This is the busiest travel time of year, when even veteran road warriors get stressed out by flight delays, missing baggage and hotel and car rental snafus. These tips from long-time road warrior ecoXplorer editor Evelyn Kanter will help you stay sane year-round.
We’re called road warriors because we wage a never-ending battle against anarchy in distant area codes. Instead of Humvees and camouflage, our weapons are mobile devices and Wi-Fi, Tylenol and Rolaids, and a large glass of pinot noir.
Here are my airport and airplane road warrior guerrilla tactics learned the hard way:
First flight – Book the earliest possible flight of the day. Early flights generally leave on time. The later you leave, the more chance you are subject to delays.
Last flight – Never, ever, take the last flight or last connection unless you like sleeping on the airport floor. Find out the last way to your destination, and book the one just before that. Airlines never cancel the last two flights unless everything east of the Mississippi is getting buried under a foot of snow, and then you can’t get anywhere no matter what flight you booked.
Bad connections – Fly non-stop whenever possible. But since many destinations require a connection, choose the connecting city carefully, which may even determine which airline you fly. Changing planes in Chicago, Minneapolis or Detroit in winter is subject to snow delays, just as changing planes in Dallas or Miami in summer is subject to hurricane delays. So, the sensible tactic is to connect up north in summer and down south in winter.
- Track the weather in you destination. If bad weather is expected, your airline may let you leave a day earlier at no cost.
Secret language – There are two phrases you should know and use when making an airline reservation with a live person. The phrases tell the customer service agent that you are an experienced traveler, even a road warrior, rather than the occasional traveler, and should be treated like a loyal customer.
- Load factor. When you can’t decide which flight to book, load factor gives you wiggle space. If you ask, “how many seats are left?”, the likely response will be that there are seats on both flights you are asking about. But, if you ask, “which flight has the larger load factor?” you’ll be told there are just two seats left on this one, eight on that one. Using the phrase “load factor” also will help you avoid the dreaded middle seat.
- Locator number, for when you still have to check with a client, shuttle bus or the relative who is picking you up before committing to the 2p arrival or the 4p arrival. Yes, it’s a reservation to you, but that scrambled combo of letters and numbers is a locator number to the res guys. Besides, a “reservation” self-destructs in 24 hours, but a “locator number” can be extended with a phone call for another 24.
Measure total trip time – Count doorstep-to-doorstep time instead of flight time. Strange as it sounds, a connection can be faster than a non-stop because you might be avoiding crush hour traffic at one end or the other.
Be nice to the gate attendant – Understand the power that gate attendants have – and don’t. Now that airlines are selling everything from early boarding to seat upgrades, it is rare you will get any perks without giving up dollars or miles. Roomy bulkhead seats are saved until close to departure for the tall, the parentally challenged, and those who ask nicely and are neatly dressed. Courteous and professional gets your ticket looked up in the computer, where your frequent flyer mileage deposits prove you to be a regular rather than a blue-mooner.
Don’t leave the airport – Sure, finding a nearby motel is more comfortable, but in a raging snowstorm a couple of years ago, I passed up the last room to spend the night sleeping at the gate, even though the first flight out the next morning was sold out. My gamble paid off — I was right there waiting to be first on the standby list, and got on that first flight home.
- If your flight is cancelled, contact the airline by mobile phone while you are waiting in line for customer service.
Paper trail – Sure, an e-ticket on your mobile device is handy, and definitely eco-friendly. But if the airline computer system goes down – and that happened to several airlines in 2015 – there’s no record of your reservation, and you could be denied boarding. Call me old-fashioned, but I always check in online and print out my e-ticket, which shows boarding time, seat, and whether or not the airline has okayed me for the TSA pre-check fast pass line. More importantly, if you have to re-book on another airline, as I did recently because of a mechanical problem, an paper ticket reduces airline-to-airline transfer to a mere pain, not a tear-your-hair-out emergency.
- Don’t leave a paper ticket behind in the seatback, since the barcode and all that flight information can by read by cyber thieves to know more about you than you’d like.
What’s the alternative – Consider alternative airports, such Houston’s Hobby, Chicago’s Midway, Washington’s Dulles, and New York City’s Stewart or Islip, Providence instead of Boston, Ft. Lauderdale instead of Miami, Burbank or San Diego instead of Los Angeles, Idaho Falls instead of Jackson Hole. These “secondary” airports are less congested and more likely to be served by low-cost carriers such as Southwest. Car rental rates also tend to be lower than at their bigger siblings, and you’ll get your checked baggage faster, too.
Always re-confirm – As dumb as that sounds, recently I missed my flight because the travel agent who changed my ticket for two days later than originally issued neglected to tell me that it was a different flight and connection, two hours earlier. So instead of getting home two hours earlier, I got stuck at the airport for six hours later because what I thought was my flight was over-booked. Re-confirming also means double-check your departure date. Recently, I nearly missed my flight because the gate number on the ticket I printed out the night before was changed by the time I got to the airport, practically at the other end of the terminal. It was a sprint.
Carry-on – Never put valuables, such as electronics, jewelry or medicines in checked baggage. I won’t even check my little pouch of chargers for my various gadgets, since replacing them would be a time-consuming nightmare.
- Weigh your bags at home before you check them, to be sure you don’t go over the weight limits and be hit with overweight fees. Here’s my tip for how to weigh your luggage on your bathroom scale.
Keep a toiletries kit packed and ready. Save time and stress by keeping one dedicated toiletries kit just for travel, and refill or replace items the morning after you get home, while you still remember that you just stomped the toothpaste tube flat empty.
Get a Global Entry card – It will speed you through TSA security lines and US Customs.
Join airline frequent flyer and hotel frequent stay programs – They are free to join and give you perks like priority boarding (airlines) and free Wi-Fi.