Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Flying during the holidays: How to dodge disaster

Flying during the holidays? The airports are going to be packed, flights jammed, luggage systems overloaded.

We know this because long before the holidays approached, the airlines hit record highs for lost luggage (1.68 million bags were mishandled between May and August, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, though that improved slightly in September) and record numbers of passengers (72.2 million on U.S. carriers in July alone.) Though on-time performance was much better in September than during last winter's storms, we all know that one good weather system can bring the air travel system to a halt.

Sounds grim. But don't cancel your reservations: How else are you going to get to Grandma's? Instead, follow our tips:

  • Get to the airport early. If you miss your flight for any reason, your chances of getting on the next one during the holiday crush aren't good.

    TSA's local spokeswoman, Sari Koshetz, says the average time to clear security at Miami International is 20-25 minutes (though I got caught a few weeks ago in lines that stretched to 37 minutes.)

    Times can vary; check with your airline. Spirit Airlines -- plagued earlier this year by monster back-ups -- advises allowing a total of three hours for security and other processes at Fort Lauderdale.

  • Catch a ride. Airport parking is never cheap, rarely easy. Get a friend to drop you off if possible. If not, try to prebook your taxi. Local taxi companies often won't allow you to prebook, but individual drivers sometimes will.

  • Tire easily? Request assistance in advance. Distances between gates and luggage carousels can seem like miles.

  • Check in online and print your boarding pass before you go the airport. (In most cases, you can do this 24 hours in advance.) This will speed up the process at the airport.

  • Can't print out your boarding pass? Use the self-service kiosk at the airport.


  • Before leaving home, explain security procedures to children. You don't want one sobbing because his or her fave teddy had to go through the X-ray machine.

  • Snacks and more: So, let's assume you're going to be hanging at the airport for a while. Bring toys for kids and snacks for everyone in your crew. (You never know what the food situation will be, and airlines won't feed you anymore.) Don't bring bottled or boxed drinks of more than 3 ounces.

  • Cell phone: Have it charged and handy. Be sure you've got the phone numbers of the people who will be meeting you and your airline. If your flight is delayed, call the airline ASAP...this is often faster than standing in an airport line.

  • Credit card: If you're delayed by bad weather -- and often, even if you aren't -- the airline isn't going to help you with lodging or food. So you'll want to grab your cell phone, call for a hotel room at the airport before everyone else does, and have a card to pay for it.


  • Try to cram your stuff into a carry-on bag. If it's with you, it isn't going to get lost. You're allowed to take one carry-on size bag -- typically 22 inches x 18 inches x 10 inches -- plus a personal item (laptop, briefcase or purse) when traveling within and from the U.S. (Traveling within Britiain? They have different rules...one bag only.)

    Can't quite manage? Travel expert Peter Greenberg suggests Fed-Exing bags ahead. This can get pricey -- and it means you have to pack those items in advance. But if your company has a good Fed Ex contract, you might be able to send a box for as little at $30.

  • Remember 3-1-1. If you are flying with carry-on luggage, all liquids, gels and aerosols must be in containers 3 ounces or less, in a one-quart clear plastic zip-top bag. (You will need to pull this out of your bag and put it in a bin for security, so keep it in an outside pouch.)

    If you've got breast milk or medications that exceed the 3-ounce limit, don't panic, says Koshetz of the TSA. Pull it out of your bag and declare it to the screener.

  • Don't wrap any gifts, in case screeners need to examine the item.

  • No no no! Sharp objects (except scissors less than 4 inches) such as knives and box cutters are not allowed in carry-on bags. Same goes for baseball bats and many other sporting items, guns, most tools, flammable items. For the full list of what is and isn't allowed, see the TSA website.


  • Have your ID handy. When you hit the security line, you're going to be asked twice for your ID and boarding pass: Once by an airline employee, another time by a TSA employee.

  • Wear easy-to-shed clothing. When you get to the checkpoint, you will need to place your shoes, sweaters, jackets and belts into a bin. This will go faster if you wear easily removed shoes and trousers that don't require a belt. (The process speeds up if you start shedding as you approach the X-ray machine instead of waiting until you arrive.)

  • Be sure you've moved everything out of your pockets and into your carry-on bags before you hit the X-ray machine.

  • Keep your laptop handy. It -- along with video cameras -- will need to come out of your luggage and into it's own bin for the X-ray check.


  • Tag the bag: Be sure your bag has a label with your name, address and cell number securely attached. Put another label INSIDE YOUR BAG.

  • Keep valuables in your carry-on bags. No jewelry or meds should go in the checked bags. This includes undeveloped film, which can be damaged by screening equipment used for checked luggage.

  • Be prepared for problems. In practical terms, this means keep a toothbrush, toothpaste and extra undies handy.

  • Cross pack. Travel expert Tom Parsons of Best Fares advises putting one of your outfits in your companion's bag and vice versa.

  • Report losses immediately. If your bag does get lost, you have to stand on the queue at your airline's luggage desk and report the problem immediately. Otherwise, you have no tracking documents.


    PHOTO: Courtesy of Hefty OneZip Products.
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