Frequent Flyer Hacks

I am now a super commuter - I live in Santa Monica and fly up to Oracle Labs HQ in Belmont, CA every week. In this time, I've had to sit through lots of TSA lines, spend lots of time finding out which airlines save the most time, and since I'm a compiler guy, spend lots of cycles figuring out how to reduce the commute. The first time I did the commute, it took me 6 hours door-to-door. After some optimization, I can get from my apartment to Oracle HQ in 3 hours on a good day. Most days are 3 1/2 hours. 
There are four steps to flying:
  1. Getting to the airport
  2. Getting to the gate
  3. Actually flying
  4. Getting from the destination gate to your final destination
At each step, there are some time saving hacks.

Getting to the Airport
This step doesn't have a lot of wiggle room. In Los Angeles, the important thing is getting around traffic, which means flying on "off" days. There are lots of commuters who fly somewhere on Monday and fly back on Friday. In addition to rush hour, these are the two biggest time sinks. Solution? Fly on "off" days - Tuesday - Thursday, and fly before or after rush hour. My flight leaves at 7:30 AM on Tuesdays, which is just the right time to get to the airport not in rush hour without a lot of traffic at the actual airport. You'll save hours if you can fly on off days.

Getting to the Gate:
Once you park your car, you have to get to the gate. The best hack I know is finding parking close to your terminal, but far enough to be cost effective. You could park right across the gate, but parking $30 a day is too expensive. Instead, I park at a lot that is within walking distance to the terminals. This also means I can run up to the departure terminals and hitch a ride on one of the many shuttles doing loops around the airport. This saves you a few minutes from waiting for a shuttle and the traffic bottleneck going into the airport.

Once you're at the terminal, you have to go through TSA. Oh TSA - why do you hassle us! The biggest time saver is simply going on off days. Avoid the airport on Mondays and Fridays and you already save yourself 15 minutes on both legs of a round trip flight. That's 30 minutes each week! If you know you're flying enough to reach frequent flyer status, stick with one airline to take the first class TSA line. You can easily save an additional 10 - 15 minutes each leg, totalling an hour per week!

Finally, you can make your way to your gate and board the plane. The nice hack here is that you don't actually have to be at the gate when they start boarding. You only have to be at the gate 15 minutes before departure time. Planes usually board 30 minutes before departure, so just get through the TSA line and at the gate 15 minutes before departure. On a round trip flight, that saves 15 minutes each leg, 30 minutes a week. 

Actually flying:
Not much you can do here since it's out of your hands. The only optimization is to sit near the front of the plane. Once you land, you can save about 5 -10 minutes because you're out of the plane first and don't have to wait for the whole plane to empty out. During the flight, I take a nap as it helps me prepare for the day since I have to wake up ridiculously early to catch a 7 AM flight. I really like it when the pilots are rushing. I especially love it when they take off without stopping at the runway or drift the airplane into the terminal. It's like speeding for airplanes!

Now that you're out of the plane, what to do? Some airports really suck and getting a rental car takes a lot of time. If you're doing corporate travel, sign up for Hertz gold or one of those programs that let you go directly to the car. Even better, if you know you won't drive much, see if it's cheaper to take a taxi. At SFO, because of the airtran, going to and from the rental car location to the terminal takes 15 minutes each way. With a taxi, there is no wait and it's cheaper! Shave off another 15 minutes each way. Also, try to land during non-rush hour as well. If you can time both ends so that you can leave during non-rush hour and arrive non-rush hour, you'll save significantly on commute time.

Overall, I've cut my door-to-door commute time in half. I should be able to save another 15 - 20 minutes once I hit frequent flyer status, so maybe I can reduce the commute to 2.5 hours each way. Every time I tell everyone I commute every week to the bay area, most people are shocked. But I work from home the other days, so 6 - 7 hours of total commute per week really isn't that bad. Also, when I'm flying, I don't actually have to pay attention. I'm only in a car for about 1.5 hours a week, which is pretty nice!