couches/seats that you can just sink into, games consoles, computers with internet, free food and drinks, family areas, luggage storage, movie lounge, you name it they have it. Some even have sleeping areas for long layovers or if you get stuck overnight. Bottom line is if you have any sort of wait at an airport, go straight to the USO. Just make sure you have an ID showing that you are in fact a Cadet.
TSA pre-check: TSA instituted a policy where military members' tickets are stamped with "TSA pre√" (as long as you let them know you are military when buying your ticket). This little stamp lets you go through a shorter line in security and you don't have to take off your shoes or jacket at the security gate. It's a pretty sweet deal. They recently extended this to Cadet's from the four service academies (sorry ROTC guys).
Seat upgrades: I want to preface this with an important moral standard- never use your status as a Cadet in an arrogant or embarrassing way. Don't try to bump people off flights. Don't wear your uniform while traveling (unless your school makes you) so that people privilege you. I could go on, but I'll probably just give you bad ideas. I only say this because I have seen it a lot and it is an embarrassment Cadets and the military. However, one nice perk that is OK to try and get if you do it subtly is get seat upgrades. During boarding, ask the gate attendant if there are any open first class seats and if so, do they offer free upgrade to military. Many times they will say yes and you will find yourself with a much more comfortable flight. Just make sure you do this nicely and only when the gate attendant is not busy. If they say no then very graciously say no problem, thank you for your time, have a great day!
Don't wait in line for flight changes: If you miss a flight or something, don't wait in line to get things fixed. Just call the airline, they can do everything for you, there is no line, and you won't have to deal with a frustrated attendant.
This holiday season as you are traveling home to visit family and friends, take care of yourself. Relax, erase school from your memory for a while and reward yourself for all the hard work you put in the past semester.
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