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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The (Work) Friendly Skies: How to Stay Productive While Flying

Remote work doesn't just mean working from the comfort of your home, favorite café, or co-working spot—for many of us, it includes working while traveling, too. But navigating airports, surviving layovers, and cruising at 30,000 feet can feel like a job in itself. So, how are you supposed to get any actual work done?

Well, after spending a lot of time in a lot of airports over the years, I’ve found some pro tips and tools to help you stay productive, both en route and in the sky.



Before you head to the airport, you should equip yourself properly—both with the right tools (read: make sure your chargers are in your carry-on) and with a solid plan.

My number one on-the-go productivity tool is my mobile hotspot. After one too many frustrating attempts to use Boingo at the airport, I opted to spend $50 a month on a Verizon Mi-Fi. Not cheap, but the money is worth the saved time and headache. It’s also perfect for staying connected in the car, on a bus, or on a train—anywhere you can get a cell signal, you have Wi-Fi (unfortunately, though, it doesn’t work on planes).

Of course, just because you have a connection, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be productive. If you thought distractions at home were an uphill battle, be prepared for an all-out war at the airport! To help stay on task, I always create a chart detailing when I will have breaks of time to work, how long they will last, and what I can accomplish during that time.

For example, if I have a two-hour layover, I’ll estimate about an hour and a half of time to work in the airport, pick 2-3 focus projects, and put them on my calendar as events. (It can also be helpful to download all the materials you’ll need for these tasks in case you get in a Wi-Fi bind.) I’ve found that if I’m not militant about how I’ll be using small blocks of time, they'll probably get wasted.

At the Airport

So you’ve made it through security and you’re ready to get to work. Where to set up shop?

One of the most convenient and comfortable places is in an airline sky club—but it will come at a hefty price. Unless you’re collecting major miles, you can expect to pay over $400 a year for a membership or $50 for a single visit. What do you get for the cash? Snacks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, a solid Wi-Fi connection, plenty of outlets, and usually an upscale, quiet atmosphere. If you’re constantly on the go, I’d recommend taking the plunge, but if not, you can usually achieve the same results—without the price tag—with a little research.

If I'm headed to an airport I've never been to before, I check out Foursquare to get a heads up on great coffee shops or restaurants to work from. More often than not, the tips will equip you with the three essential pieces of knowledge: whether there’s Wi-Fi, how many outlets there are, and how good the food or coffee is. I also always ask the host or hostess for a seat with outlet access when I grab a bite to eat while I wait for my flight.

In Flight

Now, you might think that all those hours you spend in the air are prime working time, but I always plan to do more mindless, lighter tasks on the plane. Not only does traveling make you tired, the altitude takes a toll on your mental state—making it even harder to work on that challenging report or write the article that’s been sitting on your to-do list.

Instead, pencil in time to read an e-book that you’ve been meaning to check out, digest a few long emails (if I don’t want to spring for in-flight Wi-Fi, I’ll often copy and paste them into Word), or brainstorm for a meeting. If you do work on any important projects, save them to your Dropbox—even though you don’t have internet now, the changes will be automatically saved and synced to the cloud the next time you connect to Wi-Fi.

You can also help combat the effects of flying on productivity with a few easy rules of thumb. First, say no to in-flight alcohol. When you’re on a plane, your body is already dehydrated, so as sad as it may seem, pass up that mini bottle of wine and grab a bottle of water instead. You’ll be more focused and energized for the whole flight. Second, get the aisle seat whenever possible. When I start to feel antsy on a plane, an aisle seat easily allows me to get up and stretch or walk around for a quick break.

While it takes some determination and planning, maintaining productivity while traveling is possible. Find the tools that work best for you, know your schedule, and keep yourself healthy along the way. The rules of the road are different for everyone, but these tips will get you headed in the right direction.

Photo of woman working at the airport courtesy of Shutterstock.