A few months ago I wrote a blog post for Harvard Business Online about social media tools that can make business travel more effective – and thus, more infrequent. Ironically, I’ve done a lot more travel in the months since I wrote that post, since my kids are finally at an age where I can travel without (knock on wood! knock on wood!) everybody coming down with the latest virus.

After seven years in which out-of-town travel was a relatively infrequent (and rushed) experience, I’m struck by how much easier air travel is now compared to my pre-parent days. Here are a few of the non-social-media innovations that make travel much better than it was in 2002:

  1. Online check-in. It’s easy to take self check-in for granted, or even resent the disappearance of helpful staff in favor of self-service check-in kiosks. Check in before you get to the airport, and you’ll appreciate the brilliance of self-service. If you print your own boarding pass, or load it onto your cell phone using a mobile boarding pass option, you can head straight to your gate. It’s a huge incentive to travel light; pre-airport check-in, combined with carry-on baggage, makes air travel way faster and less annoying.
  2. IMAP, wifi and smartphones. If you’re using IMAP on your computer and iPhone or Blackberry, you can stay online until the moment your airplane pushes back from the gate, and ensure that any e-mails you write in-flight sync seamlessly when you land. IF you’re lucky enough to travel out of an airport with free WiFi, you won’t even eat into your cell phone minutes.
  3. In-flight power. We Canadians like to bitch about Air Canada, which has a virtual monopoly on full-service air travel in this country. But one place where Air Canada totally rocks out – at least compared to the American carriers I’ve flown on over the past year – is in-flight power. On high-traffic routes, you can more or less count on having a regular, no-adapter-needed power outlet at your seat, or the seat next to you. (Ask your neighbour to share.) It’s terrific to fly with the knowledge that your battery won’t die just as you thought of the next brilliant sentence.
  4. Seatback TV. I have a screen addiction that borders on neurological disorder: for certain kinds of work (read: getting my inbox to zero) I have to have TV on in the background so that I can tolerate the tedium and stay on-task. The advent of personal seatback TV as a routine feature on many airlines means that I can process in-flight without dying of boredom. Yay, TV!
  5. iTunes video. If you’re on a flight without TV, or you don’t want to trust your viewing options to the fates, downloadable video rocks out as an alternative to in-flight work or reading. When I flew cross-country with my daughter a few months ago, I downloaded a bunch of kid-friendly videos to both my computer and my iPhone, which (along with endless hours of gaming) kept her content the whole way. If the bored toddler behind you is kicking your seatback, consider passing him your iPhone. If the bored toddler inside you is throwing a tantrum at the prospect of a flight full of work, knock off after an hour and kick back with the latest Gossip Girl.
  6. Public transit. Last month, Vancouver saw the opening of the Canada Line Sky Train, which connects the Vancouver Airport to the city’s downtown, with plenty of convenient stops along the way. I can’t think of a city with easier public transit access – the Sky Train stops just steps from the main terminals – but San Francisco, DC and even New York have pretty decent public transit options for getting to and from your flight. If you want to make use of every travel minute, a subway seat beats the pants off a taxi as a place to work by PC or smartphone. And if you’re in Vancouver, you’ll have continuous cell phone access (and for most of the way, 3G) on your way to or from the airport.
  7. Kids. Kids are terrific at making travel less annoying, as long as you leave them at home. If you have kids, you probably keep your trips shorter and less frequent, which turns them into delightful respites from early morning wake-ups as opposed to interminable chores. You want to spend every last minute of your pre-departure evening with the kids before you go, so you’ll pack quicker – which makes packing less annoying. And you’ll have to find a souvenir to bring home, which provides a focal point for the eight minutes between meetings. Best of all, your kids turn the draggy process of packing up from a fun out-of-town trip into a speedy rush of homecoming anticipation.