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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE NEW RULES OF THE ROAD,
WRITTEN IN THE SAND


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

October 18, 2001 -- It’s been five weeks now, long enough perhaps to begin rethinking the rules of life on the road and rewriting the playbook for day-to-day survival.

As any hard-core business traveler knows, nothing was ever written in stone when it came to dealing with airlines, airports and hotels. And, for now at least, we’re writing tips and strategies in the sand. Rules and routines change by the hour and there seems to be more inconsistency in the system than ever before. We’re suddenly strangers in a very strange land. But here, as best as I can make out, are some of the new rules of the road.

WHAT TO PAY
Airlines are promoting those new, no-Saturday-stay fares that offer 20 or 50 percent off the full-coach fares. They are fine as far as they go--and as long as you can plan seven or 21 days in advance, respectively--but there is virtually no relief from the stratospheric walk-up fares that were in effect on September 10. So, now, more than ever, ask yourself: What am I getting from the traditional carriers that I can’t get from Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue and that nation’s other discount airlines? On the other hand, hotels and car-rental firms are wheeling and dealing with abandon. Those who negotiate and remember to ask will be rewarded with upgrades, value-added deals and flat-out rate concessions.

GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
Most airports have tightened security perimeters as far out as the parking lots. Close-to-the-terminal parking facilities are mostly gone and you’ll be banished to more remote parking facilities. A better solution: Avoid the airport altogether and park off the premises. Most airports have at least one private, off-airport parking solution and you’re likely to get valet service and a free shuttle direct to your departure terminal. How do you find an off-airport facility? Check your airport’s website, do a Google search or try LongTermParking.com or Airport Parking.com.

WHEN TO GET TO THE AIRPORT
Two hours before departure seems to be all the time you’ll need to clear security, check bags and get to your departure gate. But there are no standards and no foolproof advice. Stories abound of travelers being trapped in lines for hours and missing flights, but there are also numerous tales of empty terminals where it takes just a few minutes to clear the formalities. The best strategy: Check with another traveler who has used the airport in the last few days. Last tip: Early-morning flights seem particularly troublesome. Some travelers arrive two hours or more before the airport’s first departure only to find there are no airline personal on duty yet. Calling ahead may help, but don’t be shocked if you’re given inaccurate information.

WHAT TO PACK
Frankly, as little as possible. If you live a totally carry-on lifestyle, be reassured: The new Federal Aviation Administration rules still permit a total of two bags, as long as they meet the airlines’ proprietary size requirements. Just make sure your bags meet the new, politically correct standards: Only one can look like a piece of luggage. The other must plausibly pass as your briefcase, knapsack or a pocketbook. Make sure you jettison from your carry-on bags anything that could conceivably be construed as a weapon. Lighten your clothing load by using that old trick of packing monochromatically: Keep your travel wardrobe within a narrow range of shades that can be mixed and matched. And make sure your hotel has same-day laundry and valet. That will allow you to pack fewer clothes.

CLEARING SECURITY
Be sure you have the proper documents: your paper ticket or an airline-generated E-ticket receipt. Don’t even think of going to the airport without a ticket and a reservation now. You’ll need to show government-issued identification at many points, so make sure you’ve got your driver’s license. Bring your passport if you’ve got one. Most airports have restored curbside check-in and most airlines have reactivated their automated check-in kiosks. Both will save you time compared to waiting at the ticket counters. Your airline’s airport club can issues boarding passes, so make use of it. If your club is “airside” (in other words, beyond a security checkpoint), you’ll need to show your day-of-travel ticket and the proper identification before you can clear the security barrier.

SECURITY CHARADES
Most frequent flyers know this without being told: Security is more onerous now, not better. It’s certainly no more consistent than it was on September 10. Nevertheless, you can speed your way through the checkpoints if you reduce the number of electronic devices you carry. And let’s be honest: Do you really need a laptop, a pager, a cellphone and a PDA? Meanwhile, carry as little metal as possible on your person. Use the time-honored zip-lock bag trick: Carry a bag with you, then put your change, jewelry, keys, pens and paraphernalia into the bag before approaching security. Then you won’t be fumbling with a life’s load of stuff that needs to be dumped in to and out of those annoying little plastic trays. And take note: Most everyone is now being “wanded” after clearing the traditional walk-through screening devices. Some airlines are also conducting random bag searches and hand pat-downs at various spots between the security checkpoint and the jet bridge.

ON THE PLANE
The good news is that most flights are still relatively empty, so the ride is likely to be more comfortable, even in coach. And, naturally, your elite-level frequent-flyer status should be yielding a record number of upgrades. But be cognizant of the fact that everyone, even road-hardened warriors and flight crews, are on edge. Be judicious in your visits to the galley; flight attendants are understandably nervous about even the most pleasant and familiar visitors. At least one airline (Delta) has closed first-class lavatories that share a common wall with the cockpit. Oh, and about food: you’re not likely to get any, even in first class. If you must eat during a flight, pack your own or pick something up at the airport before departure.

AT THE HOTEL
Expect less in the way of services. Many full-service properties have closed their restaurants and business centers, shuttered whole floors of rooms, and downsized their staffs. A few hotels, primarily those in big cities, have closed their underground parking structures. On the other hand, most properties are being extraordinarily liberal with suite upgrades, so don’t be afraid to ask.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.