December 12, 2004 in Travel

Don’t let common snags take the fun out of your flight

John Deiner, Anne McDonough, Carol Sottili and K.C. Summers The Washington Post
 

Remember when flying was fun? Neither do we.

With delayed and canceled flights, understaffed ticket counters, long lines, intrusive security procedures, lost luggage, no meals, surly passengers, stressed-out flight attendants and the specter of terrorism, chances are your next trip won’t be a lot of laughs.

But there are some things you can do to make it a little more bearable. As the busy winter travel season unfolds, here are some common flight snags and how you can avoid them.

Getting to the airport/parking

Snag: You’re not sure how early to leave for the airport.

Solution: Before you leave, check wait times at security checkpoints on the Web at http://waittime.tsa.dhs.gov. The Transportation Security Administration site reports average and maximum wait times at concourses nationwide – historical data only, but it can be helpful in planning.

Carry your cell phone, pager or PDA on the way to the airport so you can receive updated flight and travel info from your airline or travel provider. Most major airlines, including American, United, Northwest, Delta, Continental and Southwest, will send you updated flight information, including gate changes and flight status, via phone or e-mail.

Online ticket brokers such as Travelocity.com and Orbitz.com will also keep you abreast of changes on flights booked through them. You must sign up for these notification services before you go.

Snag: You get to the airport and there’s no parking.

Solution: Yeah, you should’ve left earlier. But now that you’re in this jam, consider an off-site lot, which can be cheaper than airport lots. Before you leave, find out where they are ( www.longtermparking.com lets you compare discount options at airports nationwide and in the United Kingdom). You can sometimes print out a discount coupon. Consider joining a parking affinity club, which can guarantee you a space during busy travel times.

Another option: Pay to park at a nearby airport hotel. Many offer sleep-park-and-fly packages that can be considerably cheaper than airport parking lots, and often include a ride to the airport. For a list of hotels offering parking packages in the United States and abroad, go to www.parksleepfly.com.

Snag: You’re picking up relatives, but you don’t want to make the trek to the airport and then have to wait if their flight has been delayed.

Solution: Before leaving home, check by telephone or online to see if the plane is on time. Besides contacting the airline, you can find out a flight’s status within a two-hour window by airline, flight number, city, airport, etc., at www.flightarrivals.com. Also, www.fly.faa.gov publishes a map of U.S. airports color-coded to indicate flight delays.

Checking in/security

Snag: There’s a huge line at the check-in counter.

Solution: If your airline permits it (and many now do), print out your boarding pass at home up to 24 hours before your flight and go right to your gate. Or check in at an automated kiosk using a credit card or frequent-flier card. If you’re checking luggage, use curbside check-in rather than at the counter.

Snag: You keep setting off the metal detector and everyone in line hates you.

Solution: Dress for success at security checkpoints. Remove all outerwear before screening. Wear slip-on shoes, because you’ll probably be taking them off, too (you might be safe with sneakers, but don’t count on it). Metal barrettes, jewelry, belt buckles and even underwire bras can set off metal detectors. And lose the belly-button ring.

Snag: Your luggage has been selected for a hand search.

Solution: Know which items are prohibited (check the TSA Web site, www.tsa.gov) and pack accordingly. Place personal items and toiletries in see-through plastic bags so security agents can see what’s inside without pawing through them. If you’re traveling with gifts, don’t wrap them – they’ll just be unwrapped by screeners. Don’t pile books on top of one another; spread them out. Chocolate, fruitcakes and peanut butter also look suspicious on an X-ray.

And remember the potential embarrassment factor when you pack your carry-on: Do you really want the agent to hold up that (fill in the blank) for all to see?

Snag: You’re afraid your exposed film will be ruined by the security equipment.

Solution: Your film will probably be OK going through the X-ray machine in your carry-on bag, but don’t pack it in your checked baggage – the more powerful X-ray machines will damage it. But if your carry-on will pass through the X-ray more than five times, ask to have the film hand-checked.

In the air

Snag: You’re stuck in the dreaded middle seat with no leg room.

Solution: Check out airline seating charts in advance at www.seatguru.com. Everything you ever wanted to know about airline seating – including leg room, seat width, pitch and proximity to the bathrooms – for 21 airlines is there. Armed with this info, ask for a change of seats once you get to the gate. Remember that bulkhead seats give you more space, but you may be sitting in front of the restroom. You can also ask for roomier emergency exit seats if they’re available and you’re willing to assist in a potential evacuation.

Snag: You get on your flight, you’re starving, and dinner is … pretzel mix. If you’re lucky.

Solution: Pack a snack: cheese and crackers, or trail mix. And bring a bottle of water – it’s expensive at the airport. If you decide to grab some food at the airport before your flight, look at a services map before you go through security, since the only things on the other side may be a McDonald’s and a newsstand.

Snag: The guy in front of you has reclined his seat so far back your knees are in your face.

Solution: If he won’t compromise, whip out your Knee Defender ( www.kneedefender.com), a plastic device that snaps onto your tray table and controls how far your nemesis can put his seat back. (Some folks have been known to aim their fresh-air nozzle directly at the noggin of the offending passenger as an incentive to un-recline, but we cannot condone this antisocial behavior.)

Snag: You can’t fall asleep.

Solution: Pack special noise-reducing earphones to mute engine racket (Bose makes a nice set; www.bose.co.uk/noise_reduction /qc2_headphones) and wear a blindfold. One, by Flight 001, comes with a plastic insert so you can alert the flight attendant if you want to be awakened for meals or the duty-free cart ( www.flight001.com). Another product, the Dream Helmet ( www.dreamhelmet.com), is a combination blindfold and pillow that looks goofy but effectively blocks out all sound and light. And some people swear by sleeping pills such as Ambien (prescription required).

Snag: You’re grossed out by the aircraft’s oft-used pillows (if you can even find one).

Solution: Bring your own pillowcase, or even your own minipillow. One new stretchable model by Bucky molds to the shape of your body and comes with a snap that allows the pillow to be attached securely to luggage, backpack or carry-on ( www.bucky.com).

Snag: You’re taking a long flight and worry about DVT (deep-vein thrombosis).

Solution: You can reduce your chances of getting painful (and sometimes fatal) DVT, which results when blood clots develop in the leg during or after a long-haul flight. Forget about sleeping during the flight; get up at least once an hour and walk through the cabin for a few minutes. Drink plenty of water and wear loose-fitting clothes. Wiggle your toes, make ankle circles and do other stretching exercises in your seat periodically, or bring special prerecorded workout tapes. Those at high risk should consider wearing compression stockings and discuss anticoagulation therapy with their doctors.

Snag: Your seatmate won’t shut up.

Solution: Mumble something in fake Croatian and look puzzled. Or slip on a pair of headphones as soon as you sit down, even if there’s nothing on the other end. It’s a polite way to imply you aren’t feeling talkative.

Snag: The airline is charging $5 for its cheapie headphones. You really want to watch the movie, but $5?!

Solution: Plan ahead and bring headphones from home – they’ll be more comfortable, anyway. Noise-reduction earphones also work well for movies: You can actually hear the flick without the engine roar. The Bose set has a collection of plugs and adapters to fit various airline sockets.

Luggage

Snag: Items are stolen from your suitcase after you’ve checked it.

Solution: First, don’t pack valuables in your checked bag. That means the $500 digital camera goes in the carry-on. Security personnel can and will break open locks to screen baggage, so use a special TSA-approved padlock, sold in luggage stores and online (the TSA Web site, www.tsa.gov, has a list of brands). Security personnel can open it with a special key, and the lock alerts you afterward if your bag has been opened.

If you believe something was taken from your bag, contact the airline, call the TSA at (866) 289-9673 or download a claim form at www.tsa.gov.

Snag: The airline loses your luggage.

Solution: Learn to pack light (it’s an art) and carry your bag on board. If you must check it, label it inside and out, and include your destination – not just where you’re from – so the airline has a better chance of finding you.

Pack essential items such as eyeglasses and medication, expensive or irreplaceable items, and a day’s worth of clothing – or at least a change of underwear – in your carry-on.

At your destination

Snag: You’ve landed, you’re jet-lagged, you need to catch a cab to your hotel and you have no idea what a euro is worth.

Solution: Before leaving home, go to www.oanda.com/convert/cheatsheet and print out a wallet-size currency cheat sheet that tells you how much 10 euros is worth in dollars so you won’t get blindsided.

Snag: Your passport is stolen.

Solution: Make the replacement process easier by making two photocopies of your passport before you leave. Pack one in your suitcase, separate from your real passport. Give the other one to a contact back home. It’s something you can give embassy personnel to facilitate the replacement process. For complete instructions on replacing a lost passport, check the U.S. State Department’s guide at http://travel.state.gov/travel /lost_passports_abroad.html.

Snag: You try to use your credit card and it’s denied.

Solution: Your credit card company may think your card was stolen because you’ve deviated from your usual spending pattern. Before leaving, call the company and tell them the dates you’re going to be out of town and where you’ll be.

Snag: You’re in a remote Alpine village and you’ve found the perfect souvenir, but the merchant won’t accept your travelers’ checks.

Solution: Many places don’t accept travelers’ checks anymore. Take your ATM card with you and withdraw money as you need it. The exchange rate is usually better than going to a currency change place, and the machine spits out the money in the currency you need. Beware of the transaction fees, though. And make sure your PIN is four digits or less, since many foreign ATMs won’t accept longer PINs.

Snag: You can’t find an ATM at your destination.

Solution: Locate ATMs in advance by going to MasterCard and Visa’s ATM locators ( www.mastercard.com and www.visa.com), which allow you to search for ATMs by country, region, city, etc. They also have info on 24-hour and disabled access.

Snag: It’s time for your return flight, but you can’t find your itinerary and e-ticket airfare confirmation.

Solution: E-mail yourself your itinerary and e-ticket confirmation so you can access them at a cyber cafe if you lose them. And set up a free e-mail address ahead of time at Yahoo.com or Hotmail.com so you can sign on.


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