The Brancatelli File



May 30, 2002 -- So now that we're officially at the unofficial beginning of summer, the obvious question arises: How are we going to survive this summer on the road?

It goes without saying that this will be a summer like no other in American business travel history. Airport security remains onerous and convoluted, many travelers legitimately fear a reprise of terrorist activity and a few of the nation's major carriers are teetering on the edge of fiscal collapse. Passenger traffic will be down 10 to 15 percent from the last few summers, but several airlines have ramped up flight schedules close to pre-9/11 levels, raising the specter of long flight delays for largely empty flights at larger hubs.

With those factors in mind, here are my best strategies for making this summer travel season a little less crazed and a little more productive.

If your client or your business is halfway across the country, then you have no choice but to fly, of course. But if you're planning meetings or conferences this summer, stay close to home instead of choosing a far-off destination. With airports so unpleasant and flying so expensive, driving as far as 200 or 300 miles suddenly sounds like a comparatively appealing prospect. Some careful planning should yield perfectly acceptable meeting and conference venues close to home.

If you live or work or need to travel along the East Coast Corridor between Boston and Washington, Amtrak is a terrific alternative to flying. The new Acela gets raves for perks, service and speed. The old Metroliners aren't nearly as flashy, of course, but they remain acceptable and fast--at a fraction of the price. And two important East Coast airports, Newark and Baltimore-Washington, have inter-modal links to the Amtrak network. Service is admittedly spotty elsewhere, but most large cities east of the Mississippi and along the West Coast have at least a few useful trains. Besides, you'll probably improve your life if you can replace even one or two plane trips with train rides this summer.

If you must fly, then plan your flights more carefully. Transportation Department statistics show that flights scheduled to depart and arrive early in the day have a better on-time performance. Flying early has another advantage: If your selected flight is canceled, then you'll have a better chance of being rebooked on a flight later in the day. Conversely, if you book an evening flight, you're not only subject to longer delays, you may not get on another flight that day if your original one cancels.

On-airport parking lots are chaotic and often filled to overflow during the summer. And while close-in airport parking has been restored at most airports, it's sure to be put off limits again if there's another terrorism-related incident. So ignore the airport parking lots entirely this summer. Use an off-airport private lot--all offer shuttle service directly to your departure terminal--or take a car service or taxi.

It doesn't matter what the airlines are saying--or will be saying--about waiting times at security checkpoints. It's safe to assume lines are going to be longer--and they will move more slowly--this summer. Why? The Transportation Security Administration will be moving their own screeners into many airports this summer and that is sure to cause some confusion. Worse, hordes of summer leisure travelers will be making their first flights since September 11 and many will be flummoxed by the new rules and routines. And god only knows what contraband is tucked in the pockets and linings of all those bags that haven't been used since last summer.

Rage against the machine if you must, but it won't change the fact that you'll be spending a lot more time at the airport whenever you fly this summer. Use that time to your best advantage by joining as many airport clubs as you can. They remain the only oases of productivity in the airport maelstrom. This will not be the summer for penny-pinching antics, either. At an absolute minimum, you should be a member of the club network sponsored by the airline you fly most frequently. You should also consider joining Priority Pass, an omnibus program that gives you access to about 300 clubs around the world. Diners Club cardholders and American Express Platinum members also get limited club privileges. Familiarize yourself with their perks.

The indispensable tool for business travelers today is a mobile phone and you should use it to your best advantage. Program the phone's speed-dial buttons with the toll-free reservations numbers of the airlines you fly and the hotel chains you prefer. This will give you a leg up if a security scare shuts down an airport terminal or bad weather wipes out a slate of flights. You'll be able to use the pre-programmed airline phone numbers to rearrange your flights without going back to the airline ticket counter. The pre-programmed hotel phone numbers will come in handy if you need to scare up a hotel room at the airport or in town on short notice.

You're a business traveler. You're supposed to be smarter. So don't be led around by the proverbial nose or follow the crowd. If your flight cancels due to a security scare or a summer storm, do not follow the disgruntled crowds to the ticket counter. Go to your airport club or make a mobile phone call to the reservations center. Both venues can accomplish almost anything a ticket-counter agent can do and they won't be dealing with knots of delayed travelers. And do not line up and wait for a free hotel voucher if your flight cancels. Call your preferred hotel chain's reservation number and book your own room at your own expense. Why? The room an airline is likely to give you will probably be subpar and might be in some roadside fleabag. Besides, it often takes hours for the airline to issue the vouchers and round up the buses to ship passengers to the hotel. Why go through that hassle just for a few hours of sleep?

Reduce your stress level by mailing or shipping your conference materials and other collateral items. In this day and age, they're simply not worth checking. Using a reliable package-express service such as UPS or Federal Express may cost a few dollars, but the stuff will get there and you don't have to carry it and deal with security.

No one likes airline food, so why complain when the airlines don't serve any? Instead, pack a sandwich or a small picnic of fruits, nuts, cheeses, and the like. Or pick up a snack at the airport food court. And carry plenty of bottled water. Airline travel is dehydrating and you should drink at least 8 ounces of water for every hour of flying. Don't assume the beverage cart will make enough passes through the aisle. Carry several bottles of water with you in your carry-on bag.

This column originally appeared at

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