6 Ways to Get More Done on Airplanes

Photo: Ed.ward

My line of work has required me to travel more, specifically by taking multi-leg flights to various places in the United States. While I used to use my flight time as a way to catch up on reading, sample new music, or even catch a nap, I now see flights as a wonderful opportunity to get some much-needed work done. Being productive on an airplane isn’t always easy, however; heightened security measures, electronic device limitations, and even the lack of personal space are all common obstacles to the motivated traveler. Here are the tips I swear by — all designed to pack more punch into your traveling workday. (See also: 5 Best Travel Reward Credit Cards)

1. Pack Well

It is important to know just what tools you will really use on your flight. If you are like me and own a smartphone, tablet, netbook, and full-size laptop, it can be tempting to bring just one or go overboard by stuffing them all into an already stressed out carry-on. I like to take an assessment of what tasks I will realistically want to do during my flight. If I will be doing a large amount of word processing, for example, the netbook or laptop is a requirement; if the flight will be short, and I can use the time to catch up on industry articles and e-mail organization, my tablet will suffice. Don’t bring any more than you need, and make sure you don’t leave your best tools at home.

2. Research Your Flight (and Seat)

Not all flights have Wi-Fi, and most won’t have access to a power outlet. Using a site like Seat Guru can help you plan your travel time wisely by showing you all of the amenities your flight (and specific seat) will provide. Please note, however, that flights get changed at the last minute. I have pinned my hopes on a flight that said it offered Wi-Fi, only to find that that particular plane was grounded for the day; the alternate plane left me completely without the Internet service I was counting on.

3. Assign and Check In Early

Regardless of whether you book your flight personally or you rely on a company travel department, you still have the ability to view and change your specific seat assignment — provided there are alternate seats in your price class available. This is not only great for those who insist on an aisle seat (more elbow room for using the laptop); it can also help you secure one of the few spots on the plane in an empty row, giving you even more room to work. Some small carriers and fully booked flights won’t allow you to see your seat assignment until you board the plane; for every other flight, however, checking in before arriving at the airport can help you secure the most productive seat in the cabin.

4. Prepay for Internet

For flights that offer wireless in-flight Internet, you can choose to pay for your service time while in the air, or pay for a code that can be used on any future flight. If I know that I am traveling soon, I buy wireless Internet time before I leave. Not only is it usually more affordable, it also guarantees that I can start surfing the web while everyone else is fiddling around for the credit card. When you only have 30 to 90 minutes of “electronics are okay” flight time, it is essential not to waste even 10. Wireless providers often offer free service time during holidays or special promotions; if you find that you don’t need to use your prepaid code, you can still use it on a later flight.

5. Save Pages for Later

If your flight is not offering Internet, you can still view the web. Services like Instapaper not only save your favorite web pages and articles for offline viewing, they simplify the page design for optimal text reading. (I also use Evernote for my iPad to do reading without internet.)

6. Have a Back-Up Plan

If it is absolutely imperative that you get a certain number of tasks done while flying, be prepared to have a plan B or plan C in place. Flights are unpredictable, and turbulence, technical issues, or even a chatty seatmate can make it impossible to do those things you needed to get done during flight. Have a supply of alternative activities to do that don’t require electronics (brainstorming ideas in a notebook can be very productive), research airports ahead of time to see if you can cram some busy time in during a layover, and bring headphones to wear, even if you aren’t jamming to music — it politely lets other travelers know that you want to be left alone.

Flights are an energy and time drain that many don’t look forward to. If you view them as an opportunity to get to where you need to go while you get stuff done, however, it creates a window of productivity that you may not get in your daily office life.

What tips do you have for cranking out more work while flying?

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Guest's picture

Thanks for the tips. I have never heard of those offline reading applications before. I will definitely look into them.

I usually use travel time to catch up on reading and sleep. Now that I'm trying to get my own business going, I am going to take the time to write and brainstorm ideas too.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks for your comment! The off-line reading applications were new to me until just recently. With 5 kids and trying to work from home, I find my airplane time to be precious. No diapers to change, and I get the laptop all to myself ;)

Guest's picture

What a shame, what about just plain relaxing? people have forgotten the body's necessary restorative care in the rush to "get stuff done."

Linsey Knerl's picture

I appreciate your perspective, Guest, but it is because I need to relax that I work hard on airplanes. I can get so many things done on my flights that it frees me up to spend time in the evenings at my hotel relaxing or even getting the 8 hours of sleep I would never get at home. It is also important that I maximize business travel time so that it doesn't cut into time at home with my family when I return. Being productive in flight creates more time for the things I enjoy in life!

Guest's picture

Good advice! I have found that I only need one device, my ipad (although other tablets would work as well) in a case with a bluetooth keyboard (I have a Zagg). That way I can open documents for editing while listening to music. You can also save webpages for offline viewing. Then i can watch a movie or read a magazine or book on the ipad. One other advantage is there is no startup time like a laptop. It's the ultimate in compactness and light weight. And if there is Wifi on the plane, the options are even greater. I haven't taken a laptop on a trip in a year.

Guest's picture

I really dislike working during a flight. I feel that, if I have to suffer the inconveniences of travel, the least I should get is some relaxing time. My favorite way to pass the time is with a glass of wine and a book.

Guest's picture

I travel a lot too, mostly for personal but for business as well. I have gotten more efficient the more I travel, and definitely view those "down time" minutes on the plane as a time to be productive.

I didn't know you could purchase wi-fi ahead of time for the plane ride. That's awesome! I also didn't realize you could use Instapaper to view offline pages. Great tips Linsey, thank you for sharing your experience!

Guest's picture
Thad P

Great ideas for making a flight more productive. Having access to the Internet makes a flight fly by (and keeps your next day in the office less of a "catch up" day too!). Evernote is a favorite of mine, but I would not have thought of the use case you mention it for.

Guest's picture

I think the only thing I wanna do on an airplane, is sleep - lol.

Meg Favreau's picture

I tend to do more of my work in the airport than on the plane -- I always feel like my seatmates will read everything I'm writing. Airports with free Wi-Fi and outlets are too rare still, but so great. I never mind being delayed in Manchester, NH or Charlotte, NC because I know I can get plenty of work done.