Working During Air Travel

Ryan Macklin is a freelance writer & editor in the hobby game industry and Creative Director for Evil Hat Productions. He’s flown over a hundred times in the last six years, with many travel hours spent working against deadline. His blog and projects can be found at Follow him on Twitter: @RyanMacklin.

Many of us have been there: you’re up against a tight deadline, and there’s a plane to catch. You think to yourself, “I’ll get some work done on the trip.” You think it’ll be easy, since you’ll have nothing to do for a few hours.

Truth is, it’s rough. Anyone who has traveled knows it can result in a weird fugue state, for many reasons: exhaustion due to waking up at odd hours; travel anxiety resulting in little sleep the night before; frustration with long lines while checking luggage or going through security; or that weird loneliness that happens right after conventions. But if you’re going to try it, here are a few tips.

Treat Every Hour as a Bonus Hour

You can’t predict how you’ll feel before boarding your plane, and you can’t predict exactly how much time you’ll have. And that’s nothing to say of finding a suitable place to work, with enough space, power , and wi-fi.

Then there’s the flight itself. You may not be able to work if there’s turbulence, if people in your row constantly need you to get up so they can use the bathroom, if you have to juggle a laptop and a drink on a tiny tray table, things like that.

So don’t assume you can get work done while traveling. Hope for the best, but assume travel days are a wash.

Work at a Different Gate

Your gate’s going to be crowded, with a hundred-some people waiting around for their flight. If you can’t find a good seat to work at, look around. There may be a gate nearby with plenty of seats available.

If you do this, be mindful of your own flight, particularly of any schedule or gate changes. If you’re on a flight that’s delayed, double-check every fifteen minutes or so; sometimes those delays are suddenly cleared up.

Make Friends, Bring Power

There are around a hundred at your gate, and far fewer power outlets, making getting an outlet feel like winning a jackpot. If you want to improve your odds (and make some other travelers happy), pack a small power strip. I use the Belkin Mini Surge, which has three outlets, rotates different directions.

Go cheap and go small. Cheap because you might lose it during travel, and small because you don’t want to lug around something huge in your carry-on and have something unwieldy to deal with if the TSA unpacks your bag to search it.

Don’t Plan on Wi-Fi

Many airports have wi-fi (at least the ones in the US that I’ve flown through). Some make you pay for it, and I’ve never seen the point in paying ten bucks for a 90-minute layover. Some are free, but use proxy servers that hijack your browser, putting everything in a frame that makes some browser-based software not work. For instance, I have given up trying to update entries on WordPress sites at Oakland International.

And the wi-fi will likely have two problems, especially if it’s free: it’ll be slow because of all the people using it, and it might be flaky because it’s poorly maintained. So don’t rely on wi-fi. Just as you should treat time working as bonus time, likewise treat having functional wi-fi as a bonus.

You might also be on an airplane with wi-fi. It’s just as expensive and likely to be problematic, so caveat emptor.

Cloud Storage and Potential Failure

Some people don’t worry about wi-fi because they use Dropbox or other cloud storage. If you’re one of these people, great! But just as a precaution, download local copies. Occasionally cloud storage systems glitch and overwrite your hard work with an earlier version. That happened to me once when the wi-fi went out and came back ten minutes later, and I was livid.

Choose Your Work Wisely

Once you’ve boarded your flight, focus on work that you can pick up & put away easily. Turbulence happens, forcing you to close your laptop or put away your notebook because it’s impossible to type or write. Choose work that uses the least amount of space; I don’t do graphic design or audio production on a plane, because I use a mouse for those.

Now, this might not be the work you need to do right now, depending on what you have on deadline. I’ve found I get more out of working on small things—like notes for upcoming projects, to-do lists for the next few days, and other preparation work—than I do on more intensive jobs.

Bring a Note Pad

For reasons that should be obvious by now, bring a note pad. You might not have the power or space to use a laptop. And on the plus side, flight attendants never tell you to turn off your note pad (though they will tell you to put your tray table up).

Remember That Travel Sucks For Everyone

I’ve focused on telling you ways to try to get work done and reduce some of the hassle, but it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not the only person having to deal with travel issues on this trip. If you’ve tried to work while you’re crabby, tired and frustrated, you know it’s no fun. And the folks next to you might be going through that very problem.

Moods are contagious, both good and bad. Trying to put forward a good mood is a fantastic defense against catching someone’s bad mood and losing productivity. (And as a plus, you might even make someone’s bad travel day a little better.)


Just because you can work doesn’t mean you should. If you’re tired or stressed, the work will be low quality, and you’ll have to do it over. And if you focus on working rather than relaxing, you may make your travel that much more stressful—which will make you worse company when you get off the plane. There’s no advantage to getting a couple hours of crap-quality work done if it’s going to make you a jerk after the flight.