‘A Zen Level of Patience’: Matt Gross on Air Travel

Travel Blog  •  Rob Verger  •  02.03.09 | 2:47 PM ET

Photo by The Shane H, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

When I fly, I follow a simple rule: I always ask for a window seat as far towards the front of the plane as possible. I love to stare out of the window, and I prefer the front of the plane because it’s a smoother ride (the tail bounces more) and, once the plane arrives, you get to deplane sooner.

But I was curious to find out what rules and feelings about flying another traveler might have, so I called up World Hum contributor Matt Gross, the man who writes the Frugal Traveler stories for the New York Times. We caught up while he was on assignment—on a train, to be precise—in Europe. He estimates that he’s been on about thirty flights in the past year, all of them in economy.

He told me he loved flying.

“How can you not love flying? You get on a plane somewhere. You sit down; you try and relax. I relax relatively easily. You know, four to twenty-four hours later, you’re somewhere else. It’s pretty cool. I like the anticipation of it as well. The trip has not yet been ruined,” he said, laughing. Gross laughs a lot, a good quality for a traveler to have. “Hopefully it hasn’t yet been ruined.”

“You’re about to go somewhere. You have all this time to gather your thoughts and emotions and everything and get ready for the adventure,” he added.

I wanted to know what tips he might have, what mundane things he might do to make himself more comfortable.

“I generally prefer a window seat because I just want to look out at something,” he said. “I use SeatGuru.com to try to choose the seats as much as possible.” SeatGuru.com shows the seating chart and ranks the seats—i.e. from “good seat” down to “poor seat”—based on airline and aircraft type.

“I bring an iPod,” he added. “I bring a laptop. I get a lot of work done on flights. I write a lot of emails, I work on a lot of stories. It’s really nice to have that two to twenty-four hours of nothing to do.”

I asked him what he is listening to on his iPod. “Lately a lot of sixties and seventies West African pop,” he said, “and indie folk bands like She & Him and Sean Hayes—it’s just all over the place.”

“The thing for flights is just a Zen level of patience,” he said. “You just have to be able to just sit there and relax yourself and not rely on anyone else to do anything for you.” He laughed again. “You know,” he added, “be in your own little world.”

“My favorite flying story is flying from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Bangkok, back in 1997,” he said. “Normally the flight is just like an hour long. It goes over Cambodia. But this was July of 1997 and there was a civil war going on in Cambodia at the time—it was actually raging at the time rather than just sort of simmering—after we took off from Ho Chi Minh City the pilot came on and said, ‘normally we just fly over land but because of the situation down on the ground we’re going to fly over the ocean this time. So it will take a few minutes extra. We don’t want to be targeted. So that was kind of exciting.”

Any last thoughts for the road?

“Flying is still just this marvel of engineering, and you have to learn to train yourself to relax enough to actually enjoy it,” he said. “If you’re overcome by anxiety about all sorts of things—whether you’ve got the right seat, or whether you’re going to get there on time—you’re just going to ruin the experience. But if you can breathe deeply, and look out the window, and listen to some good music and prepare to fall asleep, you’ll be happy when you arrive.”

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Matt. Happy travels.

Rob Verger

Rob Verger is a frequent contributor to World Hum and the site's former air travel blogger. His articles and photographs have appeared in the Boston Globe and other publications, and he's a former undergraduate writing instructor at Columbia University. If you like, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter.

2 Comments for ‘A Zen Level of Patience’: Matt Gross on Air Travel

James 02.04.09 | 7:39 AM ET

It has become in vogue of late by people watching their carbons to poo poo air travel, so I was happy to read this article. I still get excited when I’m about to fly (though my enthusiasm is somewhat diminished after 24 hours on the kangaroo route).

For short haul I take the window and for long haul take the aisle, so I can strectch the legs regularly.

“Flying is still just this marvel of engineering”. Even after countless flights I still look at all the parts of a plane and marvel at how many millions of components make up a plane and how it is all assembled.

Riki56 02.04.09 | 3:39 PM ET

For some people travel is a way of life and it does not necessarily include 5 star hotels and vacations on the far away beaches. There are so many other ways to experience different cultures and enrich ones life. The best one is to try and observe people, interact, stay in hostels or find contacts and stay at people’s homes if possible, go to the national cuisine restaurants and visit markets, stadiums, theaters etc, try and really feel the pulse of the country you are visiting. Some places can really surprise you, you can find the most friendly people in the countries you heard nothing but bad things about. So brake that chain of prejudice, and go see the places from the bottom of your list, you will be amazed by all you’ve been missinng. There is a book that talks allot about these kind of things, it is a travel journal of an Iranian American entrepreneur traveling in Balkans, called The Age of Nepotism. I warmly recommend it, and also the site http://www.theageofnepotism.com

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