Ever wondered how HTTPS works? Check out this visual explainer

Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, or HTTPS, is one of the most important means of securing data as it moves from computer to computer across the Internet. While many people have heard of it, they don’t know how it works or how it protects their privacy and security.

That’s why the folks at dnsimple have created this nifty visual explainer, which uses the power of cartoons to unpack the concepts. Check it out and bookmark it if it helps improve your cybersecurity knowledge.

The best mousepad there is

I love Wirecutter, the site founded by Brian Lam that is now owned by The New York Times Company. It’s an indispensable resource for what to get, and what not to get in every product category… from air purifiers and routers to credit cards and tax preparation services.

While Wirecutter has a recommendation for almost everything, they do not yet have an article on mouse pads. Fortunately, I’ve already found what I believe to be the best mousepad in the world: the Ergo-Mat by HandStands.

Head on view of the Ergo-Mat

I have been using an Ergo-Mat as my mousepad for over ten years, and I can say without reservation that there isn’t anything better out there.

This is it.

If you want the best experience with a mouse, then get yourself one of these. They don’t cost very much and they can last you an extremely long time. I forget exactly when I bought my first Ergo-Mat, but I remember where. I was walking down an aisle in Fry’s Electronics when I spotted the Ergo-Mat on a shelf, and I was immediately intrigued.

You see, the Ergo-Mat is unlike most other mousepads out there in that it doesn’t have what I’ll call a wrist bar. Nor is it thin and flat.

The HandStands Ergo-Mat: it is one large raised surface with a gentle slope (the slope is even more gentle than this promotional image suggests)

Rather, the whole pad is a raised, gently sloping surface that doesn’t slide around at all. It has a no-slip grip.

When I saw the Ergo-Mat, I said, I have to try that. It was an impulse buy. But it has been my primary mousepad ever since.

I long ago lost the packaging and there are no identifying marks on the Ergo-Mat to indicate who makes it.

But recently, I decided to see if I could find it again. And I was successful. The Ergo-Mat is still fortuitously available, at least as of the time I made my purchase. I was so delighted when my package came and I opened it up. My new Ergo-Mats are entirely identical to my old ones.

Now I have several – one for each computer workstation I’ve built. No matter which machine I’m sitting at, there’s now an Ergo-Mat there. Hurrah!

I’ve rested my right wrist on my first Ergo-Mat for thousands of hours over the past ten years. It is very comfortable. I also use a sculpted Logitech mouse — I recommend you get yourself one of those as well (there are many models available). If you spend any amount of time sitting in front of a computer, then you should also have an ergonomic keyboard, a high end office chair, a monitor that can slide up and down on a stand, or a monitor attached to a re-positionable arm.

Most product reviews I’ve read are based on a few days or weeks’ experience with the product. I’ve had this mousepad for a decade. While it might be overkill to call it rugged, it will last you a very long time if you take reasonable care of it. Give it a try… I think you’ll like it.

Hang up to avoid becoming a victim of a phone scam

I’m occasionally asked how to avoid becoming a victim of the robocall-driven phone scams that seem to be so common and prevalent nowadays.

The answer is fairly straightforward: Hang up.

If someone calls you with an offer, do not give them any information, just terminate the call. If someone tells you your computer is infected with a virus and you need to install a particular tool to clean it, disregard their instructions and immediately end the conversation. If someone asks you to wire money somewhere for any reason, refuse and tap your phone’s End button.

Why is it always safe and prudent to hang up, even if you’re not sure? Because hanging up won’t hurt your relationship with a legitimate business or a government agency. You should only provide sensitive information over the phone when you originate the call. Caller ID can be spoofed and businesses you have a relationship with can be impersonated.

So you need to be careful.

To avoid falling for scams, don’t give someone who calls you any sensitive information at all, and don’t let them direct you to do anything, whether that’s wire money someplace or install software on your computer.

And, if time allows, report scams so that they can be investigated by the authorities.

This morning, a group of scammers who are engaged in harvesting credit card numbers called me. I answered the phone and knew within seconds it was a scam, but decided to play along for as long as I could in order to (a) learn more about the scam and (b) waste the scammers’ time.

This particular group of scammers was running a con that goes like this:

  • Place a robocall to lots of people that advertises being able to get lower interest rates on credit cards (the brands Visa and MasterCard, which are networks, not issuing banks, are specifically mentioned)
  • Screen people who respond to the robocall by pressing “1” to see if they are an appropriate target for the scam by asking a bunch of fake qualifying questions that pretty much everyone would answer “yes” to;
  • Transfer the call to a fake “supervisor” who will then attempt to extract credit card numbers from the victim.

These scammers use some of the same techniques physics and magicians use. For instance, to establish their credibility and get you interested, they ask their would-be victims questions like: “You have three or more credit cards, correct? And you’re paying interest of more than ten percent on each card? And you’d like to pay less interest on those cards?”

(Most people would be able to answer yes to these questions.)

Among those Americans who have a credit card (29% don’t), the average is almost four cards. That means most Americans with a credit card have several of them, typically at least three. Hence the scammers’ question, “You have three or more credit cards, correct?”

The next question they asked was which banks the cards were issued from. I told the screener I had cards with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and CapitalOne, all of which are major card issuers with millions of customers. To all of the other screening questions, I offered responses like: “Great!”, “Excellent!,” “Yeah, sure,” or “That’s right.”

I was also told that I am a good customer and that I have a long history of making payments on time.

After I got through screening and was passed off to a more senior member of the scamming crew, I was asked for card numbers, beginning with my nonexistent Bank of America card. I used a credit card number generator to give the scammer a fake number, to see what he would do, and discovered he was trying to validate (and maybe authorize) the numbers in real time.

When the scammer protested that the sixteen digit number was invalid and not even a number beginning with a Bank of America prefix, I said, “Oops, sorry about that; try this,” and supplied a second fake number.

“Sorry, sir, that is not a valid Bank of America credit card number either,” the scammer said solemnly, a hint of contempt and resentment in his voice. “Darn,” I said. “That’s a shame.” He promptly hung up.

In this case, instead of hanging up on the scammers, I forced them to hang up on me, and I wasted several minutes of their time while learning more about their scam… a satisfying result.

If you only get robocalled once in a while, you may be able to deal effectively with the occasional scammer simply by hanging up the phone. Terminating a call is the simplest and easiest way to thwart phone scams.

If scam and spam calls are a frequent annoyance, however, you may want to go further so you can reclaim your time and sanity. There are many tools that can help shield you from unwanted calls of all kinds, scam calls included.

For example, there’s Jolly Roger Telephone Service, which can deploy bots to talk to telemarketers and their bots for you.

Or Nomorobo, which can protect VOIP lines and mobile lines. (Most VOIP providers, like Vonage and Ooma, include Nomorobo as part of their plans.)

Or Truecaller, which provides an app for mobiles that can be used to identify unknown numbers, record calls, and block numbers.

Scammers are wily people who have ways of evading defenses like number blocks, so don’t expect any of the aforementioned tools to totally eliminate unwanted calls. Your best defense of all against phone scammers is your own good judgment and critical thinking skills.

If more people had the equivalent of a Spidey-sense for detecting scams, scamming wouldn’t be as lucrative and profitable as it is. So pass on your scam fighting knowledge! It makes a difference.

A year with Gutenberg: WordPress’ new editor has proved its worth

One year ago, WordPress 5.0 landed, and with it, a new default editing experience, made possible by the Gutenberg project.

The Gutenberg project originated as plugin backed by the core development team that aimed to offer a modern replacement post editor for the world’s most popular content management system.

Last year, Gutenberg was merged into core for the final WP release of 2018… a move that attracted significant opposition and criticism within the community of people that use and work with WordPress.

Anyone not wanting to switch to Gutenberg upon installing WordPress 5.0 was given the option of retaining the classic editor with a plugin appropriately named Classic Editor. And many people took advantage. The Classic Editor plugin has over five million installations, according to the statistics maintained by the WordPress.org plugin directory.

As a longtime WordPress beta tester, I had the opportunity to try out Gutenberg long before it was ever merged into core.

And while Gutenberg was certainly rather rough around the edges in its earliest incarnations, it has matured beautifully into a modern post editor that offers an empowering writing experience.

One year after its incorporation into core, my assessment of Gutenberg is overwhelmingly positive. It has proved its worth.

What makes Gutenberg superior to the Classic Editor?

Several things.

  • Gutenberg is clean. The editing interface is simple and elegant, encouraging distraction-free writing.
  • Gutenberg is logical. Content is organized into blocks, which can be paragraphs of text, images, videos, embeds, or anything else.
  • Gutenberg is fast. Really fast! It loads quickly and it publishes content faster than the classic editor. This could be my favorite attribute.
  • Gutenberg is always improving. The bugs and flaws that existed at the outset are gone, and the editor keeps getting better.

I especially love the pre-publish checks that Gutenberg runs. This functionality is not available with the Classic Editor except through a plugin.

I have used both Gutenberg and the Classic Editor on different sites since WordPress 5.0 was released. In each of the sites I’ve installed since last December, I’ve chosen to keep Gutenberg as the default editor, rather than installing the Classic Editor. And I haven’t regretted that choice.

Once you get used to Gutenberg, you start to appreciate what it can do for you. Gutenberg really is more intuitive than it might appear at first glance. If you’re used to the Classic Editor, then you probably have a sort of mental equivalent of muscle memory that may hinder your Gutenberg experience at first. But once you get past that and start mastering Gutenberg properly, you may well have different feelings about it.

In my view, the best way to get acclimated to Gutenberg is to set up a brand new WordPress website for fun or for testing purposes. Make a site that is dedicated to an activity or hobby that you enjoy.

For example: If you love cooking, then why not set up a WordPress site that hosts your favorite recipes and food preparation tips?

If you love knitting, why not create a blog or personal site about knitting?

If you enjoy reading, how about setting up a site where you can share your favorite books and news articles you’ve recently read?

What I’ve found is that getting to know Gutenberg on a brand new WordPress site is the best way to develop good feelings for it. A brand new post editor doesn’t feel out of place in a brand new website, you see.

There’s nothing wrong with continuing to use Classic Editor on your existing sites, especially if you use plugins that aren’t yet compatible with Gutenberg (although most major plugins in the WordPress ecosystem now get along just fine with Gutenberg). But if you have not tried Gutenberg at all, or have concluded it’s no good based on the many negative reviews that have been published about it, then you’re missing out.

My advice is to make up your own mind. Gutenberg has its legions of critics, that’s for sure, and many of the concerns they raised when the editor was in its intensive development phase were wholly justified.

But the Gutenberg of December 2019 is also much more polished than the Gutenberg of December 2018 or July 2018 or earlier. Don’t let the views of other people prevent you from trying Gutenberg for yourself and reaching your own conclusion based on your own experience.

I look forward to seeing Gutenberg reach higher heights in 2020.

This post was authored in Gutenberg, WordPress’ next-generation post editor, offering a smooth and pleasant writing experience. To take Gutenberg for a test drive yourself, simply install a new WordPress site and start drafting and publishing content. Once you’ve mastered it and decided it’s for you, you can deploy it on older WordPress sites by disabling the Classic Editor plugin.

Don’t give out your personal mobile telephone number by default

This week, the New York Times published a stellar piece by Brian Chen which spells out the problems that stem from giving out your mobile number when asked for a means of being contacted by phone:

For most of our lives, we have been conditioned to share a piece of personal information without a moment’s hesitation: our phone number. We punch in our digits at the grocery store to get a member discount or at the pharmacy to pick up medication. When we sign up to use apps and websites, they often ask for our phone number to verify our identity.

An increasing number of Americans don’t have landlines and have become accustomed to typing their mobile number into online forms or giving it out without a second thought to entities of all kinds. If you do that, though, you’re increasing your risk of becoming a victim of cybercrime.

In fact, your phone number may have now become an even stronger identifier than your full name. I recently found this out firsthand when I asked Fyde, a mobile security firm in Palo Alto, Calif., to use my digits to demonstrate the potential risks of sharing a phone number.

Emre Tezisci, a security researcher at Fyde with a background in telecommunications, took on the task with gusto. He and I had never met or talked. He quickly plugged my cellphone number into a public records directory. Soon, he had a full dossier on me — including my name and birth date, my address, the property taxes I pay and the names of members of my family.

The CEO of Fyde is quoted in the next paragraph explaining that phone numbers are actually more unique than names are.

Many people can be called “James Smith” or “Mary Jones”, for example, but only one of those people will have a phone number like 907-555-0100 (that’s a fake phone number, by the way.) So if you give out your mobile number by default, then you’re creating a strong link between your mobile number and your name, which can be exploited by bad actors.

What should you do instead?

First: Get a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) telephone number and give that out as your primary phone number instead.

Even when you’re asked for a mobile number on forms, give out your VOIP number instead. Only provide your mobile number to family, friends, and institutions you trust. For example, you’ll probably want your bank or credit union to have your mobile number, along with your parents, siblings, spouse, children, and close friends.

Reputable VOIP providers include OomaGrasshopper, and RingCentral. Ooma is primarily marketed towards residential users, while Grasshopper and RingCentral are marketed towards business users.

Note that Ooma doesn’t support text messaging. If you want a VOIP number with SMS support, don’t pick Ooma.

There are also app-based VOIP providers, like Shuffle. These provide the ability to create auxiliary phone numbers (referred to variously as secondary phone numbers and auxiliary phone numbers.)

All reputable VOIP services cost money, so there is a cost associated with setting up and maintaining a VOIP number. But it’s worth it. You’ll have a number you can give out that isn’t directly associated with the smartphone you’re carrying around and the SIM card inside it.

Second: Avoid using the Short Message Service (SMS) for two-factor authentication. Use an authenticator app instead (like Authy, available for both iOS and Android), or better yet, hardware-based authentication like a YubiKey if that’s supported. These methods are more secure than getting a code by text message and putting that in.

Many platforms that require a telephone number to set up multi-factor authentication will accept a VOIP number (Google is a good example of a provider that accepts VOIP numbers) so you can provide that instead of your mobile number when you’re going through the initial setup.

Change your Venmo privacy settings

Do you use Venmo? Your transactions are public by default. Here’s how to change that.

Venmo, the popular person-to-person money transfer service owned by PayPal, is back in the news again after a computer science student named Dan Salmon created a website profiling several of the millions of Venmo users who use the service to send and receive payments.

The reason Salmon was able to do this is because in Venmo, transaction histories are public by default. That’s right… public.

Unless you’ve specifically configured your privacy settings to hide transactions, your Venmo activity is an open book.

As Zack Whittaker of TechCrunch bluntly put it, using Venmo’s API (automated programming interface), “anyone can look at an entire user’s public transaction history, who they shared money with, when, and in some cases for what reason — including illicit goods and substances.”

Now — yes, now — would be a very good time to check your Venmo privacy settings and make sure your transaction history is set to Private. Again, this is NOT the default setting in Venmo. It should be, but it isn’t. If you want to protect your privacy, then you need to take action!

If you have the Venmo app, you can use this visual guide created by Salmon to adjust your privacy settings.

You can also adjust your privacy settings through the Venmo website. Go here and select the Private option. Then click the button under Past Payments that says “Change All to Private”. This will make that same setting retroactive to your past transactions. Here’s a visual guide:

Change your Venmo privacy settings

Travel confidently with these on-the-go financial management tips

Heading abroad on a trip this summer? Reduce your anxiety and minimize the likelihood that you’ll become the victim of a crime by following these best practices for managing your money while you’re away from home.

Tip #1: Limit the amount of cash you carry, and get it from an ATM

It’s a good idea to have some cash on your person when you’re abroad… but it shouldn’t be a huge amount, since an increasing number of places in an increasing number of countries take plastic.

You don’t need to be walking around Rome or Madrid with more than a hundred euros in your wallet, for example, since you don’t need huge sums to patronize street vendors and farmer’s markets.

You also don’t need to worry about stocking up on foreign currency before you arrive at your destination; you can get it from an ATM after passing through customs. Look for an ATM run by a reputable financial institution so you can avoid paying unnecessary fees. (Bank-owned ATMs generally have the bank’s logo prominently displayed; that’s how you can tell the difference.) You’ll be able to withdraw cash in the currency of the country you’re visiting.

Oh, and don’t bother with American Express “traveller’s cheques” … those are a thing of the past, as this traveler discovered. Hardly any establishments will accept them. Instead, bring multiple chipped credit and debit cards.

Tip #2: Keep your cash and your plastic in a money belt

Beware of pickpockets when traveling, especially while using public transit or when you’re visiting crowded tourist attractions. To protect your money and your identification, wear a money belt under your clothing so that your wallet can’t be lifted out of your pocket or purse by a skilled thief.

Tip #3: Use a credit card for purchases

Use your debit card to withdraw cash, but not to buy anything.

When you check into a hotel, rent a car, or make a purchase, always provide a credit card instead of a debit card. That way, you’re spending your bank or your credit union’s money instead of your own money.

If you experience the misfortune of your card number being fraudulently used, you won’t have to worry about a hold being placed on funds in your checking account, or worse, your money disappearing out of your account until you can get the fraudulent charges disputed. You also won’t have to worry about the many annoying restrictions rental car companies place on customers trying to pay with a debit card if you’re trying to get wheels.

Don’t have a credit card? Apply for one before you travel.

Tip #4: Tell your bank or credit union where you’re going

Most financial institutions will now let you set up travel alerts with a few mouse clicks or taps from a mobile device. You don’t even need to talk to anyone. Just log in and specify where you are going and for how long you’ll be there. By telling your bank or credit union about your travel plans, you greatly reduce the possibility that any transactions you attempt during your travels will be blocked due to suspected fraud. Do this for each bank or credit union that you have a relationship with.

Tip #5: Review your activity every night

Use your financial institution’s mobile app to review authorizations and charges that have posted to your account every night before going to bed. That way, you can quickly spot any fraudulent charges and keep track of your spending. Avoid signing into online banking using a cybercafe. If you’re connecting to the Internet through a public Wi-Fi hotpot, initiate a VPN session on your device prior to signing into your accounts.

Tip #6: Make photocopies of all of your cards before you travel

Before you depart on your trip, you should make copies of all of your cards… debit cards, credit cards, driver’s license, health insurance card, auto insurance card, and so on. You should also make a copy of your passport.

Leave one copy in your safe at home and give one to a trusted neighbor or family member who isn’t traveling with you. In the event your cards are stolen, you’ll then have an inventory of what needs to be replaced.

Bonus tip: Put your card data into your password manager too

You can also enter all of your card data into the secure vault of your password manager if you have one (and you should have one).

Microsoft recognizes that password expiration policies don’t help — they hurt

Recognizing that mandatory password changes don’t help an organization’s security posture, Microsoft last month announced that the next iteration of Windows 10 Build 1903) would no longer require periodic password changes.

In a post on Microsoft’s Security Guidance blog,

There’s no question that the state of password security is problematic and has been for a long time. When humans pick their own passwords, too often they are easy to guess or predict. When humans are assigned or forced to create passwords that are hard to remember, too often they’ll write them down where others can see them. When humans are forced to change their passwords, too often they’ll make a small and predictable alteration to their existing passwords, and/or forget their new passwords. When passwords or their corresponding hashes are stolen, it can be difficult at best to detect or restrict their unauthorized use.

Recent scientific research calls into question the value of many long-standing password-security practices such as password expiration policies, and points instead to better alternatives such as enforcing banned-password lists (a great example being Azure AD password protection) and multi-factor authentication. While we recommend these alternatives, they cannot be expressed or enforced with our recommended security configuration baselines, which are built on Windows’ built-in Group Policy settings and cannot include customer-specific values.

This reinforces a larger important point about our baselines: while they are a solid foundation and should be part of your security strategy, they are not a complete security strategy. In this particular case, the small set of ancient password policies enforceable through Windows’ security templates is not and cannot be a complete security strategy for user credential management. Removing a low-value setting from our baseline and not compensating with something else in the baseline does not mean we are lowering security standards. It simply reinforces that security cannot be achieved entirely with baselines.

Props to Microsoft for making this change.

Password expiration policies are not unlike anti-piracy measures for music and movies: They were conceived and are meant to deter bad guys, but they end up getting in the way of the good guys while failing to stop the bad guys.

Just as no one wants to have to spend thirty minutes downloading and installing a firmware update for their Blu-ray player to make a disc playable, no one likes having to change their password when they log in simply because some amount of time has passed.

If a password is set to expire every thirty days, then that means a user will be asked to change their password twelve times every year. To deal with this annoyance, users can be expected to — as said — make “small and predictable” alterations to their previous password.

A strong password stored securely in an electronic vault is better than a password that is frequently changed. Instead of setting and insisting on password expiration policies, information technology departments should require the use of password management tools, and join independent cybersecurity professionals in encouraging everyone to also set up their own password management tool for personal use.

POSTSCRIPT: Need a password manager for personal use? Try Dashlane or 1Password. Need one for a small team that doesn’t cost anything? Give CommonKey a look.

Intel discloses another major flaw in a significant number of its CPUs

A year and a half after the words “Meltdown” and “Spectre” entered the cybersecurity vernacular, chip maker Intel has disclosed another major vulnerability affecting a significant number of its CPUs. Here’s Wired:

Today Intel and a coordinated supergroup of microarchitecture security researchers are together announcing a new, serious form of hackable vulnerability in Intel’s chips. It’s four distinct attacks, in fact, though all of them use a similar technique, and all are capable of siphoning a stream of potentially sensitive data from a computer’s CPU to an attacker.

It’s become fashionable in cybersecurity circles for exploits and vulnerabilities to be given names (think Heartbleed and WannaCry). The attacks disclosed today by Intel have been given the names ZombieLoad, Fallout, and RIDL, or Rogue In-Flight Data Load by researchers.

Intel, meanwhile, came up with a much duller name to describe the vulnerability: Microarchitectural Data Sampling, or MDS, which would fit well into a paragraph loaded with other corporate mumbo-jumbo.

How do the attacks work? Here’s an explanation from the researchers:

The RIDL and Fallout speculative execution attacks allow attackers to leak confidential data across arbitrary security boundaries on a victim system, for instance compromising data held in the cloud or leaking your information to malicious websites. Our attacks leak data by exploiting the newly disclosed Microarchitectural Data Sampling (or MDS) side-channel vulnerabilities in Intel CPUs.

Unlike existing attacks, our attacks can leak arbitrary in-flight data from CPU-internal buffers (Line Fill Buffers, Load Ports, Store Buffers), including data never stored in CPU caches. We show that existing defenses against speculative execution attacks are inadequate, and in some cases actually make things worse. Attackers can use our attacks to obtain sensitive data despite mitigations, due to vulnerabilities deep inside Intel CPUs.

Intel’s newest CPUs don’t suffer from MDS vulnerabilities, but most Intel CPUs made since 2008 do. Chips made by ARM and AMD are not affected.

The researchers recommend disabling Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology to mitigate the vulnerabilities. However, hyper-threading is a crucial chip technology underpinning the use of virtual machines on systems in datacenters around the world. It can’t be disabled without a cost.

If you’re wondering whether a desktop or notebook computer you have is vulnerable, the researchers have provided a pair of software utilities for Windows and GNU/Linux machines which can tell you.

Intel has published a statement detailing its response here.

Apple has released an update to macOS Mojave to push microcode fixes to affected Macs. If you own a Mac, update to macOS Mojave 10.14.5 now.

Canonical has pushed microcode fixes to half a dozen versions of Ubuntu, including the two most recent Long Term Support releases.

And Microsoft has pushed microcode fixes for several flavors of Windows, including Windows 10 and Windows 7.

Microsoft also took the rare step today of releasing patches to several very old versions of Windows to patch a different critical vulnerability affecting remote desktop services. More information is available here.

Now is a very good time to install updates to your operating system!

Flying this summer? Here are some tips for staying safe and comfortable

Taking to the skies this summer — or sooner? Whether you’re a seasoned jet setter or a more infrequent traveler, you may be interested in strategies to improve your experience of going from Point A to Point B. I’m a firm believer in the concept of enjoying the journey. Air travel can be unpleasant, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some ways you can make your next flight more relaxing… or at least less painful.

Hydration

You’ll feel better if you stay hydrated during your travels, so drink water whenever you feel thirsty. Water is the only thing that will actually quench your thirst. Stay away from alcoholic beverages while in the air.

“The air in an aircraft is very dry and, coupled with the diuretic effect of drinking alcohol; you may become dehydrated much faster than you would on the ground,” KLM explains. If you want to feel your best during your trip and minimize the toll traveling takes on your body, then skip the alcohol.

I also recommend staying away from carbonated beverages (unless you have an upset stomach, in which case you may want a carbonated beverage).

Most airlines offer juice (apple, orange, cranberry) in addition to water from their beverage carts. If you want a flavored beverage, choose fruit juice instead of soda or an alcoholic beverage. You don’t have to worry about ending up with a cup of Tang: In my experience, most U.S. airlines nowadays are serving one hundred percent juice out of large juice boxes, not juice made from concentrate or fake juice made with powders.

Skip the ice whenever you get a beverage from a flight attendant.

While the water airlines serve is typically bottled, the ice could have been made in an ice machine using tap water that came out of the airplane’s water tanks… and with the notable exception of Southwest, airlines don’t have such a great track record when it comes to tap water quality.

A 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that one in eight airplanes had water that totally failed safety standards. A more recent round of testing, in 2013, showed not much had improved.

Also, by skipping the ice, you’ll end up with an empty cup when you finish your beverage (ideally water or juice, as mentioned) instead of a cup with still-melting, possibly also sticky ice cubes that could spill.

Avoid coffee and tea for the same reason.

To ensure that you have water at the gate as well as in the air, bring an empty Kleen Kanteen or a HydroFlask with you in your carry-on.

After you pass through the security checkpoint, fill your water bottle using either a filling station next to a drinking fountain or ask someone working at a bar or restaurant in the concourse to fill it. Don’t use a drinking fountain spout because some people put their mouths right on the spout.

Food

If you want to be comfortable while in the air, be careful what you eat while at the gate and on the plane. In addition to avoiding alcohol, it’s also best to avoid greasy and sugary foods like burgers or pizza along with cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower.

And, to avoid irritating your neighbors, I suggest skipping smelly foods like garlic, canned fish (sardines, tuna, etc.) and onions.

Stay away from chewing gum, too… it can contribute to bloating. (Yawn, as deeply as you like, to pop those ears safely and effectively.)

Here are some foods that you can enjoy while on the plane. You should bring snacks as well as an entree or two for a longer flight.

  • Cherries. They’re one of the few natural sources of melatonin.
  • Chicken and vegetable wrap. This can be your main course.
  • Pasta salad. If you’re a vegan, this could be your main course.
  • Bananas. They go down easy and are a good source of potassium.
  • Lemons. You can use them to flavor your water if you want.
  • Whole grains like quinoa and brown rice for an energy boost.
  • Protein bars for a non-messy treat in between meals.

Essential supplies

When flying, there are some must-haves that you’ll want to keep with you besides that reusable water bottle (which is the key to staying hydrated).

  • Something to read. You can’t use a laptop during takeoff and landing, but you can read from a printed publication or handheld. To minimize weight, bring a magazine, a tablet, or an e-book reader instead of books. If you do pack a book, make it a paperback.
  • Disinfecting wipes. Airplane seat-back tray tables are dirtier than your toilet at home. Disinfect them, your armrests, and seat buckle as soon as you’re seated with Clorox on the go wipes or an equivalent product.
  • External battery. Not all planes have USB charging ports, so it’s a good idea to have an external battery pack with you, like the Anker PowerCore series.
  • Noise canceling headphones or earbuds. There’s no shortage of options right now when it comes to noise canceling headphones and earbuds. Most do an excellent job of filtering out the hum of a jet engine. Connect the pair that’s right for you to your smartphone or an inexpensive audio player like the Sansa.
  • Sleep kit. If you want to catch some Z’s while at 30,000 feet, pack an eye mask and a neck pillow.

Perhaps the most important thing to do is to give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and arrive at the gate. Remember, you can always read a book or work on your computer at the gate until it’s time for your flight.

If you’re not stressed out, you’ll feel better and have a more pleasant trip.

Happy travels!