Only take morning flights
Modern air travel is all about choices. What movie do you want to watch? What craft beer do you want to drink? What remaining middle seat would you like to sit in? Would you like to put your carry-on bag in the overhead bin (for a small fee of $37)?
There is only one truly wrong choice you can make, though: Buying a flight that departs later than 8 a.m.
I can hear the protests already: If I leave Friday after work, I don't have to take another vacation day! If I return on a Sunday night, I can maximize my time in the Bahamas! The whole day will be ruined if I have to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to get to the airport! I love sleep! These are rookie mistakes.
Flying in the morning is cheaper, faster, and strategically wiser than traveling at any other time of day, Travel + Leisure reports. Not only are flights less likely to be delayed because there is no other air traffic to contend with, but morning flights are also generally cheaper than late morning, afternoon, or evening flights (not to mention less turbulent). Heading to the airport before rush hour, you can additionally halve or quarter the time spent in city traffic. Even wait lines at ticket counters are usually nonexistent in predawn hours (as early-airport-arrivers like myself are probably aware, you can make the mistake of getting to the airport so early in the morning that the counters aren't even open — don't do this).
Then there is the improved experience on the airplane. Some of the most beautiful flights I've ever taken have been as dawn is creeping into the sky; a boiling red sunrise over Istanbul, seen from the tarmac before it illuminated the city below, is especially imprinted in my memory. After takeoff, you will hopefully be tired enough from waking up at 4 a.m. to pass out right away in your seat. That being said, if you, like me, can't sleep in a gravity-defying metal tube hurtling 33,000-feet above the surface of the Earth, then you can drink copious amounts of coffee, which is the only acceptable in-flight beverage (if you want alcohol on a night flight you have to put it in your coffee, I don't make the rules).
But that's just to address the practicalities of flying itself. Counterintuitively, morning flights on both ends of your trip can actually end up maximizing your time at your destination. It is better to leave on a Saturday morning, say, than a Friday night because, let's face it, traveling after work means you're already starting your trip exhausted and cranky, and the quality of your experience is diminished. Further, instead of landing late at night, when you're not going to have any time to do anything at your destination anyway and are still stuck paying for an extra night's stay in a hotel, you can arrive off a morning flight early enough to hit the ground running. The early morning hours spent in the air would have in all likelihood been underutilized — or slept through — with that Friday arrival.
Departing your vacation in the morning is maybe even better. While it's tempting to try to milk as much time out of your trip as possible, early morning departures mean you don't spend the whole day thinking about how you're going to have to go to the airport in a few hours, calculating and re-calculating what time you'll need to catch a cab. With a morning departure, you also won't be left figuring out what to do with your bags between check out (11 a.m.) and your departure (5:30 p.m.), or eating a hurried meal because you tried to cram in one last experience only to realize belatedly that you don't have the time for it (if you're going to miss a meal for a flight, too, wouldn't you rather it be breakfast than dinner?). The early morning departure will also hopefully dissuade you from the series of decisions that leads to the dreaded last-day-of-the-vacation hangover.
Plus there is the fact that leaving in the morning gives you some precious "padding" to get resituated at home upon your return. Leaving yourself this buffer is the true difference between an amateur traveler and someone who knows that a trip isn't just about the number of hours you can stuff between two flights, but the quality of that time. Take it from me, someone who's done a few too many transatlantic Sunday night returns: leaving in the morning is always, always the better call.
Admittedly, location is everything with travel. The morning departure is ideal for west-bound domestic flights due to the time zones (you can leave New York City in the morning and land in San Francisco by 9:30 or 10 a.m.). But I'd caution against anyone thinking they can outsmart time zones by taking that seductive west coast red-eye back east; there just aren't enough hours on the plane, which gets an extra giddy-up from the jet stream, for the minimal sleep you earn to be worth it.
There is one exception to the "before 8 a.m." rule for Americans though: The Europe- or Africa-bound red-eye. In certain circumstances, when the timing is just right or you're leaving nonstop from the west coast, you can squeeze enough in-flight hours onto a transatlantic east-bound trip to actually fall asleep, get a quality rest, and then wake up ready for the day when you land in the morning. By all means, buy that flight if that's your style! I can't help you with your pre-flight jitters, or temptation to then pack the morning before the flight, though. (Flights to Asia, I ought to mention, are going to be a mess no matter what you do, so all this strategizing really goes out the window).
The golden age of air travel is long behind us, and it is important not to let something like the flight get in the way of having a great time during your precious few vacations a year. As hideous as 3:15 a.m. might look on your alarm clock the night before, it will all be worth it when you land.