SURVIVING TO TRAVEL ANOTHER DAY
By Joe Brancatelli
June 14, 2007 -- If you had any doubt that this would be the traveling summer of our discontent, last weekend's air traffic control meltdown should have been a long overdue slap upside the head.
It's gonna be nasty, crowded, frustrating and expensive on the road this summer. Deal with it. There won't be much good news--unless your boss or your client says you can stick around the office this summer.
But life on the road doesn't have to be totally hopeless in the next few months. You can minimize your summer travel distress if you pay attention to the discussions below. Used in conjunction with the tips I offered back in March, you can survive to travel another day.
PICTURE YOUR CHECKED BAGS
The big airlines and their commuter vassals are now "mishandling baggage"--the industry term of art for lost luggage--at an alarming pace. Transportation Department figures show a 30 percent increase over the last year. I assume that you know the basics for guarding your checked bags: examine the routing tag for coding errors; avoid checking bags on connecting itineraries; and never check a bag when a commuter carrier is involved in a connection.
But it's time to go a little further: Take a hard-copy photograph of every piece of luggage you own and store the bag and the photo together. When you use the bag, take the photo with you, too. If the bag goes missing, you'll have photographic proof to hand to the baggage agent. Another possible solution: Use your mobile phone's camera to shoot the bags that you're taking on a trip. Then you can show the photos to the agent and/or E-mail the photographic proof to the airline if the bags go astray.
FLIP YOUR FREQUENCY PROGRAM
Hotel rates are surging, especially in key destinations. Even off-brand, two-star kinds of places in a city like New York are running $400 a night during the peak-demand periods. The summer, usually a period of weaker business travel, won't bring much relief, either. With the dollar hovering around $2 against the British pound and north of $1.30 against the euro, America's big cities will be filled with Europeans who can't believe how "cheap" it is to travel in the United States. A possible solution: Flip your hotel frequent-travel plan.
Instead of using points for leisure travel, use them for free stays on a business trip. Even with recent increases in the price of awards, cashing an award for a free business stay is likely to yield more value than a free stay at a vacation destination. If you bill a client for your lodging, share the savings with them by agreeing in advance to a set-price reimbursement for your stay. If your company picks up the hotel tab, offer them the choice of reimbursing you a per-night rate that is cheaper than they'd pay for the room on the open market. Your company or client saves on the price of a hotel and you have hard cash that you can put to your next holiday.
SMOOTH THE CRUISE
I don't know anything about cruises, but I do know that a lot of business travelers are going to take one this summer. And I know this: You're risking disaster if you arrange your cruise separately from the air transportation that gets you to your cruise port. I understand why you'd do it--What good are frequent flyer awards if you can't use them to get a free flight to Fort Lauderdale or some other cruise port?--but here's the problem: With the air travel system in disarray, making the air-cruise connection is no slam dunk. What if your flight dumps and your airline can't get you to your cruise port until the day after your ship departs? Or what if you make the flight, but your airline …ahem… mishandles your bags? I think there's a simple solution: Fly early and make sure that you're at your cruise port at least a day before your ship is scheduled to leave. That should give you enough slack to deal with any flight issues--or go shopping if your bags arrive too late to make the ship.
OVERWROUGHT ABOUT OVERBOOKING
My frustration about how some of my compatriots in the general media cover the airline industry knows no bounds. But I get really furious when they confuse "overbooking" with "denied boarding." Listen, folks, airlines "overbook" their flights all the time because, well, because business travelers like us tend to make "back-up reservations" that we never use. The issue isn't how much airlines overbook a flight, it's how often they actually deny boarding to travelers holding a valid ticket for a flight. And to be honest, that almost never happens. Of all the things we need to worry about this summer, denied boarding isn't one of them.
That said, if you're paranoid about getting bumped, consider this: Don't book any flight if you can't get an advance seat assignment. Airlines stop issuing advance seat assignments when they reach a certain capacity, usually about 80 percent. The inability to choose a seat could indicate a potential denied-boarding situation. One other thing: If you absolutely, positively must get on a flight, make sure you're at the gate, ready to get on the plane, when your airline starts the boarding process. That's especially true if you're holding a cheap ticket and/or have no status with the airline. If you're on the plane, sitting in your seat, you're not likely be evicted. But if there are 10 people waiting to board and just five remaining seats, priority will go to the travelers who've paid the most and those who've got the highest frequent flyer program status.
CARRYING ON ABOUT CARRY-ONS
Ten months after the lotions-and-potions scare, even savvy business travelers remain confused about what--and how many--carry-on bags are permitted. Generally speaking, two carry-on bags are still the norm and the world's major carriers have coalesced around the 3-1-1 rule: No more than three ounces of a liquid or cream and they all must fit in a single, clear, zipper-top, quart-size bag. The one notable exception: the United Kingdom, where all this started last August.
If you are flying from a U.K. airport, you are restricted to a single carry-on bag that can measure no larger than approximately 22 x 17 x 10 inches. This restriction does not apply on flights to Britain, but it does apply on the return flight from a U.K.airport. The one-bag rule also applies to a connecting itinerary through a U.K. airport. In other words, if you're flying from the United States to, say, Nairobi, via London, you can carry two bags onto the London-bound flight. If your connecting flight to Nairobi involves a terminal change and another round of screening, however, you'll be required to get down to one carry-on for the London-Nairobi leg. Here are the specifics as explained by the U.K. Department for Transport. My best advice: If your itinerary includes Britain in any way, travel with one carry-on bag. It's easier on the brain.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.