Saturday, July 5, 2008

Travel Updates: Pack Light or Pay Up

Travel Update: Pack Light or Pay Up
#7 in travel series

Baggage: Most airlines now allow a passenger to check only one bag that can weigh up to 50 pounds. You will be charged about $25 for each additional bag you check. A 50-pound bag is not easy for me to manage; two smaller bags are easier to lift and then link together. So now I’ll limit myself to one bag I can handle.

I just arrived home from a “Grandma” trip. My bag only weighed 30 pounds and it was a struggle to lift off the baggage carousel and in and out of the car. It would have weighed less but I had packed books and birthday gifts in it. I didn’t acquire anything but good memories on my trip, so my bag was lighter when I came home than when I left, but I really didn’t notice a difference.

I saw one immediate effect of the new one-bag policy: passengers are lugging larger carry-on bags that now strain the capacities of the overhead bins and the tempers of fellow travelers.

It really does pay, as I noted in my first article, to pack light and plan to wash. Or, if you don’t pack light, be prepared to pay up.

Locks for suitcases: There are now TSA (Transportation Services Agency) approved combination locks for suitcases. They can be opened with a special tool by TSA employees in case your bag needs to be searched. I’ll be interested to hear how passengers like these new locks. Go to this website for more information about TSA-approved locks:
I would still never pack valuables in a checked bag. Even if the lock is secure, remember that TSA employees can open it.

Lost Bags: On occasion, your suitcase may be waiting for you in Detroit when you land in Florida. Worldwide, there are 30 million lost bags per year, so it’s wise not to pack anything you really value and hand it over to the airlines. Fortunately, most lost bags are reunited with their owners within less than 36 hours, but some, an estimated 1 %, are never located, and some are missing valuable items when they are found.

According to an article posted on March 21, 2006, (
the world’s airlines mishandled about 30 million pieces of luggage, or about one percent of the bags checked last year by two billion passengers. SITA, the organization which keeps airline-related data, reported that the problem of mishandled baggage is worsening on both sides of the Atlantic due to airport congestion, tight turnaround times, increased security regulations and increased number of passengers.

Avoiding Lost Luggage: If you have a small window of time between one flight and another, you may make the plane in time, but your luggage may not. If your flight is overbooked and you volunteer to be “bumped,” and take a later flight, your bag may remain on the flight you originally booked. Place ID inside all luggage, and also pack something easily identifiable in it, so your bag can be identified if the outer tags are missing, such as a bright orange hair dryer or a book whose title you can list, etc.

And speaking of lost items, do identify anything that's important - camera, eyeglass case, iPod . . . just stick a small address label on it. You know those packets on the seat backs? They tend to eat bifocals. Just ask my husband. And communicating with someone at the Amsterdam airport to try to locate the missing glasses was next to impossible, as we got no response from our email, and their phone line didn't answer all weekend. "We have so many of those," we were finally told, and we didn't have enough time during our layover to get a claim number and then find the lost-and-found department. I hope someone in a developing country now has some good glasses. So do check those seat pockets. They're deep, too.

Fares: With only twenty-four hours’ notice, we found a surprisingly reasonable fare as long as I could be flexible about the days of the week I would fly. It can make quite a difference if you are able to plan your trips around the days when fares are lower.

Electronic Devices: You can use some after takeoff, such as your laptop and MP3 player and video games, but never your cell phone. Yesterday, at the Atlanta airport, I saw a freestanding booth with about three octopus-looking creatures attached to it. At the end of each tentacle was a different type of cell-phone connector. The sign said you can connect your phone to the proper connector and recharge it quickly. I didn’t check on the price, though it took credit cards. I’m sure it’s a convenient service, as cell phones seem to be indispensable when traveling.

Has anyone noticed people sitting on the floor by wall outlets at airports? They’re highly desirable spots for anyone wishing use or recharge electronic devices, from laptops to cell phones to iPods. For an entrepreneur, a new business that caters to passengers (possible name: “The Recharging CafĂ©”) could be very profitable. The premise: You can eat lunch while recharging all your electronic devices on an outlet at your own table.

Passports: I recently renewed my passport. I received the new one within a week. Still, it’s best to allow for more processing time (4-6 weeks) as recommended on the State Department website. About a week later they sent my old one back. I guess that’s for sentimental purposes, to reminisce about where you’ve been from looking at the stamps on it. Incidentally, there are clear instructions on the passport application form that say you must look like yourself in your pictures (don’t we all try? Of course, Erma Bombeck said that when you begin to look like your passport photo, it’s time to come home). So I dutifully put on my glasses for my passport photo, and after one picture the postal worker said, “Oops, too much glare from your glasses. You’d better take them off.”

You can also apply for a passport card, a new wallet-sized document which serves as photo ID, which allows you to enter Canada and Mexico. It costs less than a passport, but is not accepted for airline travel. So, in other words, if you want to drive across the Canadian border (which can involve long waits, by the way) or the Mexican border (many rental car companies do not allow customers to drive in Mexico at all), the card doesn’t seem to have many uses. A passport would cover all of those purposes and more.

Passports for young children: Children under sixteen can get passports issued in their own names. They are valid for five years. Our granddaughter just got hers, and as she was nine months old at the time, I doubt she’ll resemble her photo very much in five years! See for more details.

Food: I thought I was being wise to pick up a salad and bottle of juice to bring aboard a recent flight, which lasted approximately three and a half hours. The tab at the airport deli was $9.27. A similar salad offered on the airline’s menu of “fresh food” didn’t cost any more than that. I concluded that I should avoid the delis at the airports and look for something more reasonable to brown-bag on the plane.

Timing: We landed about fifteen minutes late and the flight steward asked passengers to allow those with connections of thirty to forty minutes to exit the plane first, so they could hopefully make their next flights. I would never schedule a layover for less than an hour, and even that is risky, especially at a large airport that may have long, long terminals, or airports that have several terminals, requiring transport on a bus or train or by foot from one to the other. I’m surprised people are allowed to book flights with such short layover times.

Miscellaneous: Some airlines are no longer giving away complimentary earphones to passengers who want to watch TV or a movie on a longer flight, so you’ll want to bring your own. Many airline outlets are compatible with them, but the Delta plane I took last week required a special adaptor found only on its $2 headphones in order for the radio or TV to work.

A Bit of Nostalgia - The Olden Days of Airplane Travel (or "Thanks, I'll have OJ and the crackers with peanut butter") - This will date me, of course, but Avis Rent-A-Car used to run a commercial with OJ Simpson in his prime, when he was still a professional athlete, leaping over airport barriers as if he were jumping hurdles in a track meet and taking shortcuts, zigzagging this way and that, to make his flight. He managed this without even breaking a sweat and flashed a dazzling smile when he handed his ticket to the boarding agent. He even had his shoes on. Of course, he’d be arrested for that now. Not just for the shoes, necessarily, but for bypassing all the required security steps in order to make his plane. I guess that wild and entertaining dash, passing other passengers and avoiding authorities, was a foreshadowing. How times have changed! I recall that it was quite impressive, to see OJ accomplishing this athletic feat in shirt and tie and sport jacket, but I’m not even sure what the point of the commercial was. Does anyone remember?

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