Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 4 of 6)

Photo Credit: Jérôme Decq

Christian Heilmann covers the different stages of travelling for IT conferences in this six part series. Be sure to read parts one, two and three.

In the last article of this series we talked about surviving the flight and staying sane at the same time. Now you should be outside the plane and try to find your way to immigration and baggage retrieval. If you have no luggage other than hand luggage, you can start hurrying not to be stuck in the queue at immigration. If you have bags to collect, there is no point in hurrying as most likely you will stand at the luggage belt a long time waiting for your bags to arrive. So, keep calm and walk with purpose but without pushing.

You probably will want to use a washroom after the flight. Skip the first one you encounter as this one will be rammed with people with children and others that needed it very quickly. On average there are at least two washrooms until you get to immigration so go for the second.

Paperwork

The main thing to check is that you have all the papers to get out – your passport and boarding pass – and that you filled out all the necessary forms to be allowed outside.

This differs from country to country. For example in the US you have visa voucher applications (which used to be on paper but now are actually to be filled out and paid for online at this incredibly beautiful and usable web site) which have interesting questions on them like “have you been involved in espionage in the time period of 1939 to 1945”. I always wondered what I did back then–probably being -30. You will also have to have a customs voucher declaring that you have less than $10k cash on you and that you are not bringing in any plants or animals.

These forms can be tricky to fill out – be sure to check front and back and that the addresses and dates are in the right format. There is nothing more annoying than having queued up for half an hour just to delay the rest of the waiting people even more or–even worse–being sent back to the end of the line.

Funnily enough a lot of airports don’t allow you to use mobiles or ipods whilst waiting for your turn with the immigration officer – I normally read a book in the queue.

If you travel a lot from London Heathrow, sign up for IRIS. This is a retina recognition system that basically means you can smugly strut past the people queueing up, look into a box and get a computerised “Thank you”. You walk out in a matter of minutes. If you are like me you hum the James Bond Theme while you do it as it is quite Science Fiction if you think about it.

Immigration

Immigration can be daunting or quick, depending on the country. Again, this is something you have no choice but just to deal with. Be friendly, state the truth and you’ll be out fast. You might get stuck behind people who do not do the same. In this case, roll your eyes and look helpless and some official normally points you to an alternative booth with another official.

The baggage belt – meet the Mensa club

After immigration you will get to one of the things that always fascinates me – no matter how often I encounter it. Baggage belts are the things that illustrate the difference between greedy cavemen and people who in their ancestry went through a period of enlightenment. Here is the task: identify and pick your luggage from a long moving belt that gets the luggage in random order.

Less enlightened people do the following: move as close as possible to the belt and be ready to pounce like a very hungry tiger onto anything that remotely looks like your luggage. Also bend over and peer down the belt as if you can manage the Force and bring your luggage to you faster that way. The effect of this is that these people are in the way of others who stand by and try to just pick their luggage.

Those worthy of not being displayed in museums next to Mammoths all take one step back and calmly wait until their luggage is in front of them and then quickly grab it. That way nobody is in each other’s way and you don’t need to budge through people to get your suitcase.

The fun thing is that airports encourage that kind of behaviour by, oh, paint an area of the carpet around the belt differently or display a line. The following shot taken at the SFO airport shows what I mean and the labels explain my take on the subject matter:

The difference between obstacles and clever people

Regardless of your approach, sooner or later you’ll get your luggage. If it doesn’t show up and the belt stops moving – that’s a bad sign and you should contact the airline. Sometimes lost luggage is actually quite cool as it means the airline will deliver it to your place and you don’t need to lug your massive suitcase around. If it genuinely is lost then it is really annoying as the replacement money you get from airlines is not really enough to make up both for the lost clothes and the memories or hardship of finding just the right pair of trousers.

If your luggage is damaged, complain immediately. Preferably to an airline official rather than people next to you or people who offer to carry your luggage. Which reminds me: in India you will find a lot of these and sometimes it is a great idea to take their offer as your journey and communication attempts with official security staff at the door will be accelerated if someone speaks the local tongue. Back to the damaged luggage: I had a handle broken on a brand new bag once and asked for replacement. BA replaced the whole bag with a smaller bag of different make as that is their policy. This will happen, so don’t get emotionally attached to your suitcase.

Leaving the airport and choosing a mode of transport

Once you got past customs – which always means choosing the “Arrivals from the European Union” or “Nothing to declare” channels and looking very relaxed and in-suspicious (remember, always remove the packaging of new Apple hardware and use it in your hand luggage – even when you bring it as presents) you get to the outside of the airport. There you have a few choices of transport.

  • You get picked up – kiss the person if you are in a relationship or thank the official drivers for picking you up (kissing is only allowed in very rare edge cases). Also be prepared to decipher various mis-spellings of your name and company or conference names to pick your driver. One time in Bangalore it took me 20 minutes to pick my driver from around 100 waiting ones as Mr. Kahl Ehliman was on the adventurous side of transcription.
  • Be prepared to travel and queue to get your rental car – most pick-up locations are a bit outside the airport, either connected with a train (SFO, for example) or by coach shuttle (Lyon, France). As everybody will pick up their cars at the same time there will be a queue – get a coffee to avoid it.
  • Take a train from the airport – if you travel light and you have to go to a Hotel in the centre of the town this is normally the best option. A lot of airports have great fast trains taking you directly where you want to go – London, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Oslo are great examples.
  • Get a cab to get you to where you need to be – always take official cabs, it is dangerous and almost always much more expensive to go with “need cab, sir” people who approach you directly. There is always an official place where cabs stop – go there.

In any case it is a good idea to have the address of your hotel as a printout or on your smart phone. That way you can just hand it to any driver or ask about it. On the smart phone you also have the benefit of translating it into other languages. In Taiwan for example I found it pointless to show English addresses to cab drivers. Maybe also ask your office or the conference organisers in the other country to provide you with a local version.

Checking in and finding your bearing

Once arrived in the hotel check in. If you have to wait a while for the room to be ready ask them to keep your luggage and go exploring the immediate area. I found for example that a coffee outside the hotel is always significantly cheaper and you already get your bearings of the area. Of course check beforehand that the area is safe.

Once in the room I either go to the gym of the hotel to sort out my stiff back from the flight and fight jetlag or have a shower to do the same. I then go outside and deliberately lose my way to force myself to ask the way back to the hotel and gain a bit of independence in my travels that way. If you are on a very tight schedule you might already have a speaker’s dinner or something lined up so that’s the evening planned. The best way to avoid jetlag to me is to immediately get into the time zone of the place you visit – if that means staying up 27 hours, do it. Sleeping as the first thing will only mess you up for the next few days. Thankfully arriving in a strange new town or re-visiting one I enjoyed beforehand always gives me an adrenaline rush that makes this easy.

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Chris Heilmann

About Chris Heilmann

Christian Heilmann is a geek and hacker by heart. He’s been a professional web developer for about eleven years and worked his way through several agencies up to Yahoo where he delivered Yahoo Maps Europe and Yahoo Answers. He’s written two and contributed to three books on JavaScript, web development and accessibility, lead distributed teams as a manager and made them work with one another and released dozens of online articles and hundreds of blog posts in the last few years. He’s been nominated standards champion of the year 2008 by .net magazine in the UK and currently sports the fashionable job title “International Developer Evangelist” spending his time going from conference to conference and university to university to speak and train people on systems provided by Yahoo and other web companies that want to make this web thing work well for everybody.

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