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The single most important travel tip

This time of year, travel seems to get as much news coverage as the presidential debates or the Euro zone meltdown. Like most frequent travelers, I have loads of hints, tips and "secrets" gathered over many years and many miles. I know how to get great deals, great seats, less-horrible service, and all the usual road-warrior stuff. But if asked to give only one piece of travel advice, it's this simple rule:

Always be early.

Even if you are an elite flier with all of the time-saving benefits that come with your status, time is still a valuable travel tool, and the one over which you have the most -- albeit not complete -- control. Being early reduces stress (the people who freak out the most at airports are often the ones who show up late), but it also has very practical benefits. There are never any guarantees in travel, but:

- Planning and booking early gives you the most options, especially when flights are the fullest they have ever been. If you are a frequent traveler, booking early improves your chances of mileage rewards and upgrades. The later you plan and book, the more you are at the mercy of the system.

- Leaving for the airport early is important for every reason, from traffic to parking, rental returns and shuttles, to everything that follows. Every delay is a stressor, and usually has a domino effect through the rest of the "travel experience."

- Getting to the counter early usually means you get to avoid the hell of the rope maze. You're likely to get a happier, more cooperative agent who hasn't yet been screamed at by a hundred other people, and a better shot at preferred seating or upgrades that are held for airport check-in only. And every extra minute you allow yourself is an extra minute for your luggage to make its way to the right plane in plenty of time.

- Heading to the gate early means that you don't (completely) lose your mind when you turn the corner and see the security line. The line stinks no matter what, but it stinks a lot more when your flight is boarding in ten minutes. When someone asks me if he can jump in front of me because he's late for his flight, I let him - - because I'm a nice guy - - but I still kinda want to trip him as he goes by.

Heading to the gate early also allows time for the train you may not have known you needed to take to the departure terminal, gives you time for a meal or snack, the chance to get help from a podium agent if needed, and a seat by a power outlet at a crowded gate.

- Boarding early means ensuring baggage space, being the one already sitting when your seat is double booked (possession is nine-tenths of the law), and having time to settle in, especially when getting ready for a long flight. Of course, for non-elite-level fliers, most airlines board by row or zone, but once again, doing everything early can help: If you're in an exit or other "preferred" row you'll usually be in zone 1. If you're not, do whatever you reasonably can to board early.

- Getting off the plane early (well, not "early" -- that requires a parachute -- but as quickly as possible) means not having to crouch under the baggage compartment while a hundred other people fumble. It can mean the difference between making a tight connection and missing it, or not waiting in line at the podium if you already missed it and need to be rebooked. For international travelers, it can mean avoiding a mind-numbing immigration line. Anyone who's landed in Hong Kong at a peak arrival time knows how important it is to get off the plane quickly.

Finally, in general, if you take time pressure out of the travel equation, you'll be calmer. And if you're calmer you will almost always get better service. Travelers who are late tend to make their problems everyone else's. If you're sweaty, talking too loudly and aggressively, looking at your watch and tapping the counter, people are less motivated to help you.

Some say "If you don't miss a flight once in a while, you're spending too much time in airports" (and some of them actually mean it). Makes 'em sound aloof and super-busy. I get the whole value-of-time thing -- I'm plenty busy too. But I have no desire to miss flights or run like a maniac to make them. I want to be in control of my travel experience to whatever extent I can. I refuse to be a victim of modern travel, so trading a little time for that is a no-brainer of a swap for me. And in this day and age, sitting in an airport doesn't have to be wasted time: You can usually be as productive at gate 24 as you can in your office.

Fellow frequent fliers, do you have a different "single most important tip?" Let's hear it - share your tips in the comments below!

Happy holidays and safe travels.

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