It’s beginning to look a lot like…wait! Stop! Not yet! It CAN’T be that time of year already…
That’s what you try to tell yourself as the hair on the nape of your neck starts to rise. That knot in the pit of your stomach starts churning and you’re already wishing it was January 2nd!
Anyone who has had the “pleasure” of traveling during the holidays can empathize with those feelings. But with a little preparation and education, not only can it be survivable, but you can actually save a few years on your life with the reduction of stress that you will feel if you are properly equipped with the right knowledge!
So let’s start with the basics:
Buying Your Ticket
If you haven’t purchased your airline tickets by now, the pickin’s are getting pretty sparse. With the tremendous increases in jet fuel over the past 13 months, and the lack of a bounce back for most people in this economy, the airlines have been doing all they can to reduce their losses by tightening up available seats, especially domestically in the U.S.
All is not in vain, however. There are many sources one can utilize to find last minute deals and teaser fares put out by various airlines. If you are reading this blog/article, you are probably tech-savvy enough to use these tools to getting a great deal on airfares. Two places that come to mind rather quickly are through Twitter and Facebook. All the major airlines in the US and abroad have active Twitter streams and “breaking news” about these special deals are usually “tweeted.” Check out @JetBlueCheeps and @BoardingArea, among others. If you are on Facebook, make sure to look up the major airlines and “like” their pages to get notifications on special air fare sales.
If you are particular about where to sit on the plane, you should be familiar with how seats are laid-out and numbered on your particular flight(s) and in the cabin of choice you book. SeatGuru.com is an excellent resource to reference when booking your travel.
Keep in mind that although you have a confirmed seat, your seat assignment is not always guaranteed. There are a few factors that may affect your seat assignment, such as cancellations, or more frequently aircraft configuration substitutions. The gate agents will do their best to accommodate you, but be advised that their ability to match what you originally booked may be quite impossible. If you are travelling with a group or family and this happens to you, it may be a little more difficult to accommodate, so ask the crew onboard for assistance if the agents are unable to help. Many crew members will do their best to help get this squared away, but again, be patient and let them do their jobs.
Also, remember that every airline has a “zero-hour” timeline (check with your specific carrier) and checking in for your flight after that deadline can result in your seat assignment being forfeited…and if you are running really late, you may end up losing your confirmation on that flight altogether, which means going “stand-by” on the next available flight (next “available” doesn’t always mean the next flight – it could literally mean the next flight(s) that have seats available to accommodate you on. Also, keep in mind that the airlines have a ranking system for stand-bys which place those needing accommodation on the list based on price paid for the ticket, mileage status, etc. It is rarely “first come-first served.”
Arriving at the Airport
Airports during the holidays are usually chaotic at best. The better prepared you are before getting to the airport the smoother things will go for you.
I will make one disclaimer here: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has the right to search any bag and conduct a personal pat-down search of any passenger wanting to gain entry into the secured zones of the airport, regardless of mileage status or job title. Even crew members are subject to this rule. However, the TSA has begun to make a few significant changes to make things easier for most travelers.
First off, they have relaxed the rules for children 12 and under with regards to security screening. Kids can now go through the scanners without the need to remove their shoes. 13 and older will still be required to remove their shoes before going through the scanners, for now. TSA is currently testing equipment that will automatically scan shoes as a passenger passes through the scanners, but those are not ready for use during this year’s holiday madness. The TSA does provide an excellent resource regarding the screening process at the airport with kids, including instructional videos and links to other important and pertinent information you may find helpful (you’ll find the reference for the site at the bottom of this article.
If you are bringing a jacket with you, including suit coats, windbreakers and sweaters, you will be asked to remove them and place them in a separate container on the scanner belt. All shoes and boots must be removed and scanned separately as well. Larger metal jewelry and belt buckles tend to set off the alarms; be proactive while you are in line and remove these items from your person in advance so you are ready to go when you approach the belt. It will help move things along much quicker and the folks behind you will appreciate your consideration too!
Remember that TSA still limits liquids, aerosols and gels to 3 oz. travel containers, and the entire amount of these items must fit in a single QUART-sized Ziploc™ container. Partially filled containers of a larger size (more than 3 fl.oz.) are not allowed and WILL be confiscated by the TSA at the checkpoint. So refrain from bringing your $200/bottle perfume that you’ve had for years in that 4.5 oz. bottle! They WILL take it!
ALL laptop computers and large electronic devices are subject to special screening and must be scanned separately from all other carry-ons. Laptops contained in those handy neoprene slipcovers may be left in them, so long as there are no other items (like papers, writing utensils or power cords) contained in them at the same time. If you DO put other items in those pouches, remove them prior to placing it through the scanners.
Travelers with pace makers, artificial limbs, and internal metal medical devices (metal plates, joint replacements, etc.) should notify a TSA agent prior to entering the scanner. They can usually take you to a side area and conduct a special screening for your case.
For those of you who virtually LIVE on an airplane, the TSA has implemented its “Trusted Traveler” program, in cooperation with Customs and Border Protection (known formally as “TSA Pre-Check”). Currently, only American and Delta Airlines are part of the pilot program, however, anyone can apply for the program by simply filling out the application at the Global Entry website and pay the non-refundable $100 fee (this covers the extensive background check and interview each applicant is required to go through). There was no current information regarding turnaround time for acceptance in this program, but successful applicants are allowed expedited access through security checkpoints, and are allowed to keep shoes and light jackets and sweaters on, keep belts on, go through a fast-track security line, and are able to keep their “3-1-1” compliant liquids and gels inside their carry-on bags when they are screened at the checkpoints.
No matter which airline you fly on in the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently limited ALL passengers to ONE (1) piece of luggage, and ONE (1) personal item, including a purse or briefcase – that’s only TWO items, not three as used to be the case. The airlines are required by FAA to monitor this and can, at any time, require you to check your bag(s) to your final destination. Most airlines are now charging to check bags ahead of time (some will give you a discount on this fee if you do it online prior to coming to the airport). Also, check into the airlines’ frequent flier programs as many will allow you one free checked bag with either their mileage program or by applying for and getting their frequent flier credit card.
Most people dread the thought of checking their luggage with the airlines for fear it will be lost, misdirected, ransacked or damaged in the process. While these things do happen on occasion, the airlines have actually made great improvements and strides to keep your luggage with you at every step of your journey. Many of the major airlines now have your luggage scanned at every leg of the process with specialized barcodes on each bag that are tied directly to your ticket and can be traced quite efficiently.
When and if it does happen that your bag doesn’t arrive at your destination, it is important that you have the right information to give the airlines to help locate that stray bag.
One of the simplest things you can do is to have your name, address and contact phone number attached to the bag outside, and a duplicate of the information located in a prominently placed location inside the bag. I would also suggest placing a copy of your travel itinerary inside your bag along with your personal contact information. That way if your bag ends up in Portland, Oregon instead of Portland, Maine, the baggage agents can get your belongings to you that much quicker.
You might want to consider a luggage concierge service to handle the bags for you. These services have special rates with companies like FedEx and UPS to get your bags to you. If you are going to pay a fee for your bags anyhow, why not try one of these door-to-door services instead? One example is LuggageForward.com. You can track your bags via their website for free and you will know exactly where it is and when it will be delivered.
On the Plane
Everybody is in a rush to get where they are going with the least amount of angst or delay. Civility is rare to find under these circumstances and people’s tempers can be ‘hair-triggers’ these days. Most airlines offer pre-boarding as a courtesy to its disabled and/or frail passengers. Not every airline, however, offers pre-boarding for families with small children. Check with your carrier for their specific policy.
The overhead bin space is SHARED with every other passenger on the plane. There is no imaginary boundary line where your bag HAS to go in the bin directly above your seat or across the aisle from your row. Most airlines will not allow economy passengers to stow bags in business or first class overhead bins unless all passengers in those premium cabins have been accommodated. Crew members have been known to remove bags that are stowed in these cabins by ‘entitled’ passengers who stow their bags over the first row they come to, and then proceed to the aft section of the plane. Don’t risk it…stow those bags at or near your seating area when boarding.
Not all aircraft have closet space. Many airlines have either removed them from the cabins OR they have down-graded the equipment to regional jets that don’t have these amenities. If you are insistent on bringing your large guitar case aboard, don’t be surprised if the airline has no extra room for it and requests that you gate check the item. And as a courtesy to the crew, don’t assume that they can make accommodations for that large item, even if they do have closet space. During the holidays, odd-sized items will fill these spaces quickly, and alternatives will be required if you board later in the process.
This may sound elementary, but think about WHAT you need from your carry-on bag and remove it before getting on the plane. One of the most aggravating delays during boarding is a passenger who insists on getting into the aisle and reaching up for an item out of their stowed bags while other passengers are still trying to board. It holds up the entire process and may delay your flight if multiple people begin to mimic your actions.
Another pointer I wish to disseminate is this: if you think you need to use the lavatory facilities when you get on the plane, better to use the restrooms in the terminal prior to boarding. Trying to use lavatories during the boarding process, especially on a single-aisle aircraft or a regional jet can prove tricky and can cause undue delays during the boarding process.
Unless you are traveling in a premium cabin, most U.S. carriers no longer supply blankets, pillows or headphones. Make sure that if you need these items while traveling that you pack them in your carry-ons. Mothers, make sure you bring extra items for your children, including formula, baby food, snacks and diapers. Most airlines use standard mini-stereo jacks for their in-flight entertainment systems. Check with your carrier for further information.
Also keep in mind that most carriers don’t provide meals or snacks for free. Depending on the length of your flight, there may only be a beverage service available. If there is some snack or food service, most carriers now charge for these items in economy class and usually cash is no longer accepted. Most will accept all major credit and debit cards for purchases. Inquire in advance, or remember to make a food/beverage purchase in the airport prior to boarding.
Those are just some quick tips for getting you underway with the least amount of headaches. Follow these guidelines, and your trip will be easier and more relaxed. If you have any tips, tricks or suggestions that you might add to these, feel free to share them!
Safe and happy travels!