I have the 6 a.m. flight down to a science. I set my alarm for 3:42, having learned through trial and grievous error that 28 minutes are exactly how many I need to shower, dress and toss down some cereal.
I pull out of the driveway at 4:10. There's never traffic, and few troopers bother patrolling the highway before dawn, so I can get to the airport in a brisk 35 minutes. I'm through security by 4:55, which would leave me enough time to grab breakfast--if only a restaurant were open. I usually can't even get a newspaper. But that's fine. I'm hoping to be back asleep before my flight leaves the ground.
Some people take the first flight out in the morning to save money. Others do it because of family. With me, it's both. I used to fly the night before meetings and events until I realized how much home life I was missing. What's a few extra hours of sleep compared with seeing a kid's ballgame or recital?
If I'm paying for my travel, or even if I'm not, it galls me to check in to a hotel just in time to turn out the lights. (Also, I frequently get stuck with the worst room in the house, which happens when you show up after everyone else.)
Fortunately, I live near the middle of the country. From my home near Denver, I can get to most cities on the West Coast in time for a working breakfast, and to Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas and even Washington, D.C., in time for lunch. Sometime around a decade ago, I started truncating two-night trips into one night, and even occasionally leaving and returning the same grueling day. My elite status with the hotel chains has suffered, but my family and my bank account have reaped the rewards.
I used to dread 6 a.m. flights. Lately, though, I've grown to appreciate them. At that hour, the system works. Lines are short or nonexistent. TSA agents are unharried, even cheerful. Best of all, I occasionally experience that rarest of luxuries: an empty seat beside me on the plane.
There are downsides. No matter how early I try to get to bed the night before, I rarely get more than five hours of sleep before the alarm intrudes. Somehow, the additional hour I grab on the flight doesn't seem to help. That means I'm often tired all day. If I have a dinner to attend that night, especially if I've flown west, I find myself fading during the first glass of wine.
And since I haven't built in any margin for error in my travel plans, any hint of a delay instantly ratchets up the stress. I have yet to miss a morning appointment because I was attempting to come in that day instead of the previous night, but it's bound to happen soon.
I'll take the chance. Not long ago, I stayed up watching a baseball game with my boys, then tucked them into bed. It had been an idyllic evening. The next morning, I landed in Portland, Ore., just as my family was waking up back home.