Let's be honest, nobody really wants to work on a plane. In business class, there are much better things to do (like actually being horizontal when taking a nap, for instance). In coach, there's barely enough room to breathe without touching your neighbor, never mind getting a laptop out.
Sadly, though, those in-flight hours are often the best, or only, time to get anything done. From keeping your gear organized to powering your laptop all the way to the other side of the world, these tips will help transform even the slimmest of tray tables into a functional office for a few hours.
If you regularly find yourself needing to wrestle with spreadsheets in the skies, here's what you need to know.
Let's start with the basics: keeping everything organized. When you've got so little room to work with, it's important to make the most of it.
Rather than trying to find space on the tray table for all your gadgets and cables, use something like the TAB Seatback Organizer to keep everything together and out of the way when not in use.
You've got two choices when it comes to placement: tucked into the seat pocket, or hanging from the legs of the tray table via a pair of included straps.
There's internal space for a tablet computer, cables, and smartphones, plus all the usual flying paraphernalia like passports and boarding passes. There's also a magnetic flap that can clip on the outside of the seat pocket, keeping phones, chargers and other small items immediately accessible.
The TAB also works as a messenger bag, keeping it useful and easy to carry when you're not on the plane. While the outside is understated so it doesn't attract undue attention, the flap and interior are brightly-colored, making it harder to accidentally leave behind.
What's worse than paying a small fortune to get work done on in-flight Wi-fi? Paying a larger fortune to use that Wi-fi on multiple devices. These days, phones and tablets have become as important to business workflow as laptops.
If you're using a Windows laptop, the Connectify app will pay for itself within a flight or two. It lets you share Internet connections in several ways, including turning those annoying network cables you still find in old-school hotels into a wireless network.
Most usefully on a plane, though, it lets you share your Wi-fi connection with several gadgets – your phone, tablet, and if you like, whatever your neighbor is using as well.
If you're using a Mac (or don't travel with a laptop,) check out the Hootoo Wireless Travel Router instead. As well as being a portable battery for mobile devices, it also shares wired and wireless networks, just like Connectify. If you need somewhere to store large files, just plug a USB stick into the Hootoo, and copy files back and forward from phones, tablets, and laptops.
It's small, inexpensive, and surprisingly effective.
Especially in coach, in-flight power sockets are still a luxury, not an expectation. It's rare enough to find USB power, never mind a functioning 110v socket. That's quite a problem when you've got eight hours of work to do on a long-haul flight and a laptop battery that lasts four hours.
Once you've done all the obvious things (dim the screen, put the laptop in flight mode if you're not using Wi-fi, close down any app you don't need), it's time to bring out the big guns: a portable laptop battery.
If you're using a Windows laptop, you've got a few options. Some manufacturers sell specific batteries for particular models – Dell's Power Companion gives much of its range an extra few hours of battery life, for instance, and also has a pair of USB sockets for powering mobile gadgets.
If the manufacturer doesn't make one, there are plenty of alternatives for other non-Apple laptops. The RAVPower 23000mAh Portable Charger works with many different models, providing several hours of extra charge while still complying with the FAA's limits on portable battery capacities. Again, it has two USB sockets to deal with your phones and tablets as well.
Options are more limited for Macbooks, due to restrictions on using the official MagSafe connector. One of the better choices is Maxoak's 36000mAh Power Bank, that works with the 12” Macbook, Macbook Air and smaller MacBook Pro models. You'll get up to two full charges out of it, meaning you can make it through even the longest flights without a problem. There are also two standard USB ports and a USB-C one for newer devices.
While some people are happy to always use their laptop's inbuilt trackpad, others (including me) much prefer to use a mouse whenever they can. It's more accurate for detailed tasks, with better ergonomics as well.
Unfortunately, using it “whenever they can” doesn't really include the three inches of spare space left on the tray table. It's more than a little frustrating to have to lift and replace the mouse half a dozen times to scroll to the other edge of the screen.
If you want a better pointer, but don't have the room for a travel mouse, consider a trackball instead. These basically turn an old-school mouse upside down, putting a ball on top that you move with your palm. They take a little getting used to, but the big advantage is not needing any extra space to use one. Place it beside your laptop, and as long as it fits on the tray table, you're good to go.
Trackballs aren't as common as they once were, but several well-known companies still make a range of different options. Consider the Logitech Trackman Marble Mouse, which works with Windows, MacOS, Linux and ChromeOS, and has four programmable buttons to speed up common tasks. If you'd prefer a wireless version instead, the Kensington Orbit fits the bill nicely.
If you can't get that window seat, at least make the packing and unpacking process less painful with some decent cable management. There are a couple of approaches that have stood out for quickly and effectively sorting out a messy cable situation. Do you really want to spend the first ten minutes of your flight untangling your iPad charger from your earphones? Nope, thought not.
Recoil Cord Winders are effective for small to medium sized cables – basically, anything that's not your laptop charger. Unplug both ends of the cable, loop the middle of it around the small hook on the winder, and pull gently to release the tension. In under a second, the cable is stowed away and can be dropped in your pocket or seat pocket.
For larger cables, something as simple as Velcro straps work well to get things packed away in a hurry. If you want a more stylish approach, these leather “cord clams” do the same job. Either option also keeps your chargers separated in your bag, and excess cable out of the way if you don't need it.