Check a bag or risk a carry-on? Here's how to navigate the ever-changing rules of flying.
(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Frequent flier Henry Morgan thought he had the new rules all figured out when the furor over carry-on liquids erupted last summer. He verified which items were banned, meticulously packed a bag for check-in, and called the airport on his day of departure to find out how long it would take to clear security.
Told to expect a 2.5-hour wait, he cut short a business meeting, only to zip through security in 15 minutes. "I wasted all that time," gripes Morgan, a regional manager for fiberglass manufacturer Highline Products.
Indeed, from ever-changing rules to erratic security lines to rising reports of lost baggage, air travel has become increasingly unpredictable. And chances are, it'll stay that way. Fortunately, there are smart ways to minimize travel-related hassles. We asked seasoned business travelers how they're adapting to the latest woes, and what they're doing to prepare for whatever tomorrow may bring. Here's their best advice.
Take the Fast Lane
With each new terrorist threat, chaos reigns at security checkpoints. There's no getting around the X-ray machine, but you can accelerate the process. First, check the Transportation Security Agency website frequently for an updated list of what's allowed and what isn't.
At the airport you can steer clear of long lines by avoiding the central checkpoints, usually the ones closest to the ticket counters. Major airports like Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago O'Hare, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Newark have other screening areas - which are often crowd-free - at the far ends or on different levels of their terminals.
Mark Ashley, a Chicago-based travel blogger, estimates he's cut his average wait time at O'Hare down to two minutes since he stopped following the masses through one of the airport's busiest screening areas and found a near-empty checkpoint about 100 yards away. At Flightstats.com you'll also find up-to-date info on checkpoints and wait times for specific screening areas within airports.
Outsource the Baggage Battle
You can't leave your luggage behind, but you can make it someone else's problem. Much has been written about door-to-door baggage-handling services. Most are overpriced, but a few get the job done without busting your budget.
For $60 each way, Baggage Direct will pick up bags from your doorstep at least three hours before your departure, hand you a boarding pass, check your luggage on your flight, retrieve it at baggage claim, and deliver it to your destination. For about $10, Baggage Airline Guest Services offers a service that will pick up, transport, and check in bags for guests of select hotels and conference centers in many major U.S. cities. LuggageExpress will collect your bags, package them for shipping, and send them to your destination.
Marc Schottenfeld, CEO of HWM, a Florida wholesale distributor, pays LuggageExpress $995 a year for as many as 15 shipments, or $66 each way. "I don't mind packing a little early and paying extra when I know I can spend the hours saved at baggage claim getting work done," Schottenfeld says.
Still too pricey for you? Try good ol' UPS. For short trips, Gary Cohen, president of organic food producer Natural Value, simply pays $20 to have UPS pick up and ship a small box containing toiletries and a change of clothes.
The TSA's new rules say you can carry on one quart-size clear plastic bag stuffed with 3-ounce bottles of shaving cream and other approved liquids. But a quart bag isn't very big - and the TSA warns that some items, like contact lens solution, will be handled case-by-case.
Why not avoid the hassle? Many high-end hotels now offer guest bags that include basic sundries like deodorant, toothpaste, shaving cream, hair spray, and saline solution. (Call ahead to find out what your hotel is doling out.) The courtesy items won't be as fancy as your favorites back home, but you'll stay fresh enough.
Austin consultant Mike Blackwell says some hotels will even store toiletries for regular customers between visits. You can also switch to solid versions of common personal hygiene products. Breath strips and moisturizing towels are two obvious alternatives, but more obscure goods like powdered toothpaste, deodorant crystal sticks, shaving or shampoo soaps, and hair gel strips are also available. Amazon.com and Drugstore.com sell nonliquid products, as do specialty sites like Aveda.com and MotherNature.com.
Enjoy Elite Benefits
Everyone knows that travelers with elite status breeze through security - much to the irritation of other passengers. But on many airlines, prized customers also get "priority handling" tags to attach to baggage so it arrives first on the carousel. When chaos strikes, premium members should head straight for the airline club lounge, where they'll often find answers, food, and private workstations equipped with free computers, phones, and high-speed Internet access.
If you haven't logged many miles this year, there's still hope. In 2007, US Airways will let you buy (for an as-yet-undisclosed sum) your way to premium status, and if you ask, American Airlines may give you all the perks of platinum membership if you commit to, say, flying 10,000 miles in three months.
Find What's Lost
There was a silver lining to the recent security scare: Boarding airplanes became faster and more convenient, since fewer people were stuffing rollaway bags into overhead bins. Checking bags can make your overall experience more relaxed, and for longer trips it's often a necessity.
But what if your luggage gets lost? The day is approaching when airlines will attach RFID chips to bags to improve routing accuracy and facilitate tracking when things go missing. Until then, prepare for a slugfest when bags disappear altogether. Elite fliers can avoid the lost-baggage maze by contacting membership services directly. For everyone else, most airlines will offer a toiletry kit, but they might not mention that they'll also provide cash to help tide you over. It's not much - $25 to $50 a day, to a maximum of $150 to $200 - and you might have to get pushy to make them pay up, but it's better than nothing.
For added peace of mind, you can use a third-party luggage-tracking service to ensure that lost bags come back to you - eventually. For $19, Globalbagtag.com sells a pair of metal tags embossed with a unique serial number. After you register your tags and contact information online, the company works with airlines to locate your lost bags, ASAP.
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