I recommend having a travel uniform, a consistent set of clothes and shoes that you wear every time you fly. Here’s why:
The best way to travel is to decide as many things as possible about what will happen while you travel as early as possible, and then to stick to those decisions. What are you going to eat? How are you going to get to the airport? What are you going to wear?
You should make these decisions once, and then stick to them every time you fly. I eat the exact same thing every time I’m in O’Hare1Kind of. The thing I eat is nothing. More on that another time., I take the same form of transportation no matter what the traffic is like2The CTA, because while I can sometimes get there faster in a car, the time on the train is always the same. I’ll take predictability over the occasional 10 minute time savings every time., and I wear the same clothes every week. Without fail. Even if something happens, I don’t normally change these pre-made decisions, even if they’re not exactly suited to the situation.3Exception: if external forces mean a decision needs to be made differently, e.g. a cancellation or a long delay
The value I get out of not having to think or stress about these decisions when I’m traveling is well worth the possibility of not making the best possible decision.
Wearing the same clothes every time I fly4Well, not ontologically the same. I have two sets of everything that makes up my uniform and wear each set once (to and from home) before washing them, effectively alternating every week. removes one more choice that I have to make on travel days, makes sure I’m comfortable, helps me get into an “I am traveling” mindset, and sets me up for a more comfortable, consistent travel experience. Travel days are inherently stressful, busy, and unpredictable, and with the number of things that can go wrong while flying, there’s no need to make uncomfortable or unfamiliar clothes one of them.
What makes a good travel uniform
In a sentence, a good travel uniform should be comfortable, resistant to poor treatment, and leave you better dressed than your standard leisure traveler.
Being well-dressed in an airport isn’t required, but I’ve noticed it helps you get treated just a little bit better than if you’re wearing sweats, and it helps you (or at least, helps me) feel just a bit more confident and capable in a place that often feels like it’s designed to make sure you never feel this way. In short, it makes you look and feel like someone who knows what they’re doing.
Luckily, most people seem to fly in secondhand pajamas and flip-flops these days, so the bar isn’t very high, and you should adjust it to your taste and comfort level. A nice blazer, sweater or shawl, some decent looking shoes, and clean plain chinos will do the job just fine, but if chinos make you feel stodgy and stiff, clean dark jeans (or if you’re a woman, leggings) are almost certainly fine. Similarly, if you’re at your most relaxed and confident in a suit, put on the suit — assuming it’s not going to feel restrictive in the middle of your journey.
Some other things to think about when putting together a travel uniform:
- Layer up
Airports and airplanes can go from too hot to too cold very quickly, and it’s good to be able to take stuff off and put it back on at will. A good scarf or shawl and/or unstructured blazer or cardigan can be soft, warm, and will help you look a little more put-together than the average joe or jane.
- Make sure you have lots of pockets
It’s nice to be able to have a place to stash your boarding pass or phone while you’re moving without having to get to a bag. Bonus points for having pockets in one of your removable layers; this makes it easy to put your phone, keys, headphones, and similar in the pockets while you wait in the security line and just plop it all onto the x-ray machine belt once it’s your turn. No hunting for those little baskets necessary.
- Choose comfortable, slightly roomy shoes
Even if you’re wearing compression socks—and you should be—you might still end up with some pretty cramped toes if you wear your tightest possible shoes or something made of stiff, lined leather. The right pair of plimsolls, desert boots, or ballet flats can be as comfortable as running shoes or sandals but still leave you looking sharp.
- Travel with a clean face and teeth
This isn’t exactly clothing, but I consider it part of my travel uniform to “put on” before I hit the road, along with a fresh swipe of deodorant. It helps make the whole travel experience more comfortable for me and those around me. If you wear makeup, consider putting less (or none) on, or the full regimen on. Just pick the way you think will make you most comfortable and stick with it.
- Wear a scarf
An oversized scarf or shawl is the business traveler version of the Galactic Hitchhiker’s Towel — you can wrap it around your head for warmth, use it to hold things (think hobo bindle), use it as an improvised sleep mask, use it as an improvised air mask, use it as a light blanket, wear it as a fashion accessory, and so-on. I fly with a cotton shemagh-style one5Cultural awareness note here: this extremely handy desert scarf, also known as a ghutra or keffiyeh, is traditional to the Levant. Because of this, many of the common patterns you’ll see are representative of specific parts, peoples, and causes of Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Saudia Arabia, and other nations in the area —similar to Scottish tartan. Wearing these patterns without knowing what’s what can be insensitive, appropriative, or unintentionally signal support for a cause you may not support. Avoid this by buying one that’s a solid color)., even in the summer.
As an example, my travel uniform is a solid black t-shirt, an unstructured blazer, scarf, dark jeans, and desert boots—the blazer feels like a hoodie but looks considerably more put together. I don’t look out of place in a first-class lounge, but I also don’t look like a CEO.
That said, I have another colleague who wears tights and a hoodie with matching pink-and-purple all-over outer space graphics, and it works just as well for her as my fancy boy outfit does for me. The important part is that it makes you comfortable and confident.
As an example for women that’s more along the lines of my taste in formality, I’ve seen a colleague go for a not-super-tight oxford shirt (unbuttoned) over some kind of camisole, an oversized cardigan, black jeans that have some stretch in them, ballet flats, and a big blankety shawl as her travel uniform.
Change into your uniform in the airport if you’re coming from the office. If you have to go somewhere directly after your flight, wear it to the airport and change into your suit (or whatever) once you arrive, and enjoy a more comfortable, simpler travel experience as a result.